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.