Tethering is an integral part of responsible, everyday elephant management in human care. Facilities all around the world use ropes and chains for restraining their elephants for a wide variety of reasons. A regular husbandry routine that includes tethers habituates the elephant to the use of tethers and ensures that they can be used at any time, without stress or discomfort to the elephant. Whether during routine check-ups, socialization, birthing or at nighttime, this training can greatly help mahouts, keepers and veterinarians give a higher standard of care to their elephants.
When we talk about tethers, it usually means chains or ropes. While chains may look menacing, there are many reasons that they are preferred to ropes: chains are strong, durable, easy to clean, able to be repaired without compromising the integrity of the tether and, when used properly, lower the risk of injuring the skin. Ropes do have a proper place in the restraining and training of animals, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on the importance of chains in elephant management.
First and foremost, elephants in human care benefit from the use of chains because chains allow keepers to work more closely with the elephants. While an elephant may have a lifelong bond with and trust its keeper, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way about a veterinarian or government official who needs to perform an examination. Adding a restraint gives experts the opportunity to thoroughly interact with, examine and treat an elephant while maintaining safety for all involved.
Using chains is also important during transport. Elephants weigh many tons and need the extra stabilization while in motion in a motor vehicle, just as people need seat belts. Imagine if four tons shifted suddenly and significantly while you were in a truck. That shift might cause a blown tire, broken axle or serious accident. Safety is the priority, so it’s important to make sure any transport goes smoothly, protecting the elephant and humans involved.
One-third of all Asian elephants on the planet are in human care. These elephants are often sold or traded, creating the need for assisted introductions.
Elephants need time to get to know one another, just like people. Keeping elephants separated by restraints during this crucial time allows them to share the same space safely and to use chemical, audible and some tactile communication.
Elephant care is a 24/7 job—it’s like having a four-ton baby! Just as babies sleep in a crib, elephants need a degree of safeguarding at night to protect them from outside threats. Elephants in logging camps, tourist camps and even sanctuaries have the potential to get out of their enclosures. If they get loose and raid nearby crop fields, farmers might retaliate by trying to harm or kill them, a common problem in villages within range countries (the 13 southeast Asian countries where Asian elephants are found in the wild). An elephant may also wander into populated areas and cause an accident with a car, train or bus. Elephants are also susceptible to injury from wildlife snares. When there is no alternate enclosure or mahout supervision, tethering an elephant can save its life.
Tethering can also play an important role in herd dynamics. Some establishments have much different living quarters for their elephants than what you would see in Western facilities. As an example, let’s look at Elephantstay in Ayutthaya, Thailand. It may be advantageous for them to chain up their cows during feeding time so that each elephant gets its portion. The dominant elephant won’t be able to steal other herd members’ food! Because elephants’ social structure within a herd is based on a linear dominance hierarchy, it is also necessary to mitigate any bullying that may occur when mahouts may not be present. Being able to safely separate elephants at night or during other times ensures that herd dynamics remain intact and there are no injuries from fighting.
One aspect of caring for elephants in captivity is providing a safe environment for bulls who are in musth. When bull elephants are in musth, they have higher testosterone levels and can be dangerous to work with, posing a serious and lethal threat to other elephants, mahouts and people. Being able to restrain a bull during his musth period not only reduces his chance of being agitated by outside stimuli, but provides a safe way to maintain levels of care during this cycle.
With an endangered species like the Asian elephant, every baby is a valuable part of the survival of the species; therefore, it is our responsibility to make sure nothing goes wrong. For many seasoned elephant keepers, tethering your elephants is an essential part of the birthing process. There have been too many examples of loose, unassisted and/or herd births where the babies get injured or killed by hormonal, excited mothers. Chaining can help eliminate this risk and ensure a safe environment for mother, baby and mahouts.
Chains are a vital tool in the lives of elephants in human care. While some think that chains look inhumane, they are really just as normal as a leash for your dog. Without them, elephants and the people who care for them face many problems, perhaps even the loss of an elephant. It is imperative that we, as conservators of the species, seek out all avenues to provide the best for the elephants in our care.
*The views and expressed opinions in this article are those by Asian Elephant Support, and are not necessarily those of TripAdvisor, Inc. Any cited research is sourced by Asian Elephant Support and has not been necessarily verified or independently evaluated by TripAdvisor, Inc.
 Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 220
 Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 67, 99, 143
 Wittemyer & Getz, “Hierarchical dominance structure and social organization in Lozodonta africana,” Animal Behavior 73, 2007 671-681
 Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 76
 Olson, Deborah, Elephant Husbandry Resource Guide, https://elephantconservation.org/stay-informed/elephant-husbandry-resource-guide/ p. 138