When I first arrived in Huay Pakoot and was given an introduction to the elephants they have here, one of the first things I was told was that the elephants are chained. This came as a shock and my first thoughts were whether I had come to a place where they treat the elephants in a way that I wanted to be involved in.
Common views of chains are as restraints: big, heavy, metal links that restrict movement, chafe the skin, cause sores and act as a burden. I quickly learned that here in Huay Pakoot this is not the case whatsoever.
Chains here are life savers.
All the elephants here have one chain around one foot. These chains do not rub their legs and are made to be a length and thickness corresponding to the elephant’s size and age, so they are not given anything they can’t cope with.
The mahouts are with the elephants all day, from around 8:30 until it starts getting dark. During the day, the chains, whilst still attached to the elephants, are not attached to anything else and drag harmlessly behind them as they walk. They do not restrict movement, gliding smoothly through the undergrowth. If on the off-chance a chain does snag on a branch or a rock, the elephant’s mahout will always be nearby to release it. If the mahout cannot unsnag the chain, the chains break easily at the point where they attach to the foot. The chains are used to track the elephants during the day as they leave grooves in the ground easily recognisable to the mahouts. They’re also used for volunteer safety, to help the mahout control the elephant and avoid harm coming to any humans.
At night the elephants are chained for their own protection in areas where the mahouts have ensured there is enough food and water to see them through the night comfortably. The chains are long enough to allow movement and natural foraging even when attached to a tree. Elephants can be easily startled and the ease of the chain breaking allows them to get away from situations where they are uncomfortable is necessary. In some instances, for example during thunderstorms, the mahouts will stay with the elephants throughout the night to ensure their safety in a scary scenario.
The dangers facing elephants left alone, unchained, at night, in a human dominated world one day became a terrifying reality when the youngest elephant, Lulu, got into a crop field and ate pesticide. Thankfully, due to the care and love the mahouts give to their elephants, the problem was spotted early, before it was digested and caused internal damage. She was left with damage to her tusk, which fell out, but has since started to grow back.
While initially the word chain conjures up terrible images of elephants being mistreated it must be understood that in a world dominated by humans, sometimes chains are a necessity and when used correctly do not prevent the elephants from living long and fulfilling lives.