I woke up early to the sounds of trumpeting mixed in with calls of the resident roosters from my village homestay.
The elephants had come up to the village from the forest—something they don’t normally do. But today, they had an appointment: with the vet.
I’d come to visit Mahouts Elephant Foundation: a charity that is working to bring elephants and their mahouts away from tourist camps and back home to the forests of Northern Thailand.
The number of wild elephants in Thailand is currently estimated to be around 3,000. That’s down from 300,000 at the start of the 20th Century.
That’s also less than the number of elephants who are in captivity in Thailand today, for the purposes of ‘Elephant Tourism’ – a contentious and hotly debated subject around the world.
Looking around Thailand, it’s easy to see why. In order to roam and live free, elephants need large amounts of space—space that’s a precious commodity in a country that’s developing rapidly. Agriculture and cornfields take the place of forest; elsewhere trees are pulled down to make way for construction: of tourist attractions, of roads and hotels, and for the expansion of towns.
It seems that the odds are heavily stacked against wild elephants in Thailand. Their numbers continue to dwindle and are threatened by isolation (elephants are now spread out into very small pockets of Thailand posing a threat for their survival and healthy breeding), poaching for ivory, and stealing for sale into the lucrative elephant tourism business.
The more one looks the more the odds look bleak for Thai elephants. Even more so for any hopes of releasing elephants from captivity back into the wild.
Or so I thought. Until I came across Mahouts Elephant Foundation operating near Mae Chaem, about 3 hours from Chiang Mai.
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The Challenges of Elephant Camps and Elephant Tourism in Thailand
I wrote last week about an experience with elephant tourism that left me feeling disheartened and confused.
This time, with Mahouts, things could not have been more different.
To understand the work that Mahouts are doing, first we need to understand some of the challenges commonly experienced in tourist elephant camps in much of Thailand.
The first thing to point out is that all camps are different. Some offer very poor conditions for the elephants and the mahouts, work the elephants extremely hard by offering as many chair – rides as possible each day, forcing elephants to perform tricks at shows, and not paying mahouts a reasonable wage. These camps often employ starvation tactics for training of new elephants, keep elephants in chains, and promise mahouts large amounts of money to get them to come to the camp in the first place. Mahouts and their elephants are forced to leave their home villages in order to look for work.
Other camps offer better conditions for the elephants and mahouts, by either limiting the number of rides or visitors per day, not offering circus style shows, not offering riding or riding without the chair (which allegedly causes most discomfort to the elephant).
Other camps posing as “sanctuaries” accept volunteers who pay large amounts of money to help out, but are not set up as charities/not for profit organisations. It’s unclear where the money goes.
The challenges of elephant tourism in Thailand are complex, because of the amount of money involved (it’s an extremely lucrative and growing industry) and the different points of view represented. You can read widely on the topic on Mahouts Elephant Foundation website.
The Mahouts Elephant Foundation
The Mahouts Elephant foundation was set up by Founder Sarah Blaine and her family after they witnessed the state of the elephant tourism industry and camps in Thailand first hand. After seeing the plight of one very sick street-begging elephant, Somsri, they knew that they had to do something to help the plight of elephants who had suffered at the hands of tourism.
Do something they did.
In summer 2015, Mahouts Elephant Foundation and a troop of helpers rescued two elephants from camps, and walked with them and their Mahouts 180km, over seven long and hard days, from near Chiang Mai, to the hills of Northern Thailand and back to the forest where they now live.
One year on, the herd of happy elephants has grown from two to four. In summer last year young bull elephant Mario joined the family in the forest, and in November last year, baby Sunti was born to matriarch Thong Kam. He now happily crashes around the forest and spends his days rolling around in mud, which I was lucky enough to witness first hand (my camera still bears the mud marks from his curious trunk!)
The Foundation is a registered charity and relies on the support of visitors, purchases from their online shop and donations in order to keep on supporting the current group of four elephants and their Mahouts, and to support more and bring more elephants back to the forest in the future.
Visiting Elephants in the Wild in Northern Thailand
I didn’t expect that during my time in Thailand I’d have the opportunity to walk next to elephants in the forest, in their natural home.
Visiting elephants ethically in Thailand was an incredible experience. The village where Mahouts Foundation is based is a Karen village in the hills of Mae Hong Son. As part of my experience I spent one night in a homestay in the village, and my second night camping in the forest (the camping is optional, guests can stay for longer in the homestay if they wish).
Life in the village is simple, yet for some Karen villages nearby it gets even more simple. The village I stayed in is lucky to have access to clean water and electricity – other villages still do not. It’s a far cry from the Thailand seen in the big cities and beach resorts of the south.
Here, I didn’t need an alarm clock—the roosters were all too willing make sure I was up and about early.
On the first day I got to see the elephants in the village. This is not a common occurrence as the aim is to allow the elephants to wander freely in the forest and go where they want to go. The reason for the village visit was a trip to the vet’s for the elephants. The Thai government is collecting DNA samples (though blood or hair samples) for all captive elephants to build up a DNA database for Thailand with the aim to stop elephant trafficking and illegal trading in elephants captured from the wild in Thailand or more commonly, Myanmar.
It was an amazing sight watching how well behaved and calm the elephants were as the vets took the samples, and then tried to line up the elephants to be measured!
Walking the Elephants Home.
After the vet’s visit, I was lucky to be able to experience my own mini-version of walking the elephants home.
We walked the elephants for about 20 minutes from the village back to the edge of the forest. It might be more accurate to say that the elephants walked us: it was clear who was taking the lead on our walk, and we spent most of the afternoon following the elephants, from the village and past fields into the forest, down to a stream where the four of them lost no time in having a good splash around.
For the remainder of the afternoon we followed the elephants through the forest, until we found a spot to camp for the night. The elephants slept a short distance away.
It’s only possible to interact this closely with the elephants because these particular animals have spent most of their lives in captivity and are very used to close human contact, and are known very well by their loving mahouts. It goes without saying that it would not be possible or safe to walk this close to wild elephants un-used to humans.
The Mahouts Foundation does not allow riding of any kind, and what I loved is that it’s clear that the wishes of the elephant go above popular tourist demands—the elephants are not there for cuddling or selfie-posing, a respectful distance needs to be kept at all times, and the whole operation is on the elephants’ terms. Treats can be fed to the elephants but only if the Mahouts let guests know it is safe to do so.
Need to Know: Visiting and Supporting the Work of the Mahouts Foundation.
The aim of the Mahouts Foundation is to continue their work and to increase the number of elephants and their mahouts that can be brought home to the forests and Karen hills. They are also investing in scientific research into elephant welfare, that will be used for lobbying for better conditions for elephants and their mahouts across Thailand.
We can help support this vital work in a number of ways:
- Donating (from anywhere in the world) to support the elephants: you can sponsor a particular elephant—or the whole gang!—for a year or longer or give a fixed amount.
- Support Mahouts by buying products or gifts from their a particular elephant
- You can pay a visit to the elephants in person in Thailand.
If you are interested in seeing wild elephants in Thailand but cannot make it to Mahouts, Mahouts also keep a list of other elephant conservation initiatives that they endorse.