How Do You Break the Mind of an Elephant?

These are not metaphors. These are real world questions that I walked away with on a rainy June afternoon, after a visit to the Dubare elephant camp situated on the banks of the Kaveri river in Karnataka. Dubare is a historically important elephant camp managed by the forest department where elephants used in the Mysore Dusshera processions were traditionally captured and trained. Today, it is mainly a rehabilitation centre where rogue elephants from the wild are caught and tamed to minimise conflicts with villagers. As I walked around the camp, I witnessed elephants being taken through their morning rituals of a bath in the river and their meal (straw and rice neatly wrapped into fist-sized morsels). I witnessed young elephant calves giving themselves a mud-bath and ambling with long metal-chains trailing behind them leaving tracks of their movement. In my wanderings, I also witnessed an elephant in the early stages of taming and that was when I first heard about ‘breaking’ an elephant.

‘How to break an elephant’ is not a question I had ever seriously considered; even though, having grown up in India elephants were never exotic beings but an inextricable part of our folklore, religion and daily lives. I had seen them as gilded portals of divinity in temples, as practical tricksters in circuses, as indefatigable powerhouses in construction projects and as the sagacious elders in zoos; sometimes even in the wild. Despite our familiarity with these pachyderms for centuries, even today most people are not aware that elephants are not a domesticated species. In fact, most of the elephants we come across are actually caught from the wild, whose ‘will has been broken’ as they have been tamed to work with and for us humans.

Contrary to what one may imagine based on their timid nature, antics in circuses, and temples, elephants are not domesticated. Domestication involves the adaptation of a species to humans and its captive environment through genetic changes that occur over generations. A domesticated species is bred in captivity and is different from its wild ancestors so that it is more useful to humans, who control its reproduction, behaviour and food supply. For thousands of years – from Hannibal’s African war elephants to the modern Asian elephants – elephants are not domesticated but are rather just wild individuals whose ‘will’ has been tamed. They remain immune to our domesticating attempts by virtue of their long gestation periods, their low birth rates and their large size and appetite (expensive to maintain for the many generations needed for domestication). And yet historically, the sheer power, size and scale of elephants have made them attractive to humans as an enormous powerhouse waiting to be tamed.

A history of elephant taming in India and the world

The art of taming and training elephants goes back nearly 4,000 years and seems to have developed originally in Asia, from where it is believed to have spread to Africa and Europe. At first, their use was mostly practical — as tanks in wartime, as timber forklifts in peacetime; but they soon became symbols of religious and social prestige. The art of capturing and taming an elephant slowly became a profession in itself, whose secrets were passed down the generations, accompanied by myths, legends and folklore that persist till today. The westward course of elephants began with the first contacts between Alexander and the Indians (during Porus’s defeat) and continued after his death in 323 BC. The Carthaginians are known to have been the first to capture and train African elephants (277 BC) when Hannibal used them in his Roman campaigns. After Caesar’s time, though, the use of the African war elephant died out and with the decline of the Roman Empire, the art of taming the wild African elephant was lost as well. The interest in elephants and their taming was however renewed with the colonisation of Africa and Asia by the Europeans in the 17th century. The exploitation of the African elephant for its ivory and the Indian elephant for its work capabilities meant that the creatures were studied extensively for many years.

Over the centuries, elephants have been tamed for three main tasks: warfare, industry and entertainment (in zoos and circuses). They were trained and used in warfare in India, China and Persia. The benefit lay not only in their sheer size but also in their concern for their human trainers and in their ability to charge at great speeds. This however became a handicap once gun-powder came onto the battlefield as elephants were scared into a rampage among their own troops. As one can imagine, elephants are very effective at labor that requires slogging and heavy lifting. In fact, their role in theEuropean colonisation (through logging and transportation involved in the building of roads, railways and in other infrastructure projects) can’t be overstated. The elephant has also been used as an executioner, a symbol of social status and a religious icon.

Later with the advent of Europeans – like Carl Hagenbeck from Germany – an international trade in exotic animals began to flourish. Soon there was a demand for people to tame or train elephants and to follow them to their new owners and habitats in European zoos and menageries. The western elephant trainers, under Hagenbeck’s influence, were trained by Asian mahouts (often from Sri Lanka) and came to conduct with a mixed mentality of Asian mahouts and German horse-trainers. The 1900s saw the first imports of elephant for circuses and shows in western zoos. This was a rough time for elephants, as they were given bad food and suffered from cold weather, a lack of ‘normal’ mental stimuli and painful training methods to make them perform. But despite these challenges, elephants were bred in captivity with moderate success and this only worsened their plight as a species. Today, elephants continue to fascinate the people by their sheer majesty and antics and, yet, the training that they have to undergo to perform these feats gracefully, the physical pain and mental agony they are put through, are heartbreaking when revealed.


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