What's a mahout?
'Mahout' means ‘elephant keeper’, which is not the same as an elephant owner. Many elephant owners hire mahouts to work with their elephants.
Not only does the term ‘mahout’ imply great physical skill, but in traditional Thai culture it has great spiritual significance.
A time-honoured profession
In the past, mahouts were admired and respected. But recently, with the demand for elephants in tourism and the industry becoming modernised, mahoutship has lost its traditional meaning.
Good mahouts will bond with their elephant over many years, developing a relationship like no other. This enables the mahout to recognise signs of illness and stress in their elephant.
Mahoutship is typically passed down through the generations. Usually, a young male goes to work with his father and their elephant to learn the skills and knowledge to become a good mahout.
Growing up in and around the forest helps new mahouts learn about the elephant's natural habitat, including which plants they eat, and which ones can be used for medicinal purposes.
Although the situation outlined above is still the norm in many hill-tribe villages, the rigorous and lengthy training and bonding tradition is mostly a thing of the past. With the increasing demand for elephant tourism, elephant owners often cut corners and employ young, inexperienced boys and 'train' them in 1-2 days.
Most new mahouts have never seen an elephant before their first day of training, and elephant-keeping is just an easy way to make money. They do not invest the love, time and patience required to establish a mutually respectful relationship with the elephant.
As elephants develop lifelong relationships over time, they will be distrustful of new people and therefore more resistant. This in turn leads the new mahout to rely on punishment, as opposed to positive reinforcement, to control them.
Many new mahouts are killed every year by elephants, but these stories often do not make the news.
Mahouts in elephant sanctuaries
The mahouts who are employed by the sanctuaries and venues Thailand Elephants endorses, have generally been working with their elephants for many years and know how to care for and control them in an ethical, positive way.
Check out our list of ethical venues in Thailand.