A hauntingly familiar sound of clanking chains passed by my window, so close I thought perhaps my wall would be crushed. The clink clink clink of cold metal bracelets was unmistakable; an escapee was passing by my room in his effort to disappear into the freedom of the bordering National Park.
Switching off the lights to avoid attracting attention, I pushed open the screen door and stepped into the darkness.
The rattle of chains chilled me to the bone as a silhouette passed in front of me. First one and then a second, moving silently except for the clanging of the chain hobbles secured around the front ankles of the smaller elephant.
On this, the night before I leave Sauraha, I wondered why I was to witness another unbearable scene of captive elephant suffering.
The escapee had entered through the front gate at NTNC-BCC and slowed when he found himself fenced in. The second elephant, a koonki, was being used to subdue and calm the young male, whose ivory glistened in the moonlight.
When the bull stopped, the mahout began to speak in a soft but firm tone. He told his elephant, the koonki, to bite, which means to stretch out on her sternum. By assuming this vulnerable position, the elephant appeared to bring comfort to the escapee.
It was then that I saw a mahout precariously perched on top of the young bull, no doubt frightened half out of his wits, with nothing at all to secure himself.
As soon as the koonki reclined, a command was given for the bull to recline, which he did without hesitation. The reality is that he was frightened and I believe the mahouts involved realized this. As soon as he reclined the mahouts switched elephants and the koonki left silently.
A little more rattling of the chains and the hobbles were removed, and the young bull moved swiftly back from where he’d come–the government hattisar (elephant stable) next door.
Not willing to witness the brutal scene I assumed would follow, I called out into the night, no pita (don’t hit). No response. As the elephant and mahout passed my room I called out again, which was when I saw a flashlight-wielding man walking behind the elephant.
“Government center hattie (elephant)?” I asked.
“Yes, Raj, from the government center,” he politely replied.
“The elephant is afraid,” I said. ”Do not add to his misery by beating him.”
“You are foot trimming lady, right?” he asked. “You trimmed Raj a few days ago–he had a bad nail.”
“Be kind, Raj is a wild animal,” I said.
”No, not a wild elephant, government elephant,” was his reply.
“Yes, a government elephant and wild,” I said.
There we stood under a bright near-full moon discussing the fact that although these elephants are living in captivity they remain wild animals, never formally domesticated and always to remain wild. When I said they deserve to be treated with compassion because of their circumstances, the mahout nodded in polite agreement. He spoke surprisingly good English and appeared to understand what I was saying. In seconds he vanished into the darkness, leaving me to contemplate what I had just witnessed.
For some time I stood listening to hear if Raj would be brutalized for his attempted escape. But this night I would not have to be reminded of the elephant suffering that permeates this tourist destination in Nepal. The only sound that pierced the night air was the soft repetition of forest birds and chirping insects.