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Unchained: Indian Elephant Rehab Center to Be a Model for Rescued Zoo Animals

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Earlier this week we looked at the growing problem of elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade, which has risen to its highest levels since the 1989 international trade ban on ivory products went into place. Today we look at a positive project in India, one meant to rescue some captive Indian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) from the unhealthy and often-abusive conditions that they currently endure.

The animals are currently trapped in a kind of legal purgatory. In 2009 India’s Central Zoo Authority, a government body that owns all of India’s zoos, mandated that all elephants be removed from the nation’s zoos and circuses. The authority issued the order, which will eventually affect about 146 animals, after a five-year study by a citizens’ committee found zoo life can be profoundly unhealthy for the animals. Unfortunately, the elephants have had no place to go.

Life in the worst Indian zoos “can be quite horrible,” says Carol Buckley, co-founder and former director of The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee and now founder of Elephant Aid International. In some, elephants spend their lives in stark concrete bunkers where they are perpetually chained and can barely move. Animals who are somewhat better off can also suffer. “There’s a zoo in Bangalore where a family of elephants is exhibited on a tiny dirt yard during the day where they can barely turn around,” Buckley notes, but when the zoo closes each day, the animals are released into the bordering forest.

Buckley is about to leave for Bangalore, India, where her nonprofit intends to build the first Elephant Care and Rehabilitation Center, currently in the planning stages. When completed, the 80-hectare facility is expected to become home to seven former zoo elephants and to be a model for other rehabilitation centers throughout India. “Once everything is working smoothly, the government will jump on and replicate this effort throughout India,” Buckley says. She also expects the government to take in hundreds of other privately owned elephants, such as those living in temples.

This is the first real action since the mandate was issued. Buckley says the government originally thought the elephants would be moved into government-run forest camps, where wild elephants—usually “rogues” that have threatened humans—are often “broken” and given jobs like carrying soldiers on anti-poaching patrols. “The elephants in these camps are usually trained and maintained quite brutally, but they’re also allowed to stay in the forest most of their lives,” Buckley says. “The government assumed that these zoo elephants could be absorbed into forest camps, but camp directors said no, this won’t work. There was no recognition that the elephants would need a rehabilitation phase where they would be reconditioned to live in a wild environment and collect their own food.”

That’s where Buckley came in. After visiting India around the time that the mandate passed, she proposed creating rehab centers where the elephants could be taught to be semi-wild and live the rest of their lives in a forested setting. It took two years to get government approval for the project, which was finally granted in November.

When Buckley arrives in India in two weeks, she says, she will walk the land that has been acquired for the facility, determining where to build fences and working with Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, a partner organization, to learn how to work with Indian contractors. “I have a very clear vision about fencing, what elephants should be allowed to do, and how much freedom they need to thrive,” she says. Other infrastructure that must be built includes shade structures, corral areas for medical attention and training (as well as sleeping), a veterinary lab and administrative office, plus housing for staff. The site already includes a 12-hectare facility that will be adapted for some of these needs.

The veterinarians will be provided by the government, but Buckley plans to recruit the rest of the staff, which will include a dedicated mahout (Hindi for elephant trainer) for each of the resident elephants. The mahouts themselves will be trained in the compassionate elephant management technique developed by Buckley, which eschews the traditional pain-based training methods used throughout India. Most mahouts (as well as many Western trainers) control animals by jabbing a sharp metal pole and hook combination called the ankus into elephants’ mouths, ears and other sensitive areas. Buckley’s technique instead uses food and praise as positive reinforcement and focuses on building a relationship between elephants and their mahouts. “The mahout is like a shepherd,” she says. “They will allow the elephants to graze in daytime and then corral them and bring them home at night. You have to have someone to watch out over the animals.” The center will have a full-time facility director, as well as housekeepers, cooks and other staff. “Everything that is normal in Indian society,” Buckley says.

The facility will also attend in other ways to the needs of the people who will work in the rehab center and those who live nearby. “When I started the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, I didn’t have to consider much beyond elephant welfare,” Buckley says. “But in India, I also need to address human welfare. The programs I have developed have a strong component for education, not just for the public but also addressing the public welfare of the mahouts and their families.” By ensuring that the mahouts are well paid and provided for, she says, she’ll ensure that they will in turn be there to take care of the animals’ needs.

The total cost for the rehab center is estimated at $200,000. Elephant Aid International is accepting donations to help make it a reality.

Chained elephant photo by Vinoth Chandar. Elephant zoo photo by Sathish Ramakrishnan. Used under Creative Commons license

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. DanKoehl 10:30 am 01/5/2012

    Does Scientific American honestly believe that MOST mahouts (as well as many Western trainers) control animals by jabbing a sharp metal pole and hook combination called the ankus into elephants’ mouths and ears? Can you provide scientific source for this statement? I have spent long time on many Indian elephant holdings, and I never saw that the hook was used in those areas. I believe someone has provided false information.

    Link to this
  2. 2. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 5:05 pm 01/5/2012

    A scientific study? Not offhand, but the practice appears to be common, especially during initial training. Interestingly, the same cruelty also endangers the mahouts. This excellent article details the complex lives of mahouts:

    Link to this
  3. 3. Jerzy New 8:10 am 01/6/2012

    I think it is a bit pointless to move captive elephants to the semi-wilderness in India, where existing wild elephants have no room to live.

    I see a dangerous trend here – care for happiness of elephants, tigers, apes., but not preserving wild habitats supporting the bare essentials of their existence. The result is that stupid or double-faced humans will make animals extinct.

    Would European colonnial conquest of North America and Australia be less tragic, if cynical Europeans would chat politely with native people, invite them for a tea etc., but still destroy their villages and crops and take over their land?

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  4. 4. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 9:18 am 01/6/2012

    Jerzy, Carol Baskin and I talked about this for a while, but it didn’t make it into the article. It’s true that India is rapidly using up its natural resources. It’s going to take a lot of effort to educate people to turn things around.

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  5. 5. Jerzy New 12:16 pm 01/6/2012

    I wonder why zoo elephants in India are not managed like normal work elephants – that is allowed to walk in unconfined area under supervision, possibly outside zoo grounds.

    This way one could avoid creating costly sanctuaries and city people in India could still experience and appreciate elephants. Note, that most people in India will never see elephants in the wild, just like city people anywhere in the world don’t see wild animals of their home country.

    Yes, education is important. For educating people in India or USA, there is nothing more valuable than direct contact with live elephants. Animals seen in books, TV or computer screens are uninteresting compared to all the imaginary creatures. Elephants cannot talk, fly or breathe fire, anyway.

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  6. 6. DanKoehl 6:08 am 01/7/2012

    If “the practice appears to be common” may there be any photo evidence or likevise. I have worked 34 years in zoos, circuses, and game parks in Africa, and never saw this, so I wonder which source scientific american has for such a statement? If theres no such valid source, I guess that statement is false, and is written in order to manipulate people that this is true, although it isnt. For sure, scientific american doesnt want to give desinformation on your website?

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  7. 7. jacob V.Cheeran 7:28 am 01/29/2012

    I am a veterinarian with an experience of more than 40 years with elephants.I had chance to see many elephant facilities in the US(in cluding the three elephant sancturies), Europe,south and southeast Asia. The good mahouts and bad mahouts are everywhere. Those mahouts who using cruel and corporal punishmnet to elephants are inviting to trouble for himself.Bad western mahouts may prefer an electric whip which will go unnoticed.
    So I do not agree with the statement of indiscreminate use of bull hook in elephants
    I join with Dan Koel in his views

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