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Case Study: Elephants

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The largest draught animal is the elephant, but its role is slowly becoming one of tradition rather than necessity. Two decades ago, 4,000 Asian elephants were used for logging in Thailand, but the forests there have been clear-cut and mechanization has displaced the elephant. However, they are still used in Myanmar, where elephant logging is prevalent. Logging companies frequently lease working elephants from their owners, who are typically urban businessmen.

The elephant handler (or trainer) is called an oozie in Myanmar and a mahout in India and Sri Lanka. The trainer mounts a saddle—a thick pad of leaves and bark—on the elephant’s back to protect its sensitive spine from the dragging gear, or tack, used in pulling logs. The trainer sits on the elephant’s neck as it uses its trunk, tusks, feet, mouth and forehead to accomplish its daily chores. A well-trained elephant in logging work will respond to more than 30 vocal commands and 90 pressure points on its body from a skilled handler. They work until 2:45 every afternoon, then the oozie scrubs the elephant in water with coconut halves for up to an hour. The oozie then feeds the elephant salted, cooked rice and hobbles and releases it to feed in the forest at night. At about 4:00 a.m., the oozie locates the elephant by unique tones of a bell that is attached to the elephant (Schmidt 1997).

Elephant bulls are rarely held in captivity, and cows are traditionally released to be bred in the wild. Artificial insemination is also used to breed elephants. Bull elephants donate semen to an elephant-sized artificial cow. It is impossible to observe visually the cow in oestrus (three times per year), so weekly samples of blood are taken for progesterone analysis. When a cow is in oestrus, she is bred by injecting semen into her vagina with a long, flexible pneumatic insemination tube.

Several hazards are associated with elephant handling; they arise from elephants’ size, the massive objects of their work and their behaviour. Mounting the tack on the elephant and manipulating logging gear exposes the handler to injury hazards. In addition, the handler is exposed to falls from the elephant’s neck. The potential for injury is aggravated by the logging operations, which include carrying, pushing, pulling and stacking; teak logs can weigh as much as 1,360 kg. The elephant’s behaviour may be unpredictable and cause injury to its handler. Captive bulls are very dangerous and are difficult to contain. Breeding bulls are particularly dangerous. A working bull elephant in Sri Lanka has been reported to have killed nine mahouts. He was retained after each death, however, because of his value to his owners (Schmidt 1997).

Some elephants will respond only to their trainer. The principal method for controlling unpredictable elephants is to allow only their oozie to handle them. Elephants are creatures of habit, so trainers should maintain a daily routine. The afternoon scrubbing by the trainer has been found to be critical in establishing a bond with the elephant. Maintaining the trainer’s dominance is another safeguard against unsafe elephant behaviour.

The swimmers who carry blood samples to a laboratory for progesterone analysis are exposed to a particularly dangerous task: they swim across rivers during the monsoon season. This drowning hazard can be corrected by providing laboratory services near the working elephants.



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