Elephants have been domesticated in Asia for over 3,000 years. Knowledge about how to care for elephants has been handed down not through books, but through the oral traditions of the mahouts, or elephant trainers. Usually drawn from marginalized “forest” people, the mahouts were responsible for the elephants of the kings, and their knowledge is surrounded in both mystery and controversy.
As the Asian elephant is facing habitat loss, and the number of domestic elephants have faced a steep decline, the knowledge of mahouts has proven invaluable. Often criticized for “breaking” elephants, the reality is a lot more complicated. By capturing, training and caring for elephants, and releasing them into the forest over hundreds of generations, the Asian elephant occupies a unique place — not entirely a wild animal, and not really “domesticated” like a horse or cow.
Working with elephants now, a new generation of mahouts are keeping helpful traditions of herbal medicine and deep understanding of elephant behavior alive, while learning new ways (“hands and hearts”) of gentling young elephants born into their care. This firm tells some of their stories, and their struggles — still on the margins of society and still misunderstood.