Get off that elephant back

Photo Lucia de Vries

Exploring Nepal’s wilderness on the back of an elephant seems like a perfect way to spend the holidays. In bygone eras only aristocrats and kings had access to elephant safaris, mostly organized for hunting. Nowadays any tourist can afford to mount one of the 45 privately owned elephants in Sauraha, the main tourist hub of Chitwan National Park. After the jungle safari one can opt to bath the elephant in the river. With the jumbo splashing water on the tourists standing on its back, that seems a lot of fun too.

However, with mass tourism coming to the national parks, and the absence of welfare rules, the conditions of Nepal’s working elephants have severely deteriorated[1]. Without the tourist noticing, the elephant he or she drives during a leisurely safari could be blind, aged, or suffering from TB. The majestic working animal might be malnourished or dehydrated. And almost always the elephant will be overworked, overloaded and the victim of repeated beatings.

Nepal’s safari elephants are smuggled across the border from India. They are bought at animal fairs, from smugglers who capture the elephants from the wild, or from private individuals who use them for ceremonies and weddings.

The suffering of a safari elephant starts at the age of 1 or 2, when it is separated from the mother and trained. In the wild elephant clans stick closely together, celebrating the birth of a calf and mourning the death of a member. The forceful separation causes much stress, which is increased by the training. With few exceptions, the training is a cruel one and involves exposure to beatings, injuries, fire and loud noises.

Most elephants, throughout their lives, are managed by their mahouts with bullhooks. Although some caretakers manage to build a good rapport with the elephant and use their feet to instruct the jumbo, most mahouts consistently beat and verbally abuse the elephants.

Although elephants are highly social animals, safari elephants generally live alone, with only their mahouts or caretakers as company. They are chained when not working. The elephants are not exposed to any enrichment and do not get to the freedom to behave naturally.

In Sauraha most elephants are kept in a simple shed at the back of the resorts, consisting of four pillars and a tin roof. In order to reach the mounting area they have to walk at least five kilometers on asphalt. During lunch break the elephants generally walk to the shed and back, to enable the mahout to have his lunch there.

Temperatures in Sauraha in summer can reach 43° Celsius. As elephants don’t sweat, they are extremely sensitive to overheating when exercising on hot days, which is what they are made do when tourists are around.

Safari elephants make long days: from 6 am till 6 pm, with a lunch break. Being bathed by tourists is no fun for the elephant – it is simply an extension of its working hours.

An estimated 30-40% of Sauraha’s elephants suffer from TB, which can be communicated to and from humans. The sick elephants work every day. In the absence of regular foot work, virtually all elephants suffer from feet and nail problems.

Elephants eat up to 200 kg a day and on hot days need about 200 litres of water. As elephants spend 14 to 18 hours a day eating and drinking, safari jumbos simply don’t have the time to feed sufficiently. While 50% of their diet should consist of fodder and grass, captive elephants are almost exclusively fed on straw and rice, which has little nutritional value.

Although elephants look strong, their backs are in fact very sensitive. They can carry up to 150 kg on their back, but the howdah or saddle already weights close to 100 kg. The maximum number of people allowed is four but often children are added, resulting in serious overloading.

After a life of loyal service, Nepal’s elephants do not get a chance to retire. In the absence of a sanctuary, there is no place for an aging elephant to retire to. As a result, elephants as old as 67 are still made to work each day.

Many interventions are needed to improve the welfare standards of Nepal’s working elephants. Among these are welfare standards and monitoring, improved medical care and diet, reduced working hours and load, socialization, as well as enrichment and opportunities to behave naturally, off chain. There is also a great need for a sanctuary where aging, handicapped and sick elephants are provided the care they need. Games such as polo, races, football and beauty pageants, organized annually, should be replaced with activities that actually benefit these majestic animals.

As long as these interventions are not in place we at Animal Nepal encourage tourists to explore the jungle on foot, or by jeep or canoe. As private elephants are not allowed inside the national park, the chances of seeing wildlife are much higher when using other modes of transport.

Fifteen Dutch tour operators no longer offer elephant safaris. Their motto ‘Get off that elephant back’ is an inspiration for any tourist or company who believes in responsible and humane tourism.

Lucia de Vries is a freelance journalist and Volunteer Director at Animal Nepal

[1] Chitwan National Park authorities offer safari rides inside the national park on government elephants (privately owned jumbos are only allowed in the bufferzone area).  These elephants receive better care but they too are chained when off work and not allowed to socialize and show natural behaviour

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