We headed to Chitwan because we wanted to see elephants. And see them we did. Lot and lots. They were everywhere. But we almost didn’t go to Chitwan because of the elephants. To explain, I had heard some not so good things about how elephants are treated. I’d seen pictures of elephants in chains, and I was really starting to doubt whether going to see them was a good idea at all. I asked around but found it really difficult to get a clear picture. My dilemma was that I didn’t want to support the inhumane treatment of elephants, but by not going, we were potentially missing out on one of the best attractions of the trip and, after all, my information was incomplete. In the end it just felt smartest to go and see for ourselves.
We met elephants almost immediately, as our resort had two resident elephants. Once of which was very, very pregnant. I heard that she was ready to give birth any day, but unfortunately it didn’t happen while we were there.
That afternoon we got wind of something going on in the village, and we were told we should walk down and see the Elephant Festival and watch “the game”. It was a beautiful walk down small lanes, through the yellow mustard fields, and there was a buzz in the air as everyone around was purposefully heading in the same direction. The closer we got, the more it became obvious that the Elephant Festival was very popular and there were going to be crowds. We almost turned around as we entered a bottleneck of people near the entrance, but we pushed through to get a quick look of what it was all about.
Pushing onward through the stalls on the ground, we headed diagonally over to the elephant soccer game. This wasn’t elephant polo — which I had heard of in Chitwan — but a football game. I think elephant soccer was actually cooler as the elephants kick the ball or whip it with their trunk. There’s even an elephant goalie. They looked like they were enjoying themselves.
It was fun to see, but it soon became tiring stretching over everyone else’s head to get a view and the match looked like it was coming to a close. We headed back to the hotel to book more elephant activities for the following day, and early the next morning, while the mist was still pretty thick, we headed off on an elephant ride into Chitwan Park.
It took a while to get used to the roll and pace of the great animal’s stride. At first I could barely hold the camera, let alone click it, but you got used to the swaying after a while. The best thing of all was seeing her close up. The wrinkly skin and big fat hairs on her head, and the amazingly strong trunk. They are so large, gentle and strong. They seem so kind and intelligent.
We set off into the mist. The first stop was a river crossing, where she stopped to drink and also to pee. We watched in amazement as she dumped about 10 gallons of pee in 30 seconds…I wouldn’t want have been standing behind her! Of course, she probably drank twice that amount, but at the back end we didn’t get to experience that in as much detail!!
We rode for about 1.5 hours with about 10 other elephants, all following behind one another at an easy pace.
The goal was to spot wild life, especially rhinos. Mounted on the elephant, we were able to go “off road” with ease, and I’m told that the elephant smell masks the smell of humans and rhinos, especially, are ok around elephants (apparently). I’d been warned that the wild life in the park had decreased significantly in the last ten years, and that spotting a Royal Bengal Tiger, was possible but very rare. We weren’t that lucky, but we did later meant one Dutch girl who had spotted one that day. We did see a couple of different breeds of deer, some exotic birds and then, finally, we saw two sleeping rhinos sleeping under a tree. They looked like a couple: Mr and Mrs Rhino. They didn’t seem bothered by us at all. And we didn’t bother them, we just took a few photos and left.
The elephants took several rides that day, I don’t know how long and hard they worked. But they seemed well fed and cared for, and relatively happy with their lot, which was encouraging after some the negative things I’d heard.
After lunch, Jess and Latham were booked to go down and bathe an elephant. Apparently bathing elephants frequently is important. Keeping the folds in their wrinkly skin clean is good hygiene, but they do get cold easily. In December there’s only a few hours warm enough to bathe them, and only if its sunny, or they freeze. We had such a misty start that it looked like the bathing would be canceled. But miraculously the sun came out and the kids put on swimwear and headed into the river on the back of a small elephant. It was so fun to watch! The elephant seemed to know the bathing drill very well, laying down in the water at the first opportunity…completely submerging herself in the river, except for her trunk. It was interesting to watch and surprising too. I never knew that didn’t that…but then it makes perfect sense if you have your own built in snorkel.
They didn’t stay on her back for long. They both slid off when she lowered herself down, and they then had to learn how to climb back up using her truck. As they sat perched on her back, the trainer gave a command and she filled her truck and sprayed them…over and over again…it was so fun to watch! Part of me wished I’d had the nerve to do it too but then I would have missed watching the fun.
After the kids were dried off and rested, we headed out to see the last elephant activity of the day: the elephant breeding center. This is a government-run enterprise that breeds captive female elephants with wild males. The babies are reared at the center and the resident elephants are put to use maintaining the park and preventing poaching. (These aren’t the same elephants that take tourists on rides.) The working elephants spend their days out in the jungle and then return to the center in the afternoon. Here they are chained and fed, and spend the night with the babies.
It was hard to see them chained up. But its complicated. When I asked why the were chained, I was told that elephants are too strong and that they couldn’t build pens sturdy enough to contain them. Chaining was the only way to keep them inside. The center helps to maintain their natural habitat and to go some way to keeping up the elephant numbers. I’ve heard bad stories of how elephants are trained in Chitwan, and how foreign NGOs are trying to introduce new training methods that are more humane. It was hard to see, but at the same time, their conditions weren’t worse than the human caregivers who lived and worked on the surrounding compound in very basic conditions. Until someone finds the money to build elephant-proof fences, the chains are the only way to keep them doing important work for their own survival. As, I said, its complicated.
I’m glad I went to see it. Not only because the elephants and Chitwan are beautiful, but I got at least a partial understanding of conditions there, and gained my own perspective. At least now I am able to pass on a much better description of elephant breeding in Chitwan than anyone was able to offer me.