This month I visited Nepal to see the fantastic work being done with Elephant Aid International. I joined Carol Buckley, along with the founders of Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary and Mahouts Foundation, both of whom run projects in Thailand.
This essay was made possible by crowdfunding on my Patreon page. Please help me help these charities get the footage they need (and get great rewards).
For the past 5 years, Carol Buckley has been working with her charity Elephant Aid International (EAI) in Nepal to help the captive and wild elephants in this special part of the world. Having met Carol before, I knew about the chain-free corrals she builds around the world (electric fenced areas) to enable the elephants to roam freely at night), as well as their foot care programme.
I didn't know what such a broad project would look like on the ground, and how I could best capture this work. I needn't have worried.
These photos of Mel Kali are all you need to know about Carol's work in Nepal. After being kept in chains for 70 years, Mel Kali is released to the forest every morning and, if she wants, she returns at sunset, like she is doing here.
She is the biggest elephant success story I have ever met.
In the mornings, her mahout take her 100m to the river, which marks the boundary of the protected area of Chitwan National Park, and simply let her into the wild, wherever she wants, on her own.
In the evenings the mahouts prepare a big bowl of warm rice soup with vegetables for Mel Kali, which is why she usually decides to come back to her chain-free corral for the night, and luckily we catch her just as she is returning.
In a world where every single charity and sanctuary has to make compromises on freedom or welfare, Mel Kali is the model every captive or working elephant aspires to.
There are wild elephants in Chitwan National Park and others in Nepal, but there are also a huge number of captive elephants. Many of these are used for tourism and other work, kept by private owners in the same way seen across Asia. There are also government facilities which keep and breed elephants. Many of these are let out into the forest during the day, and some are also used to patrol the National Park to protect against illegal logging, poachers, and to keep wild elephants from causing danger to the population.
As always, it is not a perfect situation, and elephants all belong in the wild, but in working with the elephants in Nepal, EAI have made the first incredible steps to freedom for these elephants.
Where before, elephants were chained tightly whenever they were not being ridden, now there are a series of large paddocks separated by electric fences, which after one or two (small) shocks, they learn to avoid. The mahouts and the elephants are so much happier with the ellies left to their own devices, behaving more naturally.
The government have welcome the incredible improvements and training that EAI have helped to introduce, and of the many countries I have visited, they seem very progressive and eager to improve the lives of the animals in their country. This area of Nepal thrives on tourism for the elephants and rhinos, and from the moment you arrive in the airport, Nepal is eager to remind you that they are a precious part of the ecosystem.
A patrol elephant walking Chitwan National Park.
A private elephant in chains in a nearby village. There is still a lot of work to be done in Nepal especially for privately owned tourism elephants.
With Elephant Aid International working hand-in-hand with the government, the future is bright for Nepal's elephants.
As we visited the government's facility, the news arrived of a brand new baby elephant, just a few hours old. His mother had been in chains for many years just like all the other elephants of her generation. He could barely stand and was just learning to drink milk, searching for his mum's teat with a little guidance from her trunk.
Thanks to EAI, her newborn can look forward to a chain-free life.