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If keeping an elephant on a chain is the only option available, the leg health of the elephant will be better if the chain is on one leg only, and if the chain is as long as possible. This tuskless male at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand is on a 40-metre chain, with access to the shade of the tree on the left and a container with drinking water in the front.
The best option for health and well-being is an enclosure whithin which elephants can walk free of chains. This enclosure with an electric fence was built on the premises of the National Trust for Nature Conservation in Chitwan, Nepal, on the initiative and support by Elephant Aid International.
The electric fence around the elephant camp of Dubare in Karnataka, India.
If there are calves or playful juveniles within the fence, it is also essential to prevent any passing tourists from attempting to play with them. Young elephants may approach tourists, and if these encourage the elephants to play, the elephants may learn how to break the fence by ramming against it. A combination of a friendly guard and a second fence surrounding the first one (for example a rope fence a couple of meters from the electric one) is the safest option.
Most captive elephants of today are kept on a chain while not at work. Many of them are chained by two legs, in ways that prevent them from walking or standing in a natural position, which can cause chronic problems in joints. Replacing chains with fenced areas is a way to significantly improve elephant health and well-being.
Why do chains cause health problems?
Even though most mahouts, owners and managers do not know it, some of the common systems of chaining two legs of an elephant cause physical discomfort and a long-term risk for painful, chronic joitn problems. These include the practice of binding the front feet together, and the practice of chaining one front and one back leg in a way that keeps the elephant immobile by pulling the back leg backward. In the natural standing position of an elephant, the front legs would be clearly apart from each other, and all the legs would be directly below the body. When the front feet are bound close to each other with a short chain, or when the elephant cannot keep its back leg directly below it, the body weight gets distributed in an abnormal way on its joints.
A long chain in one leg
If it is not possible to keep the elephant unchained in a safe enclosure, and if some type of chaining is needed, the healthier option is to chain one leg only. Some mahouts are concerned that the elephant could open the chain if it is only on one foot, but this is a matter of finding a proper type of a lock. For example, the so-called C-links used in many zoos are a cheap and secure way to quickly open and close the chain around an elephant's ankle.
It is also important to make the chain as long as possible, and to ensure that the elephant has access to shade all day. Natural terrain, sand or other soft surfaces are better for health and more cmoftrable to sleep on than hard surfaces.
Enclosures with electric fences
The best option for elephant health and well-being is to have a large enclosure, within which elephants can walk free of chains. Such a change also makes the elephants easier to use at work, according to reports by mahouts whose elephants have been moved from chains to enclosures. After moving into the enclosures, the elephants have become markedly less nervous.
Some zoos and other facilities have concrete fences, which aslo are good, but a good-quality electric fence is considerable cheaper. It is important to make the fence strong enough and high enough - such as six wires on top of each other, with the highest wire at the height of a grown-up elephant’s head. If there are wild elephants in the area, the fence has to be strong enough to also keep them out, as wild males may try to break the fence to visit females. Nearby trees have to be cut down, both inside and outside of te fence, as some elephants learn to short-circuit the fence by felling a tree on it.
Some of the features needed in the fenced area are large trees or a thatched roof to provide shelter from sun, a way to provide clean water for drinking (in hot weather, elephants also need water to spray on themselves), and at least some vegetation. Feed will still need to be brought from outside, as the vegetation inside will be sufficient for snacks only in the long term. In order to make the fenced area more interesting, one good management practice is to provide the food at different places on different days.
For more information on chain-free enclosures, see the website of Elephant Aid, a non-profit organization supporting their construction.
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Photo copyright © Elephant Experts and the photographers:
Minna Tallberg, Helena Telkänranta, Marc Pierard, Karpagam Chelliah,
Nirvay Sah, Sudhir Yadav and Ramesh Belagere