Accepted Papers:

Taming and training in the human use of elephants: the case of Nepal - past, present and future  


Piers Locke (University of Canterbury)

Paper Short Abstract:

Humans have used elephants as mounted vehicles for various purposes for millennia. Such practices require training elephants to cooperate with humans, previously initiated through capture from the wild but more recently in Nepal via captive breeding.

Paper long abstract:

As an inadequately theorised domain of academic enquiry, this paper conceives captive elephant management as comprising variant practices widely dispersed through space and time, in which humans have deployed elephants as military technology, all-terrain vehicle, and expert labour. In conjunction with their utility for various human projects, elephants have also served as objects of fear and veneration, economic and political commodity, and as political and religious symbols. Within the socio-cultural contexts of these values and practices, the taming and training of elephants has been an integral component of the expertise required for systems of captive elephant management.

This paper uses the evolving history of captive elephant management in Nepal as a case study with which to critically consider key shifts and developments in training practices, from the capture of mature elephants from the wild, to the ritualised initiation of juvenile elephants bred in captivity. This is explored in relation to Nepal's shifting social and cultural context in which legal, demographic and attitudinal changes, both internally and externally derived, have necessitated abandonment and innovation in conventional elephant training practices. Also, subjected to a western gaze that alternately romanticises and condemns aspects of the human-elephant relation, Nepali elephant training practices have been recently subject to foreign interventions whose problematic representations of indigenous practice justify their involvement with disempowered subjects within under-funded management regimes. Such well-intentioned programmes raise profound questions regarding agency in policy-making practice as well as the critical understanding of training in relation to the theorisation of the human-elephant dynamic.

panel P15
Humans and other animals