Starting on May 8th, 2012, I put everything on hold while I focused exclusively on Sweetie Kali’s new chain-free corral. The bandh (country-wide strike) caused a bit of delay in the beginning, forcing the fence crew to wait several hours at the Nepal boarder before entering. Clearing customs with 400 KG of power fence materials added to the delay.
Upon arrival, Dibyandu Ghosh, the contractor, explained that his fences are not only functional but beautiful as well. He was not exaggerating. No matter the challenge—including keeping a captive elephant in while at the same time keeping wild bulls out—he never balked and consistently came up with solutions that were both functional and visually pleasing.
Realizing that I did not speak the local language, Dibyendu quickly identified the go-to man, Paspat, the mahout supervisor. They hit it off immediately, as if they had worked together for years.
Once construction started, it progressed quickly. Each morning Sweetie Kali would leave her stable for a day of patrolling and grazing the forest, leaving several men working diligently around her yard. Each evening she returned to be chained in her stable with the men still busy at work. She was soon encircled by the project.
As the fence began to take shape, the mahouts became more interested. Seeing is a powerful tool to grasping a concept. By the end of four days, the corral had been completed and everyone gathered to witness Sweetie Kali’s release.
I wouldn’t say that anyone was apprehensive, but there was definitely a feeling of doubt. One researcher with years of wild elephant and rhino experience commented that the mahouts would now have to be with Sweetie Kali constantly since she would be off chains. His comment caught me off guard but showed clearly that the chain-free concept was difficult for them to comprehend. While I tried to explain that the fencing is what contains her, making a mahout unnecessary, his reasoning was revealed. He stated his concern that without the mahouts Sweetie Kali would not be able to function, would not know what to do, where to walk, even how to walk. I was dumbfounded. My response was, just watch, she will do just fine.
I thought long and hard about this mindset — that elephants cannot function without their mahouts ordering them around. It actually made me sad to have to accept how misunderstood elephants truly are.
The chains come off
When Sweetie Kali’s chains were removed for the final time, she stood motionless next to her mahout. Indeed, she was waiting for instruction, expecting discipline if she acted without direction.
Her mahout obviously did not comprehend his role either. When he was told to walk away from Sweetie Kali and leave the yard, he stood frozen, apparently confused.
When the mahout finally left the yard, it took a matter of moments for Sweetie to realize she was chain-free. She took a tentative step away from her stable area and abruptly stopped, ears perked, anticipating a sharp correction. When no correction was forthcoming, she relaxed a bit and began to walk the fence line. Unable to let go, the mahout also hovered at the fence line. Sweetie Kali was clearly apprehensive. The other mahouts, administrators and vet techs looked on in anticipation.
I grabbed some kuchi (rice and molasses wrapped in grass) and tried to get the mahout to walk the fence line into the forest and throw the kuchi deep inside. As always, training the elephant trainers is always more difficult than training the elephant, so it took several attempts, in his native tongue, for the mahout to understand that he was not to hand feed the kuchi, but to disperse it in the habitat.
Chain-free environment and free-choice food are two equally incomprehensible concepts to most mahouts. But after much-repeated instruction from his peers, Sweetie Kali’s mahout finally, almost reluctantly, hurled the last kuchi into the forest.
That was Sweetie Kali’s signal that she was free to roam the premises. The last thing everyone saw of her was her petite backside as she disappeared into the dense brush. I felt like saying, “Sweetie Kali has left the building!” but realized my humor would be lost on this crowd.
Bundles of fresh cut grass were deposited on the edge of her forest to be consumed at her leisure and the tech set up watch to record Sweetie Kali’s behavior until dark.
Reinforcing: No chains
The next morning, Sweetie was still nowhere in sight, which pleased everyone tremendously. As I sat in the open-air mahout hut reveling in the success of the project, Sweetie’s mahout entered her yard. Watching silently, I wondering if the schedule had changed; was she going to the forest early or was there a special tracking program? But then I realized that the mahout intended to chain Sweetie Kali under her shelter.
I leapt from my seat. With as much composure as possible I rallied the mahouts, telling them, “No chains, no chains.” My heart sank but then Paspat, the mahout supervisor, appeared out of nowhere. Usually a quiet, mild-mannered guy, he barreled over to the mahout with raised voice and expressive body language to deal with the situation.
The mahout explained that he wanted to stick to Sweetie’s normal morning routine, which of course included chaining, but was told, in no uncertain terms, that chaining was not allowed. He now clearly understood his directions. When the drama died down I suggested that the chains be removed from the stable area so they would not “accidentally” be used.
That afternoon when Sweetie returned to the hattisar and was released into her yard, she knew exactly what to do. Without hesitation she made a beeline for the forest and did not come out again until it was dinnertime.
Before mealtime, kuchi and bundles of grass are stored outside each shelter, inches from the elephants’ reach. The routine is to feed the kuchi first, placing them at the elephants’ feet, and then piling the fresh-cut grass within reach. The elephant knows from years of experience that dinner is served precisely at 6 pm.
Being chain-free meant Sweetie Kali was free to approach the inviting pile of food and beg to be fed early, thereby creating a situation where she might begin to bob in frustration.
Everything had been progressing so well, I wanted to avoid creating such a situation. Getting the mahout to disperse the cuchie in the forest earlier than Sweetie Kali’s normal feeding time was not a problem, but then I saw that he put all her grass in one pile under her shelter.
His fellow mahouts were all talking at the same time, telling him to take the grass to the forest. But he simply ignored them and walked away.
This time Paspat did not come to the rescue. I was the only one who did not know he was off-grounds. Luckily, another official appeared and after several phone calls got the mahout to return. In a melodramatic display of unwillingness, he dragged the grass to the proper location—and then stomped off, muttering that he would not take orders from junior mahouts.
By the next day Sweetie Kali’s mahout was over his seniority snit and began to show great pride in the accomplishments of his elephant.
That’s it, the entire story. Every day, Sweetie Kali immerses herself in her personal forest when she is back at the hattisar. She comes out to play in the dirt pit or chase birds and was seen and heard dashing in and out of the trees during the last big storm, but otherwise she is basically unseen except by Ganash, the young tech assigned to her behavior study, which he has taken on with great seriousness. Recording her behavior is an important tool for documenting her response to chain-free living.
When Sweetie Kali leaves for her daily patrol of the forest, I inspect for habitat damage. I am pleasantly surprised at how little damage there is. She excavated a relatively small sleeping area, sheltered by huge trees and another smaller area for dusting. Aside from the thick curtains of edible hanging vines that are rapidly thinning, the damage is minimal.
I have so many people to thank for the success of this pilot project including all the staff at NTNC-BCC, the forest department, Naresh, Ram Kumar, Chitran, Dr. Gairhe, Paspat, Nandu, Babu, Kiran, Ganash, Veena and Vishnu at IBEX Gallagher, Dibyendu and crew and especially the mahouts, because without their cooperation, the project would not have been possible.
And finally, I thank Sweetie Kali for unknowingly volunteering to participate in this important pilot project, one that will undoubtedly have a huge impact on how captive elephants are kept in Nepal.
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