In Thailand there are now estimated to be around 4,000 captive elephants. Most will be living their lives working in a tourist industry that often gives little consideration to the welfare of the elephant or mahout. We have spent many years developing relationships with not only those fortunate to be under the umbrella of sanctuary but also those working in the tourist camps. When we launched as a UK registered charity our driving force was to inspire real change to improve welfare for these elephants. Of course our dream would be to see ALL these elephants living wild or in a sanctuary environment but we know this is not possible.
We named our foundation Mahouts Elephant Foundation for a reason. We knew very early on that nothing could be achieved without the very people who care for these elephants every day being at the forefront of change. Working “with” has always been at the very heart of every decision we make.
A year ago we started to form a relationship with a Karen hill tribe community who have had elephants at the heart of their culture for hundreds of years. When we first visited they had worked hard with other people helping to create a conservation project for the elephants of the village. The retired chief had realized and become very worried that all their elephants had left the village to work in the trekking camps around Chiang Mai, this is over 60 elephants and also means the mahout has to leave his family and culture behind. If they stay in the village with the elephant it means they have no income and so leave to find work with their elephant.
When we spoke to the owners they talked about their sadness of losing family members and how both mahout and elephant suffer greatly in the camp environment. They pride themselves on having healthy strong elephants that rarely need any medical care and understand the damage caused in a working environment. Expressing concerns over the physical and psychological well being of their elephant from the effects of poor diet and the stress cause from being chained for long periods.
They chatted in an animated way about the benefits of living in the forest, being able to walk for miles each day free to forage where they want to and having the company of other elephants. They have access to a vast forest surrounding the village that is managed carefully and we learnt about over 80 types of vegetation that the lucky few elephants in the forest have access to.
The villagers work together as a community and it is very important to them that they all benefit from any project undertaken. They have already set up a home stay and are registered to take guests into their homes. This is an incredible experience to be part of a beautiful and welcoming culture unlike any other. They are very happy to cook with guests, make traditional handicrafts and share their experiences.
Following many discussions we made the decision to help them return their elephants home from a working environment to the safety of the forest. We will be supporting three elephants for the launch of the project and are very excited to be walking two home from a camp, we will be walking for 8 days through the forest staying in remote hill tribe villages along the way. We have a team of people coming with us to experience this first trek. The elephants have been chosen by the community and are a mother and her baby. Thong Kam means gold and she is around 28 years old, her baby is called Bai Fern and is almost 4. They have been working in recent years at a facility that offers neck riding to tourists. Bai Fern was born at a camp and this will be her first adventure into the forest for her big walk home. Our third elephant is a young male he is 5 years old and has been living in the forest at the village for some time. The family needs sponsorship to keep him there and he will join Thong Kam and Bai Fern when they arrive. He is currently alone and wanders back to the village, as he has no other elephants for company. He is taken out every day to the forest and left while his mahout goes home, as he has no elephant companionship he frequently returns to the village seeking the company of humans. When he has the security of living alongside Thong Kam and Bai Fern he will remain happily in the forest.
We will be supporting the elephants and the mahouts to remain in the forest and our intention is to help them to develop a sustainable program to enable them to welcome visitors to the home stay, we will offer the opportunity through our foundation for guests to stay at the village in a home stay with a family. They will be able to trek out into the forest to meet the elephants and watch them in their natural habitat. We will be announcing all the details of this very soon.
Working with a community like this takes patience and compromise on both sides; we all come from completely different cultures and have different life experiences. We share an absolute desire to do the very best we can for the elephants but sometimes this means compromise on both sides. We will be working closely with the community to build up trust so that we can work towards a positive working relationship into the future, we will face challenges with optimism and an open heart and hope you will support us in our mission.
This is a truly ground breaking and exciting project where we all have an opportunity to benefit and learn. Walking Elephants Home is a project in its infancy; this is a chance to learn about a traditional elephant culture and for them to learn about more humane elephant management. Working together like this; hand in hand is how we make change happen.
The village own over 60 elephants and most are working in the tourist and trekking camps. It is our vision to work with them to return as many elephants as possible back to the forest where they belong, to a life free from work.
PLEASE help us in our mission to secure the future of these three elephants and also to kick start our fundraising for the next elephants we will walk home VERY soon.
Thank you for your support in our work, The Mahouts Elephant Foundation Team xx