Meet Rupa. She is 47 years old and has been in captivity for most of her life. Rupa came to Nepal from India, and much of her life-story is unknown. She has had, at least, three babies, and has been separated from each of them. Rupa has been working in the tourism industry in Chitwan with her current owner and mahout for the past seven years. Tourists climb onto Rupa’s back and are taken through the jungles of the Terai, hoping to catch a glimpse of black rhinos and tigers. The mahouts–the men who are the caretakers for these overworked mammals–are pressured to give these tourists a very specific, thrill-seeking type of experience. As a result elephants, like Rupa, develop physical and psychological health issues as they are pushed to work and move every day.
Elephant tourism is a pervasive problem in many parts of the world, especially in South & Southeast Asia. While at Namo Buddha, our group heard about Stand Up 4 Elephants, an NGO based in Sauraha that offers something called an “Elephant Happy Hour.” This is a time when elephants have a break from their work and are able to spend time in the jungle, foraging for food and stretching and scratching their bodies. They have agency to decide how and where to walk, without the weight of others on their backs. Visitors have the chance to meet these massive animals and feed them vegetables, and watch them go about their natural routines: bathing in mud, scratching against trees, pulling bamboo down from the canopy.
Our group’s experience with Rupa and Shanti, another elephant we met, was thought provoking and emotional, while simultaneously fun and exciting. Interacting with these beautiful creatures whose lives have been focused on serving the wishes of visitors to have a specific type of experiences was confusing. But watching them lay down and give themselves a mud bath, totally uninhibited and unrestrained was magical. As with most things we do in life, it comes down to intention; have you asked yourself why are you doing this? What purpose does it serve? Who does it benefit and who is potentially harmed?
One conclusion we all reached is that the Elephant Happy Hour allows for a slow transition of thought about the ways elephants in captivity can shift their experience with tourists. Change is incremental.