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Piers Locke Photo Gallery

1. Misty Winter Morning at Khorsor Hattisar
The Khorsor elephant stable or ‘hattisar’, is a facility run by the Government of Nepal to breed and train elephants for use in the management of the Royal Chitwan National Park. Each elephant is attended by three members of staff who eat, sleep and work at the stable. Traditionally, in Nepal the job of elephant handling has been performed by an ethnic group called the Tharu, who are indigenous to the jungle lowlands of Nepal. The ritual and social life of the ‘hattisar’ is informed by the culture of this Hindu group.
2. Ram Gaj Tries to Grab a Snack
A young male elephant called Ram Gaj is trying to reach his grass, but it was cut early in the morning for him to eat whilst he is tethered to his post at night, and he will have ample opportunity to eat during the day when he is taken into the grasslands and jungle of Chitwan to graze. He is just being greedy!
3. Taking the Babies to Graze
Every day, after the men have eaten the first of their two meals of rice and lentils, or ‘dal bhat’, the elephants of the stable are ridden into the Park for 5 hours of grazing. The baby elephants accompany their mothers by natural inclination and will not require their own drivers until they are separated from their mothers and subjected to training.
4. Bishnu Chaudhury with Erawat Gaj
Bishnu Chaudhary has worked with elephants for 17 years, and driven Erawat Gaj for 14 years. Erawat Gaj is the tallest male elephant in Chitwan, who plays a key role in the training of young elephants, and the only elephant upon whose tusks a man can stand.
5. Mahout Climbs Simal To Cut Fodder
Every morning, the elephant care routine includes a trip into the jungle to cut fodder for the elephant to feed on later in the day. Ordinarily this entails grass-cutting, but in the wintertime this may require the mahout climbing a special tree called the Simal to cut branches for his elephant to eat.
6. BCC Elephants Returning From Grass Cutting
Besides government-owned elephants and those of the safari lodges which provide elephant-rides for tourists, there are also the elephants of the Biodiversity Conservation Center or ‘BCC’. A facility of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, these specially trained elephants and their handlers play a key role in conservation research, including the monitoring of large mammal populations and the capture of rhino for translocation to nature reserves further west in Nepal. On this day though, the elephants are engaged in one of the routines necessary for their upkeep; the cutting of grass for their evening supply.
7. How to Drive an Elephant
When driving an elephant the use of one’s feet behind the elephant’s ears is even more important for control than the use of vocal commands. By depressing one’s toes the elephant understands a request to walk forward, by pulling one’s heels back into its’ neck it understands a request to stop, by depressing the toes of one’s right foot it understands a request to turn left, and for the toes of one’s left foot a request to turn right.
8. In Pursuit Of a Rogue Rhino
On one particular day during my research among the elephant handlers of Chitwan, we were called to help local villagers who were suffering from a rhino raiding their precious crops. Due to the successful recovery of a once endangered population, male rhinos increasingly come into conflict over territory, and the losers are forced out into marginal zones where they can become a nuisance to local villagers. At the time, this was proof of the viability of trans-locating rhinos to habitats where they had only recently become extinct, although sadly the rise in poaching as a result of the ongoing Maoist insurgency means that these problems of burgeoning population density are no longer arising. In the short term though, we were able to help the beleaguered villagers by chasing the rhino back into the jungle. Chasing rhino on elephant back is one of the most exciting elephant rides you can have.
9. Cutting Narayani Kali's Toenails
The elephant handlers are responsible for more than just meeting their elephants’ basic nutritional needs; they are total carers, and this can even extend to giving them a pedicure!
10. Laxmi Kali Has Just Given Birth
We had been anxiously waiting for Laxmi Kali to give birth, and for some time she had been indicating that birth was imminent by repeatedly scratching herself with a stick that she manipulated with her trunk. On the day she gave birth, she had been driven into the jungle to graze as usual, but then, just a few kilometres away from the stable, having just crossed the river, labour began. In this photo, her baby is about 30 minutes old. His birth was considered most auspicious as he was born on ‘Mangalbar’; Tuesday, the day of Mars, associated with the Hindu, elephant-headed god Ganesh.
11. Ropes Connecting Erawat Gaj to Paras Gaj
For an elephant to be trained, it must first be separated from its mother. It will no longer be able to suckle from her nor stay with her, and will be tethered to a new post some distance away. It must also get used to being taken into the jungle without its mother, tethered to another elephant, as this is the means by which it will be taught to be driven. Erawat Gaj, as a strong and obedient male, is used for the purpose. The juvenile elephant, usually separated from its mother at the age of three, will quickly adapt to its new situation.
12. Paras Gaj Receiving Driving Training
Once an elephant has been separated from its mother and the appropriate rituals have been performed to both appease the potential wrath of the Forest Goddess; ‘Ban Devi’ and petition the goodwill of Ganesh, then its’ driving training can begin. At first this will entail the trainee elephant, on the first occasion of being ridden, being tethered to two other elephants and their drivers. Through a mixture of punishment and reward, the trainee will learn to respond to the basic commands of walking forwards, backwards, to the left and right, stopping, sitting, standing and grabbing. Also, and most importantly, training will serve to forge an enduring bond of cooperation between the handler and his elephant, with which he has been ritually bound. After only two weeks the elephant will have learnt enough for it to be ridden by its handler without the assistance of training elephants. Over time the elephant will typically learn to respond to a total of 25 vocal commands.
13. Paras Gaj Initially Distressed By Training Ordeal
Besides the daily driving training sessions, each evening, whilst tethered to his post, the elephant is conditioned to overcome its fear of ordinarily alarming stimuli. This entails sessions during which the assembled handlers sing loud songs whilst crowded around the elephant, some of which are of a sacred nature, whilst others are rather rude and bawdy. During these sessions the men also continually rub the elephant and clamber upon it, as well as waving burning fire torches around it. At the onset of these training sessions, the elephant is visibly distressed, but after only a few days it becomes familiar with the routine and willingly accepts the imposition. This serves an important function in teaching the elephant not to fear fire and loud noises, to accept the touch of man, and most importantly, to learn that it can trust people.
14. Entering the Park to Go Grazing
It is an idyllic sight to witness the handlers of the Khorsor Hattisar take their elephant charges out to graze. For them it is just part of the daily routine, but for a foreign tourist it is a privileged sight that will most likely provide a treasured memory. Without these men performing an age-old tradition that requires skill, bravery and commitment, the Royal Chitwan National Park could neither protect the endangered species it contains, nor support its attendant tourist economy. I have been most fortunate to be able to live among them and learn from them.
15. The Anthropologist Driving His Elephant Sitasma Kali
During my research into the life and work of Nepal’s elephant handlers, I was told that I would never truly understand what it was to be an elephant handler if I didn’t learn the skills for myself (as I had hoped). And so I was allocated a female of excellent temperament upon which to learn to drive. Sitasma Kali is about 20 years old and has a 2 year-old male called Kha Prasad, who would follow us wherever we went. Sitasma grew to know me through my smell, and to accept me as a driver, responding to my vocal and tactile commands. And for my part, I came to trust her as she became ‘my elephant’.
16. Elephant Staff Returning to the Hattisar After Grass-Cutting Duty
A mahout and two patchouwas cross the river on their female elehant, laden with grass, and accompanied by her baby. It is early morning in the winter months and the cold, wet fog is yet to clear. After a few hours on grass-cutting duty, the men are keen to return to the hattisar where they can get a glass of hot, sweet milky tea (chiya).
17. Phanit Preparing Tools for Elephant Training
Satya Narayan is the phanit with the chief responsibility for training Paras Gaj, and will be the first human to ride him. He will teach Paras Gaj to respond to his commands by means of punishment and reward, and for this task he will need to use sharpened bamboo sticks. Since he is bound to his elephant by a sacred ritual relationship, only he can manufacture the tools for taming Paras Gaj.
18. Phanit Preparing Rope Stirrups for the Trainee Elephant
Here, we can see Satya Narayan making rope stirrups (known as atargal) for Paras Gaj. Adult elephants’ stirrups differ in that the coils (known as mathiya in Nepali) connecting the rope strands into which one inserts one’s feet are usually made from metal rather than rope. During the ritual period of an elephant’s training, no metal should be used.
19. Phanit Bathing His Elephant Without Getting Wet
Part of an elephant’s daily routine is to be taken for at least one bath. An experienced handler, such as this phanit, will be able to bathe his elephant without himself getting wet: he will command the elephant to turn over and as it does so, he will keep himself on those portions of its body that remain above the surface.
20. A Phanit Makes Dana for His Elephant
Every morning, after grass-cutting duty, elephant handlers must make packages of unhusked rice, molasses and salt wrapped up in grass to be given to their elephants later in the day. These packages (or dana) are both important nutritional supplements and treats much loved by the elephants. These grass packages are also useful tools with which to secure an elephant’s compliance.
21. An Elephant Handler Feeds His Elephant Dana
Here we can see an elephant handler feeding his elephant their favourite treats, dana, which are known as kuchi in India. Each day an adult elephant will receive 15kg of rice, 75g of molasses and 25g of salt. However, in Chitwan, the elephants do not receive molasses (sakhar) and salt (nun) on Tuesdays. In Nepali Tuesday is called Mangalvar, the day of Mars, which is associated with Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu God, whose spirit is believed to reside in all elephants. Almost all elephants will unwrap these packages in their mouths before swallowing them.
22. Shanti Kali Laying Down
This close-up of a female called Shanti Kali reveals the intricate texture of an elephant’s face. In Nepal almost all female elephants bear a name that ends in Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. Her first name, Shanti, means peace. Male names end in Gaj, from the Sanskrit for elephant (unlike the Nepali which is Hatti), or Prasad, which refers to the consecrated leftovers after a ritual act of sacrificial worship.