How & why elephants are being bred & trained in Nepal

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ October 15th, 2012. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
A mahout trainer feeds his elephant at Sauraha elephant breeding center

A mahout trainer feeds his elephant at the Sauraha elephant breeding center

Sauraha Elephant Breeding Centre

3km outside Sauraha next to Chitwan National park, Nepal is one of the few large elephant breeding centers in the world. It’s accessible by tour, boat or by walking from Sauraha which is about 3 km. It costs 50 rupees to enter for “foreigners” and 20 for SAARC.

Mahoot prepares an elephant calf for riding

Another elephant trainer prepares to train an elephant calf to get used to him on it’s back

I’ve already written about my visit to the elephant breeding center. For this article I’m going to lay out some facts that some people may find interesting and/or disturbing . Looking at how this center is run and why. I’m including more light-hearted photos to try to offset some of the facts.

History behind the Sauraha Elephant breeding center

It was estimated that at the time of King George V’s hunting safari in 1911 there were over 2,000 elephants in Nepal. By the 1970’s this had fallen to around 200. Today that number has only risen slightly with the over half of the elephants located in the Chitwan region.

The Sauraha elephant breeding center was set up in 1989 with 5 stud bulls and 15 females along with 6 babies. Today there are over 20+ elephants within the breeding center, none of which are used for work. All are female aside from young males.

Elephant calf tries to shake off a mahout rider

The Elephant calf tries to shake off the mahout rider …

The center was set up to try to increase the population of the Asian elephant in the region through breeding.

Elephant trade in Nepal for conservation

Elephants bred here are often exchanged for rhinos that are brought in from Myanmar and Thailand. Elephants are also traded with other elephants in India to keep the gene pools mixed. Elephants not suitable for trade are either used for work in Nepal within the tourism industry, local farming and for forest patrols.

The elephant breeding center is separate to Chitwan national park. It relies on the park for feeding materials for the elephants. This is huge task as an elephant needs over 80kg of food a day and over 200 liters of clean water. A lot of this feed comes in the form of vegetation, rice, molasses and additional salt.

Having thrown off the mahout the elephant calf then grabs his stick chases the man with it!

How are elephants used in Nepal today

Previously, along with other activities listed below, elephants in Nepal were used in war and big game hunting. This is now banned.

Today elephants bred at the center are used in religious and royal ceremonies. Elephant polo games. As all terrain and all-weather vehicles. Rescue vehicles during flooding. Forest patrolling, tourism and various activities for wildlife management and research within the Terai region.

Conservation work of elephants includes counting of wildlife. Rescue of injured animals. To chase wild elephants and rhinos from villages and farms. Breeding and scientific research.

Scientific research at the elephant breeding center

Sadly there is little actual scientific research being carried out at the breeding center. While officials and conservationists wish there was the simple matter is that they do not have the funds. The center is barely able to function as it is with a heavy reliance on tourism and trade to keep it functioning.

How a baby elephant is trained at the breeding center in Sauraha

(some people may find the following distressing) 

Elephant calf threatens to beat his trainer with a stick!

Having caught up with the Mahout the elephant calf reverses the roles and threatens to beat the trainer with his stick!

Elephant calves begin training between 2-4 years of age. Beyond this age and they simply become too big to train safely.

  • Training begins when an elephant calf is removed from its mother. A few days later food and water is restricted. The elephant calf is tied with cotton ropes to a strong wooden pole while neck and leg chains are placed on so it cannot harm the trainers.
  • Day time training begins with the calf having a rope attached to its neck and spread out vertically so two trainers can lead it around an open area. Vocal instructions are given to the elephant for tasks like moving left, right, sit, lie down etc.
  • The main mahout wears white colored clothing so the elephant will recognize him and allow him to sit on his neck/back.
  • During evening times a fire is lit and brought close to the calf’s skin followed by massaging of the skin. This is to desensitize the elephant’s skin. Injuries do occur.
  • After this period of training the elephant calf is taken out into the village to become familiar with livestock, people, vehicles and their noises. The mahout continues to work with the elephant for it to understand vocal instructions.
  • This whole period lasts about 20-30 days. After the training is complete rituals are performed to a god and goddess which is known as a puja.

Personal experience watching elephant training at the Sauraha elephant breeding centre

As you can see from some of the photos here I spent some time watching several elephants and their trainers. Generally I saw something not mentioned in the list above. There was certainly a connection between elephant and mahout.

I wouldn’t call it a loving “western” connection in terms of a pet. More a harsher workers affection. Think hardened farm workers.

A mahout sites with a baby elephant calf and his mother

Another mahout sits with a baby elephant calf and his mother: it’s nearly time for training

While I cringed at hard slaps to trunks. Kicks to legs and shouts. I also noticed some hidden smiles as some elephants kicked and slapped their mahouts back! Being in chains we all know who’s on the losing end here. But as much as the elephant needs the mahout, the mahout also needs the elephant to survive.

Many mahouts only have one elephant for life. It is their only source of income and livelihood. Yes there are some bad mahouts that mistreat their elephants. But then again this is not about just about animal cruelty.

The Sauraha elephant breeding center, in order to survive, has had to forgo much just to ensure that the extinction of the elephant in Nepal does not happen.

One wonders if this price is too high, or simply a necessity in today’s age?

Hotel search at the Longest Way Home

Planning on booking a hotel room in Chitwan/Sauraha?

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I recommend you try my own hotel search network here. The best rates guaranteed.

Don’t forget to read up more on Chitwan with this complete guide to Chitwan National Park.

This is an additional feature about the elephant breeding center in Sauraha, Chitwan Nepal  

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12 Great responses to How & why elephants are being bred & trained in Nepal

  1. Matt McGee says:

    I’m a big time animal conservation fan, but this sounds a little troubling. More elephants better than fewer? Maybe. I was supposed to visit Chitwan last fall but it didn’t exactly work out. Perhaps that was for the best. Thanks for sharing this information.

  2. t says:

    Dave, I found the “traing info” very interesting (I wonder if these techniques are practiced on their wives ;)

    “One wonders if this price is too high, or simply a necessity in today’s age?” – I’ll go with necessity.

  3. Jan says:

    I never knew so much about elephants until now. I see the world so differently than I did as a child.

    The price is too high if they are suffering. I’m not sure if they are.

  4. Debbie says:

    Sounds like a it’s more like a farm than breeding center?

  5. Traveler says:

    Great efforts by Nepal to save this amazing animal. Elephant has been part of people’s life in Asia.

  6. Malcom says:

    Great insight into how elephants are being treated/bred in Nepal. I wonder if it’s the same in Africa?

    • I saw wild elephants in West Africa. A completely different situation. But in the W. Africa scenario a whole area was dedicated to them, and then it was up to the Elephant to survive. Sadly that too is being turned into a profit business.