Breaking the chains, one elephant at a time

Breaking the chains, one elephant at a time
31 March 2015
By Pratibha Tuladhar

Some working elephants in Nepal and India experience chain-free lives as animal lovers secure walking space for them. But the experiment has limits, including the nature of bulls and the culture of mahouts. - © dpa

Chitwan, Nepal (dpa) - The 45-year-old elephant Man Kali saunters around in her half-hactare of freedom with her 2-year-old offspring Hem Gaj.

They walk slowly, pausing to tug at a branch, lean against each other, swing their trunks and walk on again. They are among the 47 captive elephants that have been unchained through the efforts of American elephant lover Carol Buckley. Buckley has been working to help the animals - which form a backbone of Nepal's elephant safari tourism and conservation - running a project that unchains working elephants.

Buckley started the "Chain Free is Pain Free" project after her first visit to Nepal five years ago. She was on a tour of Asia, which took her to tourist spots in Nepal, India and Thailand that offered elephant safaris. "In all three countries, I saw the same thing: elephants in captivity working in horrible conditions," she says. "And I knew something had to be done."

Buckely set up the Elephant Aid Foundation, raising funds to help working elephants. She began in Nepal, where she has managed to unchain 47 captive elephants. "We began with a pilot project aimed at freeing retired elephants," says Chiranjibi Pokharel, project chief at Nepal Trust for Nature Conservation. "The project has now been replicated by all the 15 government-run elephant shelters, because we could see that the elephants were healthier when they were set free."

An eight-year-old elephant named Prakriti Kali, which appeared depressed, was the first to be put to test. "Elephants in captivity sway because they are depressed, and swaying helps them release serotonin, which makes them feel good," Buckley says. "Prakriti stopped swaying and bobbing when she was unchained and that was a real change."

Over the years, Buckley has brought in technicians and equipment from India every six months to build electric corrals. Every corral costs between 5,000 and 7,000 dollars. "The aim is to secure at least one acre (about 0.4 hectare) of land per elephant close to a forest, away from human settlements, if possible," she says.

But the campaign faces resistance from mahouts, who are used to managing their elephants under chains. "When they are unchained, it's difficult to clean them and they won't listen sometimes, so it's hard. But it's good for the elephants as they can be free," says Sri Narayan Dhami, Man Kali's caretaker. The mahouts say unchaining is a viable option for female elephants, which enjoy spending time with their friends, but not for males. "It's good to see that the elephants have their space to roam and they look happier. But it is not possible to unchain the bulls because they are aggressive," says Jalendra Prasad Chaudhary, who has been working as a mahout for 24 years. In February, an unchained bull in a government elephant shed broke through an electric fence and ran amok into the forest, killing a female elephant.

Two years ago, Buckley took her campaign to India, where 15 elephants were unchained in Banneghatta Zoo, on 50 hectares of land. Thailand's elephant sanctuary will be her next mission, she says. "Things are just as hard in India as in Nepal," she says. "The major problem comes from a lack of people's understanding of elephant behaviour."

Traditionally, elephants used on tourist safaris or anti-poaching patrols in the forest were brought back to their sheds and chained. "Trying to help the elephants is a transformative experience for both the elephants and me," Australian volunteer Chantelle Ridley says. "Having the working elephants in chains is a culture, so you have to teach the mahouts that it's not right and you can't teach them that unless you make them see the difference," says German volunteer Marina Loch.

But there are some who contest the method. "The chain-free concept is challenging to maintain. It's less stressful for elephants, but traditional culture is difficult to break and [the mahouts] feel threatened," Pokharel said.

Although she has made progress, Buckley says sustaining the project is her main problem, because constant monitoring is needed to ensure that elephants are not put back in chains. She is rewarded by personal satisfaction. "One afternoon, the oldest elephant at the Khorsor breeding centre marched slowly up to me as three younger ones followed her. The oldest looked into my eyes, and I felt like they were saying thank you," she says with a smile. "It was so profound."

Source: dpa.