The Dark Side

The tusks that clashed in great battles are just showcases
And no more wild as the wilderness is gone
Have turned to living specimens with nothing own
Compelled to live behind the bars
And hear the human’s noise and tease.
The legendary is dead and gone.

Yes, this is the plight of almost all the captivated elephants in the Chitwan. Recently, I had a chance to visit Sauraha through WEPA. Altogether there are around 80 elephants in captivity including private owners, elephant breeding center, hattisar and NTNC. Elephant riding, bathing etc have been one of the major tourist attractions contributing in the Nepalese tourism industry.

Elephants had been close to human since ages. Airawat, the vehicle of Lord Indra was an elephant. In Shri Swasthani, story of selection of a king by elephant is quite famous. Likewise, most importantly, Elephant is regarded as a symbol of Lord Ganesha too.

Similarly, elephants are also linked with the monarchy as we have heard that kings used to ride on elephants around the city and hunting was done riding on elephants. This clearly shows that elephants were captivated since time immemorial.

Still many of us would love to visit Sauraha just for the elephants. But, do we all know how the wild, strongest, largest mammal on land would follow simple instructions by the tiny man? They are so intelligent creatures but still how are they compelled to work like slaves?  The story is very frightening.
Being the most intelligent and knowledgeable species of the planet, humans have established their supremacies. It’s their mind and their discoveries that have made them most powerful. As per Hakku kale’s dialogue ‘Bal hoina pasa buddhi laga’ we have used our mind.

However, the job of training an elephant is not so simple and easy. These magnificent creatures are accustomed to browsing in forest, mud baths in the river banks. But, young tusker about 2-3 years old, is trapped; he is tortured, left to starve for many days, beaten severely, pulled with rope from the opposite sides, threatened with fire or smoke, and applied all the harsh and inhumane ideas. He is isolated, frightened. At the end, his spirit is shattered and is made to surrender. Once, a cub was killed during the training in Chitwan. There are many such horrifying stories.

We may not have seen all the procedures but if anyone of you has done the elephant ride or bath, have you noticed the scars in the body? The mahout continuously hit the elephant with the sharp metal i.e. ankush or bill hook. . Some even have their ears torn, bruises on the skin.
There are approximately 15,000-16,000 working elephants in dozen countries of Asia. Mahouts often do have a deep and genuine care for the well being of their elephants. For example, traditional mahout culture includes Tharus, who are known widely for their strong bond with nature and animals. But still they are compelled to treat them with cruelty because of the widespread misconception that pain and fear are necessary for controlling an elephant. And the main reason for using pain-inflicting methods is not cruelty, but an unawareness of the existence of an efficient, animal-friendly alternative.

The traditional training mechanism also causes safety issues for mahouts. Elephants with painful memories occasionally attack their handlers, resulting in hundreds of deaths per year across Asia. Hence, new, improved training method is being implemented by WEPA in Chitwan and Bardia. This training procedure, often called “Positive Learning Method” has been designed to combine a maximal reliability of elephants at work with well-being of the elephants and safety of staffs. This is achieved through a detailed understanding of an elephant’s brain functions related to learning.

The advantages of Positive Learning method over the traditional pain inflicting methods is that detailed attention is paid on the clarity and timing of the signals the trainer gives to the elephant and another element is an understanding on how to motivate the animal to follow each command in any circumstances like providing awards. With these skills, the trainer can control the elephant without harsh behaviors. The elephant also learns faster compared to traditionally trained elephants, and carries out its tasks with reliability and precision along with mutual relation with the mahout.

Whether in the wild or at work, elephants are among the most intelligent of all land mammals, and are capable of complex social behavior and communication. And to sustain our elephant based tourism, we need to replace the traditional inhumane approach as the tourists are also very much concerned about animal welfare these days. Hence, positive learning method is to be implemented, tested and verified for the betterment of elephants, mahouts as well as nation as a whole.


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