Set the elephants free

Safari elephants on the streets of Sauraha. Photo: ISAZ

Humans and elephants have shared environments for thousands of years, but what might surprise readers is that a quarter of the world’s Asian elephants live in captivity.

These elephants are a vital and vibrant part of Nepal’s history, and their use has been documented since at least the fifth century in areas as diverse as war machines, living monuments to regal power and wealth, rewards for service and currently as tourist transport.

Elephant tourism has become a major financial windfall for businessmen in the Chitwan National Park area, and photos of elephants on the streets of Sauraha have become synonymous with the location. Visitors to the area often mention their desire to ‘see elephants’ in both the wild and in captive settings. Tourism vendors must keep up the appearance of happy animals in idyllic settings in order to maintain a steady flow of income.

However, there is no ‘sound science’ supporting elephant-backed tourism as indicated in a Nepali Times article of 4 October, 2020, and no animal welfare studies that provide data that shows anything but substandard conditions in the majority of stables within the area.

Waxing poetic about grand experiences on elephant-back does not change the data. In fact, I have spent the last four years as a rhino and elephant researcher in Nepal, and have just completed an assessment of not only the stables in Chitwan, but an overall review of captive elephant health and welfare throughout the US, UK and Asia.

In a series of articles, Brown, et al found that elephants in tourism venues varied in weight, fecal glucocorticoid measurements (a sign of stress), and other hormonal studies depending upon their management techniques and expected performance of duties.

In a few studies, the elephants used in safari rides showed better weights and lower concentrations of certain stress hormones than those used in exhibition-only venues. However, while these analyses were conducted by reputable sources, the Nepali Times article misrepresents their results. Rather than conclusively exonerating elephant captivity, these studies called for further research, acknowledging that the weight differences may be due to the practice of overfeeding sweet treats such as bananas and sugar cane to elephants kept in exhibition/visitation stables.

In addition, being chained or kept in one place impacts exercise habits of these individuals, and increasing their activity via non-riding activities may be needed. Further studies showed that simply being exposed to humans was a stressful event, causing spikes in the stress hormones of captive elephants.

Hopefully, new measures such as an examination of secretory hormones, will allow researchers to assess positive or negative experiences in elephants. Bansiddhi, et al and others in their studies have stated that the information is of limited value until a baseline study of normal levels in wild elephants can be obtained, and a determination of harmful levels can be gathered.

Without this data, comparisons between elephants under varying management styles are more informational than diagnostic. In fact, at the EMA Conference 2020 last month, the need for better assessment tools and baseline studies in order to properly assess welfare were discussed.

Other oft-quoted studies used by tourism agencies to promote elephant rides include those which say that the bullhook is not a danger in and of itself. This is a very true statement, just as any weapon is essentially harmless when disconnected from a human.

Sadly, much traditional mahout knowledge regarding safe elephant handling has been lost, and bullhooks are now used nearly exclusively for fear and beating-based training, along with nails, knives, and sticks.

Experienced mahouts have moved on to better jobs to escape the stigma of being low-caste or poorly-paid, researchers have found, leaving younger or inexperienced men to handle elephants using dominance and violence. Beatings often take place in view of visitors, and present tourists with a negative view of Nepal. There are no laws specifically protecting elephants in Nepal, and this lack of legislation (despite support for it from various government agencies) puts an uncomfortable spotlight on the country.

A reality that animal welfare advocates (both Nepali and western) must acknowledge is that one cannot simply expect elephant rides to stop overnight. Those of us working in elephant research and welfare acknowledge the need for a gradual change which provides training and better employment opportunities for mahouts, financial stability for owners, and opportunities for local community members who rely on elephant tourism for their survival.

Having a long-term plan in place is key for the well-being of all stakeholders. By pushing for better elephant standards, we are not clamouring to immediately eradicate elephant tourism. In fact, most researchers realise that government-owned elephants are a necessary part of anti-poaching, emergency rescue and wildlife census activities. During the monsoon season, these elephants remain the only way to enter the park.

Happy elephants

The elephants at Tiger Tops Tharu Village, who were participants in my study as well as being mentioned in Lisa Choegyal’s article, have significantly different lives than most elephants in Nepal. These elephants are kept in chain-free enclosures, and have a large number of well-trained and experienced mahouts to care for them and are allowed more agency in their daily activities.

In addition, the staff of Tiger Tops has agreed that they will no longer purchase elephants once this herd passes. But these humane conditions are aberrant for captive elephants in Nepal.

Surveys into the health and welfare of privately-held elephants have shown nutritional deficiencies, physical deformities and injuries, wounds from abuse and abscesses from saddles, death from preventable disorders, stillbirth and near-constant reproductive issues. Injuries and some disease processes are common in tourism venues throughout Asia, but are manageable with changes to management and husbandry styles.

Furthermore, the majority of elephants in the Sauraha area are not allowed to recline for rest, get dirty or dig (a necessity for foot and joint health), but are instead chained by front and back legs. Recumbancy for sleep is incredibly important for elephant health, as is digging.  Simple, inexpensive changes to stables — such as providing dirt for the expression of natural behaviours or more appropriate nutrition — would be a game changer for the elephants of Nepal.

Look, don’t touch

The captive elephants of Nepal also represent a population which may impact the life span of wild elephants in the area. Because they carry diseases such as TB, found in at least 23% of the captive population and has recently resulted in the deaths of two government-owned elephants, they risk passing along a variety of bacteria to wild populations.

Furthermore, studies have shown that the pressure placed on forest resources by captive elephants impacts the availability of resources for wild elephants. Preserving these endangered species in their natural habitats should be a priority for the government of Nepal, and allowing the keeping of captive elephants in shared spaces is a risky practice.


Because Nepal is a CITES signatory, the trade and sale of these endangered species is illegal. Yet, it continues unabated, and owners openly acknowledge this fact in newspaper articles and emails. No amount of description of peaceful jungle walks or ‘ethical’ activities will change the fact that the use of these animals for commercial purposes is illegal.

Until the government of Nepal enforces CITES there will be no effective changes. Owners should refrain from buying or selling elephants in the future, as a sign of their commitment to creating lasting changes in Sauraha. Visitors to the area should be aware of the laws surrounding elephant trade, and consider this fact when booking travel to areas advertising elephant tourism.

The upside

Currently, there are multiple plans in place to create a non-riding sanctuary in the Chitwan National Park area of Nepal, and NGOs such as Jane Goodall-Nepal and World Animal Protection have been in talks for years with the local elephant owner’s cooperative group about this issue.

If all owners agreed to stop tourist elephant riding, these organisations, and others, have indicated that there would be a great deal of financial support available. But because there have been holdouts among cooperative members, talks have stalled for the time being.

There is now discussion of a cooperatively-owned facility housing a few of the members' elephants which will provide viewing of elderly individuals and riding of younger ones. However, this hardly fits the definition of a true sanctuary.

Instead, Sauraha has the unique opportunity to become a completely ride-free, chain-free venue due to the relatively small number of captive elephants, and the acknowledgement by owners that these elephants now require a change in treatment and management.

These owners have the chance to establish Sauraha as a more ethical tourism venue, while still creating income for themselves and maintaining employment opportunities for marginalised communities of mahouts. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Nepal, and the elephant owners, to create a world-recognised facility. Hopefully, owners will embrace this opportunity and create lasting changes in the elephant industry.

Luckily, there is already one smaller NGO in the Chitwan area working with local stakeholders to purchase elephants out of riding situations, and quietly transfer them to true sanctuaries. In addition, other organisations are working with hotel owners to lease elephants, keeping them off safari.

In addition, there are other ethical venues open for tourist visits. One way to ensure your destinations are animal-friendly or ethical is look at the access offered to living animals. If the venue allows human touching of animals, then it is best to avoid. Use your tourist dollars to support facilities that care about animal health and welfare. Look, but don’t touch.

The bottom line

No one wishes to ban tourism in Nepal. It is a beautiful location with much to offer, and has set a high standard in preserving natural habitats for wildlife. Visitors to Nepal can enjoy jungle walks, home stays, local food and products, and enjoy the sight of wildlife crossing the Rapti River at sunset.

What must change, however, is for tourists to take responsibility for their own impacts on both wild and captive elephants as well as local communities. This endangered species deserves our respect and better treatment in return for their years of hard work.

They deserve a life with proper nutrition, agency, and space. Well-informed tourists will continue to visit the area, and should use their tourist dollars to support ethical activities and stay in hotels that promote chain-free corrals and well-nourished elephants.

If you would like to discuss elephants, tourism, or my research, feel free to comment on this article, and I will reach out to you.

Michelle Szydlowski is a PhD candidate with the University of Exeter Anthrozoology Department. Her research focuses on pachyderm-people relationships in Nepal, captive elephant welfare, and sustainable tourism. 

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