Here’s another thing that surprised us when starting to work with elephants. Chains.
Why are elephants still in chains?
We get asked this a lot. Over and over again. And we get it. It’s an elephant sanctuary, why would you chain elephants?!
Let’s get to the bottom of this!
First off. When we say “chains”, you probably think about this massive metal chain tied on all four paws, around the neck and nailed to the ground with equally massive nails, right?
Is that what’s happening? Nope. That’s actually not where the problem lies.
A mahout (Sinhalese for elephant caretaker) ties a metal chain to the front right or front left paw of the elephant and then lays it on its neck. The chain is resting on top of the elephant’s neck. Only one end tied to its front paw, one end loose. The odd this is, after the chain is tied to the paw, the mahout uses a command so that the elephant would then grab the loose end of the chain close to his front paw and lift it up on his own neck…
When I first saw this, I was very confused I have to say. After all, the elephant is still free to walk.
Why do they bother then?
And here’s the truth.
It turns out the elephants in captivity are conditioned to associate the chain to the inability to move freely.
From the moment they are taken from the wild (or from the moment they are born) they are tied to a big-ass chain for REAL this time. They are left there for months, depending on how stubborn the elephant is (yup, each of them has their own character and temper!). As the weeks go by, the chain is replaced with a weaker and weaker chain to test how well the elephants has been conditioned. This means they will forever associate the chain to the inability to move. The odd thing is, as the chain gets weaker, the elephants could physically break it. They don’t because of the bad conditioning on their mind based on the previously stronger chain. Mental conditioning is the strongest there is, able to tame even the most powerful elephant.
“In their culture, a good caretaker always fears his elephant. It’d be reckless not to.”
This is why, to exert control of an elephant the chain just has to be in contact with its paw. Nothing else. When they feel that, they believe they’re not free to walk wherever they want. And since that’s what they believe, that’s what happens.
The mahouts in the sanctuary use chains because they feel they need to have control on the elephant at all times. Not just for the volunteers, visitors and locals, but also for themselves. They are scared of their own elephant. Or at least, that’s how they are trained themselves. In their culture, a good caretaker always fears his elephant. It’d be reckless not to.
The more you dig into this, the more you start understanding how tightly this problem is connected to the local culture and old traditions being passed on for generations. There’s basically a whole cultural system behind this element that makes it very difficult to strip away!
Despite all of this, the organization has done tremendous improvement when it comes to chains.
- They are using smaller and smaller chains that compared to the size of the elephants can almost be seen as a dog leash.
- They are convincing more and more caretaker to use a fabric band around the elephant paw which is then connected to the chain that rests on its neck. The band avoids bruises around the ankle area as a result of the friction due to dirt, twigs etc.
- And guess what: after ten years of perseverance, finally 1 of their 10 elephants wear no chains at all in the premises! *
That’s why Pretty ECO feels confident the 10% of the profits from the shop will be well spent.
*13-08-2018 UPDATE: We learned that a second elephant at the organization is now chain free!
*13-01-2019 UPDATE: As of now ALL the elephants at the organization except for one and the elephants in musth (who is a bit of a runner) are chain free! This is a huge step forward and w are so very proud to update you with this news!