Last updated on September 29, 2019
Royal Chitwan National Park is a crowning jewel of Nepal, and it’s also one of the country’s most successful conservation projects. It’s a notable place not only in Nepal, but on the world stage, too—Chitwan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and therefore under international protection. During my month of volunteering, I had only heard good things about Chitwan from the young monks; I was eager to explore all Chitwan could offer a self-proclaimed responsible tourist like myself.
My friends and I had taken a boat through the National Park while scouting tigers in the wild, we ate delicious food, and we rounded out our weekend in Chitwan with a ride through a local Tharu village. Piling into the back of a jeep, we observed village life while the wind sent sticky heat across our skin. In addition to seeing the Terai villages, our end goal was Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center, where I planned to learn more about Chitwan’s elephant tourism industry, with a real hope that I could uncover how it differed from that of Thailand’s circus-like, deeply abusive, and state-sponsored elephant tourism industry.
Chitwan’s Elephant Breeding Center
Elephants in Asia are a sticky subject fraught with hard questions. Is riding ethical or can they be tamed humanely? And what role do breeding centers play in the equation? In conservation, many breeding centers effectively revive endangered populations. But the elephant population in Chitwan is not endangered, and it’s growing on its own through the park’s successful anti-poaching measures. Instead, the Breeding Center breeds elephants for use in the National Park—both for tourism and for anti-poaching patrols. That begs the question: Are those motives enough to rationalize an elephant breeding program given there are still no proven humane ways to break an elephant?
Even before arriving, I had reservations about the purpose of the breeding center—I knew I needed more information before I would fully understand the ethics of riding elephants in Nepal.
Consider that as of summer 2019, by establishing a new breeding center in Cambodia (and banning elephant rides at Angkor Wat), many conservationists hope to stop the ongoing poaching of the last of Cambodia’s wild elephants—because locals do use them for logging and work, and without a viable path toward using elephants, outright banning elephant tourism in the country would cause far worse side effects … for now. So although the dream would be just the responsible elephant experiences in Cambodia were left, the breeding center there is a larger step than any other Southeast Asian nation has yet take.
So what does Cambodia have to do with Chitwan? Well, like Cambodia, the elephants are currently playing a vital role in the maintenance of the park. That’s not enough of a rationale for many, but if you believe that the answer about breeding elephants at Chitwan is black and white, then you are missing all the shades of grey that make up the reality of this world. Eliminating elephant use in regions where humans depend on it is a wicked problem, and it’s prevalent across many countries in Asia. Don’t know what’s meant by a wicked problem? The short of it is that this a complex problem without a single solution. It’s easy to say no riding elephants ever (and that’s my stance in every other country in the world), but if that elimination wipes out the last remaining bengal tigers in the world? Or means the extinction of the one-horned rhino. This is not a thought experiment; that’s what’s at stake at Chitwan National Park.
So, let’s get back to the breeding center.
The Breeding Center in 2009
As part of my packaged tour, our guide shepherded us along to learn more and to see the newest elephants. The prize animals at the breeding center were twin baby elephants, just three months old. It seems like it’s cute, but not a big deal. According to our guide, however, these twins are the only surviving elephant twins in the park’s history. And they are just the third set to be born here, period. Twin elephants are extremely rare all over the world and have dismal survival rates. Considering the extremely long gestation time for elephants (22 months!), the momma elephant who carries the twins has a long road to travel before birth.
When we arrived, the twin elephants lopped along at a goofy pace as they followed their momma back to the breeding center—they had left with the mahouts in search of breakfast. And while I wanted to celebrate the birth of these adorable elephants, it was hard to see the mother elephant march back into the compound bound in chains. I wondered when those cute twins “need” chaining.
A few minutes later, we met another set of elephants, both about two-and-a-half years old and both were feisty! They trotted over to our group as soon as we walked into the compound. These two guys were frisky and playful. And they knew precisely what they wanted—any and all food hiding in our bags. One of them even walked straight up to me with his trunk extended and tried to taste my camera! I assured him that the crackers in the other hand were tastier, and he then pushed and nudged me until I had surrendered every single piece of my food I had hidden in pockets for them.
The Breeding Center Today
Back in 2009, the number of chained elephants saddened me deeply and I wasn’t sure how the breeding center played into Chitwan’s larger conservation goals. Today, the breeding center is one of the handful of remaining places in Chitwan that still chains elephants—this practice is really changing elsewhere in the area and has seen a perspective shift among some private tour operators and private elephant owners.
In the years since my visit, a large percentage of private tour operators around Chitwan have worked with elephant advocacy groups to make changes to how they breed and break elephants. As of 2017, many captive elephants at places outside the breeding center were allowed to roam unchained and in packs, as they do in the wild—bull elephants are still chained for protection of people and other elephants, but the life of captive elephants has seen years of continual improvement.
Inside the breeding center, life hasn’t changed much, according to reports from A Little Adrift Readers. Elephants are still chained at the center, and the official Chitwan breeding center has resisted some of the more sweeping changes other elephant camps are implementing to counter the extreme cruelty done to elephants in captivity used for tourism and work.
Outside of the breeding center, however, there is a changing tide of opinion. Local tour operators are truly willing to find creative solutions to how they can balance their twin goals of a humane life for the animals while still using tourism to further conservation. The Chitwan breeding center is a skip for ethical tourists as of 2019 because of it’s cruel practices—I recommend using lodges and safari companies embracing the new styles of elephant tourism and conservation. The Nepalese government has been slow to embrace the changes, but the seeds of ethical tourism are firmly planting in non-governmental facilities at Chitwan, and you can have positive, ethical elephant interactions.
Should You Ride an Elephant at Chitwan National Park?
The short answer is no, you should not ride an elephant as it has taken unspeakable cruelty for that animal to be broken to the point that it will accept human riders.
The long answer, however, is maybe. As the final activity during our tour of Chitwan, our guide announced that tours end with an elephant ride through the jungle to spot wildlife. After all of my effort in Laos to not exploit the elephants, the jungle ride defeated the purpose. Even more tricky than breeding elephants, riding them is met with a lot of opinions. In Thailand, it’s a clear no-no and not a responsible tourism practice; in short, you shouldn’t ride an elephant when traveling there.
In Nepal, however, I tend to float in the other direction, as do several prominent responsible tourism websites. In Chitwan National Park, the elephants are primarily used to allow tourists to see endangered one-horned rhinos.
Additionally, park rangers use elephants to penetrate deep into the forest where they could never go by car, and where it would be dangerous to enter on foot. These anti-poaching elephants roam free from chains in separate quarters from the elephants used for tourism, and these types of elephant rides successfully protect the world’s remaining Royal Bengal tigers, vultures, and other critically endangered animals. For several years in a row, there wasn’t a single rhino poached. That changed in 2017, but the fact is that the elephant anti-poaching measures work. Chitwan has the lion’s share of Nepal’s more than 600+ one-horned rhino (at one time, there were fewer than 200 in the world). No system is perfect, but rhino and tiger populations are increasing in Nepal, and that’s a conservation win for the entire world. This is where the wicked part of the problem emerges, because Nepal uses elephants for both tourism (a no no) and for important conservation work (ethically ambiguous).
Effects of Riding an Elephant at Chitwan
Chitwan National Park uses elephants for two parts of its tourism industry: elephant safaris to see a one-horned rhino, and elephant baths. As of 2019, both of these activities are still offered, but there have been positive changes for government and private owned elephants.
- Elephants perform a maximum of two safaris per day, down from five. Mahouts report the animals no longer have sores on their backs and are generally happier. (A reader reports that there has been a backslide here, and that they are back up to five, which is disheartening).
- Metal hooks and prods are now banned and are no longer used in most aspects of the elephant-handling process. These are banned, that is a fact, but you may see them in use—avoid supporting that behavior.
- Some private companies offer elephant walk-alongs rather than elephant rides—check that the one you use is not just doing the elephant walks in between the elephant’s duties with safari rides.
- Private companies have decreased the use of chains, instead allowing all but aggressive bull elephants to wander more freely.
- With the help and influence of conservation groups and activists, private groups are looking for new ways to train elephants. Two elephants have been raised so far using rewards-based training (instead of breaking the elephant through fear and beatings)—it’s been rocky but private lodges at Chitwan National Park are among of the few places on earth testing more harmonious ways elephants and humans can work together ethically.
- Tiger Tops is the only place truly endorsable as an ethical option in the park—give them your money if you hope to support an industry in Chitwan that does not rely on elephant rides.
So again, should you ride an elephant? No. But should we ban or boycott elephant use at Chitwan for both tourism and anti-poaching efforts? Also no. There is a clear right answer we need to get to: not cruelly breaking an elephant’s will so it submits to a lifetime of captivity. But like in Cambodia, progress is slower than we might like, but it’s progress all the same. Chitwan is headed in that direction, and it’s happening a lot sooner than countries facing similar choices in Southeast Asia.
Where we’re at right now might be the best we could hope for at this moment in time in the conservation/ethical debate about elephants in Nepal. It’s seeing more progress most other countries on this front, and travelers demanding new forms of elephant tourism are moving the needle on how business offer these types of tours.
So what’s a traveler to do? Chitwan National Park offers options for tourists who want to use their tourism dollars to support businesses committed to implementing ethical, responsible tourism practices even when it’s more expensive and it bucks trends. Tourists can now vote with their dollars and help effect change that way. I understand some people boycott Chitwan altogether, but I believe tourism effects the most change when it’s used to funnel money into projects and people committed to enacting positive new policies in the world. Use your money to encourage more local providers to treat their elephants humanely, to offer ethical interactions that bring in tourism dollars without compromising the welfare of the animals in question.
My sticky situation here is that elephants shuttle tourists to the rhinos, which provides invaluable funding for anti-poaching measures. I believe this is a rare instance where a responsible tourism industry can include a ride on an elephant as a means of supporting responsible tourism—for now. It does not mean I think you should ride one—if you’re reading this then you’re ready to make the ethical choice to put your money in the right hands when you visit. And you should visit, because Chitwan needs money and support to continue its important conservation work—work that is conserving critically endangered animals in the national park. Work that employs very poor mahouts who have no other livelihoods.
There are few alternatives to raise the profile of the one-horned Indian rhino. These rhinos are extremely dangerous on foot, and the elephant ride is one of the few ways tourists can view the rhino without risking dismemberment. And I am not exaggerating. One of the Chitwan guides had returned home from the hospital the day I visited because of a wild rhino attack. For our journey, a rhino we spotted was unperturbed by the three elephants circling him in the large, grassy area. He munched the grass for several minutes, and then he stood perfectly still, almost like he was posing for a mini photo-shoot for us (he was more tolerant than the Indian cow debacle!)
Should You Participate in Bathing Elephants?
In addition to the elephant safaris, elephants participate in a bathing ritual twice a day. Back in 2009, mahouts used metal prods on the elephants, but today that practice is banned. Instead, it’s an activity that you have to decide for yourself where you stand. Perhaps you skip the elephant safari, where the saddles are problematic and painful for elephants, but believe this is a lower-key option. Even the most highly touted elephant sanctuaries in Thailand allow some form of elephant bathing (and other highly-touted ones even ban that), so consider if it’s a halfway point in the ethical debate for you—a way to see these majestic creatures in a more natural way.
Final Impressions: Chitwan National Park
It was a lovely trip and one that I highly recommend to travelers visiting Nepal. We had no major issues throughout our visit. In fact, the whole trip was documented well by one of the doctors volunteering in a community near our village of Pharping. Lip, a Malaysian doctor, was such a fun addition to our ragtag group. He took a picture of absolutely everything he encountered, meaning we were all happy to look back and remember certain moments, and add to it that he had just completed his own Vipassana Meditation course, and he was a veritable chatterbox. Fellow travelers Jess and Regina also joined our group of Pharping volunteers. Jess was spunky and fun; she had just received her certification in the US and was a newly minted doctor. Regina is Portuguese and also a doctor volunteer in the medical clinic in Chapagaon.
After my months on the road, it was fun and a relief to travel with three doctors! My cousin and I had a bevy of questions for them, naming symptoms and questions from our illnesses endured these past months on the road. Despite being sure we had issues, our doctor-friends cleared our symptoms and told us to wait it out until we rejoined the developed world in just a few weeks.
Side Note: This Conde Nast Traveler article is thoughtful read for those more deeply interested in the true challenges elephant tourism presents. The article describes some of the cultural implications of elephant-human interactions in Asia (Cliffs Notes: It’s been happening since before Christianity so it’s a bit much for Westerners to dictate it must end in one fell swoop.), and details the work of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Asian Captive Elephant Working Group to create a more sustainable link between elephants and tourism.
Quick Tips: Visiting Chitwan National Park
Staying Healthy at Chitwan
As far as health concerns went throughout Chitwan, all seven of us took anti-malarial medicine because of the parks tropical climate and proximity to India. Until this point, I had opted against malaria medication, even though it was recommended for all of Southeast Asia and India. Because it was dry season in SEA, I took a calculated risk. Instead, I used strong DEET repellant and wore long pants in the evenings. And while that worked well, I figured only an idiot would refuse to take anti-malaria medication while all the doctors in the group were doing it. I already had a three-month supply from the U.S. travel clinic I visited just before my trip, so that was plenty for my cousin and I to take recommended dose of Doxycycline every day (and for four weeks afterwards).
We also all had travel insurance that would cover us if we needed immediate transport from the very remote National Park back to Kathmandu for medical treatment—this is important since there’s a lot that can go wrong in the jungle.
Exploring Chitwan was amazing. I highly recommend that fellow travelers build this into any trip to Nepal. It’s a gorgeous region of the country making important strides in conservation and environmental preservation.
What to Pack
Chitwan is a wet, humid, and forested area. It’s also blazing hot and there may be power outages at night, when nary a fan or breeze moves the stagnant heat. Pack clothes for hot, sunny days during, and pack lightweight clothes that cover your limbs in the evenings to prevent mosquito bites. And absolutely pack DEET repellant, quality sunscreen, and a hat. A full travel packing list is here. And don’t forget your Nepal travel adapter so you can charge all of your electronics.
Where to Stay
Most travelers stay in Sauraha. If you want to put your money where your ethics are, head to Tiger Tops Elephant Camp—a private elephant camp leading the way with the most humane and ethical elephant practices. I also recommend Eden Jungle Resort and Lodge; it was lovely and remains highly rated by other travelers in the years since my visit. If you’re feeling more spendy, then Landmark Forest Park Hotel is a great choice.
Choose a Tour
This post more clearly outlines all the information you need on How to Visit Chitwan National Park.
Throughout this piece I linked to other resources and points of view on the questions ethically supporting elephant tourism in Nepal. The best ones for those in search of additional reading include this one, this one, and this one. And it’s always good to refresh yourself on the best practices of responsible tourists.
The best guidebook. Use the Nepal Lonely Planet to organize your wanders; it’s the one I used during my months there, and it proved useful!
Nepal Travel Guide
A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Nepal. From Kathmandu to Pokhara—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.
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