Why Does That Elephant Have A Chain Around His Neck?

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.

Bahabur’s surgery

Oct 17th – Warning!, gruesome photos included in this post

My first morning in Assam, I awoke to learn there was an elephant emergency.

Thirty-five-year-old, Bahabur, a skilled koonkie (elephants trained to assist mahouts in the capture, training and management of wild elephants) who only days before successfully pulled a wild rhino from a mud bog nearly lost his right ear in a fight with a wild bull elephant.

Bahabur is intimately familiar with both captive and wild elephants. He lives with a non-related herd of koonkie elephants whose job it is to assist their wild kin by participating in human-elephant conflict mitigation.

When wild elephants emerge from the forest in search of food and water, they raid crops and create havoc. In an effort to protect both elephants and humans, Bahabur and his herd, guided by their mahouts, becomes a formidable barrier between wild elephants and trouble, literally saving the wild elephants’ lives.

Many elephants are killed as result of crop raiding–poisoned, shot, electrocuted, their mouths blown apart by bomb-laden food. These koonkies are the front line of protection for their brethren and the villagers whose encroachment and farming activity create such a dangerous situation for everyone involved.

Bahabur stood motionless, his right ear ripped in half, dangling painfully under its own weight. The cartilage was ripped apart at the top ridge of his ear. The flesh that covered the back of his ear was torn from the ear, creating a huge gaping pocket between the skin and cartilage. It was a seriously gruesome sight and no doubt painful.

The attacked had happened eight to 12 hours before, after Bahabur, just coming into his annual musth season, had uprooted his tether tree and headed straight into trouble.

Mahouts tracked Bahabur and received no resistance when they instructed him to return home.

The expert mahout staff managed Bahabur while Drs. Bhupen Sarma and Anjan Talukdar assessed the injury. In a natural self-medicating fashion, Bahabur had packed the gaping wound with dirt, which needed to be removed before surgery could begin.

Without complaint Bahabur reclined in a half-sitting position, giving the veterinarians access to the wound. No one yelled, hit or in any way badgered Bahabur. Instead they spoke calmly and confidently, patiently waiting for Bahabur to respond to their commands and get comfortably situated.

In soft tones, treatment instructions were given. The wound was cleaned, flushed out with clean water and Betadine.

The veterinarians and mahouts worked seamlessly together, voices low as they repaired the half-severed ear of this full-grown bull elephant.


From time to time Bahabur needed to stand in order to readjust and, I believe, to distract himself from the pain. After a few seconds standing he would once again respond to the patient command given by his mahout to recline.

With only a local anesthetic to deaden the pain in the area to be sutured, Bahabur’s ear was expertly reconstructed; the torn cartilage stitched together with sutures and ripped flesh reconnected. The result was amazing.

Bahabur is a mesmerizing example of this highly evolved, profoundly intelligent species, who for so long has captured my respect and awe.

Asia calls

The annual monsoon season is nearly over. Asia is calling me back, once again.

These weeks home have flown by, filled with taking care of business and preparing for my return to Asia. This coming trip will be my fourth in two-and-a-half years.

Looking back over my work in Asia has given me a clearer perspective. Each visit built upon the one before, resulting in a firm foundation for elephant welfare programs.

At first I had no idea what I could accomplish, so I just went and investigated. The search led to discoveries, which resulted in an avalanche of ideas.

Filtering through all the possibilities, I decided to hone in on areas where I felt most confident. Providing services in a foreign country is challenging enough.

Doing what I know best has proven to be a wise decision. This is where the mantra “One world, one elephant at a time” got its foothold.

The idea of trying to save an entire world of suffering elephants is overwhelming, but helping one needy elephant at a time feels doable. The idea actually calms me. I know that we can help one and then another and then another after that.

The Sanctuary: one elephant at a time

With Tarra as my inspiration, this is exactly how  the Sanctuary began. My initial goal was to create a safe and healthy place for her to live out  her life, away from zoo and circus.

With Tarra safely in her sanctuary home, our focus turned to rescuing six solitary female Asian elephants living in zoos and circuses. And we did it—one elephant at a time.

First came Barbara,

an ex-circus elephant living alone in a Florida backyard.

Then came Jenny,

living alone in a dilapidated dog and cat shelter outside Las Vegas.

After Jenny was Shirley,

rescued from a solitary life at the Louisiana Purchase Garden and Zoo

then Bunny, darling of the Mesker Park Zoo

Sissy, from the El Paso Zoo

who had lived alone for two decades at the Frank Buck Zoo

and Tina, born at the Portland, Oregon zoo

living alone at the Vancouver Wild Animal Park.

All were elephants who had lived alone for decades. Each was rescued because we believed that we could help, one elephant at a time.

Starting again

Now I feel we have come full circle, back to the starting point. A huge challenge lies ahead of us with so many elephants in need. But instead of being overwhelmed, experience has taught me that focusing on one needy elephant at a time is doable. I know that we can help one and then another and then another after that.

As always, I will let Tarra inspire and guide me.

With that vision of possibility firmly planted in my mind, I understand how we now find ourselves—a short two-and-a-half years later after I first went to Asia—experiencing such fabulous results.

Focusing our efforts on our strengths has been incredibly well received by our colleagues in Asia. Working together has been the key. Together we are improving elephant welfare with foot care, mahout training, chain-free yards and our continuing efforts to develop elephant care centers and retirement homes.

The ideas for these projects were planted like so many tiny seeds and now they are growing like weeds. I need to get back to Asia and continue where we left off.

I am thrilled to announce that in my absence, requests have come for expansion of our programs. Yes, they want more chain-free yards, more pedicures, more mahout training and retirement centers for aging elephants. I am so excited about how our elephant welfare programs have caught on! The future is indeed bright.

Preparing For Pedicures

On my last visit to Nepal, 84 elephants received pedicures. The goal for my next visit is 100 elephants–400 feet! With that goal in mind I need to restock our foot trimming tools! Using disposable trimming blades ensures trimming accuracy and the highest level of hygiene; one package of two blades services one elephant. The easy-to-grip handles are perfect for precision but they wear out after a dozen or so elephants. The heavy duty farrier rasps are perfect for the job and the mahouts like this tool, but the rasp becomes dull after a short time.

I hope you will join in the excitement and help us purchase trimming blades, handles and nail filing rasps. I have posted a chipin to meet our goal of foot trimming supplies for 100 elephants. If you prefer to purchase the pedicure tools separately, please visit the EAI wish list

To paraphrase a popular saying, helping one elephant won’t change the world. But helping one elephant will change the world for that elephant. This next trip to Asia promises to be incredibly beneficial for many more elephants, thanks to your continued support.

A HUGE THANK YOU to all who donated to the Foot Trimming Tools ChipIn. We reached our goal, in record time, all thanks to you!

Rock Quarry Activity in India

Recently I read a scathing online article criticizing the India government for failure to enforce an order it issued on January 9, 1991. The order states that “No quarry or quarry lease should be granted to units in the one-km radius around the boundary of a national park.” The order was meant to preserve the no-quarry-zone as a safe zone for wildlife.

I am personally familiar with this problem. For three months this past spring I lived in Bannerghatta, the center of quarry activity.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of villagers live in this area. Many hundreds of these same villagers are employed by the quarry, creating a dilemma: protect the wildlife, the forest and public health or make jobs the priority.

The villages are poor, with limited means of generating a living outside of raising livestock and growing crops. Quarry work is a welcome alternative for many of them. In my area, one village has prospered immensely due to their close affiliation with the quarry. Dump trucks line the village road each evening as workers return from hauling rocks from the quarry to wholesalers. Their work is very lucrative.

Unfortunately, the personal downside to the quarry seems to have escaped the villagers. Chances are they are unaware of how detrimental it is to their health to breathe in the fine dust the quarry creates. In addition to transporting truckloads of the blasted rock, many workers spend the entire day smashing rocks—by hand—into small pebbles to create gravel for road beds. The dust created by their labor is thick in the air and they breathe it for hours on end. Much like black lung disease, which affects coal miners, lung disease is a real concern for these laborers. But no one seems to be concerned about their welfare.

My house sits at the bottom of a hill only a few hundred meters from the national forest. I could not see the quarry from my location, I felt its presence every day.

I could track the quarry’s illegal activity like clockwork. When the sun set and dusk slipped into darkness, a shockingly deafening series of dynamite blasts would rock the land, causing me to nearly jump out of my skin. Even though I knew to expect the blasts, their intensity always shocked me. Sitting on my porch I could feel the vibration of huge granite boulders splitting apart, followed by the unnerving echoes of the blast reverberating over the hill into the adjacent forest. Following the blasts came the ghostly sound of tons of rubble cascading down the side of the quarry, bringing with it a thick cloud of granite dust particles that covered every surface, inhaled by all breathing beings within miles of the quarry.

As result of non-enforcement, the blasting continues unabated, leaving behind a layer of dust on everything. Leaves, plants, furniture, floors and even the lake are covered with a layer of fine granite dust. The daily ritual of dusting and sweeping was a constant reminder of what we and the forest residents inhaled with each breath.

According to M Devaraj, deputy conservator of forests, Bannerghatta National Park, “We are authorized to remove the quarry equipment or stop quarrying if the quarries are inside the forest. But since all these quarries are in revenue land, it is the duty of the revenue and mines and geology departments to stop quarrying as per the 20-year-old government order.’’

The government’s reluctance to enforce the order mirrors their response to other orders meant to protect the forests and her inhabitants. Just as the government order to remove elephants from zoos has lacked enforcement, the quarry order has failed to benefit those it intends to protect. Although government orders indicate knowledge of what is right, the lack of enforcement leaves one to question the real purpose of their enactment.

It takes a brave person to speak out in India. I am encouraged that Y Maheswara Reddy, DNA, spoke out about the illegal quarry activity. If enough people are willing to do the same, perhaps change will begin and the wildlife and forest can experience some level of protection from potentially lethal activity.

To read the original article written by Y Maheswara Reddy, DNA click on the following link.


July 25, 2012 | Posted in: General, India | Comments Closed

Wildlife SOS – INDIA

During this trip to India I basically sequestered myself in Bannerghatta, singularly focused on the care center project. As my pending departure loomed I realized that I had failed to visit other projects. There really is so much to see—elephant welfare-wise—in India, I was kicking myself for not setting aside time to further my education.

Literally days before my visa was to expire I received an email invitation from Kertick and Geeta of Wildlife SOS to visit their facilities in Agra. True to my nature, I hesitated at first — not because I did not want to visit their bear and elephant facility but because my flight was already booked and I did not want to pay the flight change fee.

Fortunately, my flight from Bangalore to Kathmandu had a plane change in Delhi, the airport I needed to fly into for Wildlife SOS. I was able to postpone the second leg of the flight, giving me almost three days to spend with the Wildlife SOS staff at both their bear and elephant facilities.

The visit would have been perfect if Kertick and Geeta were in the country but they were in California, presenting at the PAWS elephant summit and other venues. In their absence their expert staff took care of all arrangements, which made my visit very comfortable. I hope Geeta, Ketrick and I will meet in the next few weeks, as they plan to come to Nepal to observe my work in Sauraha.

The work Geeta, Kertick and staff have done to rescue and rehabilitate dancing bears is nothing short of miraculous. The facilities are well designed, with expansive yards, spotless night houses and a dedicated and knowledgeable team of caregivers and veterinarians.
I was in the education hut sitting on a couch viewing one of many informative videos about dancing bears and the plight of other Indian wildlife, when something—light as a feather—touched my shoulder. I assumed it was an insect and reached up to gently brush it away without taking my eyes off the screen.

Without a sound or advance warning more than the gentle shoulder tap that I mistook for an insect, something much heavier than an insect, maybe four or five pounds, warm and hairy, jumped onto my head. I froze and whatever-it-was froze. I had no idea what it was. It was completely silent and warm, grasping my hair in what felt like many tiny hands.

Not being able to see what was perched on my head was indeed unnerving, and no one else seemed to be around. I trusted that I would not have been put into this room alone with anything dangerous so I considered my options. Yelling for assistance was out. Reaching up to remove my head ornament seemed risky. And waiting for someone to come to my rescue seemed unrealistic.

My decision was to slowly reach towards my head to see what would happen. The “thing” leapt from my head across the room to a chair and then back to my head again. Her movement was quick but as she was flying through the air getting ready to land on my head again I saw the “thing” was a young capuchin monkey.

Even though I am comfortable with captive wild animals I respect them by keeping my distance because I feel interaction is not in their best interest. But this little creature obviously felt differently. She leap froged from her chair to my head a couple of times and then remained perched on my head. With no staff in sight I realized I would need to deal with this little bundle of curious energy on my own. I was not opposed, I just did not want to do anything wrong, not having been around a primate before.

Gently untangling my hair from her tiny fingers she allowed me to remove her from my head and lower her to the couch. We looked at each other—too cute is all I can say—as she ever so confidently climbed into my lap, took hold of my hand and placed on her belly. There was no misunderstanding this gesture — she wanted a tummy rub.

I admit to being in heaven while at the same time wondering how I could justify having a monkey in my lap. In the end I did not try to justify it, I simply accepted the experience as the gift it was and enjoyed every second she remained in my lap. A few minutes later one of the resident Great Dane rescues showed up, sending her dashing from the room.

Escorted by staff veterinarians we first toured the bear facilities and then drove a short distance to the temporary elephant facility. Set up on five or six acres of land, the elephant facility is a good start for the rescued elephants. The facility is well designed, with stables for shade and nighttime, sand piles to avoid hard surfaces, a steel corral stable for bulls and a circular concrete pool that is the high point of everybody’s day.

It was amusing to watch Rajesh, a beautiful full-grown bull with massive tusks, submerged for hours, gently bobbing around in the pool.

I did a little foot care and target training to give the vets, mahouts and elephants an idea of what was to come in the future. The mahouts have already changed how they work with the elephants to a great degree. The harsh tone and demanding commands are still used but the ankus and infliction of pain are not. I could see the mahouts are being won over to other ways of working with their elephants — it was exciting to see the progress they have already made.

Kartick and Geeta have plans to move the elephants to a very large tract of land. I have decided to accept their invitation to be involved in this project and recommend that you visit their site and support their work for rescued bears and elephants.


UPDATE: Elephant Care Center

In 2009, India’s Central Zoo Authority mandated that all elephants living in zoos had to be moved to national parks and sanctuaries. Unfortunately, facilities to accommodate the displaced elephants do not yet exist.

My goal is to create an elephant care center prototype in India that can be easily replicated countrywide, ensuring that all zoo elephants can be relocated to more suitable environments.

Serious discussion for the development of Elephant Aid International’s first elephant care center (sanctuary) in India, which has been underway for many months, is in the final stages. A fabulous piece of land bordering a National Forest has been selected, complete with forests, pastures and ponds. It is a wonderful location for rescued elephants.

Last week, at our request, government officials toured the property. They asked questions about management and funding, voiced concerns about co-mingling of wild and captive elephants and requested follow-up information regarding our plans. All concerns were minor and easily addressed.

Although government endorsement is not a requirement for the creation of the elephant rescue center, enlisting government input will serve to strengthen relationships essential for a successful project. We are confident of an emerging rescue center reality! Stay tuned for future updates. We hope to confirm government endorsement within a few weeks.

my last evening in India

Oh, what a night! It started with a 60-minute walk-about with two elephants dressed to the nines and hundreds of devotees. It was like being in a pageant. Lakshmi is mature beyond her years. She wore a jeweled headpiece and matching blanket and carried three costumed riders. Even though she is still just a kid, she never once fidgeted or acted her age, unlike her little sister Bishnu who showed her boredom after the first few minutes.

The procession made a complete round of the temple compound, stopping four times — or was it five? — I really can’t remember. The hordes of chanting devotees were mesmerized by the bejeweled elephants. Security guards held a rope to keep the crowd, which resembled a school of fish moving in unison around Lakshmi and Bishnu, back. All I can say is that the elephants did not hurt anyone and the devotees were impressed.

As soon as the procession was over I was off to the Kolkata airport. The three-hour drive was a bit of a nail biter because the driver could hardly stay awake. Each time he nearly drove into oncoming traffic or slowed to a snail’s pace with drivers frantically honking behind, I suggested he stop. We did stop…three times. The last time I thought I must be dreaming because three old men rushed the car and tried to open the doors. I was a lot of help — all I could say was ”Hey, what’s going on?” – and apparently my driver was as surprised as me because he quickly reached over to the passenger side and locked the door. As it turns out, the men were hitchhiking and thought we had stopped to pick them up. The men walked away with puzzled looks on their faces. But I was thankful because the surprise woke my driver up a bit.

I have never been happier to see an airport in my life but the night was young as far as adventures were concerned. I had not printed out my plane tickets because…well, because I don’t carry a printer around with me. I had made the reservation online and had no access to a printer. When I approached the airport entrance marked “departures,” the security guard would not let me pass. I needed to present a printout of my ticket. He directed me to the outside ticket counter, which unfortunately had just closed and would not open again for another five hours. I really did not want to wait outside the terminal along with the seedy looking cab drivers, diesel fumes and stares.

After seeing that the security guard was not swayed by my entreaties, I did what any red-blooded American woman would do: I asked to see the manager. I don’t know if it was the traditional Indian dress I was wearing or the fact that several of the before-mentioned cab drivers had gathered around us staring, but the manager listened to my situation and instructed the security guard to allow me inside.
Feeling triumphant, I pulled my luggage through the door and found a comfortable seat along with many other weary travelers. I was enthusiastically greeted by the billions of mosquitoes that apparently call the departure lounge at the Kolkata Airport home. One should always maintain a sense of humor when traveling.

Lakshmipriya and Bishnu

I have spent the past several days observing Lakshmipriya and Bishnupriya, two young temple elephants living at an ashram in Mayapur, India. Thanks to the dedication of Hrimati Dasi, a lifetime devotee of the temple, these two elephants are living a relatively good life. Few facilities worldwide meet the standard held here.

The area is fenced, mahouts are mature and experienced, a variety of quality foods are grown on-grounds and bought from local farmers, there is access to good vets and, most important, a welfare committee exists to deal with problems and ensure the well-being of the elephants.

Being the only elephants in the area makes them somewhat local celebrities. Word spreads quickly when they are on their daily walk. “Hati, Hati” echoes through the village as children come from all directions hoping to get a glimpse of these revered animals.

The younger elephant Bishnupriya is around four years old and quite spunky. I bet the fresh cut oat hay she is given each day contributes to her feistiness. Lakshmipriya, her older “sister,” has a calming effect on her and never strays far from her side. Together they walk without urgency down the roads and dirt paths that stretch out into the countryside, sampling a variety of trees, shrubs and grass.

Today Bishnu’s mahout teased her when she failed to sample the fruit of a tree he had led her to. “What kind of elephant are you?” he asked. “I brought you to this tree and you don’t want the fruit?” Bishnu expresses herself enthusiastically with a short trumpet blast whenever any opportunity arises. Both she and Lakshmipriya are quick-witted and very curious.

The mahouts for the most part are patient but they expect full compliance. They exert their dominance over the elephants using a small bamboo stick instead of an elephant hook, while Hrimati continues to work with them to soften their ways. When not out on a walk or in their pool, the elephants are secured on a long chain in their forest.

If I could make only one change for Lakshmipriya and Bishnu, it would be to add an electric fence inside the security fence (which is not elephant proof) so the girls can be off chains during the day. With that improvement, I would say this is one of the better elephant facilities that I have seen.

an experiment in providing freedom

Today Suparna Ganguly of CUPA (Compassion Unlimited Plus Action — http://www.cupabangalore.org/), a member of EAI’s Advisory Council, and I started on a fabulous adventure to the Dubare National Park. An adventurous young woman lives there, who is conducting an experiment to reintroduce captive elephants back to forest life.

Nearly nine years ago, Prajna Chowta and filmmaker husband Philippe Gautier, founders of the Aane Mane Foundation (www.aanemane.org), received government clearance to conduct their research project in Dubare National Park.

Prajna explained that only after she was able to secure a piece of land inside the communal forest did she purchase two female elephants, for the purpose of documenting that rehabilitation and reintroduction is possible.

She and Philippe built a very modest and functional research site on the edge of the national forest. This site has potential for research beyond what Prajna and Phillip are conducting, with room for one or two dedicated individuals whose work would also benefit elephants and the habitat.

Local tribals are employed as mahouts to assist with the care and monitoring of the elephants. Prajna and her family, which includes her four-year-old daughter, have purposefully chosen to live close to the land and in a manner that resembles that of the local people. By accepting the local way of living, they are able to form close relationships that will benefit their work and the welfare of the elephants.

Since the project started, one of the cows was bred by a wild bull and delivered a bull calf. All three spend their days and nights in the forest. Much of that time they are found in the company of wild elephants. Prajna is taking the reintroduction slowly, being completely cognizant of the human/elephant conflict in the area, which could have an impact on the welfare of the project elephants. The immediate plan is to purchase radio collars for the elephants in order to track them unobtrusively.

I am grateful for the time Prajna and Philippe spent explaining their program and discussing the challenges, pitfalls and successes. Their work will continue to provide vital information about rehabilitation and reintroduction of captive elephants into a wild environment.