Upon returning to the National Trust for Nature Conservancy in Chitwan, I was surprised and pleased to see Sweetie Kali still there. Last year I was told she was to be moved to the zoo in Kathmandu.
Sweetie is less than ten years old so it was difficult for me to understand such a move. In Chitwan, Sweetie has daily access to the forest, the river, free grazing and foraging and lots of other elephants –: a life that provides benefits she would not experience in an urban zoo.
Today I saw little Sweetie Kali moving at a fast clip, of her own motivation, across the expanse of community forest that borders Chitwan National Park. She and seven of her counterparts were in pursuit of a rhino that was to be radio collared. Gracefully moving faster than the other elephants she accompanied — all were her seniors — Sweetie Kali exuded pride and self confidence.
I found myself caught in a quandary: why was I feeling positive about Sweetie’s engagement in this rhino search?
It seems that I had allowed myself to let go of my personal opinion that Sweetie should not be working and allowed myself to experience Sweetie’s reaction to her involvement. Her self-motivation was obvious; there was no fear or apprehension or even hesitation on her part. Quite the contrary. A hint of a smile graced her baby face when she was able, without prodding, to overtake the other elephants in her group.
The fact that Sweetie was part of the search party is testament to her skill and confidence level. Each elephant must contain the confidence to remain in pursuit, even when charged by an angry rhino. Sweetie has proven that she’s got what it takes: not fear of her mahout but confidence in him and most important, in herself.
Sweetie’s mahout rode gallantly atop her bare neck, projecting the image of a proud father. He never struck her or yelled, but encouraged her to challenge herself to move faster than the others, cutting them off and gaining rank.
The look on her face was priceless — she reveled in the game. Her age gave her an advantage. Being young, Sweetie does not suffer the aches and pains experienced by her elders. Her gate was smooth as a still lake and her attitude reeked of confidence.
I saw young Sweetie Kali and all the forest patrol elephants in a different light today. These elephants will never return to a life in the wild; they will spend their entire life in servitude to man. Within such parameters, I cannot think of a better way for them to live than amongst their comrades, immersed in the forests, engaged in stimulating elephant-friendly activity that keeps them fit and confident.
No, I am not advocating that captive elephants should work for their keep, but they do. What I do support is that they be treated with kindness and respect and allowed to live a life as close to nature as possible. I believe that we can improve upon the life of forest patrol elephants, making improvements to their welfare. But short of returning them to a safe wilderness (which does not exist), these captive elephants are the lucky ones.