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NEW ROLE FOR AFRICAN ELEPHANTS: WORK : EXPERTS SAY UNTRAINABILITY IS JUST A MYTH.

Byline: Suzanne Daley The New York Times

In Asia, the elephant is used for all manner of labor, perhaps most notably for hauling logs in areas where tractors cannot go. But Africans have traditionally steered clear of their elephants, a bigger, more skittish breed that kills people every year and is widely believed to be untameable.

So it was not all that surprising that the visitors from Zimbabwe's Institute of Agriculture Engineering kept a good distance and even a car or a tree between themselves and Nyasha recently when the 4-1/2-ton, 10-foot-tall adolescent elephant was busy plowing.

``It is looking as though it is not pulling anything, and those furrows are very deep,'' said Basilio Chikwanda, a teacher at the Harare-based institute who had brought nine students to the spectacle. ``As a source of power it is quite interesting.'' Then he stepped behind a car.

The owners of the Imire Game Park here have started an unusual effort to train their six young elephants to work. Already, their rangers ride the enormous beasts on anti-poaching patrols around the 7,000-acre park.

``A chap on an elephant sees a lot further in the bush than when he's just on the ground.'' said Peter Musavaya, 22, the ranger in charge of the training. ``And it makes quite an impression on the poachers.''

The elephants also cart tourists around. And while the plowing is still in its early stages, people here expect the elephants to prepare the fields for next year's feed crops.

The game park business is competitive these days and it does not hurt to have such a novelty. But the owner of the Imire Game Park, Norman Travers, is also hoping that his experiment catches on elsewhere.

In much of southern Africa, there is no shortage of elephants, and in some parts their overbrowsing is causing ecological damage that threatens other species, not to mention extensive damage to crops and risk to the farmers and their families when hungry elephants stray from their reserves. Whether culling is necessary is a constant debate.

``How can we make use of the surplus rather than kill them?'' Travers asked. ``Can we maybe see a future for them through this? Using them for anti-poaching - to me, that is ideal.''

Despite the widespread belief that African elephants are untrainable, zoo keepers and circus trainers say they are actually more intelligent than their Indian relatives and, with patience, quite trainable. They point out that Hannibal rode African elephants over the Alps and into battle with the Romans.

``If you draw a parallel with a horse, the African elephant would be like the Arabian thoroughbred - sensitive, very bright,'' said Jim Stockley, a South Africa-based trainer who has prepared African elephants for circuses, zoos and movies.

At Imire, the training system is love and reward, which means lots of talking, stroking and food. ``Our basic rule is to never hurt the elephant,'' Musavaya said. ``If you do something he thinks is unfair, if you hit him or don't feed him, he'll remember. And one day he'll bonker you.''

The training starts off by naming a part of the body - literally pointing out a leg, saying ``leg'' and lifting your own dozens of times.

``He'll look at you for two days, thinking, what's this all about?'' Musavaya said. ``But on maybe the third day he'll lift that leg just a little bit. That's when you shove his mouth full of oranges and pat him all over and give him lots of praise. The next day he'll be lifting that leg way up.''

Plowing took a bit longer. Travers has documented the first efforts on his home video system, and he is glad to show them off. ``Not exactly the straightest of furrows,'' Travers narrates over equally wobbly camera work. ``But for the first time ever, it's really not so bad.''

A big drawback to putting elephants to work is how much they eat - up to 500 pounds of forage a day. A tractor would cost less. But at Imire, the tourists pay the bills, and when it comes to what they would rather ride or see plowing the fields, an elephant will always beat a tractor.

Stockley said that as the elephants grow older they must be handled particularly carefully during certain periods of enhanced sexual drive, known as musth. Some people fear that when the trained elephants reach sexual maturity, at about age 20, they will become too ornery for domestic work, and the problem of whether to kill them, retire them to their holding pens or release them back to the wild will arise again.

But basically he applauds the program. ``For elephants in captivity, work may actually enhance their lives,'' he said.

Finding young men willing to work with the elephants wasn't all that easy. When the Travers family first went looking for trainers, they did not get much response from the local community. But in a poor country a job is a job, and Morris Mukara, 20, was one of those who stepped forward.

Was he scared? ``At first, I was a bit worried,'' he said, ``but due to courage, everything was all right.''

Nowadays, the trainers like to ride the elephants into town and park them in front of the local grocery store.

``It really impresses the girls,'' Musavaya said.

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Photo

Photo: Elephants in Zimbabwe's Imire Game Park are trainedto plow fields and go on anti-poaching patrols.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 11, 1996
Words:910
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