The elephant dilemma

By following the sound science, Nepal could lead Asia in tourism best practice

Blending into their natural habitat, elephants are a perfect vehicle on which to explore tiger country’s towering grasslands in safety and without disturbing the wildlife Photo: DHRUV SINGH

In the depths of central India the red rocks hung heavy in the dry April heat. The guide Bimal led us along the marked trail and tangled thorns through the prehistoric caves, solicitous that we admired the ancient paintings, the oldest rock art in India, preserved by UNESCO in the remote archaeological world heritage site of Bhimbetka. Our footsteps on the hot packed earth echoed with the silence of far-distant ancestors.

Occupied in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic times through to the historic period, the shimmering walls of Bhimbetka rock shelters were alive with drawings of stylised animals, ritual dancers and horseback hunters pursuing herds that had roamed up to 10,000 years ago, offering a rare glimpse into the earliest traces of life in India. Amongst the bulls, buffaloes, deer, antelope, a peacock, a tiger and the left handprint of a small child, my attention was immediately caught by the tusked elephant with people perched on his back.

“I used to live with elephants in the Tarai jungles - have you been to Nepal?” I asked Bimal, to explain my enthusiasm. “Not yet,” came the elliptical reply.

Rather like Covid-19, the complex conundrum surrounding the rights and wrongs of keeping captive elephants can be led by solid science and good sense, or it gets blinded in a whirlwind of rumour and innuendo. Whatever we may think today, the red wall art of Bhimbetka reminds us that elephants are embedded deep within the South Asian cultural psyche, a rapport built over many millennia.

Nepal: a family's destination, Lisa Choegyal

Brought up in England amongst dogs, horses and a deep concern for animal welfare, arriving in 1970s Chitwan I was captivated by the Tiger Tops hatisar, bustling with phanitspachhuwas, mahouts, wives, children and a dozen elephants, each with their individual character, personality and foibles. I observed the symbiotic bond with their skilled handlers, their sometimes feisty relationships with each other, and the delight that these clever creatures brought to decades of jungle visitors. Interactions with patient pachyderms were undoubtedly a highpoint of tourist visits to the Tarai national parks of Nepal.

A primal affinity with the jungle pervades the senses as I sway soundlessly through the park landscape behind an expert phanit, a grey trunk delicately investigates the timeless scents and sounds, and a low gurgle communicates with her neighbours nearby.

Bardiya beginnings, Lisa Choegyal

Sangjay’s first spoken word was hati, Rinchen was only four when the Enigma elephant music video hit the charts, and soon after I arrived in Chitwan my life was saved from an irate rhinoceros by Rup Kali, and her driver Sultana. As well as being a perfect wildlife-viewing vehicle on which to explore tiger country’s towering grasslands in safety, elephant walks in the forest, bathing in the river, and elephant camp visits to learn their husbandry, habits and friendships were highlights for Tiger Tops guests.

These days, it is ironic that this elephantine ability to inspire sentiment and strong feeling is threatening their future, and even their very survival. Provoked by animal rights activists and fundraisers, a morass of misinformation, anthropomorphism and simplistic soundbites are shamelessly manipulating this emotion to convince the world that it is cruel to keep elephants in captivity.

Champions of Nepal's conservation movement, Lisa Choegyal

Well-meaning western tour operators are succumbing to media pressure, refusing to sell lodges or itineraries that offer elephant activities. Losing tourists would be the worst outcome for Nepal’s elephants with potentially tragic consequences – their welfare is dependent on sustainable tourism and visitor demand, and is specially fragile due to the ongoing coronavirus downturn.

There is doubtless appalling abuse in parts of Nepal, and particularly in other Asian destinations where negligent authorities allow elephants to be taken from the wild, despite legislation prohibiting this, and some animals are cruelly trained, badly neglected, illegally trafficked or otherwise subjected to the misery of mistreatment. Are we not obligated to treat all animals with kindness and respect – farmed, tamed, trained, captive or wild – not just elephants?

Over 200 domesticated elephants are scattered through Nepal, mostly in the Tarai living adjacent to their natural habitat around Chitwan and Bardia National Parks. About half are in private hands for tourism (106 private elephants reported by WWF Nepal), with 94 owned by the government and eight by NTNC where they are essential for conservation research, census, monitoring, translocation, rescue, anti-poaching patrols and reaching otherwise inaccessible areas, especially during the monsoon. Private lodge elephants are often used to supplement DNPWC’s important wildlife protection work, contributing to Nepal’s enviable record of conservation success.

None of Nepal’s elephants are used for logging or expected to work in alien environments such as temples, forts, beaches, city streets and urban hotels -- all far less-humane activities than jungle safaris in their natural habitat. The worst that happens is the occasional royal coronation or ceremonial procession in Kathmandu, now that hunting is over. Since 1986 the pachyderm’s wild cousins are protected as endangered species, no elephants have been captured from the wild in Nepal since the mid-nineteenth century, and our habitual training techniques mostly employ kindness and positive reinforcement rather than brute force.

It is expensive to manage any elephant camp, requiring space, shelter, supplementary food, veterinary attention, and substantial numbers of staff and their families – three persons tended each animal at Tiger Tops, mostly indigenous lowland people honoured for their generations of traditional knowledge and elephant experience.

John R Edwards, 72, Lisa Choegyal

Baby elephants born in captivity take years to grow and also keep their mothers out of commission - some calves are sired by wild bulls from accidental mating. Well planned and responsible jungle tourism in the elephant’s natural environment is the best benign option for sustaining their expensive existence, ensuring they are valued, kindly treated and venerated as Ganesh, integral to Hindu heritage and subcontinental culture.

Boycotting the use of elephants for tourism comes with the danger of having the very opposite effect desired by well-meaning proponents. Naive calls to set elephants free back into the wild are not a realistic option due to lack of suitable habitat, exacerbation of conflict with humans, disruption to wild populations, risks of spreading disease, legal obstacles and limited alternative livelihoods for the local communities who depend on them for jobs.

The idealistic dream of eliminating conventional tools utilised for control and safety for centuries, such as ankle chains and ankush (metal hooks), can be lethal for both handlers and tourists if not approached carefully. Elephants are highly intelligent animals with a developed social structure, so building herds and friendship groups is technical and skilled, and corrals can result in elephants fighting, becoming stressed, bullied and even less happy than when confined in a regular hatisar.

According to science, neither is there any moral high ground to be gained by not riding elephants. Studies show that rides are not necessarily a problem provided they are done the right way, in the right terrain and with the right professional care. Elephant treatment must be based on science and experience, not on emotion and sentiment.

Born to be free, Lucia De Vries

Ongoing studies by teams of scientists in South East Asian countries, where many of the welfare violations take place, have come up with best practice guidelines and a set of criteria to ensure management benchmarking that benefit both elephants and their stable staff. These can be adapted for Nepal.

We need to distinguish our differences and separate our reputation from problematic issues elsewhere. Without too many changes, checks and upgrades with the cooperation of current elephant owners, Nepal could be leading the world in elephant best practice.

Instead of a blanket ban, succumbing to pressure from uninformed rights’ campaigners and confused media, introducing a certification system to monitor ethical standards throughout Nepal elephant camps could improve animal welfare and human wellbeing, and help rescue Nepal’s flagging nature tourism.

Without being apologetic or defensive, Nepal’s elephant practices can gain the trust of tour operators and consumers with external auditing to attain model conditions of animal care, without jeopardising the safety of our elephants, their carers or wildlife tourists.

Bardiya's peace dividend, Wanda Vivequin

Since my long-ago life in the jungle, a slew of zoologists, ecologists and a substantial body of research have been devoted to the issue of domesticated elephants. Their work overlaps to help protect the endangered 50,000 wild elephants remaining in Asia, of which Nepal has relatively few. The recent DNPWC count recorded only 227 jungly hatis resident in Nepal (Ram & Acharya 2020) in isolated populations along the southern border – not many more than the 208 elephants employed in conservation and tourism.

The Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG) is a task force established in 2015 comprising some of the world’s foremost elephant specialists, scientists, conservationists, and camp managers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Think Elephants International, Elephant Care International and GTAEF run by John Roberts, who cut his teeth working with elephants in Chitwan.

Save nature from politicians

John is a leading authority, fighting for humane treatment based in Thailand at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF). “If the working hours are limited and the terrain is suitable, two people in a saddle (less than ten percent of the elephant’s body weight) will not be an undue stressor for an elephant,” John Roberts reports. “The weight of one or two people without a saddle (less than four percent of body weight) would hardly be noticed.”

Dr Ingrid Suter presents a persuasive argument having spent her career interviewing mahouts and working with elephant owners. “Private elephant ownership is here to stay … let’s be sure harm is minimised and ideally eradicated,” she says. As part of Asian Captive Elephants Standards she applies ‘scientific quantifiable evidence and expert findings rather than emotion or trends or pressure’.

Best practice certification schemes to win the confidence of the tourism industry have been developed by organisations that include Travelife for Tour Operators, ElefantAsia and Global Spirit, Animals in Tourism with support from IUCN, PATA and WWF.

If we fail to convince the international travel industry of our ethical standards, and if the Chitwan and Bardia elephants cannot support themselves with responsible jungle tourism, we are condemning these giants and their dependent local families to worse conditions and an uncertain future. And we would be depriving visitors of a wonderful opportunity to experience Nepal’s spectacular wildlife from the vantage of elephant back, which in turn supports vital conservation work, and promotes education, awareness and protection for the wealth of species and biodiversity in our beautiful protected areas.

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

Lisa Choegyal


  • Most read