Nepal is a diverse and dynamic country and I have just returned from yet another life altering experience there.
The Kingdom of Nepal is home to Mount Everest, The highest point in the world. The land of the brave Gurkha soldiers, the birthplace of Lord Buddha and origin to the world’s greatest mountaineers, the Sherpas. Nepal is also where some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever had the pleasure to meet, reside. It is rich with wildlife: It is home to 2% of all flowering plants in the world, 848 species of birds, 167 species of mammals, 500 species of butterfly families, 600 indigenous plant families and 319 exotic species of orchids.
This was my third trip to Nepal and my second to the eco friendly lodge, Tiger Tops.
Tiger Tops was first founded in the early 1960’s, with a focus on nature conservation. Many changes and improvements have taken place over the past forty plus years, but the underlining ethos of responsible tourism and nature conservation, established by the late A.V. Jim Edwards and Dr Chuck McDougal, has remained central to every development put in place to date – http://www.tigertops.com/tharu-lodge/
Elephant Aid International – A Carol Buckley Project, has been partnering with Tiger Tops for the past four months, to help improve the welfare of the 14 resident elephants. In that short space of time, all 14 elephants now live completely chain free. Riding on the back of the elephants has now stopped and the use of bull hooks, ceased. These changes are substantial, powerfully positive and should be applauded by us all.
It is not easy to create change, particularly when it involves culture, traditions and language barriers – this is something I know a lot about!! Elephants are also not easy to manage. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have elephants in captivity at all. However, I think we are all very aware that this world of ours, as beautiful as it is, is broken and far from ideal.
I was excited to see the changes implemented at Tiger Tops and was endlessly grateful to Carol Buckley for hosting her very first foot care workshop there, to share her experience and knowledge on elephant foot care management. Attending the workshop opened the door for me to travel and see the changes for myself.
Carol is a champion, in every sense of the word. I feel honoured to call her my friend and am constantly inspired by her drive, determination and dedication to elephant welfare. Carol leads by example and thanks to her diplomatic nature, she now has thousands of followers from all around the world, including NGOs, governments and communities.
The workshop was phenomenal. From the delicious vegan meals, to the welcoming Tiger Tops staff, the stunning surroundings, the calm (and calming) elephants, the sweet mahouts, the wonderful women joining the workshop, the rich wildlife, the friendly local community and the skills I was able to learn – I can not fault a single thing!
Our days started early (5am) and with a steaming hot cup of coffee (or green tea) delivered with a warm smile to our bedroom doors. Most mornings we walked for 2km, through the jungle, down to the Narayani River, to cut grass for the elephants. As we worked alongside the mahouts, cutting and gathering the grass, the elephants either played in the river or grazed. The elephants were free to behave naturally and were clearly very happy, which was not only incredible to witness, but was all the motivation we needed to work up a sweat!
After a belly filling breakfast of scrambled tofu, and ‘over night oats’, we walked down to the elephant camp where the elephants roamed freely in their chain free corrals, created by Elephant Aid International – http://www.elephantaidinternational.org/projectsDetail.php?recordID=11
Each habitat area is five acres and holds three or four elephants, who have formed strong friendship groups. The mahouts do a sterling job of maintaining the fences and keeping the habitats clean and it is awe-inspiring how they have embraced the recent changes put in place.
Guided by Carol and the mahouts, we set to work on the elephant’s feet. Maintaining healthy feet in captive elephants is one of the most important, yet most difficult tasks for elephant carers across the globe. Foot health has become a serious issue for elephants living in captivity and it is now believed that poor foot health is the biggest cause of death for captive elephants. Inactivity, poor husbandry practices, too much time spent on short chains, can cause a long list of painful and life threatening problems. Cracked nails can quickly lead to infection and then osteomyelitis, which is irreversible, not to mention agonising for the elephant. If ignored, a cracked toe nail can cause the toe bones to disintegrate. This is normally followed by the elephant’s physical collapse and inevitable death.
Carol was a tolerant teacher and shared her years of experience with us generously. It was amazing to be able to learn these life saving skills and as I sat, straddled over an elephant’s back foot, rasp in hand, carefully filing down an overgrown nail, I took a moment to breath it all in. The elephants really were incredibly patient and calm with us. The mahouts were always on hand to feed treats to the elephants, rewarding them for being so good natured. Between us all, elephants included, we worked well together. The energy was steady, calm and the results were beyond rewarding.
Most days, we headed back down to the river, where we sat watching the elephants play, until the sun set. This time was so special and healing to us all. As I watched the elephants roll in the water, it dawned on me that Kristjan Edwards and his loyal team of naturalists and mahouts at Tiger Tops, are singlehandedly leading the way for captive elephant welfare. These 14 elephants have not been ‘rescued’ and removed from camps, transported across the county to live in sanctuary. These lucky elephants have been able to remain within their friendship groups, with their faithful mahouts, in their familiar home and this is EXACTLY the change we are all striving for.
Tiger Tops are proving that mahouts can earn a living without forcing elephants to entertain tourists. This might sound obvious to you and me, but this is, believe it or not, a myth that has been started by a group of anti sanctuary activists, right here in Thailand!
Tiger Tops is not a sanctuary: It is a shining example of how elephant welfare, when prioritised, can in turn improve the welfare of mahouts and provide an even richer experience to travellers wanting to spend time with elephants.
I will forever treasure the memories made at Tiger Tops and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to make new, life long friends – Namaste to you all xx