Mahouts Foundation are a UK registered charity dedicated to improving welfare for captive Asian elephants, working in the tourism industry throughout Asia, with a particular focus on Thailand.
We are founded by the Blaine family from Worcestershire, England - Sarah, Felix, Joe and Natasha - who are impassioned about the natural world and all animals. In 2008 we travelled to Thailand and part of this trip was spent at a volunteer project for working Elephants, which was to be an experience that would change our lives forever.
We learned so much about Elephants working in the tourism industry in Thailand. The elephant tourism industry forces mahouts and their families into a desperate poverty trap that few can escape, meaning the families are very poor and the welfare of the elephant is therefore compromised.
In December 2012 we crossed paths with Somsri, a beautiful and very wise Elephant. She was in her seventies and had led a very difficult life. Her owners at the time had only had her for a matter of months and she had spent many weeks during this time at the Elephant clinic in Surin.
Before this, Somsri had been a street-begging Elephant in Hua Hin. When we met her she was dangerously thin and exhausted, along with suffering from many other problems. Her tough life had more than caught up with her and we knew that we had to help.
Following an email to Katherine Connor at Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary, it was agreed that funds should be raised for her to live out her days in dignity and peace at BLES. She sadly only survived for a month but spent that time wrapped in the loving arms of the sanctuary.
In her memory we founded Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF), determined to help the thousands of captive elephants still working every day in a relentless tourism industry.
MEF was created to address the growing needs of elephants and mahouts in the tourism industry; the poor treatment of mahouts and elephants in trekking camps is well documented, however few realistic alternative livelihoods for mahouts and their elephants exist. MEF answers this need with the Walking With Elephants safari-style model of elephant tourism, which we are designing and rolling out in a partnership with a rural village in Northern Thailand.
We work with a unique model of direct partnership with mahouts, empowering them with the tools they require to support their families and their elephants back in their home village, rather than buying their elephants or employing them to work near the big cities. Our pilot project works with the Karen hill tribe mahouts in northern Thailand, however our model is designed for replication throughout elephant rangeland. The need for models like ours is dire to prevent further harm to elephants and help exploited mahouts escape the poverty caused by the tourism industry.
Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving and protecting the lives of Asian elephants. Our mission is to work toward a shift in attitude within tourism that facilitates the return of captive, working elephants to a protected forest habitat. MEF works on the ground to develop sustainable, welfare-focused tourist experiences in order to support the needs and livelihoods of the mahouts (traditional elephant keepers), their families, and the local communities, in conjunction with the needs of the elephants.
Why We Are Needed
After logging was banned in Thailand in 1989 around 2,000 mahouts found themselves out of work overnight, unable to generate the income required to take care of their elephants. The rise of commercial elephant tourism quickly followed and, with no regulations in place, the industry grew quickly and remained unchecked, with wealthy elephant camp owners profiting from exploiting elephants and mahouts.
The pressure from the tourism industry in Thailand, for increased numbers of Asian elephants, represents one of the key threats to wild populations of the animals and their habitats. The current model of elephant tourism in Thailand involves entertainment and service to tourists (e.g. circus-style tourism) which has led to elephants being traded illegally and being forced to exist in intensive, low quality, captive environments.
The conditions of the tourist camps throughout Thailand vary but most elephants spend many hours chained up, receiving a poor, limited diet. They have no regular access to bathing and often develop foot lesions. Captive elephants receive little to no veterinary care. Additionally, some camps force elephants to perform tricks for tourists, which involves the practice of condemned training methods.
With the loss of free-ranging, wild elephants, their habitat is left open to further exploitation. Unsuspecting tourists are not educated in the impact of this type of tourism and are, in fact, led to the misconception that they are helping to protect elephants. Despite the natural awe that is found in direct interactions with these captive elephants, the typical ecotourist is, in reality, paying for an inauthentic experience and supporting deleterious practices.
Walking With Elephants
MEF’s pilot project provides alternative sources of income for mahouts trapped within the elephant camp tourism industry. A key aim of this project is to protect elephants and restore them to conserved habitat. In order to transition 60+ elephants into native rangeland, MEF is working with local Karen hill mahouts in Huay Pakkoot, Thailand. This project will create a competing model for ecotourism that supports an autonomous life for elephants and habitat conservation. It will also provide a dedicated income source for Karen hill tribe mahouts and their families, without compromising the welfare of elephants.
This is a pilot project, meant to develop this new model of tourism so that it can be expanded and replicated in other Asian elephant range countries. Myanmar has the greatest number of captive Asian elephants and currently the same process of commercial elephant tourism is developing there. Implementing alternative models in Myanmar is vital before Thailand’s destructive elephant tourism is replicated within this beautiful country.
MEF has facilitated the return of 3 previously captive elephants to an 8,000 acre forest, protected by the Huay Pakkoot community, and fostered a relationship with mahouts from the village who were working in the tourism industry at various trekking camps. Through this relationship, MEF developed a plan that would enable the mahouts to return to their home village and their elephants to return to the protected forest around the village. MEF has helped to facilitate the natural birth of Sunti; he was born in the forest to a previously captive mother. Sunti represents the first generation of elephants that will permanently reside in their natural habitat.
BBC documentary of our walk HOME in August 2015 which was filmed for CBBC's My Life series; Our Big Elephant Rescue.
International Awareness and Education
MEF works internationally with tour companies and other NGO's to raise awareness to the plight of captive working elephants. Co-founder and CEO Sarah Blaine works in the UK with ABTA, and many other tour companies are also being invited to speak internationally at conferences. This helps further the mission to create a more welfare-focused future for elephants that is also sustainable in the long term for their mahouts and the communities that surround them.
Organisations and Partnerships
We have a research partnership with the UTS Centre for Compassionate Conservation.
Our team is growing and, with a family focused ethos, we are a group of determined, passionate, hard working individuals dedicated to improving the welfare of captive Asian elephants.
Thank you for your kind support xx