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In India, the keeper and controller of an elephant is called a mahout. In Nepal, however, it takes three people to keep an elephant: the mahout finds and prepares the elephant's food, the pachuwa cares for the elephant, while it is the phanit who does the driving of the elephant from his position on the elephant's neck.
Any unexpected lurches as the elephant ascends or descends a steep slope tend to be applied to the phanit in the fore and aft (or pitch) direction. However, the elephant's passengers sit at right angles to this, back to back and facing outwards from the flanks of the elephant. If a passenger is looking straight ahead, any jolt is felt in a combination of the yaw and roll directions. Passengers are frequently craning their necks, at the extreme of rotation, in order to photograph that elusive tiger or rhino. This is equivalent to the “check-6” position in a fighter aircraft. In the fighter environment, unexpected accelerational forces can cause acute soft tissue injury in the neck.1 Elephant passengers may therefore be expected to be vulnerable to similar injury in the case of unexpected acceleration.
A recent elephant safari in Nepal resulted in acute soft tissue injury to the neck of two passengers out of 30 exposures, but no history of equivalent injury among phanits. Holidaymakers, particularly elderly ones, should be warned about the risks of extremes of neck movement when riding on an elephant.