Elephant Engima

Veterinarian and photographer Dag Goering is the co-founder with his wife author Maria Coffey in the adventure touring business Hidden Places Travel. For many years he’s worked at combining his love of travel with the care and protection of animals.

“It all started with Camels really,” he said in an interview. “I was very interested in doing longer journeys across the Sahara with the Tuaregs.”

The Tuaregs are a nomadic people who travel across the deserts of Northern Africa on caravans of camels. So Goering tried to find a way to come along.

“I thought as a veterinarian, that’s my background I could bone up on some camel medicine,” he said. “And that might make me useful.”

So he did some researched and someone suggested that he go to Bikaner in India, a desert region of Rajasthan. There he hoped to learn a few thing about camels. But he was surprised to discover that camels weren’t as popular as he thought.
“Everyone said, “well ‘Camels? Why are you interested in Camels? Camels are nasty animals.’” Goering said. “ And after working there for a couple of weeks in the clinic with camels I came to the conclusion they are indeed nasty animals.

Unfortunately, he didn’t learn very much. And disappointed but not discourage Goering decided to stay in India and travel. Along the way he wound up working with a non-profit organization that does volunteer veterinary medicine for camels dogs and other animals.

“And at one point we were called out to examine this newly born elephant,” he said. “So I was in the presence of all these magnificent large animals in these stables, elephant stables, and it was such a profound experience I just came home and said Maria I just want to work with elephants!”

Making the shift from camels to elephants Goering and his wife Maria Coffey began focusing their attention on the care and treatment of elephants. Through their non profit Elephant Earth Initiative to two work now to protect the habitats of elephants in the wild and their welfare among humans in captivity the couple raise awareness for the plight elephants both in Asia and in Africa

“There are huge issues to do with the welfare of captive elephants. One of the things that we bring across  in our presentation is how captive elephants are trained, are broken and then how they’re kept after that, the welfare issues about that. Most people just have no idea of the cruelty that’s inflicted upon captive elephants,” Coffey said. “ And then of course in the wild, like any mega-fauna they’re being hugely effected by population growth, by the loose of habitat, the growth of human elephant conflict. In many places around the world it’s becoming a very big issue. Elephants are very important to us and to world as a whole. Doug and I passionately believe that we have to do what we can to help preserve them.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Goering and Coffey during the 2011 Banff Mountain Film Festival in Alberta Canada. There they had on display an amazing assortment of elephant photographs that help to tell the story behind this magnificent but endangered animal in the presentation they call Elephant Enigma.
In your presentation I heard you say that the eye of an elephant is like looking into orb into another world. And a lot of that imagery comes out in many of your photographs. What is it about the eye of an elephant that is so transformational?

Well it is a bit difficult to describe. I think there is a strange energy, you know elephants don’t have expressive faces. They’re not like dogs. Dogs can sort of grimes or smile. But elephants don’t have that kind of musculature. So when you look at their faces they don’t really move that much, but the eyes are more expressive. It’s not like other animals’ eyes. It’s more like the eye of a whale if anyone has ever experienced that, I could just compare it to that. And it really is like…you just know that there’s something pretty profound going on behind that. You know that there’s this energy coming off of that . It seems that there are thoughts and emotions that are kind of beyond our comprehension.

You have a complete installation here at the Banff Center. And the elephant photography that you bring to this exhibit I would imagine helps to very articulately tell the story true pictures. I wonder what it is that these images are inspired to convey. For example this is that eye of the elephant. What do we want to come away with when we see something like this?

Well I guess the challenges is how do you convey the magnificence of an animal like that, especially such a large animal with little photographs that you put on the wall? It’s a real challenge. And that’s why I guess I’ve chosen to break it up into initially just to find one photo that felt managed to bring across that depth and that feeling that there’s something behind that eye. I took a lot of photographs. It’s not easy to…I took a lot of photographs of elephant eyes and before I got this one right, to give it that kind of expressive look. But I think it’s really…what I wanted to show little many aspects of the elephant in the end to have to give people the imagine of the elephant, not just a visual image but an image on an emotional level.

Maria you and I were talking yesterday about the cruelty in terms of the training mechanisms that are used to break the elephant’s will in order to get them to do the things that we want them to do, but you also suggested that there are more humane alternatives. First of all, why do we need more humane alternatives and at the end of the day what do we want to ultimately have as our relationship with elephants.

Well I think that if anyone saw images or really found out about how an elephant is broken they would realize that there is a need an alternative. The elephant is taken away from its mother at about three years old elephants are extremely social creatures and so when they’re kept in isolation it’s as terrible for them as it is for us. So the little elephant is completely isolated from any other elephants. It’s heavily tied up. It’s not given any food or water for days on end. It’s taunted. It’s tortured. It’s poked with sticks. Firecrackers are set off in front of it. It’s a really Goering inhumane, cruel process. And the whole aim of it is to completely break the little creature. And eventually when it’s broken, psychologically and physically broken then one of the keepers will give it some kindness. It’s just like the Stockholm syndrome. It’s the removal of abuse is seen as a kindness and that creates a bond between the prisoner and its keeper. So it’s a truly horrible method of breaking an animal that is as emotionally complex as we are. So I think we can also see it in human terms. We can relate to it on that level.
It’s it indeed possible to use more humane…what kind of methods might be used instead?

Well there are new training methods that have been around, that have been developed by, interestingly enough, by psychologists and behavioral scientists in the US since the 50s. They use basically operand training methods. What it means is it uses only positive reinforcement. Absolutely no punishment. And by doing that, you just have to be…what’s important in the whole process is timing and consistency. You basically…the elephant learns that a certain word signifies that a reward is forthcoming. Or it could be a sound. It’s also called clicker training in dogs. If the animal hears this click or certain cue word it knows, that’s a reward in itself because it knows it’s going to get a treat. Very complex actions can be broken down into small steps. And basically you train each small step. You just keep showing the animal that anything that fulfills that first small step is rewarded. So you just keep building up what can be a very complex action. But it takes time. It take consistency. But it also makes for a very health relationship between animals and humans because it’s not twisted. There’s no fear involved in it. And animals also enjoy it. That’s another interesting aspect. They actually enjoy the challenge of learning these new things. So it’s an all around win-win situation.

So when it comes to building that relationship between elephants and humans, in your travel business when you take tourists to areas where they can interact with and visit with elephants, do you have an opportunity to demonstrate to these tourists that there is a better alternative?

We talk to them a lot about the issues. The different alternatives are something that we’re going to be working on introducing to different parts of South East Asia. So no we can only do it through Dag explaining the methods.

What we do is take people to places where animals are kept in a relatively traditional and humane way. In a sense we take them to for example, there’s one village in Laos where elephants are basically let free over night in a forested area. So they’re free to mingle with other elephants. They’re free to breed wherever they want to wander and they’re collected in the morning again. And nowadays very few elephants have that kind 12-hour-a-day freedom. And that’s a huge positive thing, so we try to…So that’s where we go. We visit this village. We do some elephant rides there, but they’re not the kind of rides with a houda on the back. We do the riding on the neck which is better for elephant. But we’re trying to support that village because if they don’t have any monetary benefit to keeping their elephants in a traditional way, they will sell their elephants. And they’ll wind up in a tourist camp with a hundred elephants that are maltreated.

And it’s interesting in this village, because there is a long tradition of mahoutmanship there. They used to keep elephants for having them in the fields and they still do that but they started this little tourist business of taking the occasional tourist, it’s really off the beaten track and they take them up to these ruins of a temple. And they built this road up to this temple so these poor elephants were plodding up this hot road with no shade. When we arrived, when Dag and I first went there and said why not take the tourist through the forest and why not have them o the neck, rather than sticking them in the houda, you know the great big seat at sits on the elephant’s back. It’s almost like they thought they had to do it this way for the tourists. And first time we took a group in there and we went through the forest and think the mahouts really enjoyed…they elephants really enjoyed it because they were in the forest. They were in the shade, they could browse along the way. When we went to the temple they could just hang out in the shade of the trees. It was just saying to people you can do it this way, even though all the other tourist operations do it that way. There’s a much better way for the elephants. And tourists will enjoy it a lot more ultimately.

I think what we try to do, even though we’re animal welfare activists, we try to…we’re not the ones with placards blocking the gate, but we’re working in the background showing people options. Sometimes it’s small steps only. But think as a veterinarian I have a bit of authority there. I know what I’m talking about when it comes to animal welfare. And I can also get the trust of local people to give them preferential options. It takes two sides. It take a bit of pressure and it takes someone also to present better options.

So if you were to imagine a perfect world , based on the work that you’re doing now relative to circumstance as they are today, what would future for elephant habitat and safety preservation look like?

Wow! That’s a big question. Well I can’t really imagine. It’s never going to be a perfect world, right? It’s a really tough one, because we still have…The problem is there are bigger problems afoot here. It’s not just elephants. It’s about humans. It’s about population growth. It’s about…in the end it’s about poverty. It’s about people not having options, therefore having lots of kids, having no economic opportunities. A lot of it is that. As soon as people have economic opportunities and a more secure future they’re typically birthrates drop dramatically. They don’t keep encroaching onto elephant property. A lot of this lies with how do we help humans. that’s where it all really comes down to.

If you want to learn more about the plight of elephants in the wild or maybe even see them them up close check Goering and Coffey’s travel company online. Visit hiddenplaces.net

Music this week by the Conductive Alliance and Jason Shaw


The Joy Trip Project is possible with the support of sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company. And special thanks to the Walton Works who helped to underwrite travel expenses to Banff so I could bring back this and other great stories. Visit thewaltonworks.com

Thanks for listening. But you know I want to hear from you. So please drop me a note with your questions comments and criticisms to info@joytripproject.com.

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

  • I really enjoyed this podcast, James. Finally had the chance to listen to it today! Thanks for raising awareness of such an important issue. I missed the film festival last year, so appreciated this recap of their exhibit.