For the past few years, most of my time and energy has been devoted to freeing captive held elephants from chains.
Working alongside Nepali partners, we have created 37 chain free corrals, in 15 different elephant facilities. Before years end, we will add another five chain free corrals in two facilities in Thailand and a huge 100 acre habitat in India.
Chain Free Means Pain Free has caught on.
As more elephants are freed from leg chains, attention is shifting to the neck harness elephants wear during anti poaching patrol.
In the case of elephants in Nepal, the neck harness serves one purpose. It enables a mahout to stay seated if his elephant becomes frightened and runs.
Some neck harnesses are made of rope. Others are a combination of rope and light weight chain. All are loose fitting and have loops for the mahouts’ feet. These loops lie flat along the side of the elephants’ neck, behind each ear.
Remaining seated when an elephant spins around and runs away is virtually impossible, unless your feet are strapped in.
In the case of Laxman Gaj and his twin brother Ram Gaj, a combination harness is used. The bottom half of the harness is chain. The half that goes over the top of their neck is rope.
Laxman and Ram are young elephants, only six years old. Regardless of their youth, they are required to participate in daily anti poaching patrol activities in Chitwan National Park. Being young, they are easily frightened when surprised by a wild rhino or tiger.
They wear the harness because when an elephant is frightened, he or she runs away. Spinning and then sprinting at speeds up to 30 miles per hour, can cause a rider to fall off.
Having a harness adds a sense of security for the mahout who clearly knows that if he falls from his elephant, while in proximity of a wild rhino or tiger, he will be killed.
When the elephant recovers from his or her fright, the patrol resumes.
When an elephant learns s/he is able to escape a frightening situation, their self confidence builds. With each exposure to wildlife their fear level is further diminished. By the time they reach adulthood, the elephant has gained the experience necessary to fearlessly encounter wild tigers, rhinos and bears.
Undoubtedly, some will insist that the harness is unnecessary as elephants should simply be returned to the wild. I have no problem with this argument. But, until such time as society evolves, some elephants are destined to remain in captivity.
Constructed and used properly, a neck harness is harmless and provides measurable benefits. The mahouts’ personal safety is guarded, while a young elephant is allowed his natural response to fear, without being punishment.