Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page


Maintaining full control over elephants is a key part of the mahout’s job. Beyond ensuring that work will be done properly and efficiently, full control ensures the safety of the mahout, the safety of other humans nearby, and even the safety of the elephant itself.

Controlling elephants divides into two categories, normal circumstances and when an elephant has gone out of control, whether from aggression (usually but not always when in musth), having escaped, or just out of panic. For regaining control of elephants, the normal tools are used but these are often supplemented with special equipment which is described at the end of the section.

Controlling elephants depends on three interrelated factors: (1) the level of training of the mahout, (2) the tools or equipment used, and (3) the best ways of using the tools. A weakness in any of these areas means that both safety and the elephant’s health are likely to be affected.

As for the quality of training of mahouts, there are disturbing signs that contemporary mahouts are losing many of the skills of the old days. This lack of skills is very likely to in the near future show up as poorer control of bull elephants, most of which are dangerous, at least part of the time. Training is, however, beyond the scope of this book.


All elephant tools are traditional, with an evolution of many centuries. The last big technological change was when chains were finally practical to use in place of rattan and ropes made from plants.


The hook [ankus, bull hook] is the mahout’s most important tool. It should be with him at all times wken he is with the elephant, and he should know how to use it in such a way as to not injure the elephant. Beginning mahouts should be repeatedly told that the real purpose of the hook is not to cause pain but rather to apply strong, clear pressure to very particular control points that the elephant has been trained to react to (stop, turn left, turn right, kneel, stand still, etc.). The hook also extends the mahout’s reach - like doubling the length of his arm.

The hook should be of a suitable size and design for the mahout’s hand and for the size and nature of the elephant. The head should be on tight, and the handle should be neither broken nor slippery. The point should not be so sharp as to easily pierce the skin of the elephant.


Bush knife

Like the hook, the mahout’s bush knife should be with him at all times, except perhaps when riding very safe elephants in tourist camps (the knife can frighten spectators). When logging, the bush knife is essential because in emergencies (such as a log sliding downhill) it can be used to slash the ropes holding the harness to the elephant.

The bush knife should never be used to control the elephant except when the hook is dropped or lost or in emergencies where human life is in danger. The primary purpose of the bush knife is to cut food for the elephant, clear pathways, cut firewood for the mahout, etc.

The bush knife should be in a sturdy sheath that will hold it snugly but still allow easy withdrawal. The knife should be of an appropriate size and have a handle that can be grasped firmly.


Ear halter

The ear halter is a piece of iron shaped like a fish hook, affixed over the base of the ear with light rope. It is used to lead elephants and also, for very short periods of time, to tether them. When a lead rope 1 to 3 metres long attached to the halter is gently tugged, the point of the 'fish hook’ softly pokes behind the ear, signalling the elephant to move forward (or to stop when the halter is used for tethering).

The ear halter is particularly useful in training inattentive calves to follow the mahout at exactly his walking pace; once this has been learned, the halter can often be dispensed with. The ear halter is perfectly safe and harmless when properly used but can cause injuries when carelessly used by incompetent mahouts; camp managers should keep its use under very careful supervision.



Hobbles are much like handcuffs, with two "bracelets" joined by a ring that holds them together. Hobbles go on the elephant’s front feet to make it stay still, to slow it down, or to ensure that it cannot cross over broad objects or obstacles. Sometimes hobbles are used to prevent elephants from mating. Hobbles can be used on their own or they can be attached to tethering chains.

The elephant’s feet should be checked carefully each day to ensure that its hobbles are causing no injury.


Tethering chains

Tethering chains are affixed to one front foot (usually the right) with the other end secured to an anchoring point, in the country almost always a tree. In rural environments, tethering in a different place is normally done every night, allowing feeding on plants within the circle described by the chain, allowing feeding much like wild elephants.

The elephant’s tethering chain must be with or near it at all times. Chains are the only piece of equipment that allows a mahout to leave the elephant with the certainty that it will not escape and cause trouble.

Three different technical qualities must be considered when buying chains: (1) length, (2) heaviness/size, and (3) quality.

The length used for mature elephants in natural or open environments is between 20 to 30 metres; for calves it is usually about 12 to 15 metres. When the elephant is in confined areas, the chain can be shorter to suit. A long chain can, of course, be used as a short chain simply by attaching it to the anchoring point at whatever length is desired.

The heaviness or size is described by the diameter of the metal links. The unit of measure is the hun, or 1/8 inch [3.2 mm]. The normal size used for mature elephants is 4 hun or 1/2 inch [1.3 cm], though heavier chains are used with animals that struggle with their chains. Lighter chains can be used with animals that never fight their chains. For calves, the usual chain size is 2 hun or 1/4 inch [6 mm]. The lighter the chain is, the better for the elephant as it will use less strength in moving the chain and is less likely to suffer injury to the foot and ankle.

The quality of chains is determined largely by cost. The best chains are manufactured in Western countries and are made of excellent metal and the weld which closes each link is done to a very high standard. Quality chains are quite expensive. Local and regionally made chains are much cheaper but the metal is of poor quality, as is the weld. These conflicting aspects lead to a complex set of trade-offs. Low quality chains are much cheaper in the short term but they wear out much faster than quality chains, leaving the cost over a lifetime’s use in question. High quality chains, being stronger, can be bought in a smaller size, meaning less physical wear on the elephant. High quality chains are much less likely to break and thus can possibly save the elephant’s owner from having to pay compensation for crops raided or the loss of human life.

Factors that must be considered when buying or deciding which chains to use include the size of the elephant, whether it attempts to break its chains (see page 33), and the environment in which the elephant is to be chained, especially in regard to food. A chained elephant that has access to plenty of good food and water is far less likely to try to break its chains than a hungry or thirsty elephant with little food or water inside its chaining area. Questions such as these should be left to highly experienced mahouts, not to newcomers.

The advantages of chains over other means of tethering are overwhelming. Chains do not stretch or shrink with changes in heat or moisture. Chains, so long as properly selected, are stronger than the alternatives. Chains, unlike rope or wire, are very unlikely to cause wounds and to get twisted up in knots or caught up in trees or rocks. Chains are very durable and last longer than the alternatives.

The disadvantages of chains are that the cost is more than wire or rope. Chains are heavier than the alternatives. Chains conduct electricity, leading to possible electrocution. Should chains get knotted or wrapped around an elephant’s body they are harder to cut than rope.

Despite these disadvantages, chains are clearly the best form of restraint available, both for the humans and for the elephant itself.


Two pieces of equipment need to be used with chains, U-bolts and swivels. Additionally, bolt cutters and a metal saw should be kept at all facilities with sizeable groups of elephants; inevitably an elephant will end up knotting itself up in chains (the same applies to wire rope) and if it is not freed immediately injury or even death can follow.


Two U-bolts are used when tethering, one to close the loop around the elephant’s foot and the other to close the loop around the tree or anchoring point. U-bolts must be at least the size and strength as the chain; the strongest chain is only as strong as the weakest U-bolt used in it. (U-bolts, like chains, are sold sized in hun but because the quality of the metal used is highly variable, mahouts must be very careful here.)

U-bolts have a threaded post that screws into a threaded hole. This is the weakest part of the U-bolt and when the threads get loose or show signs of wear, they should be discarded and replaced with a new one immediately, particularly because U-bolts are not very expensive. Good mahouts always have 10 to 15 U-bolts available for use.

Warning: Some elephants are very skilful at using their trunks (with a foot holding the U-bolt firm) to unscrew the post; with such elephants, the mahout should carry lengths of wire to fasten the post, which has a hole on top, securely to the 'U’ itself.


Swivels are a metal device that fits into the middle of a length of chain. A swivel is like a chain link where the ends of the link are able to freely revolve around each other full circle. Swivels, like U-bolts, must be as strong or stronger than the chain links or they weaken the chain. Swivels are not needed in all chains but they are essential when the elephant is unaccustomed to chains and very often when the elephant is in musth and/or aggressive, because the mahout cannot work near the elephant. The purpose of swivels is to prevent an elephant from breaking its chains by getting them all tangled up and thus easy to break.

The weakest point in a link of chain is on the side with the weld made to join two links. Normally the greatest strain is the round ends which connect with other links, but when chains get kinked, a strong round end can press against a weak weld, making it easy to break.

Swivels for elephants must be custom made because they are not made commercially. They are exactly the same as those used with buffalo and cattle, so borrow one of those to use as a model. Swivels are simple and inexpensive to have made at a machine shop or blacksmiths. Two examples are shown, one modern and one old-fashioned style.

Warning: A swivel must be strong and smooth, with no sharp edges. It must rotate freely and easily and thus the mahout should inspect it daily and oil it when necessary, certainly before and after every use.

Rope and wire rope

Rope comes in many types. Rope is sometimes used to tether elephants or otherwise control their movements, but its use is limited mainly to calves. Some types of rope are traditional but two others, wire rope and nylon rope, are modern inventions that require very careful, short-time use because they are capable of causing horrendous injuries.

Rope has various advantages and disadvantages when compared to chains, but these vary with the type of rope.

Manila rope is made from coconut shell fibre [coir] so when new it is quite stiff. The sizes used with elephants normally range from 2 to 4 hun [1/4 to 1/2 inches or.6 to 1.3 cm]. Manila rope is mostly used to tie body parts - such as the legs, tail, and trunk - during training.

Good properties: After some breaking in, manila rope becomes soft and pliable and thus it does not cause as many injuries as do other types of rope. So long as it is dry, manila rope does not shrink or stretch.

Bad properties: Manila rope is expensive and hard to find for sale. It wears out quickly and requires work to maintain properly. When wet manila rope stretches and then when drying, it shrinks; this can cause injuries.

Nylon rope is made of synthetic fibre and available in sizes from one hun (1/8 inch or 3.2 mm) up. Nylon rope is useful for securing hardware but should not be used to tether elephants, as it can cause horrible injuries. Unfortunately, many bad and inexperienced mahouts now use it in training and restraint, resulting in wounds. If circumstances require the temporary use of nylon rope for restraint, the elephant should be inspected frequently for wounds and the rope for possible breakage.

Good properties: Nylon rope has a long working life and is easy to care for. It is cheap and easy to find. When wet, it neither stretches nor shrinks.

Bad properties: Nylon is abrasive and irritating and easily causes wounds. It becomes harder and loses suppleness with age. Once past the expiry date, it breaks easily.

Wire rope, made of twisted wire strands, is stronger than chains. It is excellent for emergencies, such as where a dangerous elephant must be restrained but when chains are broken or not present. Wire rope should never be used for more than a day, and when used on feet, wire rope should be checked often and carefully. Frequently switch the wire rope between the two front feet to lessen the chance of injury.

Wire rope also has some use, under careful supervision, when leading elephants into spaces they do not want to enter or out of spaces they do not wish to leave.

Good properties: Wire rope is incredibly strong and it is very inexpensive and easily available.

Bad properties: Wire rope can easily tear into flesh. When used to tether or tie elephants, it can twist and coil, making it difficult for the elephant to walk. It can cause accidents. Wire rope shreds easily, leaving individual wires to pierce the elephant’s skin.

Hemp rope, made from the fibre of the hemp plant [in fact, paw saw], shares some the characteristics of manila rope. It is never thicker than 4 hun [1/2 inch or 1.3 cm] and never longer than 6 feet [1.8 metres]. It is used for tying legs and for securing bits of equipment, such as breast bands, rattan hobbles, etc.

Rattan is smooth and non-irritating and thus is used for girths and hobbles because it has good properties of expansion. Rattan of too small a diameter can dig into flesh and cause deep wounds. Thus, rattan used to tether or tie elephants should be plaited together to make it thicker.

Elephants that fight their chains

Many elephants like to repeatedly try to break their chains in an attempt to get free. Some elephants which fight their chains are harmless but a sizeable majority, not surprisingly, are aggressive and dangerous.

Such attempts are an understandable try for freedom, but all mahouts will try to stop them because a loose elephant can cause huge damage to property, to crops, and to human beings.

Beyond being a danger to human beings should they get free, elephants fighting chains also often bring serious injuries upon themselves. Some elephants will, holding a section of chain in their trunk, flail the chains against a hard object. The usual technique is to wrap the chains around a body part - the tusks, trunk, head, or even the torso - and then pull against the chains. Sometimes elephants will back off and charge away from the anchor, greatly amplifying the force which they could apply by simply tugging. Wounds, bruises, dislocated ankles, etc., are common, as are split, chipped, and broken tusks. Fatal falls are not unknown. Some elephants will try to bite the chains, chipping their teeth.

The best way to deal with chain-inflicted injuries is to do your best to ensure that they do not occur in the first place:

Special equipment for problem situations

Several types of equipment have long been used to train or condition elephants not to fight their chains; another device based on the same principles is designed to stop elephants from trying to throw their riders. In all cases the goal is to ensure that elephants to do not escape to cause damage to crops or property and most particularly to kill people.

The following devices should be used, if at all, only by true experts and never for more than a day or so. The elephants should be frequently inspected for serious injury and any small wounds should be treated immediately. The gear should be carefully cleaned before and after use.

Spiked hobble

This is a hobble with "spikes" about 4 hun long [1/2 inch or 1.3 cm]; the tethering chain is attached to it. If the elephant stands still or moves slowly and carefully, it will feel no pain. If the animal moves very quickly or with force, the spikes will dig in and cause great pain.

There are spiked tethering chains built on the same principle. If the elephant handles them gently, there will be no pain, but if handled roughly or with force there will be great pain.

Spiked collar

The mai kham khaw is a rope collar, fitted neither too tightly nor too loosely, with knotted-in spikes made of iron or hard wood. Thai mahouts usually work their elephants, whether logging or giving tourists rides, while sitting perched on the neck. Some elephants have the bad habit of vigorously shaking and rolling their necks, often strongly enough to throw the mahoutk. (A few elephants have the special skill of twitching their skin so vigorously that that action can forcibly dismount mahouts.)

When the spiked collar is fitted to the neck, the mahout mounts. If the elephant stands or walks normally, it will feel no pain. If it twists, turns, rolls or shivers its neck, it will feel great pain.

Looking at pictures, the spiked hobbles and spiked collar look cruel and they have indisputably been designed to cause pain. But rather than being cruel, that pain is quite humane in a curious way. These seemingly cruel and primitive devices are actually quite sophisticated because the elephant itself determines the amount of pain. The struggling animal gets progressive negative feedback - increasing pain - as it more rigorously struggles. The mahout has no direct role in applying pain at the moment it is felt. Spiked hobbles and collars can do the job with the mahout far away, which is normally when elephants fight chains.

These devices are, in expert hands, far better for the elephant than the usual contemporary method to counter 'chain fighting’: the mahout physically punishing the elephant. The trouble here is that the elephant can get confused and not understand the reason for which the man is causing it pain. Such unskilled 'disciplining’ is counterproductive and far more likely to cause serious injuries than the above devices. Abuse by mahouts traumatizes elephants more than this passive equipment.

Spiked grappling pole

This U-shaped device with two inward facing spikes at the open end is affixed to a long pole. It was used to recapture escaped elephants by slipping it over a hind foot. When the elephant moved, the pole would hit against rocks, trees, etc., causing the spikes to dig in painfully and slow the elephant down.With the invention of tranquillising drugs fired from special rifles, there is no longer any justification for using this device.


Spears are used to control elephants from a distance when circumstances are so dangerous that mahouts cannot approach closely. The use of spears is acceptable only when elephants pose a clear and imminent danger to humans or to other elephants (often calves and cows).

The need to use spears is, apart from emergencies, an admission of incompetent mahouts who are neither loved nor trusted by their elephants. The most common use for spears is to force (by "pricking" their feet and rumps) frightened, traumatized, or stubborn elephants to exit a space they do not want to leave or, more often, into a space that they do not want to enter, most often loading onto trucks.

In the rare instances with a justifiable need to use spears, the traditional elephant spear is far superior to make-shift spears such as a bush knife on a pole. The traditional spear has a metal head with a sharp point (but not so sharp as to draw blood) no longer than six hun [3/4" or 1.9 cm.]; behind that point is a thick rim preventing the spear from entering deeply. The spear thus causes pain but the rim makes it impossible to cause a wound whereas an ordinary spear can cause horrendous wounds.

Guidelines for tethering elephants

· Never tether an elephant in a place that is steep and slippery because if the elephant falls it can be crippled or killed.

· Mahouts must check chains to ensure they have not kinked, making them easily caught in trees or rocks, rendering the elephant immobile and vulnerable to fires and attacks from other elephants.

· If the elephant is tethered in an urban space or a village, the mahout must carefully inspect the site for exposed live electrical wires. Chains conduct electricity and the elephant can be electrocuted.

· If the elephant is tethered in an area with garbage or trash, the area must be inspected for plastic bags (especially bags with food remnants) that the elephant might swallow, for toxic chemicals, etc.

· If the elephant is tethered at a building site in a city, the area must be very carefully inspected for metal scraps, nails, sharp pieces of wood, glass shards, etc.; these must all be removed.

· Do not tether an elephant at a site that once held a house, particularly around the area which had been the kitchen or dining area or where dishes were washed; there will be salt in the soil and the elephant will likely dig up and eat the soil, causing an obstruction of the intestines.

· Before tethering an elephant, the mahout must ensure that the vicinity is free of aggressive or rambunctious elephants, particularly males (most particularly males in musth) that have not been chained.

· Do not tether elephants too closely together because their chains can get entangled, which is dangerous.

· Do not tether elephants unfamiliar with each other close together because this places them under great stress, hampering their eating, drinking, and resting, which leads to deteriorating physical condition. (Such elephants should be tethered at least 100 metres apart.)

· When elephants need to be tethered in one place for a long time, such as musth elephants or situations where the mahout must go away for a long time, the site should have very good shade and water.

· Never tether an elephant near very bright lights at night because the elephant will not dare to sleep and will stare at the lights until its eyes get irritated and susceptible to infection.

Absolute prohibitions in controlling elephants

· Never, for whatever reason, feed an elephant with addictive drugs such as amphetamines, opium, marijuana, or any other drug.

· Never pour or spray turpentine over an elephant’s body [usually trying to force a sick elephant to its feet] because it will cause the skin to be infected and peel off in sheets. Successful treatment is very difficult.

· Never use heat (boiling water or fire in close proximity or actual contact) to force an elephant to load onto a truck, to do work, or anything else because it can get injured and possibly die or become mentally disturbed.

· Never use a slingshot, arrows, crossbows, shotguns, cap guns, gaspowered guns,. 22 calibre rifles, air guns, or any other weapon to shoot at elephants to intimidate them into doing something. If a projectile should hit their body or a vital organ, it can injure or cripple the elephant and possibly even kill it.

· Never take a mother elephant and her calf younger than three years of age near other elephants unfamiliar with the pair, because the calf might get attacked and even killed.

Dragging gear

Dragging gear, the harness used to drag logs through the forest, looks quite simple but in fact is incredibly complex. The two simple looking "saddle pads" (nang awn and nang khaeng), for example, not only require bark from two trees that are found only in natural forest, they require great craftsmanship in the preparation. The breast band is a piece of equipment that requires complex weaving (also from a special plant); in the old days, each mahout was very adept at making his own although today very few can. Thus, to try to teach the true old craft is far beyond the scope of this book, and in any case those relatively few people still involved in logging are mostly great masters of the art, and writing for them would be like "teaching the supreme patriarch how to read" [a Thai idiom much like "teaching your grandmother to suck eggs"].

Dragging equipment is these days most often used in simple demonstrations for tourists, almost always with very light logs over smooth ground. For any camp manager who is thinking of adding a logging demonstration to his show we recommend simply hiring an old time mahout for a few days for help in acquiring the equipment and teaching its proper use. The most important warning is that if heavy logs are being dragged, the breast band (pa ok) should be made of sisal (paw) rather than nylon rope, which is both very hot and which causes much more abrasion and pressure than a breast band made of natural materials.

The advice for managers of camps which offer rides is similar, because bad-fitting saddles or wrong-sized saddles or inappropriate girths can cause saddle sores and wounds. If you have a good master mahout, you will have no problems. If you do not have a good head mahout, then hire one as a consultant or, better, put him on permanent staff.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page