Male Elephants in Captivity

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

Progress Involves Three Steps Forward and One Step Back

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.




Elephant abuse in Nepal: Are the mahouts really to blame?

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.

Chain-Free Hattisar Project

National Trust for Nature Conservation – Biodiversity Conservation Center Chitwan, Nepal



Project completed Jan 10, 2013

 Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation

Jhamak Karki, Chief Warden-Chitwan National Park

Dr. Kamal Gairhe, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian-Chitwan National Park

National Trust for Nature Conservation

Naresh Subedi, Senior Conservation Officer

Chiranjibi Pd. Pokheral, Senior Conservation Officer-Biodiversity Conservation Center

Babu Ram Lamichhane, Conservation Officer-Biodiversity Conservation Center

Dr. Arjun Pandit, Staff Veterinarian- Biodiversity Conservation Center

In collaboration with

Elephant Aid international-USA

Carol Buckley, Founder and CEO


In January 2013, construction was completed on a solar-powered chain-free hattisar at the National Trust for Nature Conservation’s Biodiversity Conservation Center (NTNC-BCC).

This first-of-its-kind pilot project was developed to study the benefits of working elephants in Nepal living chain-free.

Six elephants, ranging from seven months to seventy-plus years, currently live in five interconnected chain-free corrals designed to improve their welfare.

The elephants spend an average of fifteen hours in the hattisar each day. In the past they were hobbled by both front legs, chained under a shelter that prevented natural posturing and healthy physical activity.

Now, living in the chain-free corral, each elephant is free to move at will and engage in natural behavior such as dusting, foraging, sleeping, bathing, walking, playing. In the case of Man Kali and her children, eight-year-old daughter Prakriti Kali and seven-month-old son Hem Gaj, this related family is able to engage in normal social behavior.

Corral construction and operating system

The corral’s operating system is a solar-powered energizer with a double battery back-up. Three hours of sunlight is required to keep the batteries charged for 10 days.

Specifically designed for wildlife, the corral administers a mild shock upon contact. Due to the pulsating current, it is virtual harmless. Being highly sensitive to the clicking sound of the current, most elephants avoid the fence without ever coming into contact with it.

 The chain-free hattisar consists of five interconnected corrals on approximately two-and-one-half acres of open and wooded land.

The corrals stand seven feet tall, constructed of rust-free steel posts and six strands of high tensile wire. Each post is encased in a protective tope.

Each corral has a front, back and side gate for ease of access for cleaning, feeding, moving elephants in and out and providing socialization opportunities.

The energizer and batteries are housed inside the mahout residence; two solar panels that charge the batteries are attached to the roof of the residence.

Each corral is equipped with a cut-off switch enabling independent operation.

This design has proven successful in many areas of Asia to prevent entry by wild bull elephants.












All corrals have a custom-made concrete water trough that provides clean water.  Fresh water is stored in an elevated water tank and troughs are filled by gravity feed. 

Healthy trees are an important component of the chain-free corrals, providing shade, browse and a natural scratching surface.

To prevent serious damage to trees from elephant tusking activity, protectors were built around select trees.


·   Reduce or eliminate stereotypical behavior caused by chaining

·   Eliminate low-level long-term stress caused by chaining

·   Increase physical activity

·   Encourage engagement in natural species-specific behavior such as  foraging, dusting, bathing, walking, playing, socializing and exploring

·   Eliminate injuries and bone and joint damage

·   Improve foot health

·   Maintain elephants’ compliance with mahout authority


·   Ethogram

·   Husbandry protocol

·   Management protocol

·   Feeding protocol


In order to quantify the effectiveness of the chain-free corral, an ethogram spreadsheet was      created to track a list of natural and stereotypical behaviors, including walking, eating, dusting, playing, exploring, drinking, socializing, sleeping and exhibiting stereotypic behaviors.


Manure removal and corral cleanliness standards were established to ensure the highest level of hygiene.


Training and management practices for inside the corral were established to give elephants a sense of freedom and security.


Changes to traditional feeding practices were established to promote activity and alleviate boredom.


Each elephant spends approximately 15 hours each day in the chain-free corrals. The remainder of their time is spent in Chitwan National Park engaged in grass collecting, anti-poaching patrols and conservation work and jungle safaris.

Upon first introduction to the chain-free corrals, each elephant calmly explored the area, foraging, dusting and scratching on trees. Each evening they dig in the soft dirt of the forest, creating a comfortable sleeping spot; none return to the stable area to sleep.

The related family of Man Kali, Prakriti Kali and Hem Gaj are housed together. They bonded immediately when united in the chain-free corral and continue to exhibit healthy elephant behavior, with Prakriti Kali assuming the role of big sister to Hem Gaj.

A survey was conducted to track the behavior of the elephants toward the mahouts and drivers. Mahout compliance has not changed. Each elephant continues to respond favorably to mahouts and drivers—both inside and outside the corral—at the same high level as before being released from chains.

Photographic records are being kept to track foot health and bone and joint conditions.

Collectively, the elephants’ behavior represents a substantial improvement in natural activity and reduction in stress and stereotypical behavior.


The goal to eliminate stress from chaining and the resulting stereotypic behavior is realized. Adherence to the new feeding protocol ensures that both Prakriti Kali and Mel Kali do not engage in stereotypic, food anticipatory behavior. Since being introduced into the chain-free corral hattisar, all elephants engage in appropriate, beneficial, species-specific behavior; respond favorably to their mahouts; and appear to be calm and comfortable in their new environment, indications that the project is meeting its goals and objectives.

December 18, 2012 – E-Newsletter

I am back in Nepal. So much has happened during my first month here!

I accepted a kind offer from the National Trust for Nature Conservation’s Biodiversity Conservation Center to live on-grounds. It was a good decision. There is always something interesting going on, local and foreign students visiting and opportunities to learn about the work of the many conservationists on NTNC-BCC’s staff.

We have already trimmed feet at the two government Centers, NTNC and some private stables, but foot trimming has taken a back seat to other projects for now.

Expanding the chain-free corral in a big way

When I arrived, the first order of business was identifying a location for an additional chain-free corral at NTNC-BCC for Man Kali and her new calf.  After I described my long-term aspirations for NTNC’s elephants, senior staff suggested that we petition to expand our chain-free corral pilot project to include the entire hattisar (elephant compound). I was deliriously happy with the idea that we might be given permission to convert the entire hattisar all at once.

Chitwan National Park’s chief warden and senior veterinarian, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation’s ecologist and NTNC’s officer-in-charge explored the idea and unanimously endorsed it. The project is scheduled to begin December 15th.

The funds to build the expanded corral were donated by EAI’s dedicated supporters including a most generous and timely donation from the Harrison Sanford Jackson estate. This donation has come at the perfect time for EAI to make a serious impact on elephant welfare in Nepal with this chain-free hattisar, the first of its kind in the country.


Not only does the chain-free corral expansion mean that all six NTNC-BCC hattisar elephants will never again be shackled, the design enables them to socialize with each other.

Reuniting the family

Knowing the importance of the mother and calf bond, you can imagine how excited I was when Dr. Gairhe, Chitwan National Park’s senior government veterinarian, suggested that the family group at NTNC be allowed to live together in the same corral.

Even though Prakriti Kali and her mother both live in the same hattisar, they have not been allowed to socialize for four years, since Prakriti Kali was formally trained. This practice of separation is traditional, meant to break the mother/calf bond.

But onlookers can see that the bond between Prakriti Kali and her mother is still strong. On occasion when they are relatively close, Prakriti Kali rumbles, her mom responds and Prakriti Kali instantly assumes a posture that the mahouts refer to as “four feet together”: an awkward, stereotypical posture she exhibits when she appears to be soliciting comfort.

Dr. Gaihre’s recommendation and the blessing of PasPat, the mahout supervisor, means that Prakriti Kati will be reunited with her biological mother after four years of separation. She will also meet her baby brother Hem Gaj, for the very first time. Together the three will share a chain-free space designed specifically for them.

Anyone who has witnessed the reunion of Shirley and Jenny

in the award-winning documentary “The Urban Elephant” can imagine what this reunion will look and sound like. Elephant reunions–there is nothing more moving.

And be sure to watch this short video  about our work in Nepal, and hear from Prakriti Kali aka Sweetie Kali’s mahout about the difference a chain-free corral has made in her life.

A life lost to herpes

Shortly after I arrived in Nepal, a two-year-old calf at the Government Breeding Center succumbed to the herpes virus. This insidious disease is relatively new to Nepal but has claimed the lives of many captive-born elephants in the US, where extensive research is being conducted.

The loss of any elephant is heart wrenching, but to lose a baby is particularly difficult. The mahouts were quite obviously grief stricken as they gathered in near-silence to bury one of the youngest members of their family. Incense was burned and prayers given as the mahouts dropped flowers into her grave. One of the young veterinarians in attendance said that the mahouts view the elephant as having personhood status. To them, losing this calf was the same as losing a family member.

Since herpes is a virus, there is no vaccination to guard against it. It appears and kills quickly, usually within days of the first signs (lethargy and dark spots on the tongue). The medication prescribed to help combat the disease has had mixed results and, as I found out, is not available in Nepal. Thankfully, our friends at Wildlife SOS-India came to our rescue.  Dr. Yaduraj spent days locating the volume of drug required. After three shippers refused to ship to Nepal, he found one who was willing. There was one last delay—when the package was returned to Wildlife-SOS for additional address information—then it was finally sent on its way. Our sincerest thanks go to Dr. Yaduraj for his assistance purchasing and shipping the medication to us.

Getting accurate weights in case

 All babies and their mothers at the breeding center were weighed. If any of the babies become ill, Dr. Gaihre will be able to prescribe an accurate dose of medicine.

If treatment is needed, the veterinarian must know the patient’s weight in order to prescribe the accurate dose of medication. It was decided that all the elephants should be weighed in the event another baby is stricken with the virus. There is a scale on-grounds but the elephants needed to be trained to step onto the platform.  They all did great but the calves were especially fabulous. They all took their turn to step onto the platform. None showed a bit of fear; each of them walked confidently across the platform to receive a tasty treat.

Checking tongues

As an added precautionary measure, the babies were also trained for tongue examinations, a simple and painless procedure to detect the disease in its early stages.

The babies were willing participants in the Compassionate Elephant Care training method, which uses only positive reinforcement. Within three days all the calves were happily laying their trunk back across their forehead and sticking out their tongue for their reward: a juicy orange slice. With the trunk and tongue in this position mahouts can easily examine the calf’s tongue for abnormalities.

EAI paid for a shipment of medication used to combat herpes and worked with mahouts to show them how to train the babies for tongue examinations.

The mahouts are now checking the babies’ tongues twice a day–once in the morning before going to the forest and then again in the evening when they return. Hopefully the virus will not strike again but, if it does, the mahouts’ vigilance could make all the difference.

Still fighting for Mali

Efforts to move Mali from her solitary existence in a zoo in the Philippines to a sanctuary in Thailand continue. An op ed by Carol comparing Mali’s life to that of Tina, who came to live at The Elephant Sanctuary, appeared this summer in a paper in the Philippines .  Since then, Carol’s op ed has also appeared in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times  and, most recently, the Bangkok Post

And now we are three

EAI will soon celebrate its third anniversary. It’s hard to believe we have come so far and accomplished so much in such a short period of time.

We have been able to do so much – and have such an impact – because you share our dream and continue to support the important work we do. With so many needy elephants in situations that, at times, are overwhelming, it is essential to know that you are backing our efforts to make life better for captive-held elephants in Asia.

It doesn’t matter if we are building chain-free corrals, teaching mahouts to handle their elephants in a gentler manner, providing pedicures to any elephant in need or stockpiling medicine to treat baby elephants infected with the herpes virus, you are always there to make sure that we are able to provide swift and humane assistance, one elephant at a time.

We cannot do it without you. At a time when elephants are fighting for their very existence across Asia and Africa, you help EAI make a real difference. I know you will remember these hardworking and many times neglected elephants in your year-end giving.

2013 promises to be another year of challenges and change for the better. I look forward to continuing our work together.

Happy Holidays and Namaste,


A precious soul lost

It’s been a pretty intense week. A two-year-old female calf at the breeding center was diagnosed with herpes. Even though she received treatment, she passed away two days later.

Herpes is near-epidemic among elephants in the US and recently reared its ugly head in Chitwan. Young calves between the ages of one and three seem to be most susceptible but there are records of juveniles and adults dying from the disease as well.

You’ll remember Bhadra, the fabulous flaming redhead we trained with positive reinforcement in Sauraha, Nepal. He died of the herpes virus last year, shortly before his second birthday. His mahout was so devastated that he left his job and returned to his home village.

Famciclovir, the treatment of choice for herpes, is not available in Nepal and must be imported from India. A small elephant can require as many as 1000 pills to fight the virus. The exorbitant cost—75 cents per pill—and large quantity needed, made stockpiling the medication impossible.

The calf was given available medication and was under treatment and constant surveillance as I arrange for a shipment of Famciclovir from friends at Wildlife SOS-India. Unfortunately, the drug did not arrive in time to save her. She died in the night with her mother stoically standing by. Records indicate that even with Famciclovir many calves do not survive.

I accompanied the team for the necropsy and somber burial; both were done with the utmost respect. All the mahouts were present and, for the first time in my observation, near silent. As Dr. Gaihre led the exploratory necropsy, examining and collecting tissue samples for lab work, the mahouts dug a grave. It was a sad and sobering experience. This calf had the classic symptoms of herpes–severe hemorrhaging–but otherwise was a very healthy elephant.

When it came time to lay her body to rest, I instinctively glanced around for wild flowers to place on her grave, just as we always did at the Sanctuary. After her precious body was covered with a sparkling clean white linen cloth, incense was lit and ceremonial red powder and flowers were sprinkled over her covered body. When the flowers I collected left my hand and floated down into her grave, a wave of gentle remembering engulfed my heart as I thought of the beloved elephants who had lived and died at the Sanctuary. At this moment we were all one, sharing the loss of a sacred soul.

The senior wildlife staff presided over the burial. Although the words spoken over her grave were in Nepalese and foreign to my ear, I knew exactly what the prayers were. It was the same ceremony, the same prayers uttered each time we buried another precious elephant at the Sanctuary. Like never before, I felt a connection with the mahouts who care as deeply for their elephants as we do ours.

Preparing for next time

The signs of herpes include dark spots on the tongue. By checking the tongue twice a day, the disease can be diagnosed in the early stages. In an effort to monitor the other three young calves at the breeding center, I was asked to train them for tongue examinations, a request that I was happy to fulfill.

The first day of training was a heart-lifting success. We were able to get the calves to place their trunks on their foreheads—for a tasty piece of banana—and took photos of their tongues.

Additionally, I ordered Famciclovir. Even though the drug may expire before it can be used, I feel strongly that having it on-hand whenever possible is important.  We were not able to help one precious elephant but if the disease strikes again we will be better prepared.

A Google search for elephant herpes virus will result in a volume of information about this deadly disease. Help us prepare for the next time.  If you wish to contribute to the cost of Famciclovir for calves at the Chitwan Elephant Breeding Center, please do so through our Chip-In.

Back in Sauraha, Chitwan, Nepal

Working in Asia the past two years I have learned a tremendous amount about how culture and tradition affect collaborative conservation efforts. Among the most important lessons is the need to ensure project sustainability. No matter how groundbreaking or beneficial the project promises to be, it must be sustainable to be successful.

Ways to sustain the project must be identified during the planning stage, otherwise the effort put into it will have been wasted. Sustainability determines success and people ensure sustainability.

Before returning to Chitwan, I wondered if our chain-free yard pilot project for Sweetie Kali, aka Prakriti Kali, would prove to be sustainable. Although I prepared myself for less, I hoped the mahouts had truly embraced this welfare project. Success hinged on their acceptance of this approach to elephant care, which is nearly the polar opposite to their tradition.

As I approached the elephant stables I saw Sweetie Kali foraging in her personal forest. The dense scrubs were a faint memory but the mature trees were standing tall, providing shade and enrichment, just as they had when we built the yard last May.

I was pleased and honestly a bit relieved to see that the chain-free fence was in pristine condition. The staff, under the direction of Chiran Pokheral, the officer in charge, did a fabulous job of ensuring the success of our pilot project.

It’s my nature to push headlong into the next project forgetting to take a moment to bask in the glow of a collaborative project well done. It is too easy to get swept away in the excitement of something new and forget to thank the people responsible for making everything happen.

In addition to Paspat and the mahouts, who were completely receptive to the changes in their routine that a chain-free yard required, many other individuals, including Chiran Pokheral, Dr. Gairhe, Ram Kumar, Babu Ram, Nandu, Vishnu and Dibyendu and his crew, made this project possible. Without their support and assistance, this project would never have come to fruition, much less become sustainable.

Special thanks goes to Chiran Pokheral who, after securing the required clearances, made sure I had access to plumbers, electricians and day laborers, and the cooperation of everyone needed to complete the project. Without Chiran we would still be dreaming about a chain-free yard instead of watching Prakriti Kali thrive in it.

Dr. Gairhe, the senior government veterinarian, also played a key role in the project’s success. A true conservationist, Dr. Gairhe’s endorsement and oversight of the project provided the much-needed assurance at the government level.

Now that I am back in Sauraha, it’s time to identify a location for the second chain-free yard. This yard will be for Man Kali and her three-and-a-half month old calf Hem Gaj. Once again we turn to Chiran Sir,  Dr. Gairhe and the NTNC staff  to lead us in our effort to improve elephant welfare in Nepal.

Forest Dwellers

Today’s foot trimming adventure was over the top, a marathon day with Dr. Gairhe—the senior government veterinarian—leading the way.

Kiran and Chitran, the two vet tech/3rd year foot trimming students, and I fit perfectly in the back seat of the full-size pickup truck…or so I thought when we all piled in. If it had not been for the road conditions, the ride would have been…well, let’s say, less memorable. I’m not complaining — far from it — and I enjoyed every minute of our 14-hour adventure.

One thing that struck me this time in Nepal is realizing my unconscious expectation of comforts that I take for granted in the US. Sitting between two large men, bouncing down a seriously bumpy road and being slammed side-to-side like bumper cars, I realized that I accepted this assignment with an unreasonable expectation of transportation comfort. The reality of the situation made me laugh.

The Nepalese don’t fret over physical discomfort, they simply accept it. So when I started joking about the guys staying on their own side of the seat, it soon became a humorous game. When Kiran would absent mindedly crowd my space, I drew an imaginary line between us and said, “You have crossed the line,” and like two adolescents we’d crack up with laughter. Soon everyone got into the game of not invading each other’s space, so when Kiran flopped his entire arm over Chitran’s leg, he was abruptly chastised—jokingly. Everyone broke out into hysterical laughter. It was refreshingly silly to experience such discomfort and be able to laugh about it together.

Humor aside, I realized that if I continued to be thrown back and forth between the football player-size shoulders on either side of me, I was going to be very sore, if not crippled by the end of the day, so I pulled rank (age, actually) and claimed the window seat. This was much better for me as I could press myself against the door and hang onto the armrest for security.

Four outposts, seven elephants and a canoe like a swimming pool

Our mission for the day was to visit four government outposts to trim the feet of seven elephants. Our first stop was Gadini outpost, a place we visited last year. After driving for nearly two hours we arrived on the bank of a beautiful river. The flimsy wooden canoe that would carry us to our destination was on the opposite side of the river. The boat man soon appeared and to my amusement proceeded to bail out the canoe—it had taken on quite a bit of water—before heading in our direction.

In order to board in peaceful waters we hiked a short distance upstream. The day was already steamy hot. Tiny frogs scattered as we approached the water’s edge, disappearing into the calm shallows.

Our canoe was waiting when we arrived and we gingerly climbed aboard. A real man, or woman for that matter, sits on the floor of the boat. But customs are changed for foreigners. The government guard post on our side of the river provided tiny wooden seats for our canoeing comfort—and to keep our backsides dry. I kind of wondered where the life jackets were, since the canoe was already taking on water through cracks in the flimsy wooden planks strapped together with giant metal staples. To add to the drama, Dr. G asked “Can you swim?” I can’t remember not knowing how to swim, and wondered the level of fear one would experience crossing this fast-moving river in a boat that resembled a swimming pool, not knowing how to swim.

With a smooth push off from a ten-foot bamboo pole, the boat master expertly guided us into the swiftly moving current. The water picked up volume and speed and within minutes we were deposited on the opposite bank without incident. We disembarked and hiked the short distance into the forest to the outpost. The forest was lush and green and teaming with active, boisterous bird life.

Gadini outpost: Healthy feet and relaxed elephants

Namastes were exchanged and then it was right to work. Kiran requested that the crew pa (machete) be sharpened, which is effectively done on a large rock with sand. No power sharpening tools here: they use the available resources and manage just fine.

Elephants Sano Chanchal Kali and Rampyari were tethered under separate shelters bordered by the forest. The stables were clean and the girls looked on calmly.

With a simply utterance of bite (lie down), Sano Chanchal Kali slowly folded to the ground without resistance or concern. We were all so pleased to see that her pads were healthy and evenly worn and her nails were only slightly overgrown.

As I took “before” photos, put on my girly gloves and prepared my exacto blades, which are also kind of girly, the guys were already trimming excess nail with precision that is hard to imagine when using a machete. I am in awe of how well the men handle this tool, but they grow up using it, starting with cutting grass to feed livestock and later as a knife to cut anything.

Sano Chanchal Kali took this special time of hati la na pita (don’t hit the elephant) to drop off into a fairly sound sleep for most of her trimming. She shifted to her other side without resistance and allowed us to give her one of the most beautiful pedicures to date!

Almost in an identical fashion to her sister, Rampyri folded to the ground following a simple verbal command. The mahouts have gotten the word: if you want this crew to trim feet, no hitting allowed. Refreshing for us and for the elephant. Rampyri’s feet were another pleasant surprise, pads evenly worn and supple, nails only slightly overgrown and no sign of decay or infection. The crew commented on “what easy feet” these were.

Our work in this camp was completed in record time thanks to the healthy condition of the elephants’ feet and the relationship they share with their mahouts.

Honestly, I can’t remember if we had our home cooked meal at this outpost or the next — those details seem to blur together — but I do remember that to get to the second outpost we got back into the canoe and floated downstream for some time. A black egret fished on the shoreline ahead and a white breasted Kingfisher swooped past us in pursuit of a meal. Without any initial sign of elephant or mahout life, we landed again on the riverbank and hiked a short distance to the second camp.

These camps are inside the national forest, which, in this location, is an island. Dr. G told us that wild bulls do not cross the river encircling this island. No one knows why, but as result of this phenomenon, captive bulls can be kept on the island without fear of being attacked by wild bulls.

Kurauli post: More healthy feet and easy pedicures

As with Gideni, the elephants at Kurauli post were aware of our arrival. Dhirendra Kali and Gandaki Kali, were waiting—mahouts casually mounted on top—surveying the approaching team.

Before having hardly a chance to settle in, I heard “bit” followed by “raw,” which meant our first client had reclined and was awaiting her pedicure. We now operate quite smoothly as a crew. While I unpacked trimming tools, gloves and camera, the others examined the client’s feet and prepared for trimming by sharpening the machetes.

We all commented on how great Dhirendra Kali’s feet looked. I liked the pattern I was seeing. The more remote the outpost, the better condition the elephants and their feet were in, the more skilled the mahouts were and the less pressure the elephants experienced when requests were made for their compliance. But of course, they were living in their element with the river nearby, sheltered under giant trees, on natural substrate and plenty of exercise combing the forest for poachers.

With such healthy feet, there was little work for the crew. Shave off overgrown nails a little, check for decayed areas and she was done. Another easy pedicure!

When Dhirendra Kali left the trimming area she let out a “Queenie-squeak.” It transported me back in time to the Sanctuary overlook at the Q-barn with Minnie, Lottie and Queenie playing in the mud, Queenie making her distinctive squeaks nonstop. Dhirendra Kali’s gentle sound brought back a very a pleasant memory for me. I accepted it as the gift it was.

But this was not time for daydreaming because Gandaki Kali was already in place and waiting for her pedicure. I was pleased to see that her nails and pads were also healthy and only slightly overgrown.

It is so encouraging to see that these elephants are getting sufficient exercise, on appropriate substrate, which is why their feet are so healthy.

To be continued….

a fiery red head

I’ve got a new heartthrob. He is smart, dark and seriously handsome, with a full head of fiery red hair! Admittedly on the young side, Bhadra still lives with his mom and spends the entire day gallivanting in the Chitwan National Forest.

We met two days ago and have spent only limited time together but let me tell you this little boy is smart. He is my latest ele-student, one year old and full of spunk and sweetness. There goes another piece of my heart!

Bhadra lives at a private resort on the border of Chitwan National Park with his mother, his sister and other non-related family. The resort has been closed for a couple of years, making life that much easier on this elephant family. No tourist rides, just lazy days in the forest and short training sessions, when Bhadra gets to demonstrate to his mahouts what elephants are capable of when trained through positive reinforcement.

The mahouts have been fabulous, very interested and engaged. Bhadra has only had four 15-minute sessions over the past two days and now responds to agot (come here) and ra (stand still), and presents his pow (foot), kan (ear) and thuk mud (head) when asked. Things were a little slow getting started because Bhadra surprised me by not liking bananas or apples. His mahouts knew exactly what he would like — molasses. One taste of the favored treat and he was all ears, head and feet!

What a blessing it has been to work with him. Hopefully together we have planted a seed with these young mahouts.

Leaving Sauraha

May 9, 2010

This morning I left Sauraha, Chitwan, heading for Kathmandu and my flight to India. After 22 days living as a member of the village of Sauraha I felt sad to be leaving.

The Tiger Residency staff gathered and in a traditional ceremony I received the TIKA blessing. A circle of red powder was placed in the middle of my forehead. I was offered a glass of lassie, a red flower, and surprisingly, a chocolate candy bar. The candy bar was a deviation from the traditional gifts. It felt extremely personal, an indication of the sensitivity and awareness of others that is typical of the Nepalese people. The candy bar was a very kind gesture.

You’d have to be here to understand the significance of the candy bar. Shiva is the person who served our meals, made sure our water containers were filled and refrigerated, was patient with our bizarre food requests and brought us tea each morning. To say the least, Shiva made sure we were safe, well feed, and comfortable.

More than once we saw Shiva peddling off on his bicycle in the direction of town. Unwilling to tell us that something we requested was unavailable; he preferred to speed off like a mad man into town, regardless of the humidity and heat, to fulfill our request. Yes, we asked him to simply tell us they were out of what we requested but Shiva would not be swayed, he took his job serious and it showed.

Learning that I have a fondness for chocolate resulted in Barb joking about candy bars and different chocolate treats in front of Shiva. We teased him about adding a new selection to their breakfast menu; chocolate pancake, with chocolate pudding topped with sliced bananas, all a figment of our imagination of course. Shiva would smile politely, repeat the recipe out loud and act as if he was considering how it would taste. After much serious silence Shiva would agree that this sounded like a good idea…sort of.

The jeep that would take me to the airport waited outside the dining hall door. It was hugs and Namaste all around as I headed for the jeep. In that moment an elephant and mahout appeared directly in front of our path, both on their way to the bath. I did not recognize which of the 45 elephants of Sauraha she was, but I will never forget her.

In a gesture that I had not allowed myself to experience while in Sauraha, she reached her trunk towards me; like a silk scarf dancing in the wind. I felt so drawn to her, in a different way. For 22 days I had seen myself as providing assistance to the elephants of this village. In this moment a goddess was coming to me, blessing me. I wanted to give her something, wanted to pay my respects to let, her know how honored I was to be in her presence.

The candy bar in my hand was the gift. I don’t believe in feeding junk food to elephants but in that moment it was not a candy bar but a sacred gift, a sign of my appreciation of her. Gifting forward, the candy bar had been given to me as a sign of love and I was now in a position to pass that love forward. I tore open the wrapper and broke the candy bar in half and placed it gently into her outstretched trunk. I hesitated to feed her the entire bar for fear that doing so might be viewed as disrespectful to the Tiger Residency staff who had gone out of their way to provide the gift. But as quickly as the thought came to mind, I realized that the candy bar was a gift from all of us. In a show of our connectedness I took a small bite of the second half of the candy bar and placed it in her patiently waiting trunk. She was in no hurry to place the candy in her mouth but lingered as I greeted her with a gentle touch, trunk to hand; we were one. As quickly as she had appeared, my elephant blessing disappeared, causing me to wonder if I had imagined the entire experience.