Tiger Tops Elephant Camp - The Call to Conserve
Tiger Tops Elephant Camp
This past week I had the opportunity to visit Tiger Tops, a lodge and elephant camp in Nepal bordering Chitwan National Park.From this visit I not only got to spend some time observing their elephants and going on jungle walks with them, but I also got to evaluate their management style and ethics to better be able to bring recommendations here and inform my research.
So after just a few days at Tiger Tops, here’s what you need to know…
IT’S NOT A SANCTUARY
This is something that the director of Tiger Tops, Jack Edwards, feels strongly about all guests and conservationists alike knowing. It’s an important distinction to make because unlike many ethical projects, Tiger Tops is a business and their elephants are working.
The primary goal at Tiger Tops is to make their guests happy, whether that involves activities with their elephants or hanging out at the lodge all day. Therefore, the reason for having elephants is not to “rescue” or “retire” them, they are there to work and create a unique tourism experience.
With that said, the welfare of the elephants at Tiger Tops is better than many sanctuaries around the world, which drives home the point that rather than fixating on a label, we should be focusing on the care of the animals. Unfortunately, many within animal rights are focused more on how a facility labels themselves than what they are actually doing with their animals. This is a big mistake as there are non-profits and sanctuaries all over the place that are not treating their animals well but would potentially be more highly recommended simply based on how they identify their project.
At the end of the day, it’s important to be aware of what each facility is doing with their elephants. From there, you can determine how ethical their management practices are.
WHAT THE ELEPHANTS DO AT TIGER TOPS
Many will hear that the elephants work and immediately be turned off to hearing more about the facility. So for full transparency, here is what a day in the life of an elephant at Tiger Tops looks like:
6 am: the mahouts will take the elephants to cut grass which is then brought back to their corals and given as supplementary food
10 am: the elephants go graze in the jungle with their mahouts for most of the day
4 pm: when there are guests at the resort who want to do a jungle walk, the elephants will go into the jungle and walk with the guests (no tourist riding, just a walking safari). This goes until about 6 pm.
4 pm: alternatively, if guests want to go to the river to watch the sun go down in the jungle, the elephants will walk to the river with the guests then the guests can sit on the riverbank and enjoy a drink while the elephants get free time to play in the water (pictured above). The elephants are free to get in and out of the river as they please and can graze in the jungle or head back to camp whenever they want.
6-7 pm: upon their return at the camp, the elephants go into their enclosures for the night. They are not on chains but rather are in corals with electric fences (pictured below). The elephants are mostly in pairs so they can socialize (apart from 2 elephants who do not share an enclosure but share a fence line so they can socialize safely).
So yes, the elephants are working, but the vast majority of their day they are free to graze and walk around in the jungle. Tiger Tops has created experiences that are mutually enjoyable for the guests and elephants. By having guests at the lodge, the elephants get more time in the jungle and at the river. Therefore, having a steady flow of business is not causing their herd to be overworked or mistreated, it’s actually the opposite!
The more guests at the lodge, the more activities the elephants get to enjoy throughout their day. This reduces the amount of time they are in their corals and gives them more access to the jungle.
RESEARCH AND COLLABORATIONS AT TIGER TOPS
Tiger Tops started as a hunting lodge (primarily for tiger hunts) and was the birth place of the elephant back safari in Nepal, as well as elephant polo. It’s incredible to see how far the business has shifted towards conservation over the years and this is primarily due to the research and collaborations that those operating the business have been focused on.
Tiger Tops started doing tiger monitoring in Chitwan National Park in 1974 and initiated the Gharial Breeding Program in the park in 1978, two initiatives that are still in effect today and have made great impact on endangered populations and the available information we have about these species. These early steps towards conservation of wildlife led the way for the collaborations Tiger Tops does today with researchers from around the world!
By welcoming research projects and conservationists to their site, they are encouraging more spread of information about captive elephants and the wildlife of Nepal.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL HEALTH OF THE ELEPHANTS
Thanks to the facility’s willingness to work with researchers and conservationists, I was able to go observe their elephants to better provide feedback to them and inform my research on elephant management. In following the basics of the research I was doing in Thailand in 2019 (which you can read more about here), I was observing their elephants to see if any of them had behaviors consistent with chronic stress or trauma.
While my time at Tiger Tops was short, from what I saw their elephants were seemingly very healthy. Out of the 10 female elephants on site, only two showed any stereotypic behaviors (swaying back and forth/bobbing) which is often used as a coping mechanism and can indicate long term exposure to stress. In a captive environment it can often be challenging to avoid these repetitive behaviors, but by being on a schedule, having active days, and getting plenty of exercise in the jungle, the elephants at Tiger Tops are able to maintain good psychological health.
All in all, I would definitely recommend a visit to Tiger Tops as it is an ethical facility with great welfare standards for their elephants. Whenever going to a captive wildlife venue it’s important to remember that there’s no one right way to do things. Every facility is different and each has their strengths and weaknesses; but with feedback from visitors and information from ongoing research and collaborations, facilities like Tiger Tops are able to continue growing and learning.
For more information on the lodges and elephant camp or to book your visit, head to their website!