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  • Writer's pictureDr Euan J McLean

Elephants Never Forget

Training our fluffy friends new tricks, and making sure they are well behaved can be fun and rewarding, but the understanding of animal behaviour and training has heart-warming outcomes beyond our everyday lives.

Enter, the Human-Elephant Learning Program, fondly known as H-ELP.

H-ELP, founded and directed by renowned equine behaviourist Dr Andrew McLean, aims to use scientifically grounded training principles to vastly improve the welfare of working elephants. Historical training techniques in these areas are painful, and often based largely around submission, or “breaking the elephant’s spirit”. Whilst initially horrifying, it is important to realise that the people training these animals do not wish to be cruel. Elephant trainers, known as Mahouts, are renowned for dedicating their lives to working with elephants, and the historical training methods have been used due to the lack of a more informed option.

H-ELP provides the ethical, efficient and scientifically proven alternative that is required to change the welfare outcomes of these beautiful creatures.

The use of scientifically grounded training principles helps keep the elephants free of conflict.

Whilst it’s easy to voice the demand that the only way to solve elephant cruelty is to unequivocally abstain from their use in industry, it is an unrealistic mandate. Forestry, agriculture and tourism are all vital industries in Nepal, Myanmar, and many other developing communities. Elephants and their handlers play a pivotal industry role, and often provide the only means for putting food on the table. Subsequently, if the major welfare concerns can be addressed and improved to an acceptable point, a coexistence between socioeconomic viability and welfare standards can be achieved.

In harmony with their mantra, ‘abuse ends where knowledge begins’, Andrew and his team at H-ELP aim to educate the Mahouts about the basic principles of animal behaviour and training (read here). H-ELP runs workshops for elephant trainers across communities in Nepal and Myanmar, to both educate them, and provide examples of what can be achieved with their ethical training. They have also published their elephant training manual in a range of languages, in order to make their work as accessible as possible.

Dr Andrew McLean educates Mahouts on the basic principles of behaviour, to work toward improved welfare outcomes for the elephants.

A quick browse of the videos on their website confirms the undeniable achievements they are able to accomplish; all without use of punishment, submission or even restraint, only reinforcement. The leaps and bounds that these techniques afford in animal welfare are abundantly clear, so much so that elephants trained under the H-ELP system are not even tied up or fenced in. These elephants are so motivated, and have such low levels of conflict in their training, that they actually show up for their daily training or work.

With the H-ELP training system, elephants are not tied up and restrained, but rather are free to come and go at their leisure.

The welfare outcomes of this program are not limited to the benefits for elephants, but extend to inspirational outcomes for people who work with the elephants.

Historically, training and working with these amazing creatures has been a dangerous occupation, and H-ELP’s methods have been instrumental in making it safer for all involved. By reducing stress and conflict in the training process, elephants are much more predictable, amicable and less prone to aggression.  Consequently, H-ELP has not only vastly improved welfare in elephants, but improved safety, lifestyle and stigma of the Mahouts.

Successful training outcomes in elephants helps Mahouts stay safe, and happy in their work.

If you would like to learn more, or donate to the H-ELP dream, please visit

All photos courtesy of Ben Fulton-Gillon Photography - @benfultongillon

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