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  • Writer's pictureDr Mark J Tenenbaum

The Human Elephant Learning Program

I was fortunate enough to meet with Dr. Andrew Mclean to learn more about the Human Elephant Learning Program (H-ELP Foundation) and what impact this organisation is having on not just the lives of elephants but also the locals that work with these beautiful animals. I have structured this piece in a Q&A format and also provided the YouTube video which covers some of these questions.

Have a read and please let us or H-ELP Foundation know if you have any questions or thoughts.


The Human Elephant Learning Program is about the conservation of Asian Elephants, tell us more about your goals?

Our focus is on the Asian Elephants (Elephas maximus) that are in captivity so that they may live the best life possible. This means that their training is humane and ethically undertaken and that their management is best practice. The other side of the coin is the focus on the mahout (a person who works with and rides an elephant) and improving their life as well through education. In the last couple of years however, we have now begun to turn our sights on to conservation of elephants in general because the three projects are interdependent. Our hope is that someday all Asian Elephants can live in free-range environments that will no longer require human interaction. However, until that time comes, the H-ELP Foundation is committed to creating the best life for elephants possible, using scientific, evidence based training techniques and frameworks and improving the lives of mahouts.

How does this differ from the conservation of African elephants?

The African elephant conservation projects focus on stopping the ivory trade and general poaching. The endangered Asian elephant however is a more complex situation. African elephants outnumber Asian elephants 10:1 and for Asian elephants their habitats are shrinking so fast that one of the last strongholds is in captivity. In forestry situations, the ridden elephant is the best vehicle to capture poachers because it is quiet, tall, safe, reliable, goes everywhere and doesn’t threaten other wildlife. As a result the places where elephants are used to capture poachers has the best anti-poaching record in the world in terms of the population increase of targeted species such as rhinos. As quoted by WWF on their website, "Elephant-human conflict poses a grave threat to their continued existence." Studies on conflict between elephants and humans in Asia and in Africa have identified crop raiding as the main form of conflict. Our goals, are to engage with the local communities as well as those who are in conflict with these elephants and/or have them in captivity to show them that there is a better and happier existence for all those involved.

What has H-ELP achieved of late?

As a result of our work in foundation-training and rehabilitation, The H-ELP Foundation is now the official training partners of The Wildlife Trust of India, The National Elephant Institute of Thailand and The MTE (the largest private owners of elephants in the world - 3000). The MTE located in Myanmar are attempting to rehabilitate elephants whose former lives were in hauling timber since there were world-wide restrictions on timber harvesting in Myanmar. The alternative is that the elephants will be bought by Chinese buyers and either used in unregulated tourism or ‘melted' down for traditional medicine.

Why is keeping elephants in captivity rather than the wild in Asia a better option for the protection of the species?

It isn’t a better option, it is just that there is nowhere near enough habitat for the 14,000 captives. In fact there isn't enough habitat for Asian elephants anywhere in Asia.  Even in Myanmar which had one of the largest populations, the wild elephant populations are decimated in their structure. Males are much rarer than they were and most populations hang around human settlements because they feel safer due to the threat of poaching. The Asian elephant is highly threatened.

What is your role in the charity organisation?

I am the Chairman and head trainer of The Human Elephant Learning Programs (HELP), which is an Australian organisation working to improve the welfare of working elephants via the systematic application of humane, evidence-based training initiatives, management advice, education, engagement with local communities and relevant stakeholders.

What can a patron learn by coming to the ball on the 16th of June at the Mornington Racecourse?

We are looking forward to showcasing our work through visual platforms  and I will present a talk that will educate and provide an insight into our work. Our work heavily relies on donors and we are very grateful for the local support from companies across the Mornington Peninsula who are donating and contributing to the event. There will be a live and silent auction along with dining with a great room of people who are passionate about elephant and animal conservation.

Where do the funds contribute to?

100% of the funds are donated to our on the ground workshops in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and India. We hope to eventually set up Mahout schools where mahouts can learn and obtain qualifications so that their lives are valued and their pay and status reflects that. That will also improve their domestic situation and their families will benefit in every way possible.  At the moment in most countries, being a mahout is considered a lowly job, yet I think its a noble task.


Check out our full video interview here!

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