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May 2010 | Weaning and Training by Prajna Chowta

Dharma

After 22 months of care during the gestation of the mother and another 2 years caring for the calf, comes the time for a delicate process which is the weaning and training of the calf: a sensitive subject in terms of animal welfare due to a lack of information.

1) The general conditions of captivity of the elephant (space, social interactions, feeding) and its justifications (work and activities) should be examined in terms of animal welfare and conservation.

2) The health, growth, behaviour of the calf should be carefully assessed.

3) The methods of management and finally the methods used for weaning and training should be scrutinized.

4) Finally, the notions of weaning and training that are usually viewed as one single process should be considered separately.

In fact, when a calf is kept purely for conservation purposes, there is no reason to anticipate the weaning of the animal, while training becomes a necessity for a safe management. Therefore, the experiment that has been undertaken at Aane Mane camp in the case of Dharma was to dissociate the training and weaning of the calf.

At the age of 2 years, an elephant calf weighs around 500 kg (1100 Pounds). The animal is quite powerful already, becomes difficult to handle for the mahouts and vaccination is a complex affair for the safety of the vet, the staff and for the animal. In the wild, calves are weaned naturally between 3-5 years of age when the mother delivers another calf. In the case of young males, the mother naturally rejects the calf when suckling is painful due to the growth of the tusks that are sharp and hurt the teats.

The decision to separate Dharma from his mother and surrogate mother at the age of 2 years and 5 months was taken in consideration of the following factors:

Exceptionally, Dharma has been suckling both females (mother and foster mother), which means a double dose of colostrum and milk. Since birth, the calf was habituated to human contact, voice and hand feeding. The first vaccination at 6 months was undertaken without difficulty. At 1 year, vaccination or de-worming was impossible without tying the calf. The animal had developed the habit of charging and kicking.

Therefore, the separation for training of the calf was planned for December 2009 (just after the monsoon) when green fodder is abundant and temperatures are cool.

The mother was taken away, simply coaxed by the mahouts, without the use of koonkie elephants. Then, for 5 weeks, the superintendent mahout (Mujeeb Khan) gave him an elementary training (human contact, voice, hand feeding, bathing and basic commands).

After the mahout in charge had control over the elephant, it was let back to its mother and foster mother and after a few days, he resumed suckling. This is unadvisable according to tradition of elephant training as it might hinder the complete control of man over the animal. However, there are several reasons why we decided to do so:
1) There are a number of potential predators in the forest (doles, panthers and tigers), so the calf cannot be let alone for grazing;
2) The mother's milk is always beneficial for the growth of the animal and the development of its immune system; in fact, the process of lactating started over again, even after a separation of 5 weeks;
3) Social interaction is very important for the development of the animal's behaviour.

Today, Dharma continues to be with his two mothers; the mahout has a good control over the animal, and the calf can be managed, vaccinated and treated safely.

For further information, refer to the Elephant Code Book, by Prajna Chowta.

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