Crawley, J. A. H., Lahdenperä, M., Seltmann, M. W. et al. 2019. Investigating changes within the handling system of the largest semi-captive population of Asian elephants. PLoS ONE 14(1), e0209701.
The current extinction crisis leaves us increasingly reliant on captive populations to maintain vulnerable species. Approximately one third of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) are living in semi-captive conditions in range countries. Their relationship with humans stretches back millennia, yet elephants have never been fully domesticated. We rely on the expertise of traditional handlers (mahouts) to manage these essentially wild animals, yet this profession may be threatened in the modern day. Here, we study the handling system of semi-captive timber elephants in Myanmar; the largest global semi-captive population (~5 000). We investigate how recent changes in Myanmar may have affected the keeping system and mahout-elephant interactions. Structured interviews investigated changes to mahout attitude and experience over the last two decades, as perceived by those who had worked in the industry for at least 10 years (n = 23) and as evaluated in current mahouts (n = 210), finding mahouts today are younger (median age 22yrs), less experienced (median experience 3yrs), and change elephants frequently, threatening traditional knowledge transfer. Mahout-elephant interactions manifested as 5 components (‘job appreciation’; ‘experience is necessary’; ‘human-elephant interaction’; ‘own knowledge’; ‘elephant relationship’), according to Principal Components Analysis. Experienced mahouts and mahouts of bulls and younger elephants were more likely to agree that ‘experience is necessary’ to be a mahout. Mahouts with difficult elephants scored lower on ‘human-elephant interaction’ and a mahout’s perception of their ‘own knowledge’ increased with more experience. Our finding of change in terms of mahout experience, age and commitment in the largest semi-captive elephant population suggests need for formal training and assessment of impacts on elephant welfare; these are findings applicable to thousands of elephants under similar management.