First published by Nepali Times
Man Kali is a 35-year-old working elephant in Chitwan. She and her two off-spring, eight-year old Prakriti Kali and seven-month old Hem Gaj, recently became Nepal’s first working elephants to be rehabilitated in a chain-free pen.
The enclosure in Chitwan houses six elephants, ranging in age from seven months to over 70. All of the pachyderms here used to be chained with their front legs hobbled together, preventing natural posturing or healthy physical activity. The corral also had a fence that administered a mild electric shock upon contact. It has since been replaced with a solar-powered fence that transmits a clicking sound. The elephants naturally avoid the fence because their ears are so sensitive.
This innovative project was started by the Nepal Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), the Biodiversity Conservation Centre, and Carol Buckley of Elephant Aid International.
“The tourism industry profits immensely from elephants and yet the animals are looked after so poorly,” says Buckley, who received a 2001 Genesis Award in recognition of her innovative work and was named a Hero for The Planet by Time magazine.
She hopes that the first-of-its-kind corral will encourage others to improve the living standards of Nepal’s estimated 208 domesticated elephants. Elephants are employed for tourism safaris and anti-poaching activities of national parks. Yet they suffer from a lack of proper diet, veterinary care, clean stables and the ability to express natural behaviour, all while frequently being overworked, overloaded and abused by their mahouts. They also suffer from tuberculosis and diseased feet.
An undercover investigation by PETA India and Animal Welfare Network Nepal revealed that the Elephant Breeding Centre in Chitwan abused elephants. Says Buckley: “On a scale of one to ten, I rate the care and welfare of privately owned elephants in Nepal at a one.”
Working elephants also perform at fairs, play elephant polo and football, and are a feature in marriage ceremonies. Aging elephants have no place to retire and the future of elephants such as Pawankali, the gentle 65-year old elephant which served Chitwan National Park and Kathmandu’s Central Zoo for most of her life, is unclear.
Buckley says solar-powered fences could also be used to keep settlements safe from attacks from wild bulls such as Dhrube , the elephant that grabbed international attention last year after reportedly killing over 10 people in attacks. Her biggest challenge is not to convince the authorities or to rehabilitate the elephants successfully, but to overcome misinformation and deep-seated traditions.
“Many people believe the fence is not sufficient to hold an elephant. Others think elephants will go wild if given such freedom from chains. Some falsely claim that the current of the electric fence is harmful,” she explains. The first chain free enclosure has proven that these concerns can be addressed and the welfare of Nepal’s majestic working elephants can be significantly improved.
Get off that elephant
Encouraged by a campaign called ‘Get off that elephant’, coordinated by WPSA Holland, Dutch tour operators are increasingly removing elephant safaris from their itineraries. Some of the 17 travel companies that avoid elephant safaris and games involving jumbos are part of TUI International, one of the world’s largest travel service providers.
The saddle and weight of the people create injury and lead to overloading. Elephants can pull as much as one thousand kilos but are unable to carry such weights on their backs. Between rides they are generally chained up and unable to move even an inch.
In Nepal, Arke Fly and Holland International have replaced elephant trips in Chitwan National Park with jeep, canoe or walking safaris. According to the company, few complaints have been received. “If communicated well, our clients are happy to try out other means of transport. And because of the elephant safari traffic jam inside the park, they usually get to see more wildlife when walking, canoeing or driving a jeep,” says a company spokesperson.
De Vries is a freelance journalist and Volunteer Director of Animal Nepal