Guest article by Diana from The Elephant Soul.
Table of Contents
Nepal Elephants: The Context
We’ve all seen images of people trekking in the beautiful mountains of Nepal, or of the Kathmandu temples where mysticism and spirituality converge. There are other photos too, where people are riding elephants or taking baths with elephants splashing water at their faces.
From the outside, it looks like an exotic experience worth adding to your bucket list. A jungle safari on top of an elephant seems so Instagram-worthy, and we can’t wait to be the next ones sharing that photo.
Or at least that was me some years ago. I really wanted to be very close to an elephant and ride on its back, and I also wanted to see other wild animals in what seemed like a great adventure.
Guess what? I’m glad I never did. Here’s why: most of the working elephants in Nepal are undernourished and overworked, without access to sufficient clean water, and are chained up all night or whenever they’re not working.
They have been broken mentally and physically through the infamous and ancient phajaan ritual. This means they have been taken away from their herd and their habitat in order to be brutally trained, not just for days but for weeks or even months at a time until they become submissive and compliant enough to work for humans.
Most of the elephants you see in the South of Nepal have been bought in the Sonepur Cattle Fair and brought into the country despite it being illegal to do so.
India does not allow the export of its elephants, and in order to be allowed to import them Nepal needs to meet the requirements under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
These requirements specify that the elephants are not to be used for primarily commercial purposes, that the scientific authority in the importing State must make sure that the living conditions won’t be detrimental to the elephants’ survival, and that they must be transported in accordance with CITES guidelines.
Sadly, Nepal does not meet the requirements, even though it has been a CITES signatory since 1975. Many of the elephants in Chitwan National Park have made the journey from India on foot.
A local news article titled “Illegal trading of elephants openly at the border, regulatory body silent“ stated that old enslaved elephants from India were still being sold to Nepalese businesses and brought into the country.
There have been several attempts to stop the sale of exotic and wild animals at this infamous fair. Last year, a Humane Society International campaign took place to stop the sale of elephant calves that had been caught illegally from the forests in the Northeast part of India.
The whole operation has both businesses (hotels and private elephant owners that rent them out) and brokers involved. These “tamed elephants” are purchased at the fair and are later taken to their new employers and hotels.
“How is this all possible?” you may be wondering. Sadly, it is fueled by tourists’ demand to have those “unique” experiences and “exotic” selfies. As long as people continue to pay for those activities to be included as part of their holiday package, elephants will continue to suffer.
Tourism in Nepal generates lots of revenue and jobs. It’s estimated that last year nearly half a million jobs were created by the tourist industry.
The number of foreign visitors arriving in Nepal has increased by almost 40% in the past three years, according to the Kathmandu Post newspaper. This means that there will be more demand for local services and goods to cater for the increasing number of tourists.
And it also means that, among those services, elephant rides will continue to be offered as part of the “experience”.
This table shows the increase in the number of elephants acquired for elephant rides.
It is included in the report An Elephant is Not a Machine issued by Animal Nepal, a local Nepalese NGO.
Nepal Elephants Perform A Profitable Service
The Nepalese government recently increased the entrance fees to Chitwan National Park and fees for elephant safaris recently increased. With these new prices, each foreigner from outside the SAARC region pays approximately $46 in total for an elephant experience ($25 for the elephant safari and $21 for the park entrance fee).
For those visiting the park in jeeps, the fee is $12. More than 150,000 tourists visited Chitwan National Park in the fiscal year 2017/ 2018.
Let’s do the math: There are usually four people riding each elephant, plus the mahout. According to a local guide, these working elephants go into the park four times a day.
This means that for each jungle safari, a group of four foreigners will pay about $184, which multiplied by four times a day is nearly $740 per day, per elephant. Granted, businesses don’t get to keep all of the income from the rides, as the entrance fees that tourists pay go to the park.
However, they do earn from the service the elephants provide with each ride, so it is still a lucrative situation for the various stakeholders involved in elephant rides. From these figures, we can see why Nepal elephants are an important source of profit for the tourist industry.
And with more tourists coming from neighboring countries, the demand for their services is only increasing. However, the trade has its own complications and challenges in terms of sustainability.
Aside from the exhaustion of carrying five adult humans on their delicate backs every day, many of these elephants suffer from tuberculosis (Mycobacterium tuberculosis).
Despite a reported decline in the disease, due in part to a younger population of working animals, these safari elephants don’t get the necessary rest or nutrition they need, so the chances of recurrence are high. Scientists agree that stress and malnourishment can “reactivate” tuberculosis in elephants.
According to the senior Nepalese veterinarian consulted in the article, “growing age, excessive work and less amount of food make elephants vulnerable to TB bacteria attack.“ Sadly, this is a very likely scenario for these working animals.
One way to ensure that they are looked after and healthy would be to change the way the tourist industry conducts business. An alternative would be to create a retirement home for them or to offer walking tours instead of jungle rides, but we’ll talk more about this in the solutions section below.
Main Characteristics of the Asian Elephant
Did you know that there are three elephant species? It also surprised me! There is the Asian elephant - also known by its scientific name of elephas maximus, the African forest elephant and the African bush elephant.
Have you noticed their skin is also different? The Asian elephant’s skin is not as wrinkled as the African’s. This is because African elephants live in drier areas and need to retain more water.
All of them have similar social structures with well-defined roles. For example, the oldest female in the herd always leads the way. She knows where to look for water and she, together with the other females, teaches the first-time mothers how to care for their calves.
In the wild, female elephants stay together until one of them dies. Male elephants usually leave the herd at puberty.
Most of the working elephants you see in Asia are females, although there have been some famous ones that have been male. Mothers will never leave their babies alone as it causes them huge stress and anxiety. This is why you see working mothers either walking or chained next to their calves.
Despite their large size, the elephants’ spine is a delicate architecture. It is curved upward, unlike the spines of horses and other working animals, which curve downward.
So, when you put on a big seat (howdah) that can easily weigh 100 kilograms and five peope who weigh about 350 kilograms in total, you’re forcing the elephant to carry about 500 kilograms of weight in the wrong direction, every single day.
This malpractice causes pain, skin irritation and, most importantly, severe spinal damage. Despite recent campaigns, many tourists are still unaware of the elephant’s anatomy and why this species is not meant to be ridden.
Asian Elephants Are Not Domesticated
A general misconception is that Asian elephants have been domesticated and that this is why they work for people, whether in jungle rides, shows or in the logging industry.
Despite elephants having a long standing relationship with humans (experts estimate 2,000 years), there is no such thing as domesticated elephants.
They have not been selectively bred, due to their huge size and gestation period, which lasts nearly two years. Throughout history, elephants have remained wild creatures even if bred in captivity.
A more accurate term would be trained elephants, but even those who have been trained are essentially still wild elephants. This is what National Geographic had to say on the matter in its article about Asian elephants:
“Captive Asian elephants are often misinterpreted as domesticated, because they have been kept and trained by humans for thousands of years. However, the majority have historically been captured from the wild and tamed for use by humans. Although they can breed in captivity, like big cats and other wild animals, they are not selectively bred, largely because of their long reproductive cycle. For this reason, there are no domesticated breeds of Asian elephants: They remain wild animals.”
And the organization World Animal Protection added:
“Most experts agree that to be domesticated, animals must have been selectively bred by humans for at least 12 generations, with offspring from each generation chosen for further breeding based on their desired traits – like strength, size, appearance and behaviour.
The instincts and even anatomy of domesticated animals are significantly different from their wild counterparts. They likely still display natural behaviours, but due to selective breeding they are much easier to handle than wild animals of the same species.
It’s not possible for one individual wild animal to become domesticated within their lifetime.”
The Conservation Argument and Current Challenges
One of the arguments you often hear is that the work carried out by these elephants is for the good of their communities and the conservation of other species. In the case of rhinos, it is true that Nepal has done a wonderful job of keeping poaching at record-low levels.
Some say this is due to the anti-poaching patrols that use government elephants. The issue is that the elephants in Chitwan National Park are also an endangered species, yet they do not get the same level of protection or consideration as the rhinos.
Despite the fact that the privately owned elephants make a profit for their owners and their cooperative, this income does not go towards their welfare or that of their mahouts (handlers).
With an income of nearly $80 a month and approximately 16 hours of work a day, how much could a mahout or his family progress? In truth, neither the elephant nor the mahout gets the minimum standard of care, proper nutrition or adequate housing.
Many of the places where the mahouts live are just shacks that sometimes lack electricity and clean water. Others are simple constructions made of concrete. They sleep next to the elephants they care for all day.
This publication by Elephant Aid International describes how the conditions of the mahouts are inadequate, as are the corrals where the elephants live: “Stables are rancid cesspools because no provision is made for waste disposal. Many stables don’t even have a source of fresh water.”
These are the main challenges that Nepal’s working elephants in Chitwan National Park currently face:
- Tourist demand for elephant rides
- Substandard living conditions for elephants and their handlers
- Lack of law enforcement to prevent the illegal importation of elephants
- Authorities promoting the use of elephants for entertainment purposes
- Elephant Breeding Center giving the wrong message by chaining their elephants
- Elephants in Nepal dying at an alarming rate
Solutions and Alternatives to the Problems Facing Elephants in Nepal
By refusing to ride elephants in Chitwan, you’ll create the demand for alternative activities like walking with them instead. This would still generate an income for their owners and keep their mahouts employed while helping the elephants heal and rest.
If businesses could invest in training their mahouts with new skills and languages, their salaries (and tips) would also increase.
As an alternative to staying at any of the hotels in Sauraha, where elephant rides are the default, book your stay at Tiger Tops Elephant Camp, which is located on the Western side of the park about an hour away from the Baratpur Airport. Here, 12 lucky elephants live, surrounded by luscious trees in a more relaxing and peaceful atmosphere.
Here are some additional recommendations:
- Do your research before you book, and make it a point not to accept activities in your holiday package that include rides or visits to places where elephants are chained.
- Volunteer at a local project that promotes change and supports elephant welfare principles through a hands-on experience.
- Go on a jungle walk and connect with your senses. Some of the benefits you’ll thoroughly enjoy are the sounds and scents of nature, the stillness, and the thrill of discovering a wild animal in the most unexpected way. Breathe deeply and appreciate the beautiful habitat of Nepal’s iconic species. During my last jungle walk I got to see rhinos, deer, monkeys and wild peacocks.
- Visit the award-winning elephant-friendly resort that has stopped offering rides and does not chain its elephants. Its unrivaled landscape will give you the most relaxing views and peaceful atmosphere.
- Book your itinerary through a local tour operator that does not persuade you to book elephant safaris. Or join an exclusively vegan Nepal tour with an international travel company that does not offer elephant rides but rather focuses on travel experiences where no animals are exploited.
- Meet Nepal’s first privately "owned" elephant to ever retire and go on a peaceful morning walk with her into the grasslands or enjoy seeing her as she takes a relaxing afternoon bath in the river. The morning itinerary includes cutting fresh grass and preparing an elephant sandwich for her. After you’ve finished, you’ll be rewarded with a homemade breakfast. Ask for vegan options when you book.
- Choose a jeep safari instead of an elephant ride if you’re staying in Sauraha. Not only is it more comfortable, but you get to enter the Chitwan National Park. Note that on private elephant safaris you stay mainly in the buffer zones.
- Talk to the owner or manager of the hotel where you’re staying and help them understand that you do not support animal cruelty and would rather go on elephant walks instead of elephant rides. Ask how they can accommodate your request.
Etiquette for Visiting Chitwan National Park
It took me four years before I made my first trip to Chitwan National Park, the oldest of the 10 national parks in Nepal. I needed to be sure that I would stay in an ethical elephant-friendly place and that I would not support any sort of cruelty.
Since that first trip, I have gone back a couple of times. These are some tips I have learned along the way:
- Wear dark-colored clothes; preferably green, gray, black, dark brown or camouflaged
- Avoid using perfume
- Use non-toxic mosquito repellent
- Keep your voice down
- Allow the elephants to initiate any close interaction first
- Do not litter
- Bring a hat
- Bring trekking shoes
- Bring a reusable water bottle
- Use sunblock
- Wear a breathable long-sleeve shirt
If you want to know more about elephants in Nepal and the issues working elephants are facing, these are the organizations raising awareness in Nepal:
Animal-Friendly Dining in Nepal
Now, let’s talk about food! Here are several options for you to try when in Kathmandu. I have personally been to each one of them and tried all of the options listed here.
You can enjoy so many delicious foods in Nepal without harming any animals.
Vegan Nepalese Dishes to Try
One of the first dishes locals will urge you to try is dahl bhat, which is a set consisting of lentils, rice and a variety of vegetables and pickles cooked with turmeric, cumin, garlic, onion, tomato, masala, etc.
It’s healthy, delicious and filling. One thing to keep in mind is that not all dahl bhat are cooked with oil. Some use ghee (clarified butter), so make sure you ask before you order.
Made from four simple ingredients (black pulses, asafetida, garlic and salt), these protein-rich lentil patties are fried and served as a side dish with curries. I personally have eaten them by themselves, but have also enjoyed them with a dahl bhat set. I bet you can’t have just one!
Seasoned with cumin, turmeric, ginger and chili, this traditional Nepalese dish of spicy potatoes with cauliflower and peas is so simple and yet so tasty. It can sometimes be a bit spicy, so you can consider pairing it with basmati rice and/or roti (flat bread).
Vegan Yogurts, Nut Milks and Cheese
Yes, this is finally a dream come true for vegans in Kathmandu! During my most recent trip to Nepal, I had the pleasure of meeting Kajool, a passionate vegan entrepreneur who has started a much needed business of vegan products.
Her home-based business, Vegan Dairy Nepal, offers a wide range of products. I tried her almond milk and soy yogurt as well as her granola bars.
Where to Eat Vegan in Kathmandu
Now, if you feel like you need a break from local food, then definitely try any (or all) of these restaurants. I have included my personal favorites.
Located close to “Restaurant Road” in Patan (Lalitpur), this unpretentious Japanese restaurant has some of the most authentic and delicious dishes you’ll find in Kathmandu.
Their sushi is not bad, but their real charm lies in the other dishes like yakko (cold seasoned tofu), gom ae (wilted spinach with sesame), vegetable ramen noodles, and homemade ginger ale. You will fall in love with this place.
Another Japanese favorite of mine, Koto has delicious shiitake mushroom sushi, avocado sushi, the best miso soup you’ll find anywhere, and a fantastic bento box consisting of fried vegetables, rice, tofu, cabbage and cucumber salad with a carrot ginger dressing.
Koto also has the best fresh sweet lemon soda in town. You’ll also get complimentary green tea throughout your meal.
With a wide variety of Vietnamese dishes, it is difficult to name just a few. You will love their green papaya salad, their tofu curry and their vegetable and tofu pho. The broth is cooked separately, so you won’t have any traces or taste of animal products.
Only a few meters walk from Patan Durbar Square, this tiny place lies inside a restored boutique hotel. The atmosphere is pleasant and inviting; it’s the perfect place to rest after a visit to this old kingdom.
Their eggplant caviar and organic green salad are delicious, and together they make a filling meal. Try their masala chai (without milk) before you head out to explore some more.
Located in a posh complex of restaurants and shops, this gorgeous French eatery will feel like a respite after spending time in the Kathmandu traffic.
Their menu does not have too many choices for vegans (although it is extensive for vegetarians), so I recommend getting their soup of the day (never made with dairy or chicken stock), their avocado salad (seasonal) or the house salad, which comes with the most delicious fresh herb dressing you’ve ever had.
Their brochettes végétariennes are also a good option. They’re made with tofu and served with rice or spaghetti.
To Summarize: How to Be an Elephant-Friendly Tourist in Nepal
Information is power, and now you’ve armed yourself with facts and alternatives to have a responsible, fun and cruelty-free visit to Chitwan, Nepal.
Here’s what you need to remember:
- Choose humane alternatives to interact with elephants in Chitwan:
- Walk with elephants instead of riding them
- Visit the first and only elephant in Sauraha who is currently enjoying her new life in retirement
- Volunteer to improve the living conditions of working elephants.
- Support an elephant-friendly eco-resort that does not chain its elephants nor offer elephant rides. Recognized by animal welfare organizations like World Animal Protection and Elephant Aid International, Tiger Tops has a sound elephant welfare program in place. You will enjoy walking by their state-of-the-art chain-free corrals and having a nice cup of tea at sunset by the Rapti river. Bonus: Their vegan options are amazing. When you book, let them know about your dietary preferences. Hopefully you’ll get to try their delicious homemade chocolates.
- Voice your concerns and let hotels, tour guides and businesses know that it is important for you to have ethical activities that do not involve cruelty to elephants. Your opinion and dollars count!
Nepal is a fascinating place, and the kindness of its people is unparalleled. The diversity and rich heritage will captivate you, and so will those spiritual places where your soul will find itself at home.
I would encourage people to visit Chitwan and to be close to nature. It gives you a different impression of the country, as it is a quieter and more relaxing place than Kathmandu. Visiting in a kind and compassionate way is both good for the elephants and good for our souls.
About the Author
The Elephant Soul
Diana from The Elephant Soul blog is a photographer and blogger currently living in Amman, Jordan.
As a teenager, she dreamed of joining an organization that saved wildlife. That longing became a reality when she started volunteering for Nepali non-governmental organizations that help endangered wildlife and protect nature.
After surviving the Nepal earthquake of April 2015, an unexpected change took place and Diana found solace in creativity and art. She now dedicates her time to her small business project and animal welfare activism while sipping tea and listening to her favorite podcasts.
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