Asian elephants are threatened, but remarkably, about one-third of the remaining 45,000 Asian elephants in the world live in semi-imprisoned conditions where they are handled by handlers known as mahouts. Expert knowledge of mahouts accumulated over many generations is of great importance for handling these giant, essentially wild animals.
However, this knowledge transfer is now threatened: Recent social changes in countries throughout Asia have affected the traditional mahout system. Myanmar, with the largest semi-captive elephant population of 5,000, has been considered one of the last strong teams of traditional mahouts and their expert knowledge. Researchers from the University of Turku in Finland together with the Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) veterinarians examined how recent political shifts in Myanmar combined with increased urbanization and improved access to technologies may have affected the traditional mahout industry.
The researchers interviewed experts with long-term careers working in the field of elephant management in Myanmar, as well as over 200 current mahouts employed in the forest industry. The study discovered profound changes in the mahout system in Myanmar that may affect elephant welfare and justify further research. Mahouts today is younger, less experienced and spends less time working than before. The study also found a reduced traditional family relationship with the profession.
"Although almost half of the mahouts we interviewed, a family member had also worked with elephants, it seems that this link may fall further in the future, with few mahouts who want their children to follow in their footsteps, especially the younger generation, "says graduate student Jennie Crawley, lead author of the study.
"It is very important to carry out further studies to understand how these changes can affect elephant welfare, as frequently changed mahouts with little experience in the profession can increase expensive stress and risk of injury. Our results already allow managers to take action for To ensure there are no negative effects on the elephants or on the mahouts working with these large animals, "academy professor of ecology Virpi Lummaa, senior researcher involved in the study adds.
Monitoring the consequences for mahouts is particularly important: less than 20% of current mahouts had spent time as an apprentice before being mated with an elephant, contrasting past tradition and recommendations from a 2-year apprenticeship.
An important result was that, despite these changes, a significant majority of experts believed that elephant treatment is better now than before, often adding these improvements to "more techniques and training" that reflects well on current elephant care in Myanmar. The research team hopes that future studies can shed light on which parts of the country are most affected, and where mahout training and support is most needed to improve the relationship between elephants and their dedicated guards.
Materials supplied by Turku University. Note: Content can be edited for style and length.