Chaining is an important part of managing elephants in a traditional hands-on system in Southeast Asia where there are no enclosures to contain the animals. Chains are the simplest and safest tool to confine these large and potentially dangerous animals to a specific area. Because they can be more difficult to control, male elephants often have permanent chains around their ankles to provide a safe and quick means to control them if necessary. Chains are also important for safely restraining an elephant during husbandry (e.g., foot care) and veterinary procedures.
Many forms of restraint, if done properly and with appropriate tools, are not harmful to the animal. For example, we put halters on horses and leashes and neck collars on dogs to lead and manage them in a safe, humane manner. A chain of sufficient length is important because it not only allows elephants to interact with one another but also allows them to find space alone should they so choose. Unrelated elephants do not always get along and aggressive individuals can be dangerous to other elephants, sometimes fatally so. From a management perspective, using long chains to tether the elephant at night rather than fencing allows the elephant to be moved from one part of a forest to another, changing the elephant’s environment and allowing them access to fresh browse. Fences are often unreliable and, if not constructed properly, can be dangerous to the elephants themselves..
Chains must be used appropriately to avoid injury. Ideally, elephants should not be kept on chains for prolonged periods of time during the day and allowed free movement. If camps keep elephants on short chains during the majority of the day, and elephants are seen to exhibit stereotypic behaviors, these camps should be questioned and improvements should be suggested.
Satisfactory alternatives to chaining, like cement or steel structures, are very expensive and are therefore financially not possible and are impractical for most elephant tourism operations in Asia.