When tourists visited a Nepalese safari park in August to see endangered rhinoceroses and ride the elephants, they couldn’t have realized that these gentle giants would actually save their lives. But that’s exactly what happened, as hundreds of stranded travelers were saved from the ravages of flash flooding and mudslides by riding elephants to safety.
The floods came with no warning. When the river Rapti burst its banks in Sauraha, near Nepal’s Chitwan National Park — a massive nature preserve — more than 600 people were trapped and isolated, miles from the nearest city.
Though the park visitors were not in immediate danger, they were without food, water, and shelter, so park attendants and hotel owners in nearby towns sprung into action. With roads destroyed, bridges washed out, and boats inadequate to the herculean task, elephants were pressed into service.
"We are mobilizing all the resources we have to ensure that everyone is safe," said Narayan Prasad Bhatta, the chief officer of Chitwan district.
Asian elephants have been domesticated for thousands of years in these regions, and they love splashing around in the water, so it does follow that they are suited to the task. But an unseen benefit might be the visuals.
With muddy waters often swirling around the bodies of the endangered Asian elephants as they carried park attendants and their visitors to safety, newspapers around the world garnered a bevy of compelling, dramatic photographs to tell a remarkable story.
And it needs telling.
With Harvey’s Noahic floods hitting Houston, and Irma on its heels, other countries’ disasters have not received as much media attention, but regions in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have been devastated by flooding that has killed more than 1,200 people and left millions homeless. And governments in many developing regions are unable to adequately help their people when the need is so overwhelming, as Houston is discovering.
This year in Southern Nepal, more than 100,000 residents are struggling with a devastated landscape, and 26 of 75 regions are under water or isolated by landslides. In nearby Assam in India, home to one of the world’s most distinguished teas, hundreds have been killed and more than 2.3 million displaced.
Climate change is affecting monsoon season in these regions. Overall, less rain is falling during the monsoon season, which lasts for six months to October, and more rain is falling during the offseason. But variations exist within that pattern, and catastrophic rain storms are coming more frequently. Just as with happened with Hurricane Sandy and Harvey, once in 100 year — or 500 year — storms now hit every few years.
In other areas far from the monsoons, hot days are frighteningly hot, and rain falls in torrents rarely seen in the last century. Major cities like Mumbai are also in trouble. In that teeming city, governments have made the same mistakes as western nations. Development is rife, and plains that would have absorbed some of the flood’s runoff are now thick with concrete high rises.
The natural world is paying the price — and that includes the magnificent Asian elephant. Endangered by the loss of habitat, more and more are approaching towns and villages in search of food. When that happens, residents will often separate calves from their mothers, and domesticate them by a process many would describe as inhumane, especially when you consider that elephants in the wild are capable of intelligence and something that looks very much like empathy.
No less than Albert Schweitzer, the great humanitarian, felt that we have much to learn:
“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals...” he said. “Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.”