Maintaining full control over elephants is a key part of the mahout’s job. Beyond ensuring that work will be done properly and efficiently, full control ensures the safety of the mahout, the safety of other humans nearby, and even the safety of the elephant itself.

Controlling elephants divides into two categories, normal circumstances and when an elephant has gone out of control, whether from aggression (usually but not always when in musth), having escaped, or just out of panic. For regaining control of elephants, the normal tools are used but these are often supplemented with special equipment which is described at the end of the section.

Controlling elephants depends on three interrelated factors: (1) the level of training of the mahout, (2) the tools or equipment used, and (3) the best ways of using the tools. A weakness in any of these areas means that both safety and the elephant’s health are likely to be affected.

As for the quality of training of mahouts, there are disturbing signs that contemporary mahouts are losing many of the skills of the old days. This lack of skills is very likely to in the near future show up as poorer control of bull elephants, most of which are dangerous, at least part of the time. Training is, however, beyond the scope of this book.


All elephant tools are traditional, with an evolution of many centuries. The last big technological change was when chains were finally practical to use in place of rattan and ropes made from plants.




The hook [ankus, bull hook] is the mahout’s most important tool. It should be with him at all times wken he is with the elephant, and he should know how to use it in such a way as to not injure the elephant. Beginning mahouts should be repeatedly told that the real purpose of the hook is not to cause pain but rather to apply strong, clear pressure to very particular control points that the elephant has been trained to react to (stop, turn left, turn right, kneel, stand still, etc.). The hook also extends the mahout’s reach - like doubling the length of his arm.

The hook should be of a suitable size and design for the mahout’s hand and for the size and nature of the elephant. The head should be on tight, and the handle should be neither broken nor slippery. The point should not be so sharp as to easily pierce the skin of the elephant.


  • Never strike the elephant, especially its head, with the hook’s point.

  • Never, except for the most extreme emergencies, use the shaft of the hook to strike around the eyes or eyebrows, as this can cause injuries and even blindness.

  • Never use the point of the hook in the ear [auditory canal].

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