Mahouts In Myanmar Are Younger And Less Experienced, Study Shows

Political changes and urbanization may be threatening the traditions and training of elephant handlers, or mahouts, in Myanmar.

AsianScientist (Mar. 1, 2019) – Scientists in Myanmar and Finland have found that elephant handlers, also known as mahouts, in Myanmar are younger and less experienced than their predecessors. Their findings are published in PLOS One.

Asian elephants are endangered, but remarkably, around one third of the remaining 45,000 Asian elephants in the world live in semi-captive conditions, cared for by mahouts. Expert knowledge of mahouts accumulated over many generations is of great importance in handling these giant, wild animals.

However, recent societal changes in countries across Asia have affected the traditional mahout system. Myanmar, with the largest semi-captive elephant population of 5,000, is thought of as one of the last strongholds of traditional mahouts.

In the present study, researchers from the University of Turku, Finland, together with colleagues at Myanma Timber Enterprise, found that political shifts in Myanmar, coupled with increased urbanization and improved access to technologies, may have impacted the traditional mahout profession.

The researchers interviewed experts involved in long term elephant-keeping in Myanmar, as well as over 200 current mahouts employed in the logging industry. They observed that mahouts today are younger, less experienced and spend less time on the job than in the past. The scientists also noted reduced traditional family connections 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 doctoral candidate Ms Jennie Crawley of the University of Turku, the lead author of the study.

Less than 20 percent of current mahouts had spent any time as an apprentice before being paired with an elephant, said the researchers. This contrasted with past traditions which required a two-year apprenticeship learning period.

One important finding was that despite these changes, a significant majority of experts thought that elephant treatment is better now than in the past. The researchers attributed these improvements to “more techniques and training,” reflecting well on current elephant care in Myanmar.

The research team hopes future studies can shed light on where mahout training and support is most needed to strengthen bonds between elephants and their caretakers.

“It is really important to conduct further research to understand how [political shifts and urbanization] may impact the welfare of elephants, as frequently changing mahouts with little experience in the profession may increase animal stress and risk of injuries. Our findings already allow managers to take steps to ensure there are no negative impacts for the elephants or for the mahouts working with these huge animals,” said Professor Virpi Lummaa of the University of Turku, a senior scientist involved in the study.

The article can be found at: Crawley et al. (2019) Investigating Changes Within the Handling System of the Largest Semi-captive Population of Asian Elephants.


Source: University of Turku; Photo: John Jackson.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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