A Positive Spin | WWF

A Positive Spin

Posted on 31 March 2006
Trainer Tuire Kaimio with a baby elephant
© WWF NP/ Shubash LOHANI

New training methods make for happier elephants at Royal Chitwan National Park

Sauraha, CHITWAN –Is there an alternative way to train a domestic elephant to learn faster, be more obedient and decrease a risk to people? The answer is yes, according to the ‘positive reinforcement’ training being discussed and demonstrated at Royal Chitwan National Park.

Starting March 28, a week-long program for mahuts of national parks and private elephant holders arranged by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal and the Terai Arc Landscape Program of WWF Nepal is taking place at the Elephant Breeding Center at Sauraha, Chitwan. The training is being conducted by Ms. Tuire Kaimio, one of the most famous animal trainers in Europe. The Finnish national is sharing her experience of ‘positive reinforcement’ with Nepali mahuts.

"This training method is the fastest known way to make an animal learn various tasks, including very complex routines,” says Tuire. “It also makes motivates animals to work and improves its relationship with people.”

In positive reinforcement, the young trainee elephant is rewarded for every correct action. The reward can be anything from a piece of banana to a gentle touch. As the name suggests, the elephant is not subjected to force or punishment. It learns very quickly and is willing to work, because it experiences no pain or fear during the training. Food rewards are needed only during the training period – once the task is learned, the elephant will work without it.

“One of the benefits of positive reinforcement training is that it considerably improves the safety of the mahuts as well as other people involved with elephants,” observed Helena Talkaranta, a freelance journalist on assignment from WWF Finland who is leading the training team. “If an elephant has painful memories of training, it may attack people at some point.”

Dr Tirtha Man Maskey, former director general and co-chair of IUCN Rhino Specialist Group, agreed with Helena and cited incidents from the past when mahuts were killed by elephants. Positive reinforcement has garnered good results from various parts in the world. In many African countries, elephants used in tourist safaris are trained in this way. In recent years, elephant training facilities in India, Thailand and Sri Lanka have also embraced this method.

“This new training method will lend a new lease of life to the 1,500 year-tradition of elephant training in Nepal,” said Dr Chandra Gurung, Country Representative of WWF Nepal. “Handling animals with love and care will help spread a better message about Nepal internationally, especially among tourists.” During the course of the week, Tuire will observe the mahuts in order to develop training methods for specific tasks that elephants need to carry out in Nepal. “In the past we had to use force to train elephants but now I am happy to learn this alternative,” says Budhan Chaudhary from the Elephant Breeding Centre. “There will be a better future for both the elephants and for the people if we can use the positive reinforcement method with our traditional expertise.”

The first phase of the training concludes on 5 April 2006. Based on the outcome of this training, a follow-up session will be scheduled. Finland has been supporting conservation efforts in Nepal for the past three years through the Terai Arc Landscape Program.

For more information:
Trishna Gurung, Manager – Communications & Education, WWF Nepal Program. trishna.gurung@wwfnepal.org
Shubash Lohani, Program Officer – TAL, WWF Nepal Program. shubash.lohani@wwfnepal.org

Trainer Tuire Kaimio with a baby elephant
© WWF NP/ Shubash LOHANI Enlarge