Down by the River

April 30

This morning I followed the elephants down to the river for their morning bath. The sheer joy of immersing in water is universal with elephants. It gave me goose bumps to see them so relaxed, splashing water, throwing trunkfuls over their backs, and drinking freely.  

When I am standing, quietly observing the Sauraha elephants I can’t help but notice similarities between this group of elephants and my girls. There is one who is Sissy’s twin in looks and temperament and another that is a younger version of Billie-Sue. This elephant caught my eye the first day I met her not only because she looked so much like Billie-Sue but also because she seems very insecure, much like Billie-Sue when she was first rescued.

Sissy's look-a-like!

My most memorable time this morning was when one of the elephants “accidently” dumped her handler into the water. I of course was silently cheering for the elephant as the young man tried to maneuver in the shallow water to remount his elephant.

The elephant took full advantage of her temporary freedom, turning her hind end to the boy each time he got close. I don’t know exactly what he was saying but he was not happy that the elephant was not responding. His commands got louder and louder, his embarrassment at her outsmarting him was obvious.

Ignoring his attempts to control her, the elephant continued to cover herself with trunkfuls of the cool river water, until another man appeared. He yelled a few commands to the elephant and climbed onto her back while she was still in the river. She continued to play, trying to ignore him as well but it was obvious that she respected him more than the boy.

The Phanit was aware of being watched and thankfully did not physically punish the elephant. Instead he made her go through a series of repetitive commands like turning from side to side and lying down in the water. She was not willing to give it over right away and did a “Minnie stunt” dropping her head to the river bottom with her rear and one hind leg sticking up in the air.

The handler was obviously her Phanit, although she was making it difficult to stay on top of her back, he succeeded. He actually laughed which relieved my concern that she had gone too far and would pay for her disobedience. I exhaled, realizing only then that I had been holding my breath.

The Pachuwa stood looking dejected on the river bank. No doubt he had just learned some valuable training lessons and hopefully a deeper respect for the intelligence of his elephant.

a young Pachuwa fell off his elephant

The reality is that no matter the amount of academic training a person has, practical experiences is essential in order to develop an expertise with elephants. The number of different elephants and situations a handler is exposed to is key to developing skills. Each lesson an elephant teaches the handler is a building block for the next lesson in the unending series of lessons that brings valuable insight into who elephants are.

I am doing my best to understand, without judgment, the traditions held in Sauraha regarding elephants and handlers. The more I learn about the traditions, the better prepared I will be to affect some degree of change. The elephant owners and handlers are receptive which gives me cause to be optimistic. Change can occur, it will just take time.

Pawan Kali’s support is well received

Thanks for the support for Pawan Kali. What a great opportunity this has been for so many elephant lovers to cross borders. Leave it to the elephants to bring us all together! Thanks to your support, Pawan Kali is all set.

Over the next several weeks you will have many opportunities to be of assistance. Our next venture is the elephant foot care workshop. In addition to the fabulous custom foot knives that have already been made I was able to locate wood rasps to trim the nails, wire brushes to clean debris from the pads and an elephant size aluminum bucket for foot soaks.

I am getting excited about the workshop which will include a PowerPoint presentation followed by a demonstration by yours truly. I finally have a defendable reason to put my hands on the elephants!

Foot Care

April 26

As result of the owners’ cooperation and participation in the Elephant Health Camp, a thorough examination was done on every elephant’s foot. The sheer number of elephants was a blessing, enabling the team to determine patterns, both positive and not, regarding the condition and wear of the elephants feet. Collectively their feet were in good condition.

Foot pad and nail overgrowth is a common condition in captive elephants. Trimming tools vary in size and style but the goal is universal; maintain elephant’s feet to insure even wear of both the pads and the toe nails and prevent overgrowth. The challenge is to not over trim.

When foot pads are trimmed excessively the elephant will bruise the bottom of the foot. If repeated the bruised areas can become infected. Once an infection becomes chronic it is possible for the condition to advance to osteomyelitis; a disease that to date has not been cured in elephants.

Having the proper foot trimming tools is essential, so the other day we paid a visit to the local iron worker. He listened intensely as our translator explained exactly what we wanted.  He nodded his head and asked questions and finally agreed to create a prototype and have it delivered to us the next morning. True to his word the custom made hoof trimming tool arrived as promised; it was perfect.  He did such a great job on the first prototype that we gave him a second and ordered five sets.

Soon we will meet with the owners and mahouts to provide a workshop on foot care. Judging by the receptivity and interest shown by the owners and mahouts, I have no doubt that the foot care workshop will be well received.

Everything we do and everything we provide to the owners and mahouts is free of charge. At this point it is most important that the owners buy into the idea of change. By providing these tools and our expertise free of charge, we are helping to further our welfare goal. By working cooperatively with the owners and mahouts the elephants will benefit.

Feeling the need to make a contribution to this effort I signed International Elephant Aid up as the underwriter for the workshop. IEA will cover the cost of the tools which will include supplies for foot soaks and foot trimming. I will donate my time and services to give the workshop and tutor the mahouts on proper elephant foot care.

I am so excited about this component of Dr. Mikota’s work at Chitwan National Park. Fortunately the owners and mahouts are receptive to our offer of assistance. They appear eager to learn whatever they can for the benefit of their elephants.

custom hoof knives created by the local iron worker

Pawan Kali’s diet

Dr. Jeewan Thapa participated in ECI’s Elephant Health Camp. Prior to working for the zoo Jeewan worked with the elephants at Chitwan. Dr. Jeewan promised to keep me informed about Pawan Kali’s pending move.

Along with information about Pawan Kali’s housing, daily routine, care and diet, Dr. Thapa provided information about the cost to feed Pawan Kali at the zoo. I found it interesting that the cost to feed Pawan Kali was equal to the cost to feed an elephant at the Sanctuary. The chart below lists Pawan Kali’s daily diet, minus the special foods she receives on “Ganesh Tuesdays”.

Feed items for Pawan Kali Daily requirement in (kg)=(2.2lbs) Cost/Kg (NRs) Total cost Remarks
Unhusked rice 12 29 348
Molasses 1 57 57
Straw 15 17 255
Salt 0.15 10 1.5
Carrot 2 37 74
Pumpkin 2 20 40
Potato 2 15 30
Green fodder Around 100 1,600 Still fodder is collected  free around Kathmandu valley. The cost is of half day work of two handlers to collect fodder twice a week. (Rs800/times)
Total cost (1$=Rs72) $33

Out of respect for the possibility of cultural differences regarding the solicitation of funds, I consulted with the zoo about money being donated for Pawan Kali. They graciously agreed that this is a great opportunity to educate people and raise awareness worldwide. My idea is that maybe the EleAids would like to designate Pawan Kali as a Feed an Elephant for a Day recipient. Instead of having a PenPal in Nepal, you would have an ElePal.

Fresh-cut fodder collected daily for Pawan Kali.

Last Day of the Health Camp

Close to 50 elephants participated in Dr. Mikota’s elephant health camp. Today was the final day, at least for the elephant examinations. Over the next several days samples will continue to be processed with results reported to the owners of the elephants. This is precedent-setting work. The owners voluntarily participated, enthusiastically in fact. Today one of the proud owners provided information about his recently acquired elephant complete with physical and behavioral information.

When one of the elephants became nervous about the exam, another mahout mounted on a young elephant  brought his elephant close to “her friend” with favorable results. The nervous elephant immediately settled down. The younger elephant touched her friend around her mouth and stomach in an obviously reassuring way. Their display of  friendship was tender and the mahout’s sensitivity was refreshing.

Our work is not done. While samples are being processes, records made, and treatments prescribed, Dr. Mikota will pursue other community related projects that will enhance elephant welfare while benefiting the community. As soon as these projects get the official go-ahead I will report on them. They are all very exciting.

Sauraha is a close knit community. Even though tourism is the backbone of their financial support, the daily activity of earning a living and caring for their families is the activity that is observed each day, from dawn until dusk. These are a happy people. Their connection to mother earth is the common thread that ties them together. Busy building new homes, resorts, replenishing dirt for planting, tending to the rice paddies, planting young plants that will later feed their family and tending to their animals is what occupies their daylight hours. The heat and absence of air conditioning brings them out onto rustic porches and stoops bordering the earthen roads after dusk. Children chase each other through the darkness while dogs cavort freely, homeless or not. The heat is forever present but a lightness fills the air. You are one with the community with a simple but genuine head nod and Namaste, which brings a beaming smile to a previously serious face. All is one; all is well with the world.

Elephant Care International’s Sauraha Elephant Health Camp

April 21                

Elephant Care International’s Sauraha Elephant Health Camp has been a well received service for privately owned elephants living outside of Chitwan National Park.  ECI’s efforts to gain the trust of the thirty-something private owners, who collectively own nearly 50 elephants, has proven successful. The owners are unanimously participating in this health camp; a testament to ECI’s efforts.

On this second day of the camp, seven elephants showed up for examination. How fortunate I am to be involved. The veterinarians, technicians, mahouts and elephants flowed together in a synchronized dance, collecting throat cultures, nasal drip, blood, urine and fecal samples, body temperature, respiration and pulse. Translators helped to bridge the language gap, making the process more efficient. The elephants, all Kali (female) so far, have responded to the Camp individually, and collectively have demonstrated receptivity to the experience.  The reality is that most, if not all of these girls have never before walked onto a portable scale nor provided the many samples requested of them. They have all responded incredibly well.

It did not take long for the mahouts to understand that the ECI team prefers that they practice patience with their elephants. For some the concept of a gentler approach had never been considered; they responded favorably.  Not surprisingly, the mahouts demonstrated a capacity for innovation when met with the challenge of collecting samples. Some of the younger mahouts responded to sample collection requests with wide eyes, and a non committal head tilt accompanied by a somewhat nervous giggle.

The more seasoned mahouts listened intently to the translated directions, then immediately set out to accomplish the task. It soon became evident that the more advanced mahouts reveled in flaunting their superior skills. The resulting competition between mahouts proved beneficial. Over all the elephants are in good shape. None are overweight. The ankus is not used to pull and push the elephant so hook wounds are not an issue.

Getting a throat culture with an extra long Q-tip

Living on natural sub straight and in an appropriate climate has benefited the elephants greatly. Improving the standard of living for these and other elephants in captivity begins with education and improved health care. The elephants of Sauraha, their owners and mahouts have embarked on a journey destined to change their lives for the better. I am so thankful to be a part of the process.

The Flow of Life

April 20

Activity begins early in Sauraha, not surprising since as the day unfolds the temperature rise to a sweltering level. At sunrise the air has a refreshing coolness about it. The community comes to life as goats and water buffalo are taken from their night quarters to grazing areas. Upside down handmade woven baskets are righted allowing the contents, live chickens, free access to hunt and peak at their leisure.

The NTNC elephants silently head out of their personal stables, mahout on board, to collect the following days supply of fresh cut elephant grass. The privately owned elephants adhere to a different routine and a different diet. Not permitted inside the national park, the privately owned elephants eat grass that is cut seasonally, in bulk, and stacked forming a hut type structures next to their mahout’s house. This grass is stored for months at a time much like the baled hay fed to elephants in zoos and circuses worldwide.

By contrast the government and NTNC, a NGO (non government organization) elephants have access to the forest areas where grass is plentiful. They collect their own fresh cut grass daily. This activity has many benefits including the elephants eating a high-quality good-tasting fodder, and spending hours engaging in their natural habitat.

Life in captivity is restrictive but access to home range forests brings these elephants closer to their roots and provides them with an opportunity to walk, forage and bath in the environment they are adapted to. If elephants are to be maintained in captivity, keeping them in range countries definitely has benefits.

Elephants Everywhere

April 18

The town of Sauraha borders on Chitwan National Park and is a world away from Kathmandu; what an inspiring place. Exotic bird vocalizations fill what otherwise would be a serene silence. Every manner of chirp, caw, twitter and call creates an exhilarating backdrop for this pleasant forest atmosphere. The people and the local dogs are refreshingly friendly!  The traditional Namaste greeting, hands clasped together at chest level accompanied by a polite head bow encourages interaction, bridging an otherwise seemingly insurmountable gap caused by the language barrier.  But with this bow and respectful greeting cultures merge and friendships are born. For the veteran members of the ECI team friendships with the locals are rekindled and strengthened; everyone is extremely happy to see the foreign vet team back in Sauraha.

The short walk from our lodging into town is rich with color and contrast.  Beautifully clad women, parasol in hand, gracefully walking down dirt roads flanked by tethered buffalo, foraging goats, a scattering of chickens and elephants. It is surreal; in less than a half mile stretch of road nine elephant stables dot the landscape. These elephants, used for tourist safaris, appear no more out of place here then the family dog in the backyards of suburban America.

Today was a day for silent observation as each turn in the rugged road brought another stable and tethered elephant into view.  In their mini environments, elephants stand under a covered stable with a water source to one side, the mahouts residence directly in front, and a trough for disposing of dung directly behind. Under foot is an ample supply of fresh cut “elephant grass”. The elephants appeared calm and relatively uninterested in passers-by even though most are only a few feet off of the road. Once I get over the culture shock of seeing elephant literally around every corner I will concentrate on getting to know each elephant and their history and of course I will share that information with you.

Meeting Pawan Kali

April 16

As I sit here composing my blog update the electricity has gone off resulting in the steady hum of backup generators adding to the pulse of the city.  A thin stream of smoke gracefully dances skyward from the mosquito coil in the middle of my room. After hesitating at the door frame, a small furry rodent scurried across the open doorway as two geckos cling to the ceiling directly over head. They are as still as silence, imitating a wall painting…they are so cute!

Today activities included meetings at the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and the Central Zoo.  Dr. Susan Mikota has developed quite a reputation here in Nepal; she is held in high esteem. While at the zoo we were given a tour, met some of the zoo staff, and from a respectable distance met Pawan (paw-wan) Kali, the pride of the zoo.

Pawan Kali is believed to be in her 60’s. She is stately and beautiful; an impressive Kali (female) elephant who stands close to 11 feet tall.  I was told that Tuesdays are recognized by the zoo as the day to honor Ganesh.  On this day Pawan Kali and local residents are treated to a well received tradition; the zoo provides special food that the public can hand feed to Pawan Kali. We were not witness to this weekly ritual but there is no doubt that both Pawan Kali and the local residents enjoy the special activity.

During my conversation with Dr. Jeewan (g-wan) Thapa, the zoo’s veterinarian, I learned that plans are being considered to retire Pawan Kali to the National Trust Nature Conservancy stable at Chitwan National Park. Not having visited the facility yet I can’t say what this change would mean for Pawan Kali who has lived at the zoo for nearly 35 years.  I questioned Jeewan about how Pawan Kali might respond to the move and he responded confidently that she would have no problem. Interestingly enough, Pawan Kali lived at the NTNC prior to moving to the zoo. It is unclear if she would be reunited with any of her former herd members but wouldn’t that be exciting if her return meant a reunion. Just the fact that Pawan Kali will once again live with elephants after being alone for so long is a very exciting prospect.

A Rooftop View

April 15

Today members of Dr. Susan Mikota’s  Elephant Care International team met with representatives from  Center for Molecular Dynamics – Nepal, to discuss their collaborate work on elephant DNA. This is seriously promising work which will provide yet another diagnosis tool for elephant diseases. The full extent of the application of this study is yet to be realized but without a doubt this is important work for captive elephant welfare.

The rooftop view from the CMDN lab was staggeringly impressive equal only to the depth of brilliance, enthusiasm and dedication exhibited by CMDN’s International Director Dibesh(Da-besh) Karmacharya and Country Director Sameer (Sue-mar) Dixit.  Although full underwriting has yet to be secured for the current DNA project, the benefits of this research will be immeasurable.  As evidence of their dedication towards elephant welfare, CMDN has agreed to move forward on the project, which involves hours of lab work, processing hundreds of samples collect by Dr. Susan Mikota’s team.

From my perch upon the roof top a scene familiar to the city dwellers caught my eye. Down below, casually ambling along a busy city street were several cows, a sacred and revered animal in Nepal. While cars and motorcycles gave the animals a wide berth to insure their safety, the cows meandered along, seemingly undisturbed by the hustle and bustle of the city—their destination known to only them.