For Asia's elephants, life in captivity is filled with pain, isolation, and despair.
Day after day, often with no shelter to escape the sun’s burning rays, they stand for long hours, legs shackled together in heavy chains that prevent them from moving more than a few inches in any direction.
Standing in their own waste, their feet become diseased and painful from infected and necrotic tissue. They suffer from crippling arthritis and exhibit abnormal rocking, bobbing, and swaying behaviors. Many die sick and broken.
But life does not have to be this way for Asia’s working elephants.
Change is possible!
In an unprecedented gesture of faith in a US-based nonprofit organization, private NGO’s in Thailand and the Nepalese government invited Elephant Aid International (EAI) tocreate their countries' first-ever solar powered chain-free corrals.
As of August of 2015 chain-free corrals were built at Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, home to Mosha, and Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, both in Thailand, and at Chitwan National Park, Nepal, where 63 working elephants now live.
Modeled after our successful pilot projects completed in 2013 in Nepal, this groundbreaking project is deceptively simple, yet amazingly effective. Here’s what it involves:
THAILAND - Project Completed August 2015
Step 1: Enclosed acres of lush forest habitat including washes and dense trees with chain-free corrals using state-of-the-art, solar-powered electric fencing (harmless to elephants).
Step 2: Released resident elephants from their chains and gave them access to natural vegetation for shade, hygienic natural substrate for foot and joint health and fresh water for drinking, bathing and playing.
NEPAL- Project Completed April 2015
Step 1: Equipped 15 spacious outdoor stables with chain-free corrals using state-of-the-art, solar-powered electric fencing (harmless to elephants).
Step 2: Release 48 elephants from their chains into 1-acre plus corrals consisting of natural vegetation for shade, hygienic natural substrate for foot and joint health and fresh water for drinking, bathing and playing.
Step 3: Witnessed the amazing transformation of formerly-chained elephants—their overwhelming joy of moving at will and engaging in natural behavior, such as dusting, foraging, sleeping, bathing, exploring and socializing with their loved ones!
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.
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.
Buckely 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.
Chitwan National Park to keep more elephants off chains
KATHMANDU, JAN 09 - The Chitwan National Park (CNP), which is working to keep its elephants off shackles, is preparing to create additional enclosures expanding up to one acre of land for the unchained pachyderms.
As part of the second phase of the project that was launched in January last year, the CNP in coordination with Elephant Aid International (EAI), a US-based non-profit organisation, is preparing to keep 34 elephants off their shackles this year.
According to CNP spokesperson Tika Ram Poudel, fencing materials for the enclosures have already reached the park. “We will soon start training caregivers on compassionate elephant care,” he said. Carol Buckley, representing the EAI, is visiting Nepal this month to train caregivers on the new form of elephant management that aims to stop cruelty inherent in traditional care.
Of the total 57 elephants owned by the CNP, 33 were unchained in 2014 in a bid to provide them better living conditions and help create a positive relationship between humans and animals in the sanctuary.
The new care system was first of its kind in the region and is now getting popularity in various countries, including Thailand and India, where elephants are reared in captive environment.
Captive elephants in Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia are mostly restrained by ropes or chains on their feet as caregivers and professionals working to ensure the safety of the gentle giants are plagued with misconceptions that elephants will run amok and cause human injuries or deaths if they are left unchained.
Lambodhar Prasad has no escape and is forced to wear these chains all the time. Picture: Carol Buckley/Elephant Aid InternationalSource: Supplied
HE HAS spent his entire life in chains and works seven days a week.
He is also not allowed to breed, socialise or form any sort of bond with another living being.
Lambodhar Prasad has never known what freedom is and lives a lonely, solitary life.
The 60-year-old pachyderm is one of 63 elephants who work in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park on anti-poaching patrols, helping protect endangered rhinos, tigers and other elephants.
But while he serves a crucial and vital service, Lambodhar Prasad also has never known kindness, according to Elephant Aid International founder Carol Buckley.
His story is far from unique and echoes that of Indian elephant Raju who made headlines around the world when he cried after being released from a life of chains.
The 50-year-old had painful absences on his legs from his heavy chains and was forced to beg tourists for food and money.
And while Raju had a happy ending, elephants like Lambodhar Prasad face a longer path to freedom.
The elephant has sores on his head from constant beating. Picture: Carol Buckley/Elephant Aid InternationalSource:Supplied
“He suffers from learned helplessness, a condition resulting from systematic torture,” Ms Buckley told news.com.au from Nepal.
“He does as he is told because of his brutal training which has left him believing it is impossible to do anything else.”
But according to Ms Buckley, there is light at the end of the tunnel as the Nepalese Government is moving towards chain free conditions for its elephants.
Mahouts and trainers will also be educated on their treatment and welfare conditions but she warns it will all take time.
“The learning curve for mahouts is huge but we have faith,” she said.
“Attitudes are already beginning to change. We saw it after the first elephants were unchained.”
She added conditions were even more brutal for privately owned elephants.
Lambodhar Prasad is 60 years old and has spent his entire life in chains. Picture: Carol Buckley/Elephant Aid InternationalSource: Supplied
“Elephants well into their 60s and are smuggled illegally from India,” Ms Buckley said.
“They work all day in the sun carrying tourist in Chitwan community forests. They work seven days a week, in the sweltering heat. Food, shelter and care are dismal. The mahouts suffer equally at the hands of the private owners.
“No matter the mental health or physical condition the elephant works day after day wearing an ill-fitting, wound creating saddle strapped to their back so tourists can take a ride.”
The world is waking up to a new tradition of compassionate elephant care!
EAI founder and CEO Carol Buckley shares details and answers questions from reporters about EAI's "Chain Free Means Pain Free" initiative at a press conference hosted by Chitwan National Park on April 27, 2014. Click on the image below to watch as elephants are released from their chains.
CAROL'S CORRAL CONSTRUCTION CHRONICLES - 2014
Click here to read Carol's Corral Construction Chronicles--a true story of big-hearted adventure in Nepal.
As each Phase One chain-free hattisar was completed and each elephant was unshackled, Carol shared photos and stories from the field.
CATCH UP WITH NEWS FROM NEPAL - JUNE 4, 2014
Watch and listen to EAI Founder/CEO Carol Buckley as she speaks to a live global audience on Kantipur TV about Elephant Aid Internationall's work to bring Compassionate Elephant Care to Nepal.