Mahout study laments slump in knowledge transfer

By FRONTIER

YANGON — The care of working elephants in Myanmar has been affected by a decline in the transfers of knowledge that mahouts have accumulated over generations, researchers have found.

Mahouts in Myanmar are younger and less experienced than in the past, which has implications for elephants under their care, researcher said in a study reported by the ScienceDaily.com website on February 11.

The study, Investigating changes within the handling system of the largest semi-captive population of Asian elephants, was conducted by researchers at the University of Turku, Finland, and veterinarians at Myanma Timber Enterprise.

The researchers found that the average age of mahouts in Myanmar is 22 years, they have an average of three years’ experience working with elephants and they are changing elephants yearly, preventing the development of long-term bonds between the animals and their handlers.

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Previously, elephant-keeping skills were accumulated over a lifetime of working with the same animal before being passed on to the younger generation.

“Expert knowledge of mahouts accumulated over many generations is of great importance in handling these giant, essentially wild animals,” ScienceDaily reported, citing the study.

However, the knowledge transfer has been threatened by changes affecting the traditional mahout system in Asia, in which about one-third of the remaining 45,000 Asian elephants live in semi-captive conditions and are cared for by mahouts.

Myanmar, with the largest semi-captive elephant population of 5,000, had been thought to be one of the last strongholds of traditional mahouts and their expert knowledge.

The study involved interviews with long-term specialists in elephant-keeping and more than 200 mahouts working in the logging industry. It revealed profound changes in the traditional mahout profession in Myanmar.

As well as mahouts being younger, less experienced and spending less time in the job than in the past, the study also revealed a reduced traditional family connection to the profession.

“Although almost half of the mahouts we interviewed had a family member also working with elephants, it seems that this link could decline further in the future, with few mahouts wishing their children to follow in their footsteps, especially the younger generation,” said Ms Jennie Crawly, a PhD candidate and the lead author of the study.

“It is really important to conduct further research to understand how these changes may impact the welfare of elephants, as frequently changing mahouts with little experience in the profession may increase animal stress and risk of injuries,” said Professor Virpi Lummaa, the senior scientist involved in the study.

The study also found that, despite the changes, a significant majority of specialists believed that the treatment of elephants in Myanmar was better than in the past. It said many improvements could be attributed to “more techniques and training” that reflected positively on elephant care in Myanmar.

The researchers hope that future studies can reveal which parts of the country are most affected and identify where mahout training and support is most needed.

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