About the author
Dr Piers Locke is a social anthropologist and expert in human-animal relations. He is the co-author of the edited volume, Conflict, Negotiation, Co-existence: Rethinking Human-Elephant Relations in South Asia, and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

The warm breath from her probing trunk was such a delight. Every morning Sitasma would greet me in this way, detecting my familiar smell as I allowed her to coil her agile proboscis around me. Being touched by this incredible appendage that can lift, manipulate, explore, and caress, had become part of a ritual of trusting intimacy.  After this tactile exchange we would be ready to commence our day as companions in kinesthetic union, human and elephant knowingly responding to each other as they roamed across the rivers, jungles, and grasslands of southern Nepal. Being able to sit on Sitasma’s neck, in a situation of sensorial communication as I applied my bare toes to the backs of her flapping ears was a privilege I shall always treasure.

Sitasma Kali and her two-year old son Kha Prasad lived at the Khorsor Elephant Breeding Center on the edge of the Chitwan National Park. I had only recently been granted permission to join her care team, and only gradually mastered the skilled practices of interspecies cooperation that enable humans to live and work with elephants. I was residing at this special facility as an anthropologist, investigating captive elephant management in lowland Nepal by means of participant observation, the raison d’etre of ethnographic research. Here was a community comprising two cooperating species whose collaborative work was crucial for managing the protected area of Chitwan and facilitating conservation research within it. I had assumed that my research subjects would be exclusively human and I expected to treat the elephants merely as the objects of the mahouts’ custodial labor. That seemed appropriate for a social scientist such as myself. However, my experience forced me to revise that view, revealed as inadequate for understanding a social world where both humans and elephants exercised subjective agency in deeply interconnected ways.

This became most acutely evident when the chief handler of the stable assigned me to Sitasma and her human care team, telling me I could never understand mahouts and what they did unless I experienced it for myself. I could not agree more, and this represented everything I had hoped for. After all, apprenticeship is about mastering practical skills acquired through experience. In this case however, it also involved mastering a relationship that one must forge with a living being both different from and similar to ourselves. I was fortunate that Sitasma proved so willing to accept me, because as a foreign novice I’m sure I initially seemed like a particularly clumsy and stupid human attendant. Consequently, it was not just Sitasma’s senior mahout Ram Ekval but also Sitasma herself who served as my mentor. While Ram Ekval could provide explanations and demonstrations, monitoring and correcting me as we performed daily routines, it was my interpersonal engagement with Sitasma that was most crucial to my apprenticeship. Being a good mahout was all about knowing your elephant, and your elephant knowing you. It was about the mutual attunement of bodies and selves. And herein lied the challenge to the basic operating procedures of my academic discipline- like the mahouts around me, I found myself treating elephants as nonhuman persons, an approach which both anthropologists and biologists have traditionally shied away from for fear of committing the “scientific sin” of anthropomorphism.

And yet it was by treating elephants as thinking, feeling beings, with preferences, dispositions, and particular biographies that working life in the stable was possible. Negotiating similarity and difference in the context of elephants’ subordination to human purposes was not without its tensions though. While it seemed like elephants were people too, and while some aspects of the interspecies relationship displayed idyllic qualities of companionship, elephants were also treated like animals subject to human domination. Elephants were not always cooperative, not always obedient, and sometimes conflict ensued, occasionally even resulting in an elephant killing its handler. At Khorsor, I am happy to report that this was very rare and that consideration for the welfare of elephants was always of paramount concern, quite a contrast to other situations of captivity in other places.

In time I came to appreciate the significance of cultural conceptions in this tradition of captive elephant management. Sponsored by the state for facilitating regal hunting expeditions and conducting elephant capture for trade, captive elephant management had developed over hundreds of years as a profession of the local Tharu people, and in the twentieth century was deployed for protected area management and ecotourism. I realized that Nepali mahouts dealt with the ambivalent moral aspects of living with elephants by thinking of them as animals, as persons, and as gods. Contrary to the either/or inclinations of Western logic, I found that elephants could at times be more or less one thing or the other while simultaneously being all three. Different duties, contexts, and places provided an indicative guide to whether a mahout would be relating to his elephant as an inferior animal, an equal companion, or a superior god. In the evenings, in times of exclusively human interaction, when the elephants were at their posts at the perimeter of the stable, mahouts were most prone to talk about their elephants as animals. In the forests and rivers, while grazing and bathing, mahouts would be most likely to relate to their elephants as fellow companions. At other times however, during the ritual process of elephant training, or more frequently, when showing ritual respect to one’s elephant as an instantiation of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity, mahouts would relate to their elephants as inferior devotees to a superior god.

I had no doubt that reverence served as a balancing corrective to domination, a relational stance ultimately ill suited to the health and safety of mahouts, and the wellbeing of elephants. And I had no doubt that these cultural conceptions were integral to the maintenance of cordial and effective relations between humans and elephants. The enclaved space of the stable represented a total social world for its human and elephant inhabitants, in which interspecies relations presented the most profound challenge for cultural order and meaning. By adopting these cultural perspectives and participating in this social world through my apprenticeship with Sitasma, I found myself loving her as a person, respecting her as divine, while also recognizing her qualities as an animal other. With Sitasma I was able to appreciate what it meant to be a mahout, a key figure in the history of human-elephant relations, a history that stretches back millennia through the use of elephants as technology of war, as symbol of political prestige, as commodity for exchange, as vehicle for labor, and more besides.

All photos in this piece taken by the author, Piers Locke (pictured above)