Conservation | Tourism
Chitwan’s Chained Elephants
Elephants in Chitwan are a great means of revenues, livelihood, recreation and wildlife conservation. But what about the torture they are subjected to and the emptiness they feel when shackled with chains forever?
In 2017, I made a trip with my family to Chitwan to attend a close friend’s son’s paasni, a Nepali ceremony where a six-month child (five months for a daughter) is fed rice for the first time. Usually a modest celebration, paasni is akin to welcoming of an infant in the house, always an exciting event to attend. Home becomes livelier during paasni which becomes more joyous later as the infant grows and turns into a toddler.
Before the day of the paasni, my family had few recreational plans in Sauraha, Chitwan’s beloved tourist destination. Chitwan is home to Chitwan National Park and Sauraha is a village bordered adjacent to the park, popular for its elephant jungle safari that takes the visitors inside the park.
We began our leisure with a chilling riverboat safari across the Rapti River navigating Chitwan’s thick summer waves. More than a dozen of gharials and enormous crocodiles were sunbathing few meters away from our small wooden paddleboat. Some of those reptiles, mammoth in size, could rock our boat at one strike – a fear that I carried all along during the boat trip.
There was no peace for me until the safari ended. As it happened, I chilled at a resort by the riverside watching the sun gradually making its way to the unknown.
Next day was all about elephants for us before attending the paasni.
In the morning, a warm sun welcomed us hinting that the day would be scorching later. As we reached the place, a flock of visitors were waiting their turns to sit at the elephants’ back and roam around the jungle. A popular recreational activity, hundreds of people take the elephant ride on a daily basis during the peak season. Some 185,000 visitors visited the park in the fiscal year 2018/19, says the Chitwan National Park, where the visitors engaged in different form of activities.
During my last visit, I had a thrilling fun with a guided walking safari inside the jungle. An elephant safari was an obvious choice this time. Little I knew, I’d get some first-hand experiences about how those elephants are disciplined in the park.
We were four of us on a howdah that was tightly strapped to Pawankali’s back, our elephant for the ride. By the sturdy look of the howdah, which was made of wood and placed on rug sack, I assumed it must weigh more than 50 kg. Our mahout, a professional elephant-rider and Pawankali’s caretaker, sat at the front making us five altogether. Although elephants look a mighty beast, they are innocent creatures considered to be intelligent too. I was already feeling bad about my decision and what I was about to experience.
More heartbreaks began as we took off. Once, when my camera lens fell off to the ground, our mahout instructed Pawankali to pick up the lens cover for me. Pawankali ignored it at first but that slight hint of refusal was enough for the mahout to prod Pawankali’s head with a sharp bullhook (long sticks with sharp metal hook at one of its end) that mahouts use to tame their elephants.
Watching elephants being prodded unkindly and frequently with bullhooks was a painful sight that could crush any heart. For Pawankali, the pain must have been beyond imagination. Just imagine your head wanked by something like that, and frequently. Her head already looked severely roughed up by those whippings, and yet it seemed as if she hardly cared.
And just like that, Pawankali just shrugged off. There were no screams, cry or rage. She just obeyed the orders. Those wounds in her head – some of which looked fresh, some like scars – were evocative of her harsh training that made her so obedient.
As our mahout passed over the cover to me, we stared at him speechless. A few moments later, I uttered few words out of anger telling the mahout to use his conscience and show some empathy towards the poor animal. To everybody’s surprise, our mahout didn’t flinch, offering nothing but an impassive expression with no bodily cues.
Our mahout rather continued minding his own business leading Pawankali the jungle route, sometimes signalling by whistling, sometimes scourging her with his bullhook.
As we moved on, we realised it wasn’t just us who hurled the Mahout with some unkind words. Other riders were telling similar things to their mahouts. Apparently, they have received those unsolicited advices and lectures about animal treatments and empathy throughout the span of their profession. Yet it doesn’t seem to change them because their livelihood depends on what they do and that leaves little room for emotions to triumph over work ethics.
“The job has to be done. If not us, somebody else. And we don’t know anything else either”, my mahout would later tell me.
It would be unfair to give the riders a clean chit here because they are the ones who demand it and are ready to pay for the 'joyride'. Hundreds of thousands of guests like me, and my family demand elephant rides and bathing for our amusement without giving a second thought about how animals are handled and treated that make them so obedient.
It makes the job of a mahout a crucial one, making it an important source of livelihood for many individuals around Sauraha.
After our trip ended, my mahout and his few colleagues opened up with me for a while about how elephants are turned submissive. That was when I understood the extent of cruelty involved in those elephants’ training, which happens in many parts of the world including Nepal. There are some 16,000 captive elephants throughout Southern Asia, according to WWF Nepal and it would be stupid to expect elephants anywhere in the world would be trained and tamed tenderly.
The relationship between the man and the beast is forged under the codes of stick and carrot during an intense training that a young calf goes through. Young calves are chained, kept in isolation away from their families and starved until they give up. Bullhooks are used persistently to instil fear in elephant’s psychology for the rest of their lives. These harsh measures continue till their spirit is broken and they submit themselves to their masters or their torturers.
The training involves a lot of time together between the trainer and the young calf – from feeding them to beating and terrorising them. You might get to see little calves being playful with their trainers at times. The closeness between the captive and the captor may even remind you of ‘Stockholm Syndromes’.
Pawankali grew up exactly the same way. When she was a young 3-4 years old calf, she was chained and isolated and starved and frequently thrashed, the modus operandi used throughout the world for turning elephants into scared and submissive pets.
Innocent elephants who should, otherwise, be wandering free in the jungle together with their herd, are then shackled around their necks and legs in chains during their leisure time. In some cases, elephants end up getting worst treatments if their mahouts turn out to be too wicked. I have faint memories, but some grown-up elephants looked thin and starved. Sadly, this is their fate until their death.
Ironically, such methods are practiced inside an elephant breeding centre that lie at the premise of a national park which gives you a feel of a sanctuary when you come to hear about it. But young elephants are first nurtured there, then gradually slaved and tortured – only to later use them for the dual purpose of recreation and conservation. Locals and tourist lodges too domesticate elephants in Sauraha.
Elephants have been effectively used by security forces to patrol deep into the jungles and keep the poachers out. Most poachers prey on one-horned rhinos and wild Bengal tigers for their rare body parts such as rhino horns and tiger bones, skins and claws that sell at black markets for a good sum. Both these animals are in the UN’s list of endangered species.
According to 2015 rhino census, Nepal homes 645 endangered rhinos in different national parks throughout the country, out of which 605 are in Chitwan. Between 2011 to 2019, Nepal ran a successful campaign against poaching – with zero poaching record in many of those years. One such spell was a period of 2011-2014.
With such track record, Nepal has played an inspiring role in the global combat against wildlife poaching. But increasing natural deaths have stymied the conservation efforts of one-horned rhinos with major setbacks in the recent years. There was an unprecedented death of 46 one-horned rhinos in the fiscal year 2018/19 alone due to various reasons barring poaching.
Similarly, according to 2018 tiger census, CNP homes 93 wild tigers, a drop in the population by 27 tigers based on 2013 census. The decline in the tiger population at CNP have several critical factors but poaching isn’t one of them. According to conservationists, it may be because of migration to adjoining areas, and disasters like the flood in 2017. There was one incidence of poaching during the period though, which means that the threat is pretty much alive in the park.
Overall, Nepal has achieved huge success in preventing poaching incidences that was quite severe in the decade of 2000. How security forces and conservationists have generated a positive outcome for the country’s conservation ambitions is laudable. But a significant ratio of those efforts involves patrolling with the help of slaved elephants – elephants whose actual home is the jungle itself.
Ceasing to use elephants and freeing them entirely and rely on technology instead may not sound a pragmatic idea to conservationists from the conservation point of view because technology has limitations. It may run the risk of diminishing the population of endangered wildlife who face existential threat. On the other hand, elephants are bread winners for many mahouts and their families, who grew up exposed to what they are doing today and what they were taught and because fewer opportunities exist outside.
There are several ways to change it, nevertheless. It begins with treating animals with compassion. By appealing to behavioural change, it will help in lessening the extent of inhumane practices. Our philosophical doctrines that we take so much pride in the Indian sub-continent teaches us to be compassionate while our religious codes celebrate and revere elephants as a manifestation of holy being. Sensitising mahouts can be a starting point in initiating the transformation and easing the plight of poor elephants.
Besides, it makes little sense when conservationists leverage elephants but don’t scale up the use of drones, tracking devices, high tech surveillance cameras and modern green vehicles to replace the enslaved animals. By increasing the use of appropriate modern tech solutions, a fine balance between human-wildlife interaction has become more realistic today.
The onus is on the conservation team to generate resources to arrange suitable infrastructures inside the jungle. For initiation, the park attracts enough revenues from tourism to afford more investments in the use of technology and innovative solutions to relieve elephants from the burden of jungle safaris and patrolling.
Freeing elephants from bondage of mahouts and lodges can prove tricky but not impossible. The elephant owners would require right compensation schemes first. As far as livelihood of the Mahouts is concerned, they can be integrated into conservation works of the park, in rehabilitating elephants and other touristic efforts related with ethical tourism. These provisions should be sufficient to secure their future with a reasonable source of income and a good capital base and to keep them in close proximity with elephants.
Combine that with introducing stringent law that reflects zero-tolerance policy towards poaching and managing better training and equipment for the security forces and a tight watch on hold, use and sale of arms and all forms of animal smuggling. These measures should be coupled with strongly sensitising local communities and tourism businesses about the linkage between their income prospects, the ecosystem and the wild and the wilderness.
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Once elephants are freed, it will create a different attraction towards the park and the jungle. Tourists are getting more sensitive about animal treatments and inclining towards ethical tourism. Previously, many of them were unaware of behind the scene torture that goes with animals for the sake of tourism.
A survey done in 2017 in Sauraha tells that tourists are ready to dole out more dollars to experience elephants in their natural environment. 97% of the 243 tourists interviewed gave affirmative response where 64% of the respondents were willing to pay extra $30 while 20% were ready to pay extra $70 or more for such experience from the existing charge of $20. Such shift in preference is an indication that our practices are more of sore to the eyes than pleasure.
According to the report that featured the survey results, “More than 190 travel companies including global brands like Intrepid Group, Thomas Cook and TUI Group travel, as well as growing Chinese operators, have stopped selling excursion packages that features elephant rides.”
Tourism entrepreneurs should take note that Chitwan National Park or Sauraha is more than just elephant rides. Activities like bird and wildlife watching, guided jungle safari on vehicle and foot, riverboat safari, viewing at Bishhazari taal and resort tourism that do not necessitate animal cruelty if branded differently can reposition jungle excursions at another level among wildlife enthusiasts. The idea should be to make binoculars and hiking trendier than selfies and safaris with tortured animals.
By allowing jungles to become what they actually are – a natural wildlife habitat, tourists will be able to experience jungle vibes in its true form while Nepal can build a renewed brand image for itself. Already, Thailand’s tourism is receiving stern backlash for its inhumane treatment of animals in the name of tourism. Nepal’s gesture will prove to become an exemplary step at a time when societies are struggling with issues and concerns about not only animal conservation but also climate and environment.
My experience that morning was an eye-opener at many levels, and it never left my mind. Once the morning activities ended, we headed to attend the paasni.
By the time we reached the event, the six-month old was about to snooze after a tiring afternoon session filled with people surrounding him. He was wrapped around, warm and safe, in his parents’ arms. Both of them looked equally pleased with how the day passed, occasionally glancing over their child while he slowly fell asleep.
**(Pawankali, a fictional name is used here for this story purpose. It is quite common for elephants to have names in Sauraha)**
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