OPERATION: Unchained

  • Published
  • By Josh Plueger
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
A Jetstream 41 aircraft glides over the chiseled relief of the Himalayan Mountains en route to Bharatpur, Nepal.  U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Scott Bettencourt peers out a window as the topography of the land levels replacing rocky summits with the lush lowlands of south-central Nepal. By his side is a small team of volunteers along with two weeks' worth of supplies, tools and some soccer balls. Their mission? To remove the painful chains that contain, restrict and injure working elephants in Chitwan National Park.

Bettencourt, who is a pharmacy flight chief with the 55th Medical Support Squadron, has been a staple at Offutt for the past ten years.  His altruistic spirit has benefited the Omaha community.  He volunteered extensively with the Henry Doorly Zoo as well as nonprofit entities such as the Omaha Film Streams Theatre.  His volunteerism would soon become an international endeavor when through the Combined Federal Campaign he came across Elephant Aid International.  Donating to this effort wasn't enough, he wanted to be there.

"I was lucky to be in a position with work to go on this trip," he said. "I knew I wanted to make this trip while still in the military to see if this was something I really wanted to devote myself to once I retired."

During his trip to Nepal, Bettencourt and the other volunteers helped build some of the region's first elephant corrals, replacing the inhumane shackles the elephants are forced to endure. The team spent 12 hour days in smoldering jungle heat, punctuated by one hundred percent humidity, digging post holes, preparing meals and working with elephant handlers known as Mahouts. 

For generations, Mahouts have been training their elephants the same way, which is actually at the expense of the elephant's quality of life. The age-old training paradigm, used by Mahouts, is that of forced obedience through chains and a Goad hook. When at rest, elephants are shackled and chained severely restricting their mobility.

Though the training and living conditions are harsh, the bond between the handler and their colossal companions run deep. A young boy receives similarly young elephant to begin his Mahout training. The pair grow and bond in tandem with one another throughout their working lives. The working elephants and Mahouts spend their days patrolling the Chitwan National Park in search of rhinoceros poachers.  With charitable resources and Nepalese government assistance, Mahouts are changing the way they've housed and trained elephants.

Building the multi-acre elephant corral was the chief responsibility of this volunteer's team. 

"We would wake up and eat breakfast at 6:30 in the morning at the little rural hotel we stayed at," Bettencourt said.  "We then had to bike down a gravel road for about 30 more minutes for our commute to the job site."

Despite grueling eleven hour days of manual labor in sub-tropical heat, Bettencourt stood out to the founder of Elephant Aid International, Carol Buckley.

"Scott was quiet, always the first to offer his services and the last to call attention to himself," she said. "He was a friend to all the volunteers and everyone enjoyed working with him."

Not all work involved digging trenches through the thick jungle vegetation.  Special treats had to be made for the elephants as part of the Mahout positive reinforcement training program.  One of the major goals of the program was to strengthen the relationship between the elephant and Mahout by demonstrating the power and results that accompanied this new style of training. 

"That's part of what Carol is trying to do there; show how smart these animals are and how effective the use of positive reinforcement is," Bettencourt said.

One day during the trip, with a temperature of 115 degrees, insects assaulted Bettencourt and his fellow workers. The digging was particularly tedious that day as they were attempting uncover an old barbed-wire fence that had been buried nearly three feet underground. With his hands blistered and fatigue setting in, Bettencourt looked up to see elephants gazing into a newly opened corral.  He stopped his labors. A group of elephants, having spent their entire lives bound by chains in their off time, now confusingly sat at the opening of their vast coral. He watched with anticipation, aware that not all volunteer teams had the chance to view the culmination of their efforts.

"They knew something was going on when they first got back from their tour," he recalled. "You could see that the elephants were happy as they entered their new home, my worst day there turned out to be the most rewarding."

Full immersion into a new culture enriches perspective and Bettencourt spent his two weeks working, eating, living and socializing with the local Nepalese people. Seeing how genuinely happy they were in spite of relatively little resources was a major take away from his travels and volunteer experience.

"You always change when you go on a trip," he said. "The people were so appreciative of our help and the kids loved getting the soccer balls we brought with us."

Though the volunteering ended after two weeks, Bettencourt remained in Nepal as a traveler for an additional two. And once he finishes his mission with the U.S. Air Force, he intends to spend his retirement participating in many more humanitarian and environmental missions around the globe.