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 and their introduction to their new chain-free corral 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.






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.



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!