Upclose with elephants-Hathi Gaon visit experience, Jaipur

As part of our Jaipur trip, we visited an elephant camp in Hathi Gaon. The entire village is called Hathi Gaon because elephants, its caretakers and other related people stay in this village. These domesticated and rescued elephants earn their living by ferrying tourists to the top of Amer fort. Once they are done with their tourist duties for the day, they return to the camp for food, rest and some more activities with tourists visiting Haathi gaon.
We were told that earlier there were no laws and rules related to elephant usage in Amer fort- their owners would make them ferry tourists up and down several times a day, do not feed them well and various other concerns related to their well being. Over time government stepped in- granted some funds for haathi gaon where these elephants can be taken better care of, various limitations were put in place, particularly to limit the number of ride each elephant is allowed per day (3). Thus the condition of these elephants is said to be a bit more comfortable and better now compared to what it was earlier. Many other rules and restrictions are also imposed w.r.t transportation of elephants and so on

Our visit to Haathi Gaon had following activities:
1. Brief about elephants
The caretakers briefed us a bit about elephants. There are essentially two types of elephants in the world- African and Asian. African elephants are heavier, bigger, have bigger ears and few other body characterstics, whereas Asian elephants are relatively smaller. Below is a quick summary if you’re interested
#
Characteristics
African Elephant
Asian elephant
1
Body weight
4-7 tons
3-6 tons
2
Ears
Bigger, reach up to neck, shape of Africa
Smaller, shape of India
3
Head shape
Rounded
Like two circles merging
4
Tusks
Both male n female have tusks
Only males have long tusks
Females have very small tusks
Above were the main difference told to us- there’re more finer details and differences- do google if interested.

We were told Indian elephants need about 400 kg of food per day and it costs about INR 8000 per day to feed an elephant.

The hathi gaon houses only female elephants- as they are deemed gentle on tourists and much less aggressive than male elephants.

2. Elephant Ride
Once briefing was done and we had some water, next activity was a ride on the back of the elephants. This ride was without any cradle or basket- known as bare back riding. Only few gunny bags were placed on the back for some basic cushioning. We climbed few steps and got on the back of the elephants. Two per elephant. My ride partner for the elephant ride was Bhaskar, who is the fiancee of travel blogger Parnashree Devi. (No I didn’t become kabab main haddi, I got behind Bhaskar as Parnashree opted not to take a ride)
There’re multiple arguments that we should not ride on these elephants as it is cruel and encourages commercialization of elephants. These are valid points- wild animals are best left in the forests. However I do not know if there’s an immediate solution to this-Is it viable to release all these elephants back to forest? Will they be able to manage 400 kg food per day every day in our forests that are shrinking in size every day? I don’t have a way of knowing what these elephants might prefer- a life in sort of captivity (I am using the term ‘sort of captivity’ because these are not caged- they move all around Jaipur but yes, always under the control of their caretaker, not free to roam around at their free will) with some work everyday and guaranteed food or a free life in the forest with struggle to find food and water every day. As much as I wish to see these elements free, I don’t see much hope in near term given our fast depleting forest ranges, regular floods, droughts and harsh summers. Would it help if we discourage all tourists to stop riding elephants? That will kill a source of revenue and make it tougher to feed these elephants- then what? Would the government ask all elephants to be let free so that they can fend for themselves? Wouldn’t villagers kill them directly once elephants start destroying farmland in search of food? Do we have good enough forest area needed by these elephants? I don’t have an answer. May be it was wrong for me to go for a ride on the back of the elephant- or hopefully I didn’t cause any pain or damage. So at this point I don’t know which is the right thing to do- I leave it to your discretion.
The ride lasted for about 10 minutes-involved a small walk of about 300-400 meters and back to where we started. The elephants had their own agenda- trying to grasp as much food as possible while walking. They would even fight among themselves mildly for better control over grass and leaves. Watch the video.



3. Elephant Painting
Guests can create their own paintings on the elephant, using various eco friendly colours. Guests can paint whatever they feel like. I was reluctant to do it but the mahut almost forced me into it- reluctantly drew 3 letters, representing our host JW Marriott on it
4. Elephant Bathing
This activity is mainly to wash the painting done on the elephants. The term bathing feels like a joke-because there is no provision of a pond or a lake or river for elephants to take bath- they are sprayed with water from a tub- which is like too little water. Having bathed elephants in Dubare and K Gudi in Karnataka in flowing water/pond, I had gone to haathi gaon wearing shorts and chappals, expecting I may have to get into water. But the tub water drained my expectations. But then, this is Rajasthan- there're no rivers that run all through the year and water is indeed sparse. I am guessing they are doing the best they can.
While some elephants treated themselves with repeated sprays of water, others appeared too thirsty and wanted to drink as much as possible. It was tough to refill the blue tubs faster than they can drink.

5. Elephant feeding
The final activity is feeding elephants with bananas- you can give it at the trunk or if you are little more adventurous, you can put the banana directly in its mouth.

I had more pleasure standing close to the elephant and hugging them by their trunk. If I lookup, I could see its eye- humble and thoughtful. Many fear getting close to elephants- the wild ones obviously may not like humans coming closer but domesticated elephants are very comfortable with humans around. So there’s no need to fear- they don’t intend to cause any harm, unless they feel threatened. Just like you assess a fellow human- is he trustworthy, can I talk to him or would he cause some harm… elephants also do some basic threat assessment. Comfort them with some pats, look into their eyes, feed them a few bananas and they will probably remember you for a lifetime. It is fairly safe to go closer to domesticated elephants- just don’t do anything that may cause a threat.
Above: Hugging the elephant- photo courtesy Parnashree Devi.

But then, how they are trained and domesticated is a different story, not always a pleasant one. Making them obey human command is a complicated process- elephants are often kept hungry till they obey the command, chained or hit with ‘ankush’ and other forms of treatment which almost certainly qualifies as cruelty are adopted.
Group photo, shared by Priya Ganapathy

Elephant conservation is a major issue worldwide. Their habitat area is constantly shrinking due to deforestation, farming in forest area and rapid urbanization. With nowhere to go, they enter villages, farms and result in man-elephant conflict. While we may think elephants shouldn’t enter civilian area, from their point of view the path was rightfully theirs from ages but now being blocked by humans who have settled in their area or have built farms with electric fence.  Many elephants die because of electrocution, or being hit by trains passing through the forest and other unnatural reasons. Elephant poaching was a big menace few decades ago due to people like Veerappan but even now, poachers do pose some threat to wild animals, including elephants. Elephants are herbivores, intelligent community animals and do not prefer to attack unless absolutely necessary. They just need the space and freedom they deserve but world wide their survival is being threatened everyday by wide range of human interference- direct or indirect. 

My other posts related to elephants: 
How to Survive elephant attacksElephant show at Sri Racha zoo, Pattaya Thailand * Sakrebailu elephant sanctuary, Shimoga *  Elephant Parade * Book review- Elephant catchers * My story of Ekadanta elephant on Evolve Back's blog

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