Weaning and training: a discussion
by Prajna Chowta
Traditionnally, captive elephant calves were separated from their mothers and weaned at the age of 2 or sometimes earlier so that the mother could be put back to work and the calf could be trained and controlled. It was too early with possible traumatic consequences for both the calf and its mother. The mother's milk is essential for the growth and the development of the immune system, and suckling certainly has a role in the psychological balance of the animal. In natural conditions, calves suckle up to the age of 6. Experimentations undertaken at Aane Man's camp show that there are other ways to handle and vaccinate a calf of 2 or more without having to separate and wean it.
After 22 months of care of the mother during the gestation period 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 when the mother delivers another calf although they may continue to suckle along with the new calf or with a surrogate mother, so suckling may last until the age of 6.
The decision to separate Dharma temporarily from his mother and allomother at the age of 2 years and 5 months was taken in consideration of the following factors:
Exceptionally, Dharma has been suckling both his mother and allomother, 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, a temporary separation 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 4 weeks, an experienced mahout gave him an elementary training (human contact, voice, hand feeding, bathing and basic commands).
After the mahout had control control over the elephant, the calf was let back to its mother and allomother 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 a 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 4 weeks;
3) Social interaction with the mother is very important for the development of the animal's behaviour.
Dharma continued to suckle his two mothers until they delivered a new calf each 4 years later, after which they would not let him suckle anymore. He was 6 years and 4 months old. During these 4 years, the mahouts has a good control over the animal and he could be managed, vaccinated and treated safely.
For further information, refer to the Elephant Code Book
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