WELCOME to LIFE - Living In the Forest with Elephants;
I receive lots of emails and messages every day from all over the world. One day I received a message that would change the work of the foundation dramatically; it would also change the lives of many elephants and an entire community and quite possibly change the course of elephant tourism.
The young man who sent the message is one of the most compassionate and gifted people I have met and the love he expresses in the desire to help his community and their elephants will stay with me forever. He watched for many years at the catastrophe that was slowly unfolding in his small rural village, he had left as a boy coming from a family who had very little, battling severe illness at times he pushed himself through education becoming head boy at school and going on to gain a degree.
He explained that he understood the power of books and education could help him change things in the world. During the last two years the situation was becoming urgent, more and more captive elephants were leaving the forest surrounding the village to work in the now booming tourist industry in the city. The young man knew he had to help and started researching in earnest, we are incredibly proud and deeply humbled that he approached us to help this community in dire need. He knew we had the skills and gentleness to work with this shy Karen community to help them and their elephants.
I visited the community in May 2017 followed by the whole team in August. What we discovered was beyond exciting for the future of ethical and sustainable elephant tourism but it was also a story with great sadness and loss. The village is small with only around twenty households and it shares a stunning forest with 6 other villages. The forest is quite simply remarkable; covering 92,000 acres, 88% of which is classed as Grade One with 12% partly degraded. The captive elephants have a life that we could only dream possible, they roam freely through the forests being checked on by their mahouts once a week or daily if they feel the need.
They have very limited contact with humans, only being visited by their mahouts. I was informed I was the first foreigner they had ever seen or heard and the first beautiful female I met stood behind the trees motionless for an hour with her ears stretched out listening to our conversation, she had never heard a voice like mine before but maybe she wanted to hear all the plans we were busy making! There are currently just ten elephants remaining in the forest, one being a 7 month old calf. They are mostly females and are often seen with very special visitors; WILD bulls. The forest is diverse and full of wildlife; it is home to not only captive and wild elephants but a wide range of species of both plant and animals depending on this important habitat for survival.
The situation here is now critical and we have no time to waste. The community has no real income and in a modern world this becomes a challenge as young people are pulled towards the cities to find work. The lure of the trekking camps are forcing mahouts to rent their elephants into tourism or worse selling them and this has to stop. I had heard about a young female elephant and her first four month old calf who I had been looking forward to meeting, her mahout not really understanding why I was visiting left the day before I arrived to take her to the city to work. She has never left the forest before and is now in a camp with a four month old calf surrounded by tourists; I can only imagine her anguish and my heartbreaks when I think about her. She became pregnant from a long relationship with a wild bull, and this is a true relationship as they walked in the forest together for several months during mating. We are determined to return her to her forest home but first we have to secure the future of the remaining elephants to ensure they do not leave.
We are launching our new project NOW and have agreed to support the remaining elephants. Their mahouts and the whole community are as desperate as we are that they never have to leave. Our initial focus will be to support three beautiful elephants in need of our help; a mother, her young calf and her niece will be with us at the very start of what we plan to be a groundbreaking project. Mokijue is the beautiful elephant I met in May 2017, she is 34 years old and has always lived in this vast forest, her owner Kuh Jor is an insightful man full of wisdom and he has always resisted the pull of tourism having a deep understanding that the forest is where the elephants should live. She had a 3-month relationship with a wild bull who roams the forest; Kuh Jor had no alternative than to watch through binoculars as she walked every day with the bull. Eventually he roamed off to deeper parts of the forest and she returned home to the area of forest she knows well. Mokimae is the result of this long relationship and is now a thriving and healthy 8-month-old female calf. With our support they will be safe and will live in the vast forests together.
The third elephant is a ten-year-old female called Mobuba, which translates to Blessing. She is the niece of Mokijue and sadly her mother was sold over 6 years ago, the people in the community are incredibly poor and are struggling to survive they are frequently visited by businessmen asking to buy their healthy and strong elephants, without any other viable options they have in the past been left with very few choices.
This is NOT what they want and through working TOGETHER we can create a sustainable solution where elephants can thrive in these forests and no longer have to leave for a life in tourism. Karen communities tend to have very literal meanings for names and these two elephants are no different. Mokiju translates to “funny leg” as she was born with a slight leg deformity, her daughter Mokimae translates to “funny tail” as she has a slight kink in her tail.
There is another female elephant living with Mokiju, Mokimae and Mobuba, she was in another part of the forest and we encouraged the community to have the four elephants living together, this is working well and we are hopeful the owners will in time allow her to join our project. The concept of the project and the work we do is very new to this remote region and the owners and mahouts want to watch how we work for a while to fully understand the concept. The only elephant tourism they know is sending elephants to the cities to work in tourist camps. We are now providing them with an alternative, sustainable model but they need our patience and time to gain a full understanding. We were invited to work with this community because we have a track record of working gently and fairly, this has been recognized and we will gain their trust over time. The region has huge potential for our model to spread as there are many villages now talking about similar projects for their elephants and asking questions about how to join in the future. It is easy to point a finger and criticize communities like this for selling or renting their elephants but this is the reason we are needed, through working gently TOGETHER we can make the necessary changes that need to happen to protect and save the elephants, the forest they desperately need and the communities that care for them.
As soon as we have the project in a strong position we will then be able to return those that have left to their forest home to work in the camps, it is estimated at around 20 elephants rented to camps in the city for tourism. It is an absolute travesty that these elephants leave in the first place but the belief that there is no forest left for captive elephants and therefore they have to be in the city only fuels the lack of support for these communities. We will be inviting tourists to come and experience this unique culture, forest and elephants VERY soon, we are in the process of building beautiful lodges for our guests and have some VERY special programs designed for you.
The project is unique because we are drawing on wisdom from the past where long before tourism elephants roamed freely in the vast forests of northern Thailand. We want tourists to gain a full understanding of this culture and history so they will drive change and make informed decisions on how they observe elephants. This project will protect a community and their elephants, a vast range of vital forest and all the wildlife depending on that.
Quite simply if we let these elephants leave the forest is as good as finished, the corn companies will move in and it will be destroyed, we are NOT going to let that happen. We URGENTLY need your help, there is a HUGE amount to set up to get a project like this off the ground and we CANNOT do this next phase without YOUR support; We are deeply grateful to have received funding from World Animal Protection; they have agreed to support up to four elephants joining the project in the first year, the whole team is very excited to have the support of an organization who share our passion in creating sustainable solutions that provide a dedicated income source for Karen mahouts and their communities without compromising the welfare of the elephants.
Some of the costs ahead of us;
Set Up Costs
Ground Staff Salaries
Building Lodges and furnishing for Tourists
Home Stay Training and Registration
Marketing for Tourism
Funds to enable more elephants to join the project
Our Just Giving Page is up and running so PLEASE follow the link and help us with a donation;
The project name is always fun to conceive and this one was a team effort; we have decided on; LIFE; Living In the Forest with Elephants We represent all LIFE that surrounds the elephants we strive to protect, the people, the forest and all the wildlife dependent on this habitat.
And what became of the young man? ............. He is right here at our side wanting to remain in the background for now but he will be a voice very soon for all the mahouts that have gone before him and all the elephants that live in his heart, whose lives he intends to change forever with a passion as deep as our own.