The unbreakable bonds

The Bond Between Mahouts and their Elephants

It’s a sad reality that elephants across the globe are forced to perform in gruelling, unnatural shows to entertain tourists. We’re making progress in elephant welfare but the ivory trade is still profitable, elephant habitats are destroyed every day, and poaching is common.

At Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, we believe in loving, healthy relationships between humans and elephants. We look at how Mahouts and their bonds with elephants are crucial to long-term elephant welfare and protection efforts.


‘Mahout’ is the term used to describe elephant caretakers. A sacred profession resulting from over a thousand years of bonds between human and elephants, Mahouts are respected for their devoted lifestyle and animal compassion. 

They specialise in ensuring the safety of their elephant companions, themselves and others in the area – at our sanctuary, we do not use all the tools available, given we do not compel our elephants to do anything unnatural to them. 

Can Elephants be Trained?

Elephants are remarkably intelligent. They can:

  • Use tools 
  • Communicate and express their feelings 
  • Mourn and develop deep bonds 
  • Even recognise their own reflection!

With their impressive capacity for learning, elephants can establish strong relationships with both humans and others in their family. Mahouts possess the skills, empathy and thoughtfulness to humanely train elephants to keep everyone safe.

How Mahouts and Elephants Work Together

Early Partnerships

Mahouts are often matched with an elephant early on in life. Given human and elephants have similar lifespans, these bonds can last throughout entire lives. By pairing a Mahout with a particular elephant, they grow up together and see each other as part of the family. This is crucial for ensuring the animal is well-treated and feels safe. It’s also important for establishing trust, so the elephant can be trained. 

Building Trust

As elephants are so intelligent, they pick up on many social cues – and can be triggered by anything they find unpleasant or unnatural to them. Mahouts can learn every facet of an elephant’s unique personality, in order to better understand its fears and difficulties. 

Awareness and Confidence

Because a Mahout earns an elephant’s trust and works with it for so long, he can help the elephant through adolescence and into adulthood – periods of transition which can spark:

  • Aggression
  • Unpredictability
  • Rash behaviour 
  • Changes and difficulties with the herd dynamic 

Mahouts can read their elephant and dissuade and control aggressive outbursts before they become a problem. Elephants can sense the Mahout’s calm and feel safer and less prone to stress or violence as a result. 

Tools and Learning

Elephant owners and handlers typically use tools such as hooks on elephants out of fear and a lack of confidence. They have no relationship with the elephant and this causes them to panic. The elephant, in turn, senses this panic and feels threatened, and it’s something of a vicious cycle. 

While Mahouts do traditionally use an array of tools to teach elephants, hooks and more dangerous objects are discouraged – Mahouts should have a strong enough bond with their elephant that they can calm it down and make it feel safe again. We are vehemently against using hooks or any such similar tools unless there’s an immediate danger to life. 

Natural Behaviours

Mahouts ensure elephants only partake in activities which are natural to them – this means tourist activities such as elephant rides should not take place. Here at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, riding is forbidden given the strain it puts on the elephant’s spine. 

Bathing is another such activity for domesticated elephants. Mahouts – and visitors! – can bathe elephants to help their skin cool down and most importantly to show the animal affection. 

Essentially, it is the bond between a Mahout and his elephant which leads to happier, healthier, safer elephants – it is our hope that more of those working with elephants will adopt these practices. 

About Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Founded in July 2014 and located close to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a joint initiative between Karen hill-tribes and Chiang Mai locals who expressed concerns over elephant welfare in the region. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, spread over 9 locations, is now home to over 30 elephants who previously suffered mistreatment. 

We promote sustainable, cruelty-free elephant eco-tourism to educate people across the Globe about the dangers faced by Asian elephants and what can be done to help them. It is the goal that one day, elephants will no longer be ridden. 

You can find out more about these efforts here. 

The Matriarch Project