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Elephant Sanctuaries – Chains or No Chains?

We know that elephant rides and elephant tricks are a big no-no, but what about chains? See what local experts have to say.

Spotting an elephant in the wild is a reverential experience. It is widely acknowledged that elephants are among the most intelligent creatures on earth, and seeing how these gentle giants comfort one another, and creatively use tools found in the wild, offers a fascinating insight into their world. Travellers hoping to see the endangered Asian elephant may not always make it to a national park though, so the next-best alternative would be to see them in one of the many elephant orphanages and sanctuaries in Asia.

Seeing "George the elephant" in the wild at Wilpattu National Park 

What counts as an ethical sanctuary? It depends. 

While some ethical sanctuaries are helmed by passionate conservationists who view the welfare of the elephants as their utmost priority, some other sanctuaries are widely criticised for unethical practices. It's often hard to tell from the outside looking in which sanctuary carries out sustainable practices, and the more we dug into what practices were considered ethical, the more we realised that many of the issues aren’t always black and white.

For instance, we now know that elephant rides and elephant performances are a no-no, due to the often-draconian measures taken to whip these intelligent giants into obedience. But what about chains? Even many of the sanctuaries that are widely viewed to be ethical chain up their elephants.

Our instinctive reaction to chains was distaste: how can sanctuaries be ethical if they are using chains? Aren’t chains definitely bad?

The answer we got from local experts would be familiar to anyone exploring complex issues of conservation: it depends.

We speak to local experts to find out the stories behind the chains

Michael Vogler, the founder and CEO of MandaLao, a chain-free sanctuary based in Laos, explained to us the two different ways chains are used, “You have the long chain that elephants are kept on at night that are in the forests, and you have the short chain that most camps use in the daytime.”

The consensus of the conservationists we spoke with was that there was no acceptable justification for short chains used during the day, as this prevents the elephants, who are deeply social creatures, from interacting fully with one another. Vogler continued, “We immediately got rid of the short chains when we opened, and the elephants’ dispositions completely changed. They became so much more relaxed and happy, [They become] completely different animals if you just give them the chance to socialise with one another.”

Baby Kit bonding with his matriarch. Photo credit: MandaLao

Despite this consensus, many sanctuaries continue to keep their elephants chained up and constrained even during the day, and this has a noticeably negative impact on the well-being of the animals. Jack Highwood, founder and deputy director of Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (ELIE), shared that stereotyping behaviour was usually a strong indication of poor psychological well-being in an elephant. Stereotypical behaviour in elephants (also known as zoochosis) travellers should be alert to, includes head bobbing and swaying.

It was clear to us that short chains being used in the day is a red flag, but what about chains being used at night? Why can’t all elephant sanctuaries go chain-free entirely?

We learnt that in order to go chain-free, sanctuaries had to build enclosures for elephants to retreat to at night. These enclosures allow elephants to roam freely within a large tract of land, while preventing them from wandering off. MandaLao estimates the total cost of building their 2 hectares enclosure to be about USD$8,000 to USD$10,000, which was subsidised by a grant from World Animal Protection (WAP). We were amazed — in the local context, this was a huge amount! We wondered whether sanctuaries often had to make a trade-off between charging higher entrance fees to travellers in order to afford pricey enclosures, or forgoing the enclosures altogether in order to allow more travellers the opportunity to see these cherished animals.

MandaLao's chain-free sanctuary. Photo credit: Bangkok Post

To compound the problem, we also learnt that the maintenance of enclosures can be very expensive as well. Elephants who aren't used to being in enclosures often try to break out of the enclosures, injuring themselves and damaging the enclosures in the process. Emily McWilliam, Co-Founder and Manager of Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES) said, “The chain is not ideal but sometimes it is necessary in places that cannot afford to build enclosures and chain-free areas, or for elephants that become more stressed if forced into a man-made fenced area”.

Moreover, elephants that manage to break out of their enclosures often wander onto the land of local communities, causing significant issues. Elephants rescued from logging or riding camps have been domesticated, and have grown a taste for crops such as corn stalks or sugarcanes, having eaten them their entire lives. Mikaela, a conservationist who worked with the Mahout Elephants Foundation (MEF), notes that in Thailand, many natural forests have been cleared for agriculture. If the elephants were to wander off to one of the farms in search of the crops they loved, it may be dangerous for the locals, or worsen the human-elephant conflict when crops are damaged.

Elephants love their sugarcane!

Sebastien Duffillot, the founder of the Elephant Conservation Center (ECC), explains that “keeping elephants in a forested area requires expert forestry management as elephants are very destructive and forest needs time to regenerate”. To cope with ECC being chain-free, they have a full time forestry expert working alongside the mahouts (elephant caretakers) to ensure elephants have enough fodder and space at night. These unseen costs further add to the cost of going chain-free. 

Other sanctuaries face different problems all together. Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) attempted to introduce chain-free enclosures last year but had to put a hold to their plans as the elephants refused to sleep in these enclosures. After several days of trying to integrate these elephants, EVT eventually took the elephants out as they were worried that the lack of sleep would affect the elephants’ health. EVT is currently furthering their research efforts and has plans to go chain-free by the end of this year.

Thong Dee’s retirement day celebration with her favourite treats. Photo Credit: BEES

Duffillot, who is also a member of the Asian Captive Elephants Working Group (ACEWG) hopes that tourists would hold off their judgement on chain-using elephant sanctuaries, and continue supporting the ones who prioritise the elephants’ welfare. “We are lucky enough to undertake a rewilding project because we have access to pristine forested areas, but this is not the case for all facilities,” he said.

In fact, rather than focusing on whether a sanctuary is chain free, a better indication of whether the elephants’ well-being is being protected would be the amount of space that is being allocated to each elephant. There currently isn’t a consensus on what the ideal amount of space is, and this in fact may differ depending on the local context. However, ACEWG is currently working on a scientific-based research to determine the minimum area required for each elephant. This will no doubt go a long way towards resolving the issue and provide some guidance for sanctuaries in determining whether they are allocating sufficient space to each elephant.

The good news is, regardless of whether the sanctuary we spoke to was chain-free, or one that maintained night-time chains, experts agreed on one thing: the night chains did not negatively impact the psychological wellbeing of the elephants, as long as the chains were sufficiently long, and did not restrict movement. As such, having long night chains may actually be the best temporary way to create a better environment for rescued elephants if the sanctuary has insufficient funds or insufficient space to build proper enclosures for them.

We stand corrected on our initial judgement.

A happy elephant at play! Photo Credit: MandaLao

Questions every traveller should ask before visiting an elephant sanctuary 

For travellers who want to visit elephant sanctuaries, but who aren’t sure about the ethicality of the sanctuary (especially if chains are used), Duffillot offers guidance on some of the questions that travellers can ask.

How long are the chains? How tightly are they attached to the foot? Are they painful? For how long are they used? While chained, can elephants access food, water, and can they communicate with other elephants? Is the establishment of a free roaming area possible at all? Are there people in the vicinity of the elephants?

Just asking these questions prior to visiting these sanctuaries can give you a better gauge of whether or not to support it. We also recommend taking a look at this article naming tips and tricks on how to determine if an elephant sanctuary is ethical.

Elephants bonding over bath time in ECC. Photo credit: Elephant Conservation Center

Thanks to some awesome elephant sanctuaries

Once upon a time, a rise in tourist numbers would mean significant damage to the environment. Thankfully, there is now a loud voice calling for sustainable tourism, and in the case of the elephants, calls to put the welfare of elephants first.

We are truly inspired by the passion and dedication of these people we have spoken to. Each of these sanctuaries share a similar dream of saving elephants, but with a different unique approach. BEES is a place where roles have been reversed, where humans now work for retired elephants that have spent their lives working for human beings; MandaLao uses positive reinforcement to encourage positive behaviour in elephants; EVT channels 20% of their revenue into protecting the wild Asian Elephants in the Seima Protected Forests; and ECC became the sanctuary with the most elephants in Laos after receiving 13 new elephants rescued from an illegal trafficking en route to a Middle-East zoo.

Each of these stories play their own role in improving the conditions of captive elephants, and will only continue to grow in scale. The solutions we have now may not be perfect, but if we keep having these conversations on how we can do better, we can hopefully work towards a future where wildlife and humans can coexist sustainably.

We would like to thank the following for being part of this article  (arranged in alphabetical order) — do check them out and support their efforts for the elephants:

Afterword: This article was written by Charmaine Lee, an intern at Seek Sophie who was really inspired by the incredible conservationists she spoke to when writing this piece. 

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