Can the African elephant be tamed?

An African elephant stopping a car in a national park.

Training African Elephants


Asian elephants have been used for centuries as work animals.

Their larger African cousins, however, have been thought to be too aggressive to tame.

But at least there are some experiments that have enjoyed apparent success.

African elephants are being used in the Imire game reserve of Zimbabwe to plow fields and to carry rangers into hard-to-reach areas.

The training method used is called “love and reward.”

A reporter for an African newspaper watched an elephant named Nyasha plow a field, with a laborer, Muchemwa, riding on its back.

“Every now and then,” the reporter explained,

 “he stretched his trunk back and Muchemwa popped a high-protein game cube into it.”

The report continued:

"Nyasha and the six other trained elephants at Imire will be used to prepare fields before the next rains for crops such as maize, which will be used to feed them and the other animals on the farm.”
Another example is the touching relationship between three African elephants and an American named Randall Moore.

The elephants were part of a group of calves captured in South Africa’s Kruger National Park and shipped to the United States.

In time they were trained for a circus act and performed well.

When their owner died, Moore was given the trio and returned them to Africa.

The two females, named Owalla and Durga, were introduced to the Pilanesberg Reserve of Bophuthatswana.

At the time the park had a number of orphaned elephant calves who were in bad shape and needed supervision by adult females.

Would circus-trained Owalla and Durga be able to take on this role?

After a year, Moore received reports that his elephants had adopted all 14 orphans and that more orphans were to be introduced to the park.

After a four-year absence, Moore returned to see for himself.

Anticipating a long search in the Pilanesberg Mountains, he was surprised, soon after his arrival, to spot Owalla and Durga among a large herd.

He wrote in Back to Africa:

“My first, unprofessional impulse was to run up to them, embrace them and lavish them with praise. I replaced that urge with a more rational approach.”

First, Owalla and Durga had to be certain of the presence of their old friend.

They inspected his outstretched hand with their trunks. “Owalla,” writes Moore, “towered above me as if awaiting the next command."

The remainder of the herd in frozen posture clustered around.

I obliged. ‘Owalla . . . Trunk UP and FOOT!’

Owalla immediately lifted her front foot high into the air and curled her trunk skyward in the classic salute position of those far-off circus days.

Who was it who first said that an elephant never forgets?

Three years later, Owalla’s memory was given another test.

This time Moore decided to try something he had not done since introducing the elephants to the park seven years previously.

Owalla obeyed his command to stretch down and allowed him to climb on her back.

Television viewers were thrilled to see him ride her amid more than 30 wild elephants.

“I did this,” Moore explained, “not as a publicity act but because I was curious to know the amount of bonding and intelligence possible with an African elephant.”

The Pilanesberg orphans thrived under the intelligent care of Owalla and Durga.

True, the instances of friendship between human and African elephant today are not the rule; they take careful cultivation.

It would be foolhardy indeed for the average person to venture into the wild and try to tame a wild elephant.