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Methods of Elephant Capture.
Sanskrit literature lists five methods of capturing wild elephants in the following order of suitability:
1. In pens or stockades (called Khedda).
2. By the means of female decoys.
3. Mela Shikar or lassoing of elephants.
4. By nooses concealed on the ground.
5. Pit method – trapping them in drop pits.

Over a period of time each of these methods came to be associated with certain areas of the country. They also evolved over time with differences due to adaptations to local conditions. Before we discuss these methods we need to familiarize ourselves with the terms used to describe the various players.
Koonki – tame elephant trained for elephant catching.
Mahout – elephant rider.
Phandi – professional elephant nooser.
Kamla – grass cutter.

1. Pens or stockades
The capturing of elephants in pens or stockades is also known as Khedda and is the most widely known method. The word Khedda is derived from the Hindi word khedna which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit khet which means to drive. In this method wild elephants were literally driven into a pen or stockade.
The original method as practiced in Northern India by the people loosely termed ‘Aryan‘was a simple large space enclosed by a circular trench. The trench was usually thirty feet wide and twenty four feet deep. The excavated soil was thrown up into a steep bank on the outside. The only entrance was a bridge covered with a deep layer of earth, turf and leaves strong enough to take the weight of elephants. Female decoy elephants were kept in the enclosure. Men kept a watch from hiding places in the bank of earth and once a wild herd entered the enclosure they would demolish the bridge thus effectively trapping the herd. The trapped herd would be kept without food and water and after a while the bridge would be rebuilt and domesticated elephants introduced to subdue the wild herd.
This system evolved through the ages and the latter additions were walls, the trench merely served as reinforcement, bridges were replaced by gates and instead of using decoys, wild elephants were driven in.
The wooden stockades evolved differently in different areas. In the north a simple stockade wall with a trench on the inside was used. In eastern India, due to the softer nature of the soil, a palisade wall was used to reinforce the trench. Further east in Burma the nature of the soil was unsuited to trenching and only a stockade was used. A platform ran all along the top of the wall where men with spears protected the wall from the ravages of the captives. This method is also practiced by the Khamtis of Assam who are of Shan decent. An interesting case of cultural influences in elephant capture. The Karens of Burma used a simple stockade with a pair of gently tapering funnel walls which ended at a thick tree. The elephants would be driven into the gully and cut off by drop gates and then secured to the side walls. In India this method became synonymous with the eastern part of the country especially Assam.
In Assam the size of the stockade did not exceed the size of a tennis court and were circular in shape. The walls were built with comparatively flimsy jungle wood poles but were well braced with cross members and strengthened from the outside with heavy poles. The base was buried deep and backed up by the earth excavated from the V shaped trench which ran all around the inside. No nails were used in the construction and all lashing were of cane. The stockades were usually placed near salt licks or elephant paths. There was a difference in the stockade erected along elephant path. These had two gates facing in opposite directions with a pair of funnel walls for each gate and often two stockades, one leading into another was built to accommodate large catches. Another feature of the Assam method is that koonkis were not used. Men in small contingent of approximately twenty five were used to drive the elephants into the stockade. At times elephants were driven in from long distances. Parties of men would keep the herd on the move without stampeding it. Once near the stockade the herd would be moved constantly within a specified area called the surround, which was demarcated by a cleared trace. This was called kukker shikar or dog tracking. The final drive into the stockade would always be done during the night as it was easier for the men to accomplish this task in the dark. The method employed for stockades situated near salt licks was different. There were no drives over long distances instead a waiting game was played. Watchers were placed strategically on machans overlooking the salt licks. Once a herd was sighted these men would descend and warn the others. These men would then drive the herd into the stockade, again during the night, using torches made of dry wood/ bamboo. Men on holding lines would guide the herd into the stockade. The final drives were always done at night because it was impossible for small bands of men to manage it during the day.
As mentioned earlier this method over time was practiced in the eastern part of the country and also in Burma. However this method was introduced with various modification to other parts as well, the most famous of which was the Mysore state.
In south India the Pit method of capture, which we shall describe later, was widely used, Khedda was virtually unknown. The first person to try and capture elephants in this way was Hyder Ali, the father of Tipu Sultan, in the seventeenth century. He was unsuccessful and no further attempts were made. The British were the first to try again and an attempt by Col. Pearson, a British Army officer in 1867 also resulted in failure. The next to try was another British officer, this time from the Canal or Irrigation Department, named G.P.Sanderson. He had no previous experience in capturing elephants he was however interested and knowledgeable in the habits of wild elephants. After repeated representations which were supported by his superior, the Mysore Government in 1873 undertook to capture wild elephants and he was put in charge. He was successful in his second attempt in 1874 at a place called Kardihalli. In 1875 he was put in charge of the Elephant Catching establishment at Dhaka for a period nine months. On his return from Dhaka he perfected the khedda system in Mysore. He is said to have taken experienced elephant men from Dhaka who formed the main stay of the operation .In time the Kuruba tribals and others learnt the art of elephant driving.
The Mysore Khedda especially the Kakankote Kheddas were very different from the Assam Khedda. The Mysore Kheddas were large undertakings which required a large number of men and koonkis. Wild elephant herds had to be brought in from long distances and were moved in stages and held when necessary in position until the exact time when they would be driven into the stockade in full view of distinguished guests. This involved months of planning and preparation and large contingents of men and koonkis, as many as forty koonkis and a thousand men would be used. The size of the stockade would extend over five acres. It was a very expensive operation and a far cry from the almost cottage industry kheddas of Assam. The unique feature of a Kakankote khedda was the river drive which was first designed and carried out by G.P.Sanderson in honour of The Grand Duke of Russia during his visit to Mysore in 1891. In the river drive the elephants were driven across the Kabini river into the stockade and this proved to be a popular spectacle with special visitors gallery being set up to allow people to witness the grand finale of a Kakankote khedda. The only other elephant capturing operation that could compare with the Mysore Kheddas as a spectacle were those of Thailand. Here too the Khedda method was of ancient origin and was staged every few years near the city of Ayuthia. It is interesting to note that the kraal method of capturing elephants as practiced in Sri Lanka is comparable to that of Mysore and Thailand. We shall discuss the Sri Lankan methods later.

2. Female Decoys.
This was considered to be one of the most dangerous ways to capture elephants as it was used to capture large males. The system was used in South India especially in the Mysore area. Highly trained female koonkis were used as decoys. Once a large solitary male elephant was located, the female decoys with men concealed in blankets on their necks would be sent out to graze next to it. In time the male, especially if he was in musth, would become completely enamored of the decoys. Every time the male would try to rest the decoys would move off compelling the male to follow. Over a period of time, with several changes of koonkis done away from him, he would he reduced to a stage of drowsiness and his hind legs would be secured. He was then allowed to vent his anger and exhaust himself. Once exhausted his neck would be lassoed and he would be led away to be trained.
The Ahoms of Assam also used female decoys to capture elephants but their method was radically different. A permanent trench was dug from the Naga Hills. It ran in a straight line to near their old capital, Rangpur near Sibsagar. It was deep but only sufficiently wide to allow one elephant to enter at a time. It had drop gates at intervals for cutting off and impounding elephants as they entered following the decoys. The decoys were fed on diet of special food and medicines as laid down in the Hastiputhis. These decoys emitted a peculiar and strong smell that would attract elephants especially males from a great distance.

3. Mela Shikar or lassoing of elephants.

Mela Shikar or the lassoing / noosing of wild elephants from the back of trained elephants is a method that is employed In Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In India it is most widely practiced in Assam. The basic team consists of three men, besides the koonki or trained elephant. The Phandi who does the actual lassoing, the Mahout who controls the koonki and the Kamala or grass cutter who sees to the needs of the koonki. A man usually starts at the bottom i.e. as a grass cutter and eventually makes his way up to become a Phandi.
During Mela Shikar, the Mahout’s place is at the rear end of the saddle pad and not in front as is usually the case. He holds on to a sling with one hand and uses the other free hand to goad and control the speed of the koonki. The lassoing of the wild elephant and intricate maneuvering of the koonki is done by the Phandi. The hunt is usually carried out in small parties so that they can help each other in case of trouble. The hunt starts early in the morning with the tracking of wild elephant herds. The men communicate with each other with the help of signs and low whistles. Once a herd is spotted they approach is made silently and swiftly, avoiding any bulls that might happen to be with the herd. Young elephants are the target with young females being most in demand, followed by young tuskers. Occasionally large tuskers are also sought, Makhanas are usually avoided. This preference is based on the market value of the various types of elephants.
Top class koonkis, without instructions from their mahouts, use their trunk, head, legs and body to frustrate any attempts by the captive to escape. Once the wild elephant is noosed the Phandi will haul in the slack and tie a check rope to the noose. This is done to avoid strangling the captive. The captive is then tied to the koonki, on the side where the phand or rope is attached to the koonki’s girth rope.
There are specific rules about the art of managing the koonki, the method of handling and tying of the phand. Even the way of folding the phand on the koonki’s back is prescribed. While the rules are laid down it is experience and a long apprenticeship coupled with intelligence and deftness that produces an excellent Phandi. A Phandi relies on his experience and intelligence to govern the instantiations pulling upward of the noose when he drops it over the elephants head, bringing it up tight without allowing the elephant to use its trunk to grab it , pulling in the phand swiftly at the correct moment , when to allow the koonki to go along with the captive and when to stop it, and the final tying of the check rope when the captive is under control. It is therefore no surprise that the Phandis occupy the top echelons among the elephant men.
The capture of solitary males, especially those that are young and powerful is the ultimate test for a Phandi and a Phandi that brings in such an animal earns great kudos. At times when such animals are very powerful and put up a fight more than one koonki and phand are used, this is called Dohar or Tehar (two or three). In such cases all the koonkis involved share in the catch. Often teams of Phandis worked together to capture larger numbers of individual elephants in a practice known as Byle Shikar.

A similar method used to be practiced in Nepal. It was called Pitha Shikar. In this method solitary elephants are chased over great distances by small and fast koonkis until exhaustion. The exhausted elephant would usually take refuge in a swamp or a water body. If the elephant was small enough it would be noosed around the neck, if it was too large then its hind legs would be secured by a figure of 8 rope by men. A long trailing rope would be attached and the animal allowed to roam free. He is watched by the koonkis and when exhausted by his attempts to free himself he is finally noosed over the head and secured.

Among the Mois of Indonesia, noosing was a sport rather than an economic activity. Ropes of buffalo hide or leather were used. These were fixed to the end of a ten foot pole and fastened to a double cane band around the koonki’s body. The noose at the end would be slipped not around the head but the hind leg of the wild elephant.

A unique method evolved in the Kampang-Thom area of Cambodia. Here instead of nooses, harpoons would be used. In this method elephant herds were prevented from returning to the hills at the end of the dry season and confined to low lying areas. When the rains arrived and flood levels were at their peak, canoes would move into action and the elephants would be harpooned through their ear flaps. The harpooned elephants would be tied to the branch of a tree on which men would be stationed to watch over it. The elephants were forced to swim or they would drown. To prevent it from drowning a rope would be passed under its stomach to support it. Once the water receded the exhausted elephant would be taken to a training camp.

4. By nooses concealed on the ground.
Another method employed is to conceal nooses on the ground, the aim being to noose one of the hind legs of a passing elephant. The best exponents of this art were to be found in Ceylon or Sri Lanka as it is now called. The exponents of this art are the Panikkans. Ropes of rawhide mode form deerskin about twenty five long are spread on the ground , about a inch or two below the surface of the soil , with the other end anchored to a tree. The men would conceal themselves behind trees and secure the hind legs of elephants as they passed. There is another method employed by the Panikkans in which a party of men lies in wait for a herd. Once the herd is sighted they attempt to stampede it. A young elephant is selected and chased and the noose is slipped over a hind leg and the other end is secured to a tree. The elephant falls down and the second leg is noosed after which the neck is also noosed. This method on noosing elephants on foot is probably the most difficult and dangerous off all the methods. The Panikkans of Sri Lanka had perfected the art and made it their own.

5. Pit method – trapping them in drop pits.
This is by far the most primitive method of capturing wild elephants and practiced widely in South India. Pits would be dug in areas frequented by elephants. The site for the pit had to be level. The pits were twelve feet square and twelve feet deep and tapering to nine feet at the bottom. Depending on the soil type some pits were as deep as fifteen feet. The bottom of the pit would be lined with a thick layer of brushwood about four to five feet thick and with a top layer of grass tied in bundles, about two feet thick to cushion the fall of the animal. The mouth of the pit would be covered with a criss- cross of split bamboo over which a layer of grass and leaves would be spread. The excavated earth would be removed to a distance and camouflaged with the surroundings. The pit would be inspected daily and once an animal was trapped the information would be relayed and koonkis would arrive to remove the captive at the earliest. Care was taken to remove the captive within twenty four hours. In case this was not possible, a shelter would be constructed to protect the captive from the sun.
Once caught, water would be poured over the captive to keep it cool, and drinking water would be provided via a bamboo tube. The captive would be disturbed as little as possible. Ropes would be used to remove the captive from the pit and the size of the noose would be calculated on the basis that the neck of an elephant is 7/8 th its height. A peg would be driven trough the rope to prevent strangulation. Two or three logs would be placed across the top to allow men move about. The noose would be kept open with the aid of hooked sticks and a white cloth dangled over the elephants head. When the elephant would try and reach for the cloth with its trunk, the noose would be lowered over its head and around its neck. After noosing the neck, one of the hind legs would be secured. These ropes would be fastened to koonkis and the pit would be filled with bundles of wood and grass and the captive would scramble out.
The captive was then marched in easy stages to the training area which was a corral of 12 feet square. Once secured in the enclosure all ropes would be removed and the animal would be treated kindly and given continuous attention which would eventually tame it. It was acknowledged that the captive elephants in the south were mush better treated, cared for and looked after than anywhere else in the world.

By the end of the Second World War the demand for elephants slowly died down and with the decline in demand the elephant catching industry went into decline. In time the elephant was declared a protected animal and capturing them from the wild became illegal. Today elephant capture is used as tool to manage problem individuals and is carried out by the Forest Departments of various states, which still maintain a large number of them. The days of the professional elephant capturer are over and it seem that with the further passage of time the art of elephant capture will die a natural death.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 3rd, 2012 03:09 am (UTC)
Elephant Capturing History in Assam from 1948
Hi Vikram,

Nice to see posts online regarding elephant capture and training methods!

I am PhD student researching human-elephant relations in Assam and I am always on the look out for information regarding the history of elephant capture in the region. Milroy, Stracey and a few other colonialist authors provide good resources for this interest, however post WWII info is a little harder to get. There were a number of elephant capturing operations still present and it would be interesting to trace the shifts in the elephant trade from the colonial period to it's ultimate ban in India.

Do you have any resources you might be able to recommend?



Edited at 2012-12-03 03:18 am (UTC)
Dec. 3rd, 2012 04:24 am (UTC)
Re: Elephant Capturing History in Assam from 1948
Hi Paul,

I work for the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation www.asiannature.org and we work with Asian Elephants in all the range countries. We have a lot of rescources on our website ( including HEC Conflict ) that can be downloaded for free ( go to the Rescources section of the website ) . However we dont have anything on elephant capture. We are , however , in the process of uploading a lot of reports on captive elephants in India. We should be doing so in a couple of weeks ( still in the editing stage ) . You can email me through the Contact Us page of the website for further details . We also have an internship programe. If you are ever in Bangalore please drop in to the office , I think we can both benifit from your visit.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


Vikram Nanjappa

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