The past few weeks have without doubt been the most wonderful, inspiring, educational and emotional time we have ever had. We are all exhausted but thrilled to have completed the first phase of our new project; Walking Elephants Home, this new initiative came about last summer. Through our foundation we have always strived to work WITH others, we have forged relationships with other organizations and importantly with mahouts and their families. We had a deep desire to take this a step further and work with a community who has had elephants at the very heart of their every day life. This in turn led us to a beautiful Karen village high in the hills of northern Thailand. The community here was formed over 300 years ago by three families who brought their elephants to settle here, today the village has many families and between them they own over 60 elephants. Since the logging ban in the late 1980’s the village has turned towards employment in the trekking camps around Chiang Mai, finding the funds to keep one elephant in the home village is hard enough without contemplating how to sustain over 60.
With the help of other organizations the village community have successfully set up an elephant conservation project and also a home stay project. We have spent the past year having MANY meetings with village elders and committee members, it is VITAL that we work to build up strong bonds and relationships which will last into the future, through mutual respect, care and understanding we will reach our common goals of protecting vast areas of forest and returning elephants back to live in their natural habitat.
So how will our project work?
We have very successfully walked two elephants back from a working life in Chiang Mai to join a young bull in the forest.
This has been a VERY successful first phase, the walk was INCREDIBLY hard, we had a fairly large team and walked over 130 km in 8 days reaching heights of 6000 feet. The terrain varied from deep forest to hot roads. We had to cross rivers, smash down undergrowth and climb over fallen trees. We set off one morning at 4am and were still walking at 4pm. We walked in the dark at both ends of the day following elephant bottoms with head torches on!! We saw the sunrise and set and still we continued walking!! Nothing would stop us from completing our mission. As we walked each day the mahouts told us how strong we were, there was definitely doubt that we would all complete this incredibly tough adventure!!
Many of the team suffered painful muscles, jungle rashes, blisters and bites and Felix set up a mobile surgery wherever we were in the evening and treated everyone with great care.
The next phase is to welcome visitors to the village, we want our guests to immerse themselves in Karen culture, to stay with a host family and cook with them after a trip out to forage for vegetables, have dinner with them and exchange ideas and learn from each others culture. Learn the skills of the villagers such as weaving and basket making and of course to trek out and see the elephants living in the forest. This model will be centered on community-based tourism and our partners in Thailand are a wealth of knowledge and experts in this field. We will be announcing details of this VERY soon.
We had a couple of rest days in the village after the walk and this gave our group time to spend with the community, they had great fun interacting with everyone and had the chance to practice weaving and basket making skills. They all went out foraging with their host family for vegetables and then cooked and ate a meal together.
We left early in the morning to meet the elephants in the forest and had a magical 2 days camping out with the mahouts and a few villagers. We were all exhausted and the thought of the long trek was slightly daunting but we were all desperate to find the three elephants. We set up camp, everyone busy stringing hammocks and putting up tents then went in search of the elephants. We found them foraging happily the bond between Mario and Bai Fern was gaining strength and Thong Kam has asserted herself to take care of the younger members of her group, she comfortably tore down HUGE bamboo trees to provide them with food. We watched them forage for a while then wandered down to the river to join them. They played and splashed in the river for a while then the MOST magical thing happened. When Thong Kam decided the time was right she gently led her charges out of the river and into the forest the other side, SHE made this decision and was aware no one was following them. We soon realized as we headed back to camp for the night that the mahouts were with us, these three elephants were alone together ready to spend a night under the stars in the forest.
After lots of fun and laughter we all slept soundly and woke the next morning to the deafening sound of gibbons hooting all around us, this forest is rich in bird and wildlife. We headed out once more to find the elephants and bid them farewell catching one last look at three bottoms disappearing into the dense foliage was again an unforgettable moment.
The elephants themselves will now be living deep in the heart of the beautiful forest that surrounds the village. The Karen people are great caretakers of this forest and understand the need to protect it particularly with all the pressures of a modern world. They have spoken to us at length about their absolute desire to return their elephants to the forest, They simply want these elephants to live as freely as possible understanding the devastating effects life working in the camps has not only on the elephants but also on their families as they become separated. Mahouts living and working hours away from the village may only get to see their families once or twice a year and this of course has a huge impact particularly if the mahout has young children. They talk passionately about the variety of HUNDREDS of different plants the elephants should be eating whilst foraging through the forest and of the herbs they naturally select and eat to keep their digestive systems healthy.
Outside of a perfect sanctuary environment we cannot imagine a better way of living for any captive elephant in Asia. What this project offers is the opportunity for these elephants to roam wherever THEY choose to go, having observed captive elephants for many years in camps this is of great importance as working elephants will have decision making taken away from them, almost every move is dictated by the need to work and exist in the confinement of the camp.
You will currently see one ankle chain on Thong Kam and Mario, the chain is not at all tight around the ankle and is known as a drag chain. The important thing to remember about this chain is that it is NOT attached to anything for most of the time! Having watched the elephants move through the forest this chain does NOT bother them at all, it does not impede movement and still leaves them free to wander at will. Thong Kam is now the leader of this group and SHE decides where they wander and forage. She has taken on her role with pride and we watched as she gracefully crashed down huge bamboo trees for her charges to eat!
Why do they need the drag chain?
We will be heading this project in an open and honest manner and want to explain everything clearly as we grow and develop. The drag chain actually offers these elephants a unique opportunity to live a life of free foraging rarely seen in captive elephants. It is important to remember they are still “captive” elephants and we do not have the luxury of setting them free to become completely “wild” elephants. We do hope to use the term “semi wild” as we progress with the project. The aim is to keep these elephants in the deepest part of the forest as far away from farmers crops and humans as possible, this will mean our guests will have a LONG trek out to see them but we feel this is in their best interest.
The mahouts will trek out every day to check on the elephants occasionally leaving them for a couple of days if they are happy. They will be tracking the elephants by following dung and footprints so will not know where the elephants are so this makes it impossible to leave a chain on a tree and the chains are heavy for a mahout to carry in this type of terrain. The chain is currently necessary to keep the elephants safe in this forest, if they do wander onto a farmers field the farmer knows the elephant is captive and has something to grab hold of to secure the elephant while he contacts the mahout, this will prevent the elephants being shot at. There may be times when the elephants need to be chained at night if they are close to crops and the mahout will judge this day by day, this would be on a 20 meter long length of chain secured to a tree just for the night ensuring the elephant still had space to forage in the forest. During the seasons of low crop growing it may be possible to remove the long ankle chain and we will always work to maintain the best possible welfare for these elephants whilst carefully working safely with the mahouts.
We are so VERY PROUD to be working with this community returning their elephants to live in such a HUGE area of forest is completely mind blowing! These three lucky elephants currently have access to a VAST area of conservation forest with many high hills up to 1600 meters and lush river valleys, it is hard to measure accurately in distance but it stretches way beyond how far the eye can see and when Thong Kam disappears with Bai Fern and Mario following it is so dense its hard to follow them!
We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who accompanied us on the walk HOME. Jack, Emily, Barney, Teresa, Tom, Maddy, Lisa, Mimi, Becca, Phil and Sunny thank you for your support in raising VITAL funds and for keeping us smiling and laughing all the way ☺ and to Nop for just being amazing in every way!!
To Poo and his team for keeping us in good spirits and fed a watered with the MOST magnificent meals.
Special thanks go to Felix for being such a dedicated Doctor, Katherine, Anon and Becca for your company and never ending faith in us and our ability to do this. To Peter for your company and simply stunning photographs. To the village community for accepting and trusting us to do the best we can for your elephants.
To Joe and Natasha for putting up with crazy parents! For being SO strong, beautiful and able to walk for so many hours ☺
And finally to Thong Kam, Bai Fern and Mario for just being beautiful and wise, you have given us memories that will last a lifetime. It is such a simple thing to walk out of a river and into YOUR forest when YOU choose to do so; but for those watching it will be one of the greatest moments of our lives. We will always be watching and protecting you and we WILL be bringing others to join you but for now LIVE as freely as possible and enjoy every minute of the wonderful forest that is your birth right.
Thank you so much for your support in our work.
We NEED your SUPPORT to grow this project and support elephants back in the forest, PLEASE keep donating and sharing the link to our Just Giving Page;
Thank you SO much for your continued support xx