Ankus

The Ankus is an extremely ancient tool used for the 'hands on' management, control and handling of captive elephants. It has been used in India for over two thousand five hundred years and continues to be used in every country where man works 'hands on' with elephants.

Today the Elephant Ankus is normally some 18" to 2' in length. Most of this will be a wooden or fibreglass shaft topped off with a point and a hook. If such a tool had never ever been invented for captive elephant management and someone set about designing it today it would be more or less the same size and shape.

Contrary to the belief of the anti-captivity, anti-zoo brigade the Ankus is not a cruel instrument of torture used to beat, poke, stab or torture elephants. It is simply a tool to aid management and assist in the control of a very large animal. The Ankus is just as capable of caressing an elephant as it is in guiding the animal.

There is absolutely no question that the Ankus in the wrong hands and used incorrectly could be used for harm. So too could a knife in the kitcken, a glass in the pub, a fork at the Bar-B-Q.

A well trained and cared for elephant has no fear of the Ankus because in the right hands it is not an instrument of subjugation and discipline. Professional caring elephant keepers will reprimand by voice more often than anything else. In the same way they would give reward and praise also.

Ankus

19th Century Ankus.  Gold and Silver inlay
19th Century Ankus. Gold and Silver inlay


The Ankus may also be referred to as an Ankush, Elephant Goad or Elephant Hook. In the main those people who are against elephants in captivity or 'hands on' elephant work are the most likely to refer to the 'Ankus' as a 'BullHook'.

The Born Free Organisation call the Ankus a Bullhook and state:

"Both ends of the bullhook are used to inflict damage. The hook is used to apply varying degrees of pressure to sensitive spots on an elephant's body, causing the elephant to move away from the source of discomfort. When the hooked end is held, the handle can be used as a club, inducing substantial pain when the elephant is struck in areas where little tissue separates skin and bone."

The rest of their dissertation on the Ankus makes equally distressing reading. I have little doubt that it could be used and has been used in such a way in the same way as the glass in the pub but this is not what correct Ankus use is about.


Ornamental Goad

A late 18th Century Indian Ankus made of steel and silver. Overall length 18" and containing a 8" spike concealed in the handle
A late 18th Century Indian Ankus made of steel and silver. Overall length 18" and containing a 8" spike concealed in the handle

The Hook and the Point

The Hook and the Point of the Ankus are usually made out of copper, brass, iron or steel. The more ornamental Ankus may be silver or gold and even encrusted in jewels. Some are beautiful works of art.

The point on the end of the Ankus and the point on the hook are just that...pointed... though not especially sharp. The elephant keeper should be more than happy to demonstrate this by balancing the Ankus point end onto the palm of his/her palm and hang the hook end from their chin. The reason for the pointedness is so that only the slightest bit of pressure is needed to ask an elephant to come down, move over or lift its foot. Over most, but not all, of an elephants body the skin is quite thick. An extremely blunt hook would necessitate more pressure and that is not really what is needed. This is NOT about causing pain, hurt or distress. It is about working with and training a great big animal safely and with care. Elephants are not stupid, they learn quickly. Often the Ankus on a trained elephant is more symbolic than anything else. Elephant keepers are more likely to use the hook to remove a piece of hay from their animals back or to scratch an itchy spot.

Well trained and managed elephants have no fear of the Ankus at all. The Ankus in the proper hands is not a weapon or torture instrument it is not even a tool of negative reinforcement. It is a perfectly designed and strengthened extension of the arm for use in close contact with a large and powerful animal.

It is many years since I last worked with elephants but if it were not for the Ankus I would probably not be here today. Elephants are playful creatures and have a wicked sense of humour. They do not always appreciate that humans are soft and squishy. Using an Ankus as a 'prop' between an elephant and a wall stops you getting squashed....and yes I know one of the first rules of elephant keeping is to never get between an elephant and a wall but these things happen as any elephant keeper, good or bad will tell you. Besides I loved my elephants.

Bad Apples and Elephants

In every profession there are some bad apples. There are bad carpenters who blame their tools. There are rip off taxi drivers, poor teachers and hopeless cooks. There are good zoos and there are dysfunctional zoos. There are good elephant keepers and there are bad ones too.

It is the bad, unknowledgeable, old fashioned and impatient elephant keepers who are getting the profession and the Ankus a bad name. Elephants can be trained kindly through positive reinforcement as is demonstrated in the collections which now operate a 'hands off' protected contact style of management. Whilst 'hands on' free contact remains the method of choice for some collections then I believe that the Ankus is not just important but that it is necessary, it is part of Elephant Care. The Ankus can be and is still used by some alongside positive reinforcement in 'hands off' protected contact husbandry and care. Hands off has not stopped its use.

I will not defend the abuse of elephants or the staff who carry it out. These people need to be identified and retrained or drummed out of the profession. There is no excuse for the sort of behaviour as was seen with Anne The Elephant.

Persian Elephant Ankus

An 18th Century decorated Indo Persian Elephant Ankus with ivory handle. Overal length nineteen and a half inches
An 18th Century decorated Indo Persian Elephant Ankus with ivory handle. Overal length nineteen and a half inches

Ankus Head

Indo Persian Ankus

19" long
19" long

All Steel Goad

19" Long An all steel Indian Elephant Ankus from the 18th Century
19" Long An all steel Indian Elephant Ankus from the 18th Century

How The Ankus Should Not Be Used

The video below is a collection of clips brought together to show how an Ankus should NOT be used. I am including it here because it needs to be shown. It is cruel, unkind and abusive. If you find the video disturbing then be assured that I do too.

People who resort to such abuse should not be working with animals at all. Organisations which accept such bad management need restructuring and moving over to 'hands off' protected contact. Elephants do not need or require such abuse. The Ankus does not need the stigma planted upon it by the irresponsible person holding it.

Stopping Ankus Use

It is the easiest thing in the world to ban the use of the Ankus. It is simply a case of somebody who has the power to pass the legislation but does not have a clue about Elephants or Elephant Training and Management.

You can stop Ankus use if you have especially built Elephant accommodation which has been built for protected contact management. Even then it will take time for the Elephants to understand, some more than others. To be honest maintaining the Ankus for some of the work would even then still be ideal.

You cannot realistically put an overnight ban on the use of the Ankus in the circus. You cannot put a ban on the use of the Ankus with Indian working elephants. And yet some courts in some Indian and US States have done just that. They really have not got a clue. Elephants are intelligent yes....but how are they going to understand that something they have been used to for ten, twenty, thirty, forty or more years is no longer being used?

It is likely that the more unmanageable of these elephants are now going to be chained up for the rest of their lives. They won't be able to go anywhere except perhaps moved to another state never to return.

Once again....I am not defending abuse of elephants with the Ankus. Protestors need to take a reality check.

If the elephant handler is walking an elephant along a road or through a field and they have not got an Ankus with them, then what have they got? I have walked alone with elephants, along roads, through fields, into woods, swimming in the river. In company I have walked others swimming in the sea. I am so very glad I had an Ankus with me.

So these handlers...what have they got? Elephants are strong powerful animals that can unintentionally cause great harm.

The Ankus In Hindu Culture


Ganesh is often seen to be holding various symbolic items. One of these is the Ankus. Here the Ankus is used to "steer the soul away from the ignorance and illusions of this earthly world just as a mahout would steer an elephant away from any treacherous path". That is what it is about. Caring, not abuse.

Similar in appearance to the Ankus in depictions is the Axe. The Axe signifies "to cut off all bonds of attachment" and so is not the same.

Lord Ganesh holding an Ankus

It Is Not The Tool But How You Use It

It is not the tool but how you use it. There is too much condemnation by the ill informed about management practices within zoos. Zoos and Circuses are not the same. There are similarities in the same way that there is to having tea at Claridges or a meal at the local chippie. There are good zoos and bad zoos and far too many Zoo Misconceptions.

The Ankus is an Ankus. It is how that it is used that matters.

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Comments 9 comments

travel_man1971 profile image

travel_man1971 5 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

I just watched a news from India wherein an elephant went berserk and killed a bystander. Indian police, I think, didn't use ankus these days to contain the irritated animal.


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 5 years ago from South East Asia Author

@travel_man1971 - Yes I saw that too. The problem there was that it was a wild elephant. It had never been trained, never seen an ankus or even touched by a human. It ended up in the city accidentally, separated from its mother (it was a young animal) who was outside. An ankus would be of no use in controling a wild animal.


travel_man1971 profile image

travel_man1971 5 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

Thanks for the clarification, Sir Pete. It's similar with carabaos or tamarraws here in the country, Instead of ankus, most of the farmers used the wooden-made neck shackle to control the behavior of our local beast. Although, I've never seen the nose ring on the animal these days, I can still see neck shackle being used whenever the animal is use in carrying local goods.


JacksBlogs 5 years ago

Great HUB. Great topic. I live in Thailand and my grandson really enjoyed elephant rides here when he visited.

If anyone is interested there is a manmount training program open to foreign people in Thailand. It is a week or two as I recall. Maybe I still have the information but I bet you can find it on line. A person with interest in elephants can get personal hands on time with them here instead of looking through a fence at a zoo.

Also, regarding comments above, shark attacks are sensationalized in the media and elephants are widely loved animals. But living in Thailand as I do I see lots of news stories about people being killed by elephants. They are a lot more dangerous than sharks especially since it is easy to stay out of the water but people live in close proximity to elephants - wild and domesticated. There are also stories on a regular basis about elephants dying from eating pesticide on fruit and from being hit by cars or trucks.


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 5 years ago from South East Asia Author

JacksBlogs - Yes the Mahout schools are popular. There are some good ones and some less than good. It would not be a bad idea if some of those who are anti-zoo and anti-ankus were to spend time working in a good school. They would realise that things are not quite what they imagine.


Edwin Clark profile image

Edwin Clark 5 years ago from Thailand by way of New York

I was just at the elephant camp in Chiang Mai with a few first time visitors to Thailand. We saw a lot of ways the folks working in the camps along with the elephants live so close together and were surprised how tame and gentle the elephants were. It was really good to see that these gentle giants were well taken care of.

I held an ankus and the points do feel a bit sharp. But after touching an elephant's skin you can really feel that it's really quite thick and tough.


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 5 years ago from South East Asia Author

Thanks Edwin - A bit of practical experience is the best way to appreciate what is involved and you have done that by visiting. Tame and gentle yes...but very strong too. Lovely animals.


Russell-D profile image

Russell-D 5 years ago from Southern Ca.

As others have mentioned, wherever we've been where elephants work - either in the fields or as an African or Asian tourist bonus, they always seemed so tame when handled correctly. However, seeing them rip bark off a tree or felling one in the wild, you see both sides of the coin. I probably have seen an ankus without knowing what it was. Good article, Peter. I learned something, which I do usually when I read you. David


Peter Dickinson profile image

Peter Dickinson 5 years ago from South East Asia Author

Thanks David. Elephants are very much like big children. Big strong children. Treat them right and you will be rewarded with good behaviour most of the time.

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