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.

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 http://www.elephantaidinternational.org/CEM.php, 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,

Carol

Drag Chains and Training

Elephant’s World posted two videos on YouTube last week of me training a young elephant named Jon (you can view them here and here). I was surprised to see the videos and happy to know they exist.

Many people found the videos interesting and some have asked why Jon is wearing a chain. The chain is called a drag chain; in Asia it is used to prevent an elephant from running away. One end of the long chain is fastened around an elephant’s wrist and the other end drags behind.

When a mahout is afraid that his elephant will run away, he puts a drag chain on him. If the elephant runs, the mahout wraps the loose end of the chain around a tree to stop him.

The mahouts at Elephant’s World were resistant to non-dominance training and even more resistant to removing Jon’s drag chain. In order to be allowed to demonstrate positive reinforcement target training, I agreed to the drag chain for the first two sessions. One end of the chain was on Jon’s ankle and the other end was loose.

My adherence to their tradition gave the mahouts time to get comfortable with the new training method I offered. They observed firsthand that Jon was more interested in the training game than in trying to get away.

Jon showed such promise that after the second training session the mahouts agreed to remove the chain.

There have also been questions about the “stick” used during training. The stick, or target as it is called, is a flexible pole with a soft cushion on the end. If you view my training tutorial you will see how the target is used and learn the basic concept of target training.

The goal is to teach an elephant the name/word for different body parts, such as foot, head, ear, side, etc. Once understood—which takes most elephants only minutes to grasp—the elephant will voluntarily offer that body part when asked. The key is to ask, not demand, and always provide praise and a treat as a reward.

Before watching the videos of Jon’s training sessions, I suggest that you view the tutorial a couple of times. Then watch Jon’s first training session and see if you can identify what body parts Jon is learning. Notice that when Jon becomes frustrated he walks away, but returns almost immediately to try again.

Positive Reinforcement Target training gives the elephant the freedom to walk away, take a moment to reflect on what is happening and return when he is ready to try again. Walking away reduces frustration and increases the elephant’s willingness to participate.

You will also notice in the video that Jon offers behaviors–kneel and lie down. This is common in initial training sessions. Many times the elephant will offer what s/he already knows before starting to “problem solve” and figure out what the trainer is trying to teach.


Learning to think for themselves is the first thing the elephants learn. After that, training is a breeze.