By Michael Scott Davidson
SARASOTA COUNTY - Although Sarasota County resident Mimi Steger plans to travel to Nepal next March, she is not outlining her itinerary with tourist hotspots or a plethora of resorts.
Instead, Steger, 46, will spend 15 days working to unshackle some of the world's largest land animals.
From March 11 to 25, she and other volunteers will build chain-free corrals for captive elephants in Nepal's 360-square-mile Chitwan National Park. The “Free the Elephants Volunteer Project” is being hosted by Elephant Aid International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes elephant welfare.
“The elephants in captivity are being used for economic purposes, but their conditions and their treatment are not something that is regulated,” Steger said. “Their economic use takes priority.”
Captive elephants play an important role in Nepal, according to Elephant Aid International's website. They are used commercially for transporting safaris, patrolling national parks for poachers, collecting grass and performing other strenuous labor.
When not working, the website reports, captive elephants “stand for long hours shackled in heavy chains that prevent them from moving more than a few inches in any direction.”
Those bonds are what Steger hopes to free the elephants from. Constructing chain-free corrals for Nepal's captive elephants will hopefully set a new precedent for managing the gentle giants.
“It's changing the lives of the ones being released from chains now,” Steger said. “And in the long term it's changing conditions for future captive elephants.”
The volunteer project will be the first time the well-traveled Steger has gone abroad for an outreach program.
Her journey will take her to Nepal's capital Kathmandu, by way of Tampa, Atlanta and Dubai. Once she arrives, she and three to nine other volunteers will travel to the Sauraha village. they will spend their days at the Chitwan National Park clearing paths for fencing, digging holes for fence posts and installing those posts with cement, among other construction duties. For a closer look at the elephants, Steger said she hopes to volunteer feeding the elephants and cleaning their current corrals.
She plans to record her experiences in a blog so that she has can share her experiences and newly gained knowledge when she returns home.
“I hope it sets an example for younger children, younger people to participate in outreach,” Steger said. “I do have hopes to continue on in this area after I return, and the only way I'll be able to make it a priority is for it to take up that much space in my life.”
The outreach opportunity is well-timed for Steger. A co-owner of North Port Taekwondo since 2003, she is at a point in her life where she can afford the thousands required for the March trip.
For now, she will work on packing while waiting for the trip that will combine her love of travel, culture and anthrozoology, the study of humanity's relationship with other species.
“It was a once in a lifetime chance to do something that brought together a lot of those things,” she said. “It just happened to be the right project at the right time. Something that was involved with things I like to do in my free time.”