Elephant Slaves

Another predawn awakening, like a recurring dream.

I’m woken abruptly from a deep sleep by the heart wrenching cries of a suffering elephant. All I can do is swing open my window and yell into the pitch black night, “Hatti la na pita!” (Don’t hit the elephant!). My plea echoes through the darkness, landing on deaf ears.

It is not yet dawn, the time when most elephants savor their sleep. My heart clinches when I hear the too familiar crack of a bamboo stick across the hide of an elephant slave.

I try to block the sound and associated pain from my ears but I cannot. The reality and degree of suffering experienced by captive-held elephants in Chitwan National Park is unconscionable.

If it were not for a drive to improve the lives of the elephants used in Chitwan National Park, admittedly I would never come back to this place. The air is perpetually thick with the sights and sounds of elephant suffering.

The apathy among tourists and owners alike is mind-boggling. Both the mahouts and the elephants in their care are merely money-making machines, no more.

The elephants’ day begins before sunrise and ends after most tourists are in their rooms preparing for sleep.

Before the rooster crows, the chained elephants are roused from their slumber and forced by threat of physical punishment to eat, drink and be readied for safari rides for the hundreds of tourists who visit Chitwan National park every day of the year.

The elephants’ food consists of cuchi—rice wrapped in mildewed, dehydrated rice hay—so unpalatable they must be beaten to eat it. The mahouts will strike them repeatedly with bamboo sticks until they have eaten.

Mel Kali—the lucky one

In the far distance I hear the familiar trumpet call of Mel Kali. She is one of the lucky elephants in Nepal.

Mel Kali was retired two years ago. She is the only retired elephant in Nepal. As a result of her advanced age—72—and near-death experience two years ago, Mel Kali is finally allowed to live a pseudo-elephant life, free to wander the national park free of riders and the continual domination of her mahouts.

Abuse woven into the fabric

Many tourists come to Chitwan National Park for elephant entertainment, but I come because of the elephant suffering. To experience their pain and not make an effort to help seems unconscionable.

It is not possible for me to return to my relatively cushy life in the US and forget the elephants’ pain. Their cries tear at my heart. Their incarceration and treatment boggle my mind. It seems like a dream, but it is reality for the elephants 24/7, 365 days a year, for their entire lives. It is an elephant slave camp.

When I am in Nepal it is my policy to stay only at guest houses that do not own an elephant. It is my way of not contributing to the exploitation and abuse.

But it is impossible to avoid the abuse completely; it is woven into the fabric of Chitwan National Park.

At all hours of the morning and evening, the haunting cries of elephants echo across the landscape of dozens of tourist hotels. They live in filthy stables, experience continual harassment and beatings and work from sun-up to sundown carrying heavy loads of riders seeking a fun day in the national park. I cannot help but absorb the feelings of despair and pain the elephants experience. How can the tourists, elephant owners, conservation organizations and locals be oblivious to such obvious suffering? What has become of the human race that we are so insensitive to the cries of others?

Progress is slow but steady

Hatti la na pita—do not hit the elephant¬—were the first words I learned after arriving in Nepal five years ago. A phase lost on most. But now, all these years later, the mahouts are familiar with my request. Although they do not comprehend why I ask that they not hit their elephants, out of respect for my work, most refrain from hitting their elephant in my presence.

But seeing the abuse is not the only way to sense an elephant’s suffering. I am now hyper-sensitive to the sharp crack of the bamboo stick, the body language of an abused elephant, the demanding guttural commands of the mahouts and the oppressive energy in the elephant slave camps.

After spending more than two dozen months in Nepal working closely with our Nepali partners to improve elephant welfare, I am discouraged by the slow process.

But I must remember that we have succeeded in influencing many mahouts to treat their elephants more kindly; educated private and government owners alike about the welfare needs of elephants; and, most recently, freed 56 captive-held elephants from chains by creating chain-free corrals. The lives of these elephants are seriously improved.

And we will not stop until all elephants in Nepal are treated and fed properly, and are living chain-free.

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.