Interview by Jaya Savannah, elephant conservationist and matriarch of SacredElephants.com
Erik Dettle’s short documentary Mahout: Changing Reigns explores the Gwi people, an ancient tribe of elephant keepers known as mahouts. In this interview with Jaya Savannah, he answers questions about the belief systems and practices of the mahouts, and the cultural changes they face as a result of ecological conservation efforts.
Jaya Savannah: Your film Mahout: Changing Reigns focuses on the Gwi tribe of Thailand and their cultural use of trained elephants. What are you hoping to accomplish through this work?
Erik Dettle: The goal of this film is to tell the story of an ancient culture that is quickly becoming extinct and to explore the evolving cultural context surrounding elephant husbandry in Thailand. I am much more a storyteller than an activist. But I do believe in the power of imagery and hope that this film will communicate the need to respect diversity (cultural and biological) and help illustrate the powerful link between human culture and natural conservation. I'm thankful that you have given me the opportunity to provide some background on this subject matter as I know that it is sensitive and because there is so much more to this story than could be included in this short film.
JS: How did you become aware of this topic, and what motivated you to document it?
ED: This film was in development for a long time. It took nearly two years of research to settle on exploring the relationship of man and elephant from the POV of the Gwi. Originally, it was the image of an Indian mahout and his elephant (I don't remember where I saw it) that first inspired me to start the research. I like telling that story because it is proof (however small) of the power of imagery to motivate action. In doing this research I found that there are many groups of people who identify as mahouts across India and Southeast Asia. But the Gwi are unique in that their ethnic identity, religious practices, rituals and even tribal languages have been shaped by their age-old relationship to elephants. The Gwi are well known throughout Asia for this. At first, my interest was to tell a simple, visually charged anthropological/ethnographic story. But as I got closer to the subject I realized there was much more there. I am generally interested in telling stories that take place at the crossroads where human culture and the natural world meet and sometimes clash. Further reading led me to realize that the story of the Gwi fit my interests quite well.
JS: Asian elephants are at risk due to habitat loss and ivory poaching, as are wild elephants everywhere. Yet another conservation issue affecting Asian elephants specifically is the capture of wild elephants to be used in Thai tourism and entertainment. Although it is no longer allowed, young calves are still being stolen from their herds and protective mothers and family members are killed. Did you see evidence or hear stories about where modern mahouts acquire their elephants?
ED: I did not hear any stories or see any evidence of calves being stolen from the wild while making this film. That is certainly not to say that it doesn't happen. In Thailand it is legal to buy and sell elephants, but each one is supposed to have paperwork showing its pedigree, like a birth certificate explaining its lineage in order to prove that it was not captured from the wild. Mahouts generally acquire elephants that have been bred in captivity through legal sales. But where there is a regulated market, there is often an illegal trade market to accompany it. However, the Gwi allegedly stopped capturing elephants from the wild sometime in the 1950's because of territorial altercations with the Khmer Rouge. Traditionally, the Gwi regarded elephant catching as a sacred activity and in the past it even dictated community hierarchy. Before one was allowed to capture elephants he must be considered an elephant shaman of particular rank and understand the legends, rituals, tools and languages that were unique to the Gwi elephant capturing experience. To me, one of the most interesting traditions of an elephant capturing expedition is the use of a “ghost language.” It is a language that is understood only by Gwi mahouts and was spoken exclusively during expeditions.
JS: What is the Prakam Rope and why is it such an important part of Gwi tradition?
ED: The Prakam Rope is a very important symbol of Gwi culture. It is a braided rope made up of buffalo hides, usually about 80 meters long with a loop on one end that was used for coralling wild elephants. Even though Gwi no longer capture wild elephants, every Gwi community has a shrine that is dedicated to keeping a sacred Prakam Rope. The rope is believed to be the spirit home of the mythical elephant shaman Phra Khru Prakram. The story goes that there was once a time when elephant expeditions did not require ritualistic practices. But that changed when a young Gwi man set out with his family to capture elephants. Tragedy struck this expedition twice: once when the man's son was dragged away by a mother elephant and again when his wife, who stayed back at camp, was eaten by a tiger. The man asked all of the elephant catchers to help find his son, and Phra Khru Prakram is the one who dedicated himself to the challenge. The story does not say what became of the man or his son but out of the search came the practices and rituals that for centuries would be associated with Gwi elephant expeditions and community structure.
JS: One of the elephant training tools seen throughout the film is the bull hook. Its use has been banned in some zoos and in cities such as Los Angeles, where the local ordinance disallows circuses to use them. Do you know what tools the Gwi used before the modern day steel bull hook was invented?
ED: I am unaware of a bull hook made from anything other than a combination of steel and hardened vines. People in this region have been using steel for over two thousand years and for centuries before that they would have used iron and/or bronze. Dare I say that I think too much focus is placed on the bull hook instead of the real problem - an instance of losing the forest for the trees. Ultimately, I believe that forcing elephants to perform is the issue.
JS: An ever-present visual element of the film was the heavy chains that beleaguered the necks and ankles of very sad looking elephants. Buddhist philosophy has given us the term “sentient beings” to describe living consciousness. How do the Gwi tribe view elephants in relation to humans?
ED: I can definitely see how there is some hypocrisy at play when a Buddhist would keep another “sentient being” captive. But, I can also see how this hypocrisy is not absolute nor is it unique to Buddhist mahouts of Thailand. There is often a disconnect between religious doctrines and the actions of its devotees. While it is true that Theravada Buddhism is now the religion of Thailand, that was not always the case. The Khmer Empire, which controlled most of Southeast Asia and built the Angkor temple complex, started as a Hindu society and followed the caste system for many centuries. Hinduism was present in Gwi territory as early as 300CE, and the Gwi still pay special respect to the Hindu elephant deity Ganesh. In Thailand elephants are mystical symbols, shrouded in superstition, with a link to both Hinduism and Buddhism. The elephant is also a national symbol, closely associated with the monarchy and has been inextricably linked to the culture of Thai people for thousands of years. But the animals themselves are legally considered livestock, simple commodities just like a domestic buffalo. It is up to the individual mahout to uphold the respected status of his elephant. Many do and many do not. It is not uncommon for a good mahout to spend more time caring for his elephant than with his family. Some mahouts have a lifelong relationship with their elephants that becomes a sacred bond. But the reverse is also true. For many mahouts, an elephant is simply a tool and/or a symbol of status, the western equivalent of a luxury automobile. Why the actions of some people do not wholly reflect their reverence or religious beliefs is a universal question that deals more with the nature of humankind than the rearing of elephants.
JS: Twenty five years ago, logging was banned in Thailand. A conservation success that forced the unemployment of several thousand elephants and mahouts. It is understandable that the mahouts and the elephants need to eat. Having their livelihood options thus limited, they transitioned to begging and busking. Yet like the human trafficking and drug trade tourism that plagues Thailand, elephant entertainment for tourists is not a victimless crime. The elephants are being mistreated and abused. Although it would take away the little that remains of the mahouts’ livelihoods, I believe that intervention is needed. A core part of your philosophy seems to be giving local voices a chance to speak on global issues that may be decided for them. What is your position on intervening in the behalf of elephants in Thailand?
ED: I'm very glad you asked me this question as the issue of “intervening” is a hot and complicated one that I do have particular feelings on. I would urge anyone to understand that superimposing a foreign will on another's culture is not the best approach as is exemplified time and time again on the international stage in many ways. The elephant welfare issue in Thailand is complex with many cultural and economic nuances at play. Simply showing up and coercing others to honor foreign beliefs will do very little. Everything is interconnected, and the problems facing mahouts and captive elephants have real-life, tangible causes. It behooves anyone interested in elephant welfare to understand the cultural, ecological and economical catalysts that have led to the problems with elephant captivity in Thailand. I believe that helping the local people enact solutions to those problems with their own hands is the best way to intervene. There is a project in the Gwi village of Ban Tha Klang that is doing this well. “The Surin Project is a new and innovative project focused on finding solutions to the challenges faced by mahouts and their elephants in Surin province in North-Eastern Thailand. It is committed to improving the living conditions of Asian elephants and providing sustainable economic revenue for their mahouts in the local community.” surinproject.org
JS: Your previous film Wastrel: Cast Out in Kisumu was filmed in the slums of Kenya. What is the next project on your horizon?
ED: Since making these documentaries I produced/shot a promotional film for the Rainforest Fund which played at Sting's Concert for the Rainforest at Carnegie Hall in NYC and I have provided cinematography for hire on independent documentaries and television programs. I plan to continue exploring ancient cultures and their evolving relationships to the natural world. In particular, I am interested in the culture of Nepalese Sherpas and how their relationship to the Himalayas may or may not have been affected by tourism and globalization. I also plan to continue working as a cinematographer for hire and would love to collaborate.
All photos © Erik Dettle.