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Wild elephants

50 ~ 60

Charles Santiapillai

Domesticated elephants

60 ~ 80

Dale Tuttle



FAO (Anon., 1995d)

All of Nepal’s elephants are found in the terai, low and marshy grasslands, adjoining the Indian border, and basically they are an adjunct of India, although with the awkward intervention of that border. In 1983, there were at least 64 domesticated elephants in Nepal according to Santiapillai and Jackson (1990), citing unpublished data gathered in a questionnaire form by Jackson. There were 10 in Sukla Phanta, 15 in Koshi, and 39 in Chitwan, mostly owned by tourist concerns such as Tiger Tops but with some belonging to the Wildlife and National Parks Department. Tuttle (1992a) gave between 60 and 80 domesticated elephants.

“Most of the trained elephants in Nepal are owned by His Majesty’s Government and are located in Hattisars (stables) in various National Parks and Wildlife Reserves,” according to Dhungel et al. (1990). All of Nepal’s elephants work in tourism, carrying people to see wildlife, particularly rhino. Although the passengers are quite different than the past, transportation is a traditional form of work, especially valuable in the rainy season.

Recruiting elephants has recently proved a problem in Nepal, which has long ceased capturing wild elephants. The primary difficulty is that buying elephants from India, the traditional source, has become increasingly expensive. The price rose from Rs. 90,000 to Rs. 150,000 in just one year, according to Dhungel et al. (1990); they attribute high prices to a decline in wild elephant numbers in India, although prices are in fact a repercussion of India’s 1982 ban on capture. Nepal has instituted a two-part recruitment strategy, to institute a captive breeding program and to trade with other countries. In 1985 Nepal received 16 elephants from India in exchange for four females rhinos (Santiapillai, 1987a).

Nepal’s breeding program has proved only partially successful. Dhungel et al. (1990) state that, “Even when copulation occurs, conception is rarely achieved. The reasons for this remain unclear.” (A very clear photograph in an inflight magazine probably indicates one cause: five cows standing in a row are all well over 40 years old.) Some government-owned cows are sent to Koshi Tappu when their mahouts feel that they may be in estrus, although “it is quite costly to take an elephant from work and send her to Koshi Tappu merely on speculation she is in estrus.” Many of the births at Koshi Tappu elephant camp have come from Ganesha, a domesticated bull released into the wild upon his owner’s death; regularly visiting the camp, he had sired seven calves as of 1988. The Smithsonian, supported by USAID, studied stress and the reproductive cycle of cow elephants.

Veterinary care is excellent with full-time elephant veterinarians at Chitwan, Bardia, Sukla Phanta, and Kathmandu. Elephants are annually vaccinated against foot-and-mouth disease and haemorrhagic septicaemia, both found in local cattle. Easily accessible modern veterinary care has caused mahouts to use “traditional herbal medicines less frequently.”

Most of the mahouts in Nepal are evidently members of the Tharu ethnic group, and command words are given in the Tharu language, according to Dhungel et al. (1990), who give an interesting description of training methods. Each elephant has three keepers in the Indian style, a senior and junior mahout plus a grass-cutter; each ‘stable’ has a head mahout.

A comprehensive description is needed of current numbers and conditions of domesticated elephants in Nepal.

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