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,  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.



For the past few years, most of my time and energy has been devoted to freeing captive held elephants from chains.

Working alongside Nepali partners, we have created 37 chain free corrals, in 15 different elephant facilities. Before years end, we will add another five chain free corrals in two facilities in Thailand and a huge 100 acre habitat in India.

Chain Free Means Pain Free has caught on.

As more elephants are freed from leg chains, attention is shifting to the neck harness elephants wear during anti poaching patrol.

In the case of elephants in Nepal, the neck harness serves one purpose. It enables a mahout  to stay seated if his elephant become frightened and runs.

Some neck harnesses are made of rope. Others are a combination of rope and light weight chain. All are loose fitting and have loops for the mahouts’ feet. These loops lie flat along the side of the elephants’ neck, behind each ear.

Remaining seated when an elephant spins around and runs away is virtually impossible, unless you’re feet are strapped in.

In the case of Laxman Gaj and his twin brother Ram Gaj, a combination harness is used. The bottom half of the harness is chain. The half that goes over the top of their neck is rope.

Laxman and Ram are young elephants, only six years old. Regardless of their youth, they are required to participate in daily anti poaching patrol activities in Chitwan National Park. Being young, they are easily frightened when surprised by a wild rhino or tiger.

They wear the harness because when an elephant is frightened, he or she runs away. Spinning and then sprinting at speeds up to 30 miles per hour, can cause a rider to fall off.

Having a harness adds a sense of security for the mahout who clearly knows that if he falls from his elephant, while in proximity of a wild rhino or tiger, he will be killed.

When the elephant recovers from his or her fright, the patrol resumes.

When an elephant learns s/he is able to escape a frightening situation, their self confidence builds. With each exposure to wildlife their fear level is further diminished. By the time they reach adulthood, the elephant has gained the experience necessary to fearlessly encounter wild tigers, rhinos and bears.

Undoubtedly, some will insist that the harness is unnecessary as elephants should simply be returned to the wild. I have no problem with this argument. But, until such time as society evolves, some elephants are destined to remain in captivity.

Constructed and used properly, a neck harness is harmless and provides measurable benefits. The mahouts’ personal safety is guarded, while a young elephant is allowed his natural response to fear, without being punishment.

May 24, 2014, 8:30AM, Sauraha, Nepal.

The temperature is already 32 degrees Celsius (about 90 degrees Fahrenheit).

Tens of elephants are already hard at work.

Each morning at dawn, seven days a week, elephants are saddled up in preparation for another day of carrying tourists on safaris.

This is the routine the elephants will follow, year in and year out, until they die.

First, they are forced to lower themselves onto their elbows to accept the saddle. This unnatural position causes pain and irreversible damage to their elbows.

Next, a heavy canvas pad and ill-fitting howdah (saddle) are placed on their back. The pad and howdah are each so heavy, it takes two men to lift them, one at a time.

Then, a howdah strap is cinched tightly around their chest, lacerating sensitive flesh in their armpits and cutting the tissue of their breasts.

A second synthetic rope is tied from the back of the saddle under their tail, ripping deep gashes in the flesh around their anus.

The life of the safari elephant.

Safari elephants spend the day carrying tourists — four to six at a time — through the jungle in sweltering heat.

Elephants are poorly suited for this activity. The pad and howdah cause huge blisters that fester into deep abscesses that can take months to heal.

According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, four hours of exercise in the sun causes overheating and can be fatal. Laboring in direct sunlight, carrying too much weight – pad, saddle and tourists — elephants quickly become overheated.

What does it take to force an elephant to work under such conditions?


Mahouts hit the elephants over the head with heavy sticks, metal knives and axes. The wounds remain infected for weeks.

Bright white scarring can be observed across the forehead of virtually every working elephant in Nepal. The abuse is systematic, accepted by elephant owners, locals and the tourists.

The images haunt me.

I can’t help but wonder: Is this the memory of Nepal tourists want to take home with them? And what will it take for them to see the abuse?







Two years ago, a young captive born elephant broke free from an ancient tradition.

That was Prakriti Kali, the first elephant in Nepal to be released from chains.

Six months later, five more elephants were released from a lifetime in chains.

Mel Kali was the record holder in the herd, having lived in chains for nearly 70 years.

Culture shift continues in Nepal

On April 6th, at 4:30pm, Nepal made history again when all five resident elephants at the government’s Kasara hattisar went chain free!

Six-year-olds Tamor Kali and Himal Gaj were the first to be given their freedom. They wasted no time, finding the best scratching trees and dusting bowl.

Then, a few days later, after all six chain free corrals were completed, Prayan Kali, Laxmi Kali and Khosi Kali dropped the chains of tradition and went free as well.


Watching the elephants shed their chains and adapt to the change so effortlessly is breathtaking.

Young and old alike seem instinctively to know what is happening.

In synchronized movement, they revel in a scratching and dusting ritual. Nearly becoming one with the trees, they exfoliate every inch of their robust body. Even the tender skin behind their ears and under their massive legs get the invigorating treatment.

After the exfoliation is complete they follow up with a full-body dusting. In the most graceful slow motion, they fling trunkfuls of dirt under their bellies, on their backs and everywhere in between. This natural spa experience is essential for maintaining healthy skin.

Chained elephants are denied this opportunity.

Become an elephant

For one minute become an elephant. Close your eyes and step inside their skin. Feel the frustration when denied access to trees for scratching and clean dirt for dusting. Now feel the sensation of scratching every tick bite and itch spot until completely satisfied.

More good news to come

The five elephants in Kasara hattisar are just the beginning. When our project is complete, 63 elephants will enter the ranks of the chain-free.

A huge thank-you goes to Kamal Kunwar, chief conservation officer of Chitwan National Park, the hattisar staff and, of course, all who believe in and support this project.

Five freed. Fifty-eight to go!










March 29

The first two corrals at Kasara hattisar are finally ready.

The air is charged with anticipation.

Rescuing an elephant to sanctuary or releasing them from chains brings the same mix of emotions — anticipation, apprehension and excitement.

Each elephant is a unique individual with a distinct personality. Life’s experiences mold their behavior, shaping them as they mature. Each of them responds differently to different situations.

When I first arrived at the Kasara hattisar, I noticed that young Himal Gaj was resistant to his mahouts. He appeared fearful. An old scar at the base of his trunk indicated a past confrontation.

Watching the mahouts struggle through the morning routine, preparing Himal Gaj for duty, was disconcerting. I wondered how he and the mahouts would respond to going chain-free.

The mahouts were also concerned. They feared for their safety.

As a result, it was decided that Himal Gaj would be released from his tether but would wear loose hobbles until the mahouts felt safe around him.

It was disappointing that Himal Gaj would not immediately be completely free, but the compromise was the first step to his future freedom. If the mahouts fear for their safety, Himal Gaj would be destined for a life in chains.

With time and Compassionate Care Training I hoped Himal Gaj would settle down and become more responsive.

The chains come off

The elephants usually return from their anti-poaching patrol duties around 4pm. Chief Conservation Officer Kamal Kunwar postponed a scheduled meeting so he could be present for this auspicious occasion.

Just before 4pm, the hattisar suba arrived. He’d been out of office for a couple of weeks.  He and Kamal discussed the plan in Nepali. I would soon see that following their brief conversation plans would change dramatically.

The elephants arrived back from the forest. To my surprise and contrary to the plan, Himal Gaj was walked directly into his new chain-free corral. He was not put on loose hobbles. Calmly and confidently, his mahout gave the command tobite (stretch out on his sternum).  Without hesitation or fear, Himal Gaj calmly responded.

I realized that the mahout I’d seen with Himal Gaj the past week was now assisting, rather than riding.

In that moment things became perfectly clear. The mahout to whom Himal Gaj was resistant to this past week was the junior mahout. And now that his main mahout was back from vacation, everything was fine.

Himal Gaj waited patiently as his gear was removed. Then he rose and immediately began dusting, as his friend and senior mahout left the corral.

What a difference a good relationship makes.

Kamal Kunwar’s turn

I did not have time to dwell on the glory of Himal Gaj’s transformation because Tamor Kali was about to enter her chain-free corral for the first time.

Kamal Kunwar was sincerely excited, filming her first chain-free steps like a proud father.

After seeing how well Himal Gaj responded to his mahout, everyone was engaged and relaxed. They gestured at both young elephants free-of-chains with huge smiles on their faces.

Now was the time to stand back and savor the moment. The instant that life changed for two young elephants and their family of mahouts.

The three other elephants stood chained under their shelter watching the scene.

I whispered, “You’re next ladies.”

It will be close to a week before the other corrals are completed. Without a doubt, Khosi Kali, Laxmi Kali and Prayna Kali, who have all been prisoners to chains for decades, will transition seamlessly.

Imagine the joy when they are all chain-free. Heart bursting JOY!

The framework for all six chain-free corrals at the Kasara hattisar is in place.

Support and brace posts are concreted. Gateposts mark the entrance to each new corral.

Heart work

Eyeing the progress of this project, my heart pounds. Here it comes, that joyfully intoxicating feeling cursing through my veins.

My eyes transport the image to my heart. My heart responds, sending a warm glow through my body, filling my eyes with tears. My heart swells with the promise of a better life for these elephants.

In this moment I stand in my personal space of pure peace. I caress it. Breathe it in deeply. I don’t attempt to own it, only experience it, knowing the feeling is a gift meant to be experienced not possessed.

Some people meditate, others run, cycle or climb mountains to connect to that place within where they feel most themselves, most centered, most peaceful.

This is the place of autonomy and personal freedom.

Such activity can literally become an addiction, in the best sense of the word.

Watching the chain-free corrals come to life before my eyes is my addiction. Knowing that my actions help reduce the suffering of captive-held elephants brings me great joy! It is heart work, soul fulfilling work. My meditation.

At times the joy is overwhelming and I just have to cry. Seeing elephants gain even a semblance of autonomy moves me to do more. Knowing that we are able to help bring some peace and freedom to their lives drives me.

I may never know any of these elephants personally. But that is not the point of my work. I am not here to expand my elephant family. I am here to better the lives of these elephant.

They know we are helping them. That is good enough for me.

Construction continues

The next step is to string the wire between support posts and hand-build the topes (post protectors).

Each corral is one full acre in size. It is equipped with six strands of wire equaling nearly one mile of wire per corral.

Ditches will be dug to bury the wires that enable each corral to operate independently.

Last, the steel box that contains and protects the energizer and batteries will be installed and wired to the solar panel that powers the system.

A perfect vantage point

From the open-air raised platform that I have claimed for my new office, I survey the work site. What a gift to witness this miracle unfolding right before my eyes.

A humble thanks to Kamal Kunwar, Chitwan National Park chief conservation officer, the entire hattisar staff, our IBEX fence crew and all of you who have contributed to this worthwhile project.

Together we are improving elephant welfare, showing due respect to these wise, kind and self-aware beings who grace our planet and our lives.


Himal Gaj is a six-year-old captive born elephant. His father is the dominant wild bull in the area. His mother is a wild born, captive resident of the elephant breeding center at Khosor, Chitwan, Nepal.









Himal  Gaj was one of five young elephants trained together at the breeding center several months ago. Until their formal training, they lived with their mothers.

All five elephants were chained from the age of three months. Chaining is the practice all over Asia. Domestic livestock and captive elephants are tied or chained. It is the cheapest way to keep them in one place.









The training technique used with Himal Gaj and the others at the breeding center was a deviation from the traditional pujan, a brutal breaking of spirit. Introduced by a foreign NGO, a mixture of traditional methods was used—including the use of koonkie elephants, negative reinforcement and punishment—combined with positive reinforcement techniques known to be successful with domestic horses.

Unfortunately, once training began, Himal Gaj showed signs of aggression and resistance. He was frightened by the training process and responded poorly to his mahouts. A few months later his training was deemed unsuccessful.

No video, photographic or written records exist to document the daily training process and Himal Gaj’s progress and difficulties.

But it does not take such documentation to see that Himal Gaj is a very insecure individual.

Although Himal Gaj responds well when his mahout is riding, his weakness is responding to commands when his mahout is on the ground.









Himal Gaj is a good example of the importance of sound training techniques, mahout training and follow through.

Captive elephants are not domesticated—they are wild animals living in a captive environment. Even generations born in captivity are not domesticated. The scientific process of breeding selected individuals for specific traits is the process required to create a domestic species. This has never been undertaken with elephants.

In the case of all elephants born at the breeding facility in Khosor, the mothers are wild born living in captivity and the fathers are wild born living in the wild.

Himal Gaj’s mahouts are as gentle as I have seen anywhere. They are patient but frustrated. What the training process failed to do was give them the tools necessary to help Himal Gaj learn.

As a result, all are left feeling like failures. Without intervention, Himal Gaj is doomed to be a dangerous elephant for the remainder of his life.

The good news is that the mahouts and Kamal Kunwar, the chief commanding officer of Chitwan National Park, are receptive to Himal Gaj receiving additional training. His private training course will begin soon.

This is such exciting news. I feared Himal Gaj would remain a lost cause in the minds of the mahouts. But before his chain-free corral is completed Himal Gaj, will be well on his way to understanding what is expected of him and his mahouts will have gained the humane tools to understand and assist him in his training process.

Feb 14, 2014

Hi my dear Tarra,

Happy Birthday! I can hardly believe you are turning 40. It just doesn’t seem possible, does it? I miss you babe, and hope you have a fabulous birthday!

I sure wish we could be together today. But since we can’t, I’m on the other side of the planet helping your cousins. I know you are proud of my work. Heck, you’re the inspiration.

Just thinking about you makes me smile and brings my heart joy. Even though I am unable to see you right now, I appreciate feeling your presence. It is the special gift you’ve always shared with those you love. Our separation is temporary; our bond, forever and unbreakable.

By the way, your chain-free corral idea was a winner. It is such a simple and affordable way to get elephants off chains. You’re a genius! I wish I had thought of that one myself. Until we are reunited, keep sending me your great inspirations. I know you will.



It’s easy to look at an elephant shackled by both front feet to the ground, with open wounds, and blame the mahout.

But I challenge you to learn the facts.

Elephants belong to hotel owners

In Chitwan, Nepal, mahouts do not own elephants. Elephants are the private property of hotel owners, who use them to augment their income by offering elephant back safaris to overnight guests and daytrippers coming to Chitwan in search of fun and adventure.

Elephant back safaris not only provide a bountiful financial benefit for the owner, they are actually the life’s blood of Chitwan.

In Sauraha, Chitwan’s tourist destination, every shopkeeper, restaurant owner, hotel, bar, service provider, wilderness guide, money changer, street vendor and orphanage owe their survival to these elephants. Without elephant safaris, this tourist destination would cease to exist.

Grueling work schedule

All day long, 24/7, mahouts and elephants give safari rides in the community forest.

Mahouts train, feed and ready the elephants for the rides. It is a grueling job for both.  Up at 4:30am, the pair sets out on the long trek to the safari loading area as the rising sun lights up the morning sky.

During what is supposed to be a one-hour lunch and rest period, the elephants instead are taken to a riverfront area where tourists mount them to have their photo taken.

Walking back and forth to the safari ride area, tourist bathing area and home stable, while carrying hundreds of pounds of tourists for hours at a time, takes its toll on elephant and mahout alike.

At dusk, and even into the dark of night, elephants can be seen silhouetted against the sky trudging down the paved roads of Chitwan toward their home stable.

Mahouts: Overworked, underpaid and devalued

Elephant owners know nothing about elephants and rely on the mahouts to keep the elephants alive and working without killing tourists. This is a heavy burden to put on overworked, underpaid and devalued employees.

When mahouts “ask for more,” be it food for themselves or the elephants, they are chastised. Many owners view the mahouts as stupid, uneducated and unmotivated and blame them for the elephant’s unsanitary living conditions and poor health.

Yet mahouts are not provided even the most basic supplies to ensure the health and wellbeing of the elephants in their care. Owners fail to supply nutritious food but blame the mahouts for the elephant’s poor health. Stables are rancid cesspools because no provision is made for waste disposal. Many stables don’t even have a source of fresh water. For this, the mahout is unjustly blamed.

A marginalized community

The truth is that the mahouts are a marginalized community. The custom of treating them as poorly as the elephants is woven into the fabric of society and their living conditions are a mirror image of those of the elephants.

Mahouts learn their trade on the job, from senior mahouts. Their lot in life dictates they do as they are told without question. They hit the elephants because they are taught they must in order to ensure the elephant does not kill them.

Still, this does not excuse how the mahouts mistreat the elephants.

Abuse can be eliminated

Through education and culture shifting, elephant abuse can be eliminated.

Demonizing either owners or mahouts is not the solution.

The first step is understanding why the situation exists and accepting the challenge to help move culture forward.

Owners must be held responsible and mahouts educated.

This will result in improved welfare for the elephants in Chitwan.

How we can help

Developing sustainable assistance programs is essential. Live demonstrations, educational resources such as videos and manuals, translators and hands-on assistance are needed to improve mahout knowledge and understanding of new approaches to elephant care.

This is Elephant Aid International’s mission. By providing bi-annual foot trimming; training mahouts and vet techs in the skill of foot trimming; teaching positive reinforcement training philosophy and techniques; and constructing chain-free corrals, we are laying the foundation for positive change.

EAI doesn’t blame the mahouts. We give them the tools necessary to take better care of their elephants. Click here to sponsor a mahout.