Making the life of Nepal's captive elephants easier

A captive elephant named Kajallkali lying on the ground with an emaciated body, shrunken face and big wounds on her legs, shoulder and other parts of body. Photos: KIRAN RAJ RIJAL/NTNC

Many who saw the photograph of the once majestic Kajalkali lying prostrate with an emaciated body, shrunken face and gashes on her legs and shoulders were heartbroken.

When we at the Biodiversity Conservation Center in Chitwan heard about her deteriorating condition, we rushed out veterinary team of Kiran Raj Rijal and Amir Sadaula to attend to the elephant. They did their best, but she did not stand again.

This was not the first time Kajalkali had fallen, she had done so twice before in May and the same team of vets from the Natural Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and Chitwan National Park (CNP) had attended to her and brought her back to her feet.

Melkali at the NTNC Biodiversity Conservation Centre in Chitwan. She retired nine years ago in 2013.

Kajalkali was brought to Sauraha from Uttar Pradesh in India five years ago for tourist safaris. She was already over 60 years old, which is above the average life span of an Asian elephants. But she not sick and her health had improved with veterinary care and anti-parasitic drugs, minerals and vitamins.

She worked for nearly two years at the safari camp, carrying tourists on her back. But it did not last long, her appetite started to decrease, her digestion weakened and she began to lose weight. Vets tried their best to treat her, but to no avail.

Elephants replace their molar teeth five times in their lifetime. After that, they are unable to grind the food and their nutrition level falls. She had probably reached that stage.

Read also: The elephant whisperer of Nepal, Biraj Adhikari

Upon knowing her condition, her owner sold her illegally to an Indian who then tried to transport her. Kajalkali had travelled half the distance to Birganj in the back of a truck, when the buyer found out that she might be confiscated at the border. He then turned his vehicle back to Sauraha parking Kajalkali at the elephent shed at Parkside Hotel where she remained for nearly a year, her health deteriorating further.

The NTCN and CNP vets attended to Kajalkali regularly. Given her digestive problems, they advised the mahout to feed her the right kind of diet. They also collected her blood sample to test for tuberculosis and other diseases for which she was cleared.

Finally, on 23 May she could not stand anymore on her feet and collapsed. After 80 litres of saline water and a whole day of effort, she managed to stand again only for her to fall again a week later.

Kajalkai a month before she passed away.

But when she collapsed for the third time on 16 June, the vets had already lost hope. They tried to ease her suffering by giving painkillers and treating the wounds. She died 10 days later on 26 June.

An elephant is listed as protected species under Nepal’s National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1972. The government has issued a Captive Elephant Management Policy in 2001. The CITES Act has been enacted to regulate the trade of endangered wildlife and their parts. Under this, all captive elephants should be registered at DNPWC and follow CITES provisions in case of trade or trans-border movement of endangered wildlife.

But the CITES regulation has not been fully implemented and not all captive elephants in Nepal are registered. The government is also not in a position to confiscate those captive elephant not registereds.

Asian wild elephants are listed in the CITES Appendix I and their trade is strictly prohibited, but captive-born elephants with certification fall in Appendix II and can be moved across the border legally with approval from CITES authorities of both exporting and importing countries.

Read also: Nepal’s wild elephants are also on the move, Salik Ram Chaudhary

Helping Kajalkali to stand using JCB.

In Nepal, there are about 70 captive elephants under private ownership, used primarily for safari tourism. But then the tourist industry suffered during the pandemic, owners could not afford the $3,000 a month needed for the upkeep of these animals.

Which is why owners have sold 20 elephants to Indian buyers during the pandemic, and Kajalkali was one of them.

Buying and selling of elephants is illegal but given the increasing elephant export from Chitwan to India, animal rights activists had filed a petition in the Supreme Court which then issued an interim order in September 2021 for the government to immediately stop the illegal cross-border sale of Nepal’s captive elephants into India.

Privately owned captive elephants need management from two perspectives. On one hand, elephants are endangered animals protected under the various conventions, treaties, rules and regulations. Their illegal trans-border trade should be stopped and their welfare ensured regardless of their status and ownership.

Read also: How humans can live with wild elephants, Sheren Shrestha and Gokarna Jung Thapa

On the other hand, they are also owned as private property in many parts of South and Southeast Asia. For private owners, elephants are part of their livelihood and want to make a profit. So it is in their interest to care for them, but once they are old, diseased or injured, elephants become a burden.

Kajalkali is the prime example of how elephants are used and then discarded when they do not benefit the owners anymore. Most of the privately-owned elephants in Nepal are above 40 years and will soon be retiring. They may very well suffer Kajalkali's fateif there is no provision for sustainable income either from tourism or external support.

Kajalkali in October 2021.

At present elephant safari is the primary source of income for these communities and it will be unwise to stop it immediately regardless of how strong the voices against it are, as it will mean negatively impact the welfare of these magnificent pachyderms.

But elephant-based tourism does not have a long future either, people are essentially riding endangered wildlife. Developing elephant-friendly alternative products and activities that ensure their welfare in the long term and generate good revenue to sustain their cost should be the priority.

At the same time, specifically for elephants that need support like Kajalkali, we should establish a sanctuary or a retirement centrewhich can be integrated with the government-planned wildlife rescue centre.

At NTNC's Biodiversity Conservation Center, we already have some experience caring for 80-year-old Melkali, who is living a proper retired life with care and support.

Read also: Set the elephants free, Michelle Szydlowski

Babu Ram Lamichhane is with the Natural Trust for Nature Conservation – Biodiversity Conservation Center in Sauraha, Chitwan.