2012 Study Tour: Walking with the elephants...

One of the main attractions and perks of me coming to Nepal was that I had the amazing opportunity to get close and personal with my favourite animal - the elephant. Massive, majestic, family-oriented, kind-natured, and completely awesome are the world's largest land mammal. And we got to see them, hear them, smell them and feel them in a unique 3-day journey through the jungles and villages of Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal.

After a whole morning travelling down from Kathmandu in a crowded minibus on a road that functioned as the international trade route and left a lot to be desired, we piled out, stretched our legs, dumped our backpacks, and walked through the village and on our first infamous evening 'jungle walk'. Apart from the local village goats and unkempt dogs, we were surprised to acquaint ourselves with the first elephants we saw in Chitwan. It was amazing to be able to walk up to these creatures and I loved that we could get so close to them. We could see their facial features and the way they moved.

However, after a few moments of standing there, it was undeniable that the setup wasn't as sweet as it first seemed. We stood with three elephants - the first one seemed happy enough, the second was relentlessly pulling on it's chains and strategising how she might break free, the third looked a little elderly or sick or both and we weren't sure what the story was. After some happy (or maybe not-so-happy) snaps, we walked on and enjoyed a pleasant afternoon walk along the river spotting birds and being tailed by some of the local dogs.

That evening in group time, it became apparent that many of us were feeling uneasy, and some extremely upset, about the situation and treatment of these majestic creatures. What were they there for? How were they treated? Why was the second elephant so determined to break out of her chains? What was the conditions of the third older elephant?

We had an ethical dilemma of the treatment of animals and we had in depth discussions about our impressions, concerns and reflections. It was a robust but fruitful conversation and we learned some of what was going on which helped us the understand the political and cultural reasoning for the circumstances in which we found these amazing elephants.

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The particular elephants which we visited were government elephants, and they are used in the jungle by soldiers to watch out for and stop poachers in the jungle who try to hunt rhinos and other endangered animals. The elephants were bred in captivity and so it wouldn't be safe to free them and let them out in the wild as they may not be able to survive on their own. We're not sure too much about the particular attitudes or treatment of these elephants but we know that they're serving an important purpose and we had to learn (the hard way) the value and place of history and culture in a place like Chitwan where the local people have used elephants as captive workers for generations. Many people in the group, myself included, had to be confronted with this reality and learn not how to judge (for what right to that have we?), but to learn, challenge and critique a particular cultural practice. At the end of the day (literally), I had learned to listen to others; develop a keenness to find out truth and practice; to think about why people do what they do; and to consider if and when change is appropriate and achievable.

The next morning, we had a special treat of an elephant safari ride - we had enquired as to the treatment of these animals and had been convinced that the elephant keepers work very closely with their animals and treat them well. So we enjoyed an incredible, albeit chilly, elephant ride through the Chitwan jungle where we felt what it was like to be as tall, grand, heavy, slow, and jolty as an elephant is - and I LOVED IT! I couldn't stop smiling the whole time, loving the experience and the beautiful creature who was enabling us to have such an amazing exposure to the wild. We even got to saw rhinos, deer and other creatures in the wild - even more grateful to be atop an elephant, rather than helplessly on foot! The morning would not last long enough, and soon we were on our way back, just in time to grab a pat with my elephant's trunk and take a photo with the beautiful girl.

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After our elephant safari, and a brief warm up at lunch time, we headed out on foot for our jungle safari and canoe ride, where we got to see crocodiles not so many metres away... and beautiful brightly coloured kingfishers, wrens, and other birds. However, the best part of the afternoon was coming across the path of a family of elephants in the middle of the jungle on their way back to the elephant orphanage from collecting their daily food (lots and lots and lots of grass!). We just stopped in our tracks and watched them slowly and gracefully meander past us, probably wondering what we were staring at. Apart from the strong adults carrying huge loads of grass on their back, we saw a couple of teenage boys giving each other a rough and tussle. Shortly after, we saw two baby elephants waddle up, and one of these little guys came right over to us and stuck his trunk up to have a sniff - we of course all ooh'd and aah'd as we gave him a pat and a rub and I think I must have almost wet my pants in excitement (just kidding...)! It truly was an unforgettable experience.

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Later that evening, and indeed every time we walked from our lodge in and out of town, we would see eleph ants parked in their garage - each one a 'pet' of a local family, housed in their own little port undercover. It was amazing to be living and exploring such a fantastically unique town where elephants were kept as pets - the local kids playing near and on the elephants and even drawing on their hide with coloured chalk. Some of the elephants sported the most lovely tattoo art with hearts and flowers on their back or their head. It was so interesting to be at the shops talking to an owner and haggling a price for some local wares when every few minutes you notice an elephant or two being walked home for the evening. It was a mind-blowing custom I was surprised by every time, absolutely dumbstruck by the amount of elephants roaming around and the way they are simply a part of life - a pet, used the way we use horses.

On our last morning, Brad and I borrowed some dilapidated bicycles from our guide Shianu and we rode out of the village on bumpy and pothole-ridden roads to the dirt tracks which lead out of town and it was refreshing to be up early freely riding around (even though people looked at me funny either because I was a women on a bike or because we just looked out of place), and my favourite aspect of the whole place was still seeing the elephants around every corner. That morning, I really felt like I could happily live in Chitwan. Me and the elephants.

I feel like I really walked with the elephants over those few days. Not that I'm claiming to be an expert, but I appreciated learning in the culture and the place that the elephants have in Chitwan - their role, their place and their value. I still don't know about the bottom line ethics of it, but when you look at it from the Nepali perspective of the local Chitwan culture and way of life, it seems completely acceptable that they should include elephants in their day-to-day lives. And for that, I would hang around.

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