The Savagery of Selfies | These Photos Show How Cruel Elephant Tours Are

A photographer investigates how our captivation with these animals fuels a fucked-up industry

by Dan Milner ; photos by Dan Milner
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Feb 11 2019, 2:31pm

The bulging backsides of two elephants loom out of the twilight like the sterns of twin tugboats. Side by side under a simple tin-roofed shelter, the two are parallel parked neatly in a concrete driveway. It’s an odd sight.

I take a step closer. The front leg of each is tethered by tatty rope to a wooden ground-stake —something I’m guessing offers little more than a mere suggestion of retention. My assumption is soon confirmed. “The rope won’t do anything,” says Bickrum, our safari guide, approaching from the nearby street. “It just reminds them to stay put. If they want to get away then they will and then we have to go find them in the forest. Sometimes it takes us two days”.

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Tourists ride a late afternoon elephant safari in the Chitwan park buffer zone. The safaris usually involve a mass of elephants departing at the same time. While rhino are often seen, tigers are seldom spotted. Photo: Dan Milner

For a moment, I ponder how hard it can be to find a hulking great big elephant noisily rampaging through a forest, but my attention is quickly drawn back to the parking garage. I have two of the planet’s largest and most majestic beasts standing so close to me I can feel their body heat.

From a plastic bucket, Bickrum hands me a kuchi —a ball of rice and molasses wrapped in elephant grass, a Cornish pasty for elephants if you like— and suddenly I’m feeding an elephant. I look into its eye and it stares back at me, unblinking, its gaze boring straight into my soul, and I’m captivated.

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Mahouts Chartou and Pragan pose next to Paban a 45-48 year old female elephant that stands chained in its shelter. The elephant's hotel-proprietor owner insisted to me that he had tried to use a chain-free, electric fenced compound but that Paban had destroyed it, compelling the owner to re-chain the animal. "It is a wild animal" he insisted. Photo: Dan Milner

“I’m captivated.” In just two words, I’ve summed up the charm and enchantment of elephants, but these two words are also their nemesis. I watch curiously as this three-tonne elephant curls its trunk towards me to dextrously pluck another kuchi from my hand. It gently sways it left and right before smashing it violently on the concrete floor to extract the sweeter filling from the less-appealing grass. So endearing, so much power: it’s an unlikely mix.

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Government mahout Laxmi Chaudhary carries feed grass towards Dhirendra Kali, a domesticated elephant he cares for near Megauli village, Nepal. The Nepalese government uses elephants for forest access, anti-poaching patrols and in flood victim rescue. Its elephants are kept chain-free in electric fenced corrals. Photo: Dan Milner

Perhaps it’s this paradox or the power buzz we get from domesticating such a huge animal, or perhaps it’s that soul-penetrating stare that has contributed to the elephants’ domestication in Nepal. Either way, here in the touristy town of Sauraha, on the edge of the Chitwan National Park, there are around 70 domestic elephants (the exact number remains vague as many are illegally imported or caught from the wild). In all, Nepal has around 200 domestic elephants; there are nearly 3,000 in total across Asia. Most are used in tourism.

The elephant is a symptom of the strange relationship we humans have cultivated with animals. We’re systematically drawn to some, devouring box-sets of Attenborough and marvelling at their anthropomorphic mannerisms. Others, we seemingly hold in contempt, devouring their flesh instead of their images, and overseeing the extinction of entire species in an almost genocidal fashion.

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Ichakli, a 48 year old elephant stands in its shelter outside the hotel of her owners. While affording some protection from the sun and rain, such shelters do not allow the elephant to lie down or move about freely in between safaris, leading to increased fatigue, behavioural disorders and ill-health. Photo: Dan Milner

Sometimes there seems little rhyme or reason for where we draw the dividing line, and so it is with elephants. Despite lacking the "awww" factor of fur, or the anthropoid faces of primates, elephants have landed in the first camp. This has seemingly been fortuitous, for the Asian elephant at least, given the fact that Nepal’s rhino population was halved by poachers when left unprotected during its decade-long civil war.

In Nepal, the elephant has been entwined with humans for centuries, from use in agriculture and traditional religious ceremonies, to the modern day tourist rides that have played out in Chitwan since 1963. The latter is something the two elephants next to me know well. On a daily basis, they wearily tread the hot asphalt to and from the start of safari tours, where tourists will clamber onto their backs for the "best chance to see an elusive tiger or rhino".

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The $15 safari is still the most popular tourist attraction in Sauraha and can be a major source of income for the elephant owner, but the number of hours the elephants work and the use of 100kg blister-causing howdahs (saddles) are contentious issues among animal welfare organisations. Photo: Dan Milner

I have no reason to doubt Bickrum and his explanations of elephant tourism in Sauraha. He’s proven to be a knowledgeable and caring guide on our walks through Chitwan National Park’s jungle. He paints me a colourful picture of the unique relationship that exists between domesticated elephants and their mahouts, or handlers - one in which the impoverished, lower class mahouts, who live closely with and directly rely on their elephants for their income, are apparently embracing a more caring approach to their elephants.

I’m told how elephants are now trained by rewards rather than punishment, how they actually love to be washed at the spectacle that is the daily elephant bath time, how our tourism dollars help conservation. Faced with the choice between arduous forest logging work and carrying tourists for jungle safaris, the latter seems the more humane option. Indeed, if I’m to understand correctly, the elephant is playing a starring role in its own liberation.

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A resting elephant serves as a seat for a tourist watched by his friends. While many western tour operators have removed elephant encounters from their attractions, they remain popular with Asian tourists. Photo: Dan Milner

And I take this joyful picture and hang it in a gilded frame in my mind, untouchable, beyond reproach. So I began to photograph the elephants. From the back of one elephant I photograph tourists riding other elephants. I photograph elephants ambling almost silently along Sauraha’s main street in darkness at the end of a long safari day, long after the thong of tourists have departed or retired for dinner. And when I leave Sauraha, I vow to return.

I envisage, with Bickrum’s help, embedding myself in this living social-documentary, staying with a mahout in his simple house, living alongside the elephants to gain a deeper vision of this unique relationship between man and beast, and recording this chapter of evolution.

But at the same time, I also already knew that something didn’t quite fit.

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Tourist souvenirs compete with fizzy drinks for space in the shops that line Sauraha's main street. Wildlife-focussed tourism plays a major part in the income of many households. Photo: Dan Milner

I returned to Sauraha six years later to continue my photo project. Bickrum was gone —another name washed away in the transience of a place focused on tourism— and with him my inroad to the mahouts. But this time I had pre-armed myself with research and reading about the problems with elephant tourism, so I trod Sauraha’s streets and riverbanks and re-focused my lens on the antics of tourism rather than the mahouts, photographing the point of demand rather than the source. And, in an attempt to mirror the objectivisation of elephants by humans — tourists, mahouts and elephants owners alike — I made the elephant the backdrop rather than the subject.

And when my hotel’s owner —the same as had employed Bickrum years earlier— took me to meet his mahouts at their simple, single-room concrete house and his two elephants parked outside, I got to appreciate the mahout’s place in the hierarchy and learned to empathise with them.

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A domesticated elephant and mahout on their way to an afternoon safari pass one of Sauraha’s rapidly growing number of coffee bars. Controversial safari rides play a major role in the economy, development and westernisation of Sauraha. Photo: Dan Milner

Despite doing a dangerous and demanding job (two mahouts are killed by elephants in Nepal each year), mahouts typically earn less than $80 per month. The two I met had worked for the same hotel boss and cared for his $60,000 elephants for two years, but the Nepalese hotel owner had never tried to learn his mahouts’ names.

When I paced alongside the river Rapti to photograph the spectacle that is the elephant bath-time, I snapped laughing tourists and bull-hook wielding mahouts, and elephants veering on the edge of control (a tourist was killed by an elephant in Sauraha in 2009).

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Mahout Chartou stares from his single-roomed concrete home at Pawan Kali, the private, hotel-owned 41-year-old elephant that he cares for. Mahouts live 24/7 with the elephants. Photo: Dan Milner

Trunks raised high, they swam away from the mayhem to snatch a few moments of immersive me-time before being reeled back in. I photographed tourists proudly snapping selfies with elephants, while others balked at the awkward, repetitive, enforced choreography enacted before them. Powerless, they squirmed uncomfortably instead, as if being told sexist jokes by someone they otherwise admired.

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An elephant submerges itself in the cooling waters of the river Rapti. Elephants retain 56-100% of their body heat internally, something that could cause them to fatally overheat if not allowed to cool off. Photo: Dan Milner

I ventured out to other villages on the National Park boundary, where tourism is scarce. From here I hiked into the National Park with rangers from a tiger conservation charity. With them, I saw one of the electric-fenced compounds of the type that house all the Nepalese government’s own flood rescue and anti-poaching patrol elephants. Here they are kept chain-free — a world apart from the shackles and hobbles that shape the lives of most privately-owned domestic elephants.

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The dormant dining room of the now closed Tiger Tops safari resort inside the Chitwan National Park. The hotel was closed in 2012 when the Nepalese government refused to renew hotel licenses in the park to increase conservation measures. Photo: Dan Milner

I photographed a line of idle Land Rovers, empty elephant stables, and dining tables covered by dust sheets at the dormant Tiger Tops jungle resort — a safari hotel that operated from 1964 until 2012, when the Nepalese government extended Chitwan park’s border and exclusion of safari-operations with it. (Tiger Tops now operates an up-market, tented camp from which tourists undertake foot-safaris). And from Tiger Tops’ silent courtyard, I watched an enormous wild bull elephant swagger defiantly along a forest track, free to roam, and learned of the conflicts and issues raised when such wild bulls are drawn to captive females held in stables.

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Leaving the daily elephant bath, a mahout wields an ‘ankus’ (bull-hook), traditionally used to exert control over the elephant. Injuries to elephants are not uncommon and have now become the focus for mahout re-education programs. Photo: Dan Milner

As I watched and photographed and talked, I slowly learned how this magnificent animal has been taken for granted by tourists; how it has become part of the economy for owners and mahouts (Chitwan see over 100,000 tourists annually) and how ignorance has allowed it to happen. And I learned how, ultimately, any domestication means pain for the elephant, no matter how enchanting an elephant encounter is painted.

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A tourist points a ‘selfie stick’ mounted video camera towards a domesticated elephant during the daily spectacle of the elephants’ bath, during which tourists gather to watch, photograph and pay for rides on elephants in the river Rapti. Photo: Dan Milner

The elephant plays a significant, and often direct, role in rural household incomes in towns like Sauraha, where tourism is growing, employment is scarce, and the economy remains fragile (in 2015 after a devastating earthquake and a border blockade by India Nepal recorded a 56% decrease in foreign tourists). Yes, change for both elephant and mahout can happen —and is— but progress is slow, spearheaded by the efforts of nonprofits, but sideswiped by tradition and profiteering.

From looking through a lens, I learned that the relationship we have with the Asian elephant is complex, and there are few easy solutions. But from looking into a single eye, I learned that ‘captivated’ shouldn’t mean captive.

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Gathering behind simple fences erected after the killing of a tourist by an elephant in 2009, privately owned elephants line up to carry tourists into the Chitwan National Park buffer zone for two hour excursions that an elephant may repeat up to six times per day. Photo: Dan Milner

Dan Milner is a roving adventure photographer. Check out more of his work on his website, and keep up with him on Instagram.