Elephant and Mahout

      Mahout is the Hindi/Nepali word for elephant rider. Shiva Shanker Ram is a mahout in Chitwan, southern Nepal, and Laxmi Kali is his elephant. Laxmi and another elephant live in an open shed next door to Shiva. During the night, they are chained to the ground by one foot, which they must endure till morning. There is no possibility, due to financial and space constraints, and the nature of even tame elephants, that they can roam free during the night in the middle of a town. Riders and elephants have a very close 24-hour relationship; they depend on each other for their living, but any form of freedom outside of work is limited. Laxmi Kali is actually owned by another richer person, who supplies food, lodging and about $100 per month, while he receives the profits from what tourists pay; The job from which Laxmi and Shiva earn their living is to carry tourists across the river and through the grass that grows taller than a person, in search of Asian Rhino, crocodiles, and on rare occasion, Bengal tiger.

     In the past, many of the tourist taking a safari on Laxmi were Europeans and Americans, but they have mostly gained an appreciation for animal welfare, and have been supplanted by Indian and Chinese tourists, who are not so
concerned about the ethics of elephant riding and captivity. I have a strong connection to Nepal, having been a Peace Corps volunteer there years ago, speaking the language, and having a fairly deep knowledge of the people and culture. There is a great difference in the peoples of the hills and those of the Terai, where Shiva lives. I had returned to Nepal recently to work with street dogs, but after coming to Chitwan and meeting Shiva and Laxmi, I found a beauty in their story, and I wanted to tell it in photos and writing. Though I came with a bias against keeping working elephants, and still have my disagrements with the practice, after spending time with Laxmi and Shiva, I discovered their relationship more complex and not so easy to define or condemn.

Large groups of tourists ride their elephants through Chitwan. Though seen as the epitome of large and powerful, which they are for pulling enormous weights, their spines are not suited for great weight on their back, especially on the daily basis laxmi kali and other elephants must perform, and in later years they often have spinal issues which are painful and debilitating.