When I met Hanako less than two months ago, it was obvious to me that she was nearing the end of her life.

Hanako had spent close to seven decades in one of the most deprived environments I’ve seen.

Every surface in her barn and yard was covered with unyielding, moisture-robbing, highly abrasive concrete. There was not a blade of grass, a tree or a patch of dirt anywhere in the small space.

While at the zoo I learned that Hanako had recently stopped lying down to sleep. Instead of spending several hours each night on her side sleeping, she spent a lesser amount of time leaning against the barn wall, dozing.

After studying her records it was clear that Hanako’s appetite and drinking habits had also changed. The times when she would refuse to eat grew more and more frequent.

Hanako also refused to use her outside pool or allow her keepers to bathe her. As result her skin was dehydrated and her legs were stained with urine.

The staff could not account for these changes in Hanako’s behavior. But such changes are to be expected of an elephant of Hanako’s age.

It was heartbreaking to observe that her eyesight was failing, she shivered continually and she was physically inactive.

Each morning, until at least a month before her death, Hanako would walk the few feet from the barn to the outside concrete yard. There she would stand and engage in stereotypical behavior for hours before taking the few labored steps back inside her barn at the end of the day.

My first afternoon at the zoo I witnessed a change in Hanako’s behavior. Without any obvious provocation she seemed to startle from her catatonic state and began moving around her small yard.

Then the barn door opened and she became vocal and animated. She approached the door, placed her foot in the track and engaged in the most bizarre stereotypic routine I’d ever seen.  She pushed her toe into the track, pulled back as if her foot was caught in it, removed her foot and then repeated the sequence twelve times. Keepers later told me she did this stereotypical sequence every time before she entered the barn. Not always twelve times—sometimes more, sometimes less.

After completing her stereotypic ritual, Hanako rushed into the barn, moving with an uncharacteristic urgency as if someone was trying to keep her from entering. Her eyes lit up and she became very vocal.

I assumed she was excited about the pile of fresh vegetables and grass on the floor. But it was not the food. It was her keepers she was focused on.

Hanako was obviously excited to see her keepers and anxious for them to pet her. She offered her foot through the steel bars that divided the elephant and keeper spaces, leaned up against the bars and turned to receive pets on her backside and hip.

She chattered to her keepers the entire time, soliciting and savoring their every touch. This was a side of Hanako I had not seen—her comfort with and attachment to her keepers.

The keepers appeared to enjoy the interaction as well. But fifteen minutes later, Hanako’s allocated social time was over. As the keepers turned their attention to barn duties, I watched as Hanako slipped back into her detached state of mind.

The thermostat was set, water barrel checked, food swept into a neat pile, lights turned off, doors closed and keepers gone again until tomorrow. Once again Hanako was alone.

Failed by the system

Hanako was denied a natural life of freedom with her natal family simply because humans are intrigued by this species. But humans failed her time and time again.

Even if they wanted to, the zoo staff was unable to evaluate Hanako’s health scientifically. Hanako and her keepers weren’t trained to carry out basic health checks and her antiquated facilities did not provide a safe environment for medical testing or treatment. Aside from tranquilizing Hanako, there was no safe way to compile a comprehensive medical work up.

The government owns and runs all the zoos in Japan. The keepers are rotated throughout the zoo system, transferred to a different zoo every two years. Knowing the social complexity of elephants, having keepers rotate in and out of Hanako’s life so often would have been stressful, even traumatic.

Decades ago Hanako had an extremely close relationship with one of her keepers. After he died she reportedly became aggressive and as result was kept chained for a length of time.

It is reasonable to assume that Hanako suffered both physically and psychologically from her lack of companionship and physical activity. In Hanako’s case, her social isolation was the most detrimental. But the damage inflicted on her by her isolation was never measured.

Taking comfort in the familiar

Hanako had a decades-long reputation of reacting negatively to changes in her facility and routine. As she aged, her tendency to be inflexible increased.

Weeks before Hankako died, the zoo installed a safety fence on the outside wall of her barn. Their hope was that by providing a secure outside space, the keepers and Hanako would spend more quality time together, something we all agreed would benefit her. Although the fence was not one of my recommendations, I completely understood why the zoo made the effort.

Unfortunately, directly following fence construction, Hanako refused to leave her barn. Since the construction was the most obvious change in Hanako’s life, it was blamed for her behavior.

In her tender psychological state Hanako might have been frightened and even traumatized by the noisy power tools drilling into the wall of her barn. The noise and vibrations most certainly could be heard and felt by Hanako, locked inside. Although it is reasonable to believe she was upset by the construction, another scenario should also be considered.

Hanako was dying, growing weaker day by day. Apparently she derived comfort from being inside her barn. She could conserve energy she would otherwise have wasted walking out to a barren yard that provided neither shade nor shelter from the cold. In her condition, the barn was likely the most comfortable place for her.

Too late for Hanako but not for other elephants

The zoo said that a necropsy will be conducted. The results will most likely point to death by natural causes. It is true that Hanako’s body condition was good for an elephant of her age, but there is no way to determine what her emotional and psychological condition were.

Against all odds, Hanako lived to the ripe old age of 69. Surprisingly, she was not emaciated or crippled and did not develop osteomyelitis or the pressure wounds that are so common among elephants kept on concrete. But even though her body served her well, captivity took its toll on her heart and mind.

Hanako’s celebrity increased near the end of her life as she became the focus of a worldwide effort to move her. It’s unfortunate her deprived existence didn’t come to light five years ago, ten years ago or even two decades ago, when she could have benefited from being moved.

But, although Hanako did not benefit personally from her celebrity, other elephants will.

Immediately after Hanako’s death the zoo announced the good news that it will not replace her with another elephant.

The truth is that Hanako is irreplaceable.

 

 

Sitting on my deck one late afternoon overlooking the gently flowing Buffalo River, I settled into the calm of nature listening to the many birds whose voices filled the air.

One particular bird, a cardinal, was acting in an unusual manner, hopping from branch to branch, about eye level. His sharp high-pitched chirp seemed to be directed at me.

I looked around and realized what she was upset about. There on my deck, not 5 feet from me, was a baby bird. Not quite a fledgling, obviously out of the nest too early. Instantly I understood her behavior: a dad concerned for his baby.

After moving out of the way so mom could guide her chick to safety, progress was seriously slow. The chick was so young, so weak, not capable of the feat required of her.

After urgent encouragement from mom, the chick flew a couple of feet. Just when I was sure she would plummet into the river below, she reached out her spindly leg and grabbed a twig and righted herself but could not be urged to make another attempt at flight.

All the while her father darted to her, then flew off again to a branch not too far away, calling in that high-pitched plea. But the chick was done for the day; she would not move.

Dad flew off and there was only silence. I was saddened to think that the mother had abandoned his chick. I rationalized that he probably realized the chick would not survive the night. But to my surprise Dad returned minutes later, and several more times over the next 15 minutes, bringing his baby food, which the chick ate ravenously.

The sun set, the birds quieted and I went to bed sad, convinced the baby bird would die overnight.

When I woke to that familiar high-pitched chirp, I assumed it was another fearless father caring for another chick in peril. But my heart nearly burst and tears streamed down my face when I saw the same little chick hanging on for dear life in the exact same place as last night.

Dad was darting back and forth trying to get the chick to follow him to a safer place, away from the water. The chick made two gallant attempts at flight, managing to put a few feet between her and the river below.

Dad rewarded her with another feeding frenzy. I was encouraged and amazed by their tenacity, determination and grit.

Throughout the day, the silence would be broken by Dad calling his baby closer and closer to safety. I tracked them, staying my distance so as not to interfere. The chick spent another night away from her nest, but by day three she was back under the safe wing of her mother.

By now she is probably fully fledged and gone from the nest, soaring and learning the lessons she will need next year when she raises her own chicks.

I felt honoured to be witness to the scene as it unfolded. This mother bird did everything possible to ensure the safety and survival of her chick. You can call it maternal instinct, survival instinct or just natural behavior, but I call it love.

Three days have passed since I was in Japan to meet Hanako and assess her welfare.

Hanako has lived at the Inokashira Park Zoo for the majority of her 69 years. Her small concrete exhibit, antiquated dry moat and solitary existence are a far cry from what nature intended for this wild-born, highly evolved, social being.

In a better world Hanako would have lived her entire life with her extended family of mother, sisters, nieces, aunts and grandmother. Knowing that Hanako has been denied her natural life has led many people to believe that she must be miserable.

The common consensus was that moving Hanako to a sanctuary is the only way to improve her life. Under different circumstances that might be true.

But after visiting with Hanako and seeing her for myself, I realized that moving her now, at this stage in her life, is not an option. I prepared a report for the zoo with many recommendations for how staff can improve her life. Moving Hanako to a sanctuary was not one of them.

The news that Hanako will not be moved to a sanctuary resulted in an outpouring of emotional responses from her supporters worldwide. Many were angry. Some could not accept the fact that such a move would traumatize this geriatric elephant, causing her more harm than good. The universal reaction shared by all was mourning Hanako’s lost opportunity for freedom.

No one is more heartbroken than I that Hanako will never experience her birthright, living in a natural environment with trees, grass and other elephants. It would have been a dream come true, if not for Hanako’s advanced age, lack of teeth, failing eyesight, frailness, change in sleeping habits (she no longer lies down to sleep) and inability to cope with change. Hanako’s reality is that she is a senior citizen in hospice care.

I am convinced that zoo staff are sincere in their intention to better Hanako’s situation. Ulara, who is spearheading this effort for Hanako, will work diligently with them to implement the changes I recommended.

Even though Hanako will not be moved from the zoo, the deficiencies she has lived with for decades will be addressed. The outdated moat can be filled in or fenced off to keep her from falling in. Rubber flooring is a quick and viable solution to hard, cold concrete surfaces. Additional behavioral enrichment objects will help stimulate and keep Hanako active. Strategically placed infrared heaters and automatic waterers will increase her comfort. And Hanako’s keepers, whom she is so very fond of, will be encouraged to spend more time interacting with her to satisfy her social needs. This arrangement is not perfect, but Hanako will benefit from the improvements.

My goal for Hanako is to enrich her life while respecting her limitations. She is a grande old dame who has given her life to the people of Japan. In her final days, every effort should be made to bring her comfort and ensure that she feels loved, on her terms.

Hanako’s Report submitted to the zoo

EAI’s Chain Free Means Pain Free project, which frees elephant from chains is the first of its kind in Asia. Honestly I was surprised to learn that such an effort had never before been attempted for the thousands of captive-held elephants used in the tourist industry all over Asia.

Solar powered high tensile wire fencing is a simple and relatively inexpensive solution to the decades-long practiced of chaining elephants to a stake in the ground.

When our Chain Free Means Pain Free project was completed in Nepal in April 2015, I breathed a sigh of relief and felt flush with appreciation for what we’d accomplished.

It was not an easy project, working in remote areas, many times with no means to transport fencing materials, except on our backs. We crossed rivers, hiked through miles of jungle and dealt with hostile locals who saw the areas selected by the government for elephant corrals as their domain.

And then there were the naysayers, people incapable of embracing change, who made progress slower than necessary.

But through all the trials and tribulations, downpours, leaky roofs, river crossings, miles hiked in the searing heat and skeptics, we prevailed, creating corrals for 54 elephants and releasing them into their personal chain-free sanctuaries.

Without exception, introductions to the corrals were a phenomenal success, including for a few adult males with long tusks. Why not? The elephants clearly understood the freedom they were being given. Freedom and autonomy are great healers for a soul enslaved for decades. Each, without hesitation or concern, melted into the lush habitat that was their new home.

Mahouts feared change

Before their elephants were released from chains, the mahouts lost sleep, fearing that their elephant would take advantage of the freedom and become feral.

The consistency of the their fear surprised me. I naively assumed that mahouts knew elephant behavior and understood that freedom from chains reduces stress, which results in the elephants relaxing and becoming more cooperative. But they thought the opposite.

It was from this experience, repeated with every mahout, that I learned how little mahouts actually know about elephant psyche and behavior.

Hours spent in the hattisar (elephant stable) with the mahouts and the elephants taught me that most mahouts do not recognize an elephant’s most characteristic behaviors, such as playing, socializing, bonding and grieving.  Mahout knowledge is limited to how to control an elephant and avoid getting killed. So much of what they think they know is superstition and folklore.

The first time the mahouts observed an adult elephant playing in her new corral they panicked. The mahouts wanted to stop her, control her, because they thought she was becoming aggressive. Awareness of an elephant’s emotional life or physical suffering is not something they are taught. Even minor physical problems are ignored until they become serious and require veterinary attention.

Different approach to unchaining pays off

As result of the time I spent observing the mahouts with their elephants, I realized I needed to approach the unchaining process differently. I needed to teach the mahouts about their elephants—their behavior, fears, likes and dislikes—and explain why unchaining affects elephants in a positive way.

This approach paid off. Even though some mahouts remained skeptical, most felt more confident in my promise that their relationship with their elephant would get better, not worse.

No success without sustainability

Another lesson I’ve learned though our Chain Free Means Pain Free project is that we must build sustainability into foreign projects.

It is not enough to provide a great product with stellar results if the locals are not able or willing to sustain it.

I returned to Nepal eight months after completing 54 chain-free corrals to find that few were actually still functioning and being used. I was devastated.

It seemed incomprehensible that minor repairs were not even attempted. In some cases, fully functioning corrals housed elephants on chains!

But I knew there had to be a solution. I simply would not give up. Sustainability is the measure of success and I was determined to keep these elephants off chains.

EAI hires Nepali manager

Last November, thanks to generous underwriting from supporter Donna Marshall, EAI hired a manager for our projects in Nepal.

Kulendra Kunwar, a native Nepali, was well known to EAI prior to being hired. He’d volunteered in the spring of 2015 during corral construction at the largest hattisar in Khorsor. He proved to be a valuable asset then and the perfect manager for our project now.

In just a few short months, thanks to Kulendra’s ability to repair corrals and educate and motivate the mahouts, 14 out of 15 hattisars now have corrals that are fully functional.

Of these 14 hattisars, all but two keep their elephants chain free 24/7. Those two keep their elephants chain free during daylight hours but, due to fear of the area’s poisonous king cobra snakes and tigers, the elephants are chained close to the home fires of the mahout housing at night.

New mahout housing means chain free elephants

There is an easy solution for the two hattisars (Sukivar and Khoria Mohan) that fear the poisonous snakes and tigers.

Currently, the mahout housing—a simple two-room wooden shack, outhouse and outdoor cooking area—is several hundred yards from the corrals.

If we raise the funds to build mahout housing adjacent to the corrals, the elephants will be left off chains 24/7.

Our goal is to raise $16,500 for improvements at the two hattisars. As soon as the funds are raised, housing in both hattisars can be built and the elephants can once again be left chain free 24/7. If you would like to donate, you can do so here.

I am quite the optimist, dogged about my dreams. Hard work and seemingly impossible challenges don’t scare me off, although I do wonder why some things have to be so difficult. Then I remember that there is Nepali time and there is U. S. time, polar opposites in many ways. But there is never a time to give up.

Please join me in continuing to dream the dream that releases elephants from chains, reunites loved ones and changes culture to benefit captive-held elephants and the people who care for them.

Another predawn awakening, like a recurring dream.

I’m woken abruptly from a deep sleep by the heart wrenching cries of a suffering elephant. All I can do is swing open my window and yell into the pitch black night, “Hatti la na pita!” (Don’t hit the elephant!). My plea echoes through the darkness, landing on deaf ears.

It is not yet dawn, the time when most elephants savor their sleep. My heart clinches when I hear the too familiar crack of a bamboo stick across the hide of an elephant slave.

I try to block the sound and associated pain from my ears but I cannot. The reality and degree of suffering experienced by captive-held elephants in Chitwan National Park is unconscionable.

If it were not for a drive to improve the lives of the elephants used in Chitwan National Park, admittedly I would never come back to this place. The air is perpetually thick with the sights and sounds of elephant suffering.

The apathy among tourists and owners alike is mind-boggling. Both the mahouts and the elephants in their care are merely money-making machines, no more.

The elephants’ day begins before sunrise and ends after most tourists are in their rooms preparing for sleep.

Before the rooster crows, the chained elephants are roused from their slumber and forced by threat of physical punishment to eat, drink and be readied for safari rides for the hundreds of tourists who visit Chitwan National park every day of the year.

The elephants’ food consists of cuchi—rice wrapped in mildewed, dehydrated rice hay—so unpalatable they must be beaten to eat it. The mahouts will strike them repeatedly with bamboo sticks until they have eaten.

Mel Kali—the lucky one

In the far distance I hear the familiar trumpet call of Mel Kali. She is one of the lucky elephants in Nepal.

Mel Kali was retired two years ago. She is the only retired elephant in Nepal. As a result of her advanced age—72—and near-death experience two years ago, Mel Kali is finally allowed to live a pseudo-elephant life, free to wander the national park free of riders and the continual domination of her mahouts.

Abuse woven into the fabric

Many tourists come to Chitwan National Park for elephant entertainment, but I come because of the elephant suffering. To experience their pain and not make an effort to help seems unconscionable.

It is not possible for me to return to my relatively cushy life in the US and forget the elephants’ pain. Their cries tear at my heart. Their incarceration and treatment boggle my mind. It seems like a dream, but it is reality for the elephants 24/7, 365 days a year, for their entire lives. It is an elephant slave camp.

When I am in Nepal it is my policy to stay only at guest houses that do not own an elephant. It is my way of not contributing to the exploitation and abuse.

But it is impossible to avoid the abuse completely; it is woven into the fabric of Chitwan National Park.

At all hours of the morning and evening, the haunting cries of elephants echo across the landscape of dozens of tourist hotels. They live in filthy stables, experience continual harassment and beatings and work from sun-up to sundown carrying heavy loads of riders seeking a fun day in the national park. I cannot help but absorb the feelings of despair and pain the elephants experience. How can the tourists, elephant owners, conservation organizations and locals be oblivious to such obvious suffering? What has become of the human race that we are so insensitive to the cries of others?

Progress is slow but steady

Hatti la na pita—do not hit the elephant¬—were the first words I learned after arriving in Nepal five years ago. A phase lost on most. But now, all these years later, the mahouts are familiar with my request. Although they do not comprehend why I ask that they not hit their elephants, out of respect for my work, most refrain from hitting their elephant in my presence.

But seeing the abuse is not the only way to sense an elephant’s suffering. I am now hyper-sensitive to the sharp crack of the bamboo stick, the body language of an abused elephant, the demanding guttural commands of the mahouts and the oppressive energy in the elephant slave camps.

After spending more than two dozen months in Nepal working closely with our Nepali partners to improve elephant welfare, I am discouraged by the slow process.

But I must remember that we have succeeded in influencing many mahouts to treat their elephants more kindly; educated private and government owners alike about the welfare needs of elephants; and, most recently, freed 56 captive-held elephants from chains by creating chain-free corrals. The lives of these elephants are seriously improved.

And we will not stop until all elephants in Nepal are treated and fed properly, and are living chain-free.

Lotus stood perfectly still while her mahout removed the chain from her ankle. Next came Pang Dow and, last, Wassana, a land mine victim who lost part of her foot several years ago in an explosion.

They were unaware that their next few steps would be monumental.

Lovely Lotus led the small herd, the family she chose after arriving at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES). She walked in the direction of the corral. For a split second she hesitated at the gate opening. A calculating glance from gate post to gate post and the open span between and she was satisfied that it was safe to lead her family inside. Almost in slow motion, Lotus entered the chain-free corral.

I held my breath, knowing from experience the joy the elephants, their caregivers and the crew that only hours before had completed this first solar powered chain-free corral in Thailand, would feel.

Pang Dow and Wassana followed close behind Lotus, less than inches apart, as they silently flowed into the expansive corral filled with vegetation and clusters of trees. The air was buzzing with anticipation. The elephants knew something was up. How could they not? Half a dozen people gave off quite a collective energy as we watched in hopeful anticipation of the elephants’ reaction to their new found freedom.

Lotus, Pang Dow and Wassana cleared the gate opening, walked single file for less than 50 feet and then erupted into excited squeaks and trumpets. They broke line and huddled together, a tangle of trunks and tails, chattering excitedly, gently touching each other in reassurance.

The mahouts stayed silent to ensure the elephants knew they were free to do as they pleased–a novel experience for a captive-held elephant, especially in countries like Thailand, where elephants are a commodity used for tourist entertainment, always under the control of a mahout.

Before finding sanctuary at BLES, Wassana, Lotus and Pang Dow did not know freedom of any kind. Now they were about to experience the next level of freedom–autonomy. The ability to make their own choices about where they walk, when and with whom. What they eat, where they sleep and, most important, who they share their life with.

It took mere seconds for all three to realize they were free to wander at will. They moved like a school of fish, close together, in step with each other, exploring as one. Happy squeaks, trumpets, chattering and ground thumps echoed across the hilly terrain.

They soon forgot the humans who observed from outside the corral. They were in their own world, with their family, free from chains, to interact and share the natural habitat together.

After sampling the tender vegetation underfoot, they made their way into a thicket of trees. With low rumbles and tender chirps they disappeared into their personal mini-sanctuary.

Each time I witness the release of an elephant from chains, I am flooded with such deep emotion and with such gratitude, it’s as if it’s the first time I’ve experienced such a joyful event.

I see their immediate shift, their letting go of the past. They accept the gift provided and without looking back immerse themselves in their new found freedom.

I know that we have given a gift so great it transforms them. Being witness to an elephant’s release is life changing, the most powerful experience I’ve ever had.

Elephants living in captivity are stripped of everything meaningful in their lives; autonomy, freedom of choice, family. Sanctuary life begins to restore some of these things. Although most captive-held elephants will never experience a real family of their own, they form bonds as deep and meaningful with unrelated others as if they were biologically related.

The pure joy an elephant exhibits when given a resemblance of freedom is what drives me to do more. Chain free does mean pain free to these elephants. It is an honor to give back some of what has been taken away.

View their release https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl99gNkhSWo and their introduction to their new chain-free corral https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnoHWWkAc24 on YouTube

After nearly two years of preparation and numerous setbacks our chain-free corral project In Thailand is scheduled to begin July 12th.

In October 2013, I visited two sites–Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)–to map areas for chain-free corrals. The corral locations were identified and construction plans laid out. Everyone was excited about giving their well-cared-for elephants more autonomy and physical freedom within a safe and secure jungle environment.

This is when things became challenging.

I soon learned that Thailand did not have a supplier for the materials we use for solar powered chain-free corrals. The closest supplier was IBEX Galleger in India. All materials would have to be shipped from India via the wholesaler in New Zealand.

Stopped at the border

The plan was to build the corrals last October.

I monitored the progress of the materials shipment from my US office. The Indian fence crew would fly to Thailand to oversee the arrival of materials, while the staff at BLES stood by, ready to receive the delivery. Partners in three countries experienced a great deal of anticipatory anxiety.

As soon as the materials arrived from New Zealand, they were transported from Bengaluru, India, to the coast and loaded onto a cargo ship, which crossed the Bay of Bengal and docked in Bangkok, Thailand. They cleared customs without a hitch.

This is when we hit a major snag.

The Indian crew was supposed to receive the delivery in order to avoid a hefty unloading and storage fee.

But the crew was stopped at Thai immigration to verify their residence while in Thailand.

BLES’s phone and internet were not working so there was no way for Thai immigration to verify the crew’s destination. Emails flew back and forth among continents, to no avail. We couldn’t reach BLES.

After a couple of hours, Thai immigration refused the crew entry and sent them back to India.

Unfortunately, the project had already exceeded the estimated cost even before the materials were loaded onto the cargo ship. This latest development didn’t help. At this point, the costs threatened to skyrocket.

Everything falls into place

Thanks to this experience, the Indian crew was afraid to return to Thailand.

I set out to find qualified installers in Thailand. No luck. No one in Thailand wanted to take on the job, as they were unfamiliar with the corral system.

After weeks of searching, I decided to try to convince the Indian crew to try again. They were leery, so it took months to finally convince them. By the time they finally agreed, they were working on a new project in India, and unavailable to return to Thailand until later this year.

But here we are, several months later, heading to Thailand once again.

We don’t have to worry about the materials–they are safely stored at BLES.

Pre-construction is already underway at FAE and they are clearing the fence line as we speak. It will be cleared and ready for my arrival on July 12.

The plan is to get all the corner posts set at both FAE and BLES before the fence crew arrives on the 18th.

All we have to worry about is getting the crew into Thailand. This time I plan to be standing outside immigration at the airport with a working cell number, ready to handle any problems that might arise.

This project has been a serious challenge but I have no doubt that it will be well worth every bit of frustration and anxiety when we see the elephants released into their new chain-free corrals.

Thank you for helping us create the first solar powered chain-free corrals at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary and Friends of the Elephant Hospital in Thailand.

CLICK here to DONATE

 

 

 

 

Caring for male elephants in captivity is a challenge at best.

Attempts to provide a quality of life within the parameters dictated by their captivity produce poor results. Their size, natural tendency toward dominance and drive to breed, combined with their innate wildness, is a recipe for disaster in a captive situation.

Males are especially dangerous when they are in musth, a natural biological function when testosterone levels increase. During their annual musth season, captive-held males become too aggressive to approach and stop responding to their mahouts.

EAI respects the true nature of each elephant and would prefer that no elephant live in captivity. But elephants whose lives are forever altered by captivity need our help.

Lambodhar Prasad: In musth, out of water

We were building chain-free corrals when Lambodhar Prasad came into musth. He was unapproachable. His front wrists were chained together, secured to a large wooden timber that was buried 10 feet deep to prevent his escape. He had no shelter from the hot sun, the seasonal storms that pellet him with golf ball-size hail or the frightening earthquake that devastated entire villages in Nepal earlier this month.

And he had no access to water to drink unless the mahouts brought it to him.

Because of his aggressive state, mahouts could not get close enough to Lambodhar Prasad to give him water, which concerned them and made them anxious to find a solution. Their only option was to offer Lambodhar Prasad water in a large metal cooking pot.

Out of trunk’s reach, several mahouts struggled to push the heavy pot close to Lambodhar Prasad with a long bamboo pole. A thick handmade rope was tied to one handle of the pot in order to pull it back, out of Lambohdar Prasad’s reach, after he finished drinking.

But things did not go as planned. Lambodhar Prasad was irritable, not in a mood to cooperate. He grabbed the pot with his trunk and before the mahouts could yank it away, he crushed it under his foot.

The mahouts were out of ideas and had no resources to solve the problem, so they came to EAI for help.

A simple solution

An immediate solution was devised, simple but effective.

EAI volunteers headed to town to buy a replacement cooking pot/water dish. We purchased an electric water pump and water hose and hired a plumber to hook it up to the existing well where the mahouts bathe and wash their cloths and dishes. The Chitwan National Parks Department provided a large water storage tank as a back-up for when the electricity is out, which in Nepal is more often then not.

While the plumber was installing the pump, connecting the water hose and setting up the water tank, the mahouts wasted no time wiring the pump at a nearby building.

There are no inspections required or codes for electric and plumbing work at the hattisar. You just do it!

In a couple of hours our solution was up and running. The mahouts were relieved and excited about the prospect of being able to water Lambodhar Prasad and give him a bathe as well.

Then came the moment to test out the new watering system.

As suggested, the mahouts filled the water pot before maneuvering it in front of Lambodhar Prasad. He was seriously thirsty and drank hurriedly for several minutes. But as he quenched his thirst, his drive for dominance surfaced.

The muscles in his face tightened as he grabbed for the pot in an act of defiance. The mahouts recognized his attitude shift and pulled the pot out of his reach. The pot lived to provide water for another day.

Mahouts know we care

Every effort in Nepal is unnecessarily difficult due to limited or nonexistent resources, expertise and motivation. Generations of mahouts have grown to believe that nothing can or will be done to make their job easier or the lives of the elephants in their care better. They have stopped asking for help, or perhaps they never started.

But now, because you, our supporters, have enabled EAI to offer new resources, options and solutions, the mahouts know that there are people who truly care about them and the welfare of their elephants. They have begun to ask for help. They have begun to believe that when they ask, their concerns will be heard and their need for assistance will be answered.

The most encouraging shift we have observed is that mahouts are beginning to speak up for their elephants. Improvements in elephant welfare can be encouraged from the outside but true sustainability comes from within. The mahouts are the key to improved elephant welfare in Nepal.

EAI is honored to partner with them – and with you, our supporters — in this effort.

Click here to visit Elephant Aid International’s web site

Partnering with people and organizations with shared goals is key to success as a foreign NGO working in Asia.  Since hurry up and wait is a culturally accepted norm, an ample supply of patience and flexibility is required if you hope to have a successful project.

And even the best-laid plans can unravel without a moment’s notice.

But the daily challenges of different language, conflicting cultures and not having a Home Depot to run to for much needed supplies, is what builds character. Serious determination is required.

When I shift from the U.S. to Nepal, I know to reset my internal clock, tone down my aspirations and prepare myself for unexpected changes to my plans. This may be a breeze for some, but it is a serious challenge for me. But by keeping my eye on the prize—improved elephant welfare—I am able to operate outside my comfort zone and learn a different way of being.

The Next Phase of Chain Free Corral Construction 

By the time I stepped off my flight in Kathmandu, the image of my goal was playing in technicolor in my brain, primed for manifesting.

But that is when reality strikes. I recognize that my vision must be shared by my partners for it to become more than a well-thought-out dream.

I am currently working with a fabulous young Australian woman named Chantelle Ridley, whom I hired to organize our Free the Elephant Program volunteers in Nepal.

Chantelle interned with me a year ago and has turned out to be a perfect fit for this job. Her easygoing attitude, combined with excellent people skills and intimate knowledge of Chitwan, has helped make our new volunteer program a smashing success.

Chantelle’s assistance frees me up to concentrate on the bigger picture of our Chain Free Means Pain Free Program work: identifying locations, designing chain-free corrals, managing the fence building crew from India and overseeing the local labor.

Each installation comes with its own unique set of challenges, both situational and logistical.

To ensure a water source for elephant bathing and drinking, most hattisars are built near a river, which means that they flood during monsoon season.

For safety, the mahouts (elephant staff) always want the chain-free corrals to be built directly adjacent to their sleeping quarters.  There is the constant threat of an unscheduled appearance of wild rhinos, man-eating tigers and menacing bull elephants in musth.

In some locations, available space is limited or there is sparse tree cover.

Contaminated soil caused by years of stockpiling and burning elephant manure is a universal issue.

With 31 corrals to our credit in 2014, I was overly confident that the next installation would follow the same successful route.

But I was in for a rude awakening. I immediately realized I would be facing my greatest challenge yet.

Both installations scheduled for this year house multiple elephants–ivory carrying males, females and calves. Like humans, elephants are individuals and even though they share common language and needs, they have unique personalities that must be acknowledged in order to improve their lives.

Upon arrival, my first challenge was to discover that the dense forest promised for 15 corrals was no longer available. Instead, it had been set aside for the local people, a decision that is difficult to argue with.

This left me with a dilemma: build corrals for ivory carrying males that I intuitively know are too small, or build nothing at all.

In Nepal decisions are made by unanimous agreement of the entire group involved. If one stockholder does not agree, the project will not move forward. Opinion was split: the mahouts, head veterinarian and an influential NGO wanted to keep the males on chains, while the chief warden and I wanted to make some degree of improvement and meet our goal of getting the bulls off chains.

After a healthy group discussion, we took a walking tour of the facility. Everyone agreed we would build mini-corrals, to see if they would work.

Optimism is my strong suit, definitely what drives me to believe that elephants in captivity can experience a better, more humane existence. I agreed to reduce the size of the chain-free corrals rather than building none at all.

After working diligently for two weeks to create six chain free corrals, the volunteers, fence crew, local labor, mahouts, chief warden and I were present for the unchaining. What a thrill.

But shortly after dark, after the crowd had dispersed and we were patting ourselves on the back, forty-year-old, mild mannered bull Dipendra Prasad effortlessly and silently removed the back gate of his corral and slipped out into the night.

When his escape was discovered, you could hear a collective exhale of disappointment.

This morning the mahouts returned Dipendra Prasad to the hattisar but only after a massive man hunt to bring him back.

Everyone is now in agreement that there is not enough space in this location for chain-free corrals for adult males. My job now is to get back to the drawing board and come up with solutions. Adult males are always the most challenging individuals to care for in captivity.

If we hope to provide a chain-free life for the mature ivory carrying bulls of Nepal, corrals must be spacious, heavy with trees and natural vegetation and away from human populated areas. Most important, they must be constructed of steel pipe!

But our effort at this location, the Sauraha hattisar, is not a total loss. Three acres of densely forested land has been set aside for a chain-free corral for three females and a young male.

The volunteers and fence crew are constructing the corral as we speak. The corral will be completed and the elephants; Loctundra Kali, Oma Kali, Sundar Mala and Paris Gaj, released from their chains within 7 days.

 

    


 

Haatha, hati, hatti, hathi, are all words referring to the Asian elephant. Kipling, in his infamous Jungle Book, gave life to his supporting character, naming him Colonel Hathi.

There is something pure and powerful about the Colonel as the representative of an entire species. He becomes more than himself: he is the conduit to the world of elephants, their ancient culture and lives.

I am continually amazed by the impact elephants have on people. Even those who have never been in the presence of an elephant can become obsessed with protecting them. It is as if elephants can reach into your soul and light a spark that defies reason. Their culture is complex, their nature compassionate and resilience indefinable.

A wild bull joins Sunder and friends

Recently I experienced a scene that touched me deeply. I was at the Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP) in India to inspect the chain free enclosure I’d designed for Sunder and his new family.

The staff excitedly told me that a young wild elephant had entered the enclosure 15 days prior and remained inside. I found this disconcerting. I imagined the young bull to be frightened and holed up in the back reaches of the 122 acres, hiding from the scary humans who surrounded the entrance and exit of the enclosure.

As I walked the fence line inspecting the corral, there were signs of another inspection. The young bull had made his rounds, leaving footprints and signs of dusting and foraging along the fence line on the inside, but no damage. I had no doubt that he was looking for a way out.

Yet, although the fence was newly completed and would not be operational until after my inspection, this jungle, pronounced junglee (wild) hatti (elephant) did not breach it. The solar power energizer had not yet been turned on, the fence wasn’t yet powered, so the bull would have felt no discomfort if he pushed through it to escape. I was curious why he hadn’t.

The jungle hatti appears

About two hours later, the mahouts became active, calling to each other and moving to the exterior of the enclosure, closer to the fence line. The mahouts understand the danger of wild elephants; I was told they were afraid of this hatti because he was wild.

When I first saw the jungle hatti my heart melted. He was just a kid, maybe 10 years old. His skin pigment was much darker than that of the two captive-held BBP residents who accompanied him into the clearing. The three stuck together like glue, with the jungle hatti sandwiched in the middle.

The mahouts nervously checked their escape routes. The jungle hatti tensed when they started yelling to warn each other that the wild one had emerged from the forest. I was in awe at the scene unfolding.

Once the hatti and his friends converged with other herd members, the tension in the air dissipated. All the elephants appeared quite comfortable with their wild cousin. In fact, they seemed to know each other quite well.

Shiva, the baby of the herd, could not get enough of his wild friend. He followed him around, pushed and shoved on his legs and trunk, trying to get the jungle hatti to play. What a sight — tiny Shiva and this wild 10-year-old, acting as if their interactions were common place. And perhaps they were.

During the daytime hours, the BBP herd is on exhibit in the drive-through safari section of the Park, corralled in a pasture area with a sizable pond. The new 122-acre chain free enclosure eliminates the need for the elephants to be chained during the day to contain them.

But at night, the entire herd is released in the nearby National Park to forage and commune with wild elephants. Captivity is a burden for elephants but this arrangement, releasing the elephants into the wild overnight, is genius and the healthiest captive situation I am aware of in India.

An adoptive family

Throughout the day, the jungle hatti continued to interact with the entire herd. When Shiva became too much of a pest, as a younger sibling sometimes is, the jungle hatti pushed Shiva off his feet. Without a single vocalization Shiva’s mother and aunt instantly moved in on either side of him.

I realized I was holding my breath when the elephants relaxed and returned to eating. Shiva got up, brushed himself off and went right back to pestering the jungle hatti.

It was then that I understood the relations was familiar. For whatever reason the jungle hatti left his biological family and had joined the BBP family. And they had accepted him.

He grazed with them, swam with them, dusted with them, communed with them. The only thing he had not yet done in the past two weeks was to leave the corral with them, but it was time.

Food and friends entice

The mahouts wanted suggestions how to get the jungle hatti to leave the corral. After I assured them that food and the companionship of his friends would entice the wild one to leave the corral, the mahouts had the confidence to implement a plan.

At 5pm, amidst anticipatory rumbles and trumpets, the food truck arrived. Buckets of prepared treats were unloaded, each containing supplemental, softball-size rice balls. Elephants and mahouts alike were in high gear, vocalizing and dashing around on opposite sides of the corral fence.

The young jungle hatti resumed his position sandwiched between the two other juveniles as they raced back and forth in unison, moving like a perfectly synchronized school of fish. His head and tail were raised, his eyes bugged. He was afraid, prompted by the noisy humans on the other side of the fence.

The jungle hatti and his bodyguards hung back while the other elephants were called from the corral. There was organized confusion as the elephants ran in every direction to their appointed mahout and food bucket. As mahouts gently placed the freshly prepared nutritious food balls inside the gaping mouths of their respective charges, the jungle hatti and friends continued to pace the inside of the corral.

Finally, it was time to see if the plan would work. The empty buckets had been gathered and, along with the nervous mahouts, were sitting in the back of the truck that stood ready to speed away if necessary.

As the jungle hatti and his escorts made a wide circle back toward the lake, one brave mahout opened the gate.

The jungle hatti nervously approached the open gate with his friends close on either side. At one point he broke ranks and turned to run away, but his friends quickly sandwiched him and helped guide him out through the open gate. He was seriously frightened but clearly he trusted his friends.

Once through the gate, it was all butts, raised tails and trumpets of excitement as the entire herd stampeded off toward the National Park.

The mahouts were all smiles as the elephants disappeared over the hill into the forest.

I have never before observed a more powerfully moving sight. This herd of elephants–some wild caught decades ago, some rescued from temples, some captive born at BBP–and one wild boy who chose them for his new family.