Carrying chitwanSome days ago, I arrived at one of the government-run hattisars (elephant shelters) and I saw something that I can’t get out of my mind.
Lambodar Prasad wrapped his trunk around the post he was chained to, as if to wrench it. There was a commotion. The men trying to scare the elephant looked terrified themselves. And so did the visiting guides and tourists, most of whom could not comprehend the situation.
It was a moment that made me understand a difficult truth: that elephants, so central to the tourism industry in Chitwan, and their caretakers and handlers must put up with so many risks and hardships.
I initiated conversation with some onlookers. One of them was Jalendra Prasad Chaudhary, a soft-spoken man with tiredness exuding from his eyes. He is one of the residents of the hattisar, whose lives are bound inextricably to the elephants. Chaudhary began his life with elephants 25 years ago, interning as a mahout’s assistant in his home-district of Bara. But when he failed to get a job, he headed to Dailekh to work as a labourer.
“Working as a labourer was easier than working with elephants, but I felt that I belonged with the elephants,” says Chaudhary. So, he headed to Chitwan, where he excelled in a screening competition, administered by the government, and was soon employed as a mahout. For over two decades now, he has spent every day of his life riding on elephants, going home once in three months for a few days. He has risen through the ranks to become a ‘Khardar’, a senior personnel who looks after a hattisar, but his daily routine hasn’t really changed all that much since he started working with the pachyderms.
He wakes up every day at 4 am, feeds his elephant, cleans up the dung, takes the elephant into the jungle to graze, cuts grass for the elephant’s dinner then brings him back to the hattisar. Upon returning, he makes more kuchi (hay rolled in molasses and salt) for the elephant. Unlike the resort-owned elephants, the government elephants also work in the anti-poaching patrols. This means that besides the occasional safaris, Chaudhary and his elephant keep a watch on the forest activities. They also carry veterinarians, who sometimes need to go into the forest to treat injured animals.
“My elephant has also saved my life sometimes, so he’s also my friend,” says Chaudhary.
A mahout is assigned different elephants at different times. He told me he had been only recently reunited with his elephant, Moti Prasad, after eight years.
“Elephants remember, and Moti probably thinks I betrayed him because I wasn’t the one feeding him for so many years. I feed him and he recognises that as my love and he responds to me kindly,” says Chaudhary.
An elephant needs to be fed constantly. One of the reasons so many elephants in captivity in Nepal suffer from tuberculosis is that they are underfed and overworked, studies have shown. But Chaudhary knows little about the scientific facts related to elephants, because no elephant behaviour expert guided mahouts when they took up the job. He has gleaned what he knows from his personal experience with them.
After over two decades of a life dedicated to the jumbos, he now draws a monthly salary of 13,000 rupees, which goes into taking care of his wife and six children. He is luckier than the other mahouts who are not employed by the government. The government-employed mahouts have a regular income, while the ones who work for resorts only get to work during the tourist season and get paid accordingly.
The elephants can be viewed as the backbone of the tourism industry in Chitwan. They are the only alternative to jeeps for taking passengers on jungle safaris. That means elephants are not only responsible for their mahout’s employment but also that of hundreds of others who have a job catering to the tourists who come to enjoy the jungles.
I notice weariness in Chaudhary’s voice as he tells me he will continue the profession for as long as he can do so physically, because there’s ‘nothing else he is good at’.
“I serve my elephant. My whole life has been about elephants,” he says.
It’s a tough life for both the elephants and the mahouts. There are the poorly-paid mahouts, who risk their lives to make a living, because they have little opportunity for other forms of employment, due to their lack of access to education. Then, there are the elephants that have been held captive for life, and treated quite harshly, and who have no choice but to comply. A lifetime of being chained actually leaves permanent depressions around their feet. And just like his Moti Prasad’s feet, Jalendra Prasad Chaudhary’s bottom has developed permanent calluses from riding on elephants.
Although the mahouts had closed down the safaris briefly last year demanding a hike in pay, Chaudhary doesn’t want to lose his job by protesting again, because how would he make a living without his work with elephants?
There have been few attempts to make the lives of the elephants and the mahouts easier. But for the last five years, Carol Buckley, an American woman passionate about the welfare of elephants, has been running a campaign to unchain working elephants. She has managed to secure an acre of walking space for 47 working elephants. The elephants are left chain-free in corrals fenced off by electric wires, so that they remain inside the designated space, where they get to at least walk around. But it’s going to take a long time for everyone in the tourism industry to buy in to Buckley’s methods.
Chaudhary tells me that because elephant bulls, unlike the females, are aggressive, especially when in musth, unchaining them is a tall order. In February, a male elephant that had just been unchained, broke the electric corral, got electrocuted in the process and ran amok in the forest, killing a female elephant owned by a resort.
At the Khorsor hattisar five years ago, I had watched the elephants bobbing and swaying where they were chained, as tourists laughed and took pictures and videos because they looked ‘cute’. But I have since learned that the swaying is a sign of depression in elephants.
Before I left Chitwan, I woke up early one morning and made my way to the Sauraha hattisar. I stood just outside the electric corral, overseen by Buckley, and watched an unchained elephant named Maan Kali and her two-year old Hem Gaj, saunter in their one acre of space together—walking, stopping to tug at a branch, chewing, flailing their trunks, leaning against each other. And it filled me with peace. Maybe someday, I hoped, this would be how all working elephants would live. And maybe the lives of the mahouts would be easier too.