Sarah Blaine’s life changed after a visit to Thailand volunteering at an elephant project. Recognizing the obstacles the animals, mahout handlers and local families face, she set up Mahouts Elephant Foundation whose aim is to support responsible tourism in the country. Here she shares her story and details of her latest project: walking with elephants.
From a young age I had been fascinated by elephants, reading books about them and always wanting to see one for myself. I passed on this love to my family and in 2008 we planned a long holiday to Thailand to see them at a volunteer elephant project. The one we visited was in an elephant trekking camp with a traditional working environment for captive working Asian elephants, their mahouts and families.
We immersed ourselves in life here and quickly learnt how incredibly hard their lives really were. Mahouts on very poor salaries living in shacks having no option but to work their elephants to exhaustion to serve the needs of tourists. The elephants were so far removed from anything resembling how life in a natural environment would be.
As we learnt more we asked ourselves many questions and failed to come up with the answers; “Why was this happening” and “Who was helping these elephants and mahouts?”
Following the rescue of a remarkable elephant called Somsri who lived out her remaining days at Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary we created our charity Mahouts Elephant Foundation and our lives were changed forever in dedication to the thousands of captive working elephants.
We have spent a considerable amount of time in tourist elephant camps and also sanctuaries researching and documenting the current situation. We have produced educational documents and frequently give talks anywhere from schools to conferences. We have been successful with our gentle approach in collaborating with tour companies and working towards a more welfare-focused future for elephants working in the tourist industry.
Three years ago we ventured into the hills of Thailand to a remote Karen hill tribe community. The Karen has had elephants within their culture for hundreds of years and we wanted to learn how they felt about elephants in tourism. Between the households they own over 80 elephants and most are working in the nearby city of Chiang Mai serving the needs of tourists.
The village is nestled in the most beautiful area of high hills and lush green forest extending to around 8,000 acres, it is perfect elephant habitat. The community spoke at length about their sadness at having to send their elephants to the city for work, they are simply left with no alternative as they have to make a living and there are no alternative options for them. They express great sadness at the life the elephants endure; living in confined spaces and in close proximity to elephants they don’t know. This generally means the elephants are kept on short chains when they’re not working to prevent the possibility of them fighting.
The biggest concern is the poor diet; in the forest elephants forage and eat hundreds of different plants, trees and roots. They seek out plants that help them with stomach upsets and also find different soil types full of minerals. None of this is available in the tourist camps and they are typically provided with one type of food only, which is a very unhealthy diet. When elephants are free roaming they rarely stand still for long and can cover many miles in one day, standing for long period’s causes joint and foot problems, which can be fatal.
We have always focused on the human side of elephant tourism too and sending an elephant to work in the city also means a mahout leaving their home village.
In August 2015 and in collaboration with the comunity we launched our Walking Elephants HOME project and walked our first elephants back to live forever in this beautiful forest. We walked with them for 8 days through jungle; crossing streams and rivers and camping out every night on the way. The elephants walked out to the deep forest on World Elephant Day and are now thriving. In November our matriarch gave birth to Sunti; meaning peace in Thai, he is now 8 months old and has never known a world outside of his elephant family in the forest. Our four elephants are living a wonderful life and it is our great pleasure to now welcome tourists to visit our very unique project; Walking With Elephants.
Guests are welcomed into the Karen community and can spend time in a traditional homestay. We then take you out into the forest walking for a couple of hours with our mahouts and professional guides to find the elephants. We recommend camping in the forest as this means more time with the herd and it’s a wonderful experience being in such a diverse area full of wildlife, waking to the sound of wild gibbons in the morning is magical. We provide high-quality tents and hammocks and have a shelter for the rainy season.
Watching the elephants living in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, we follow them as they wander through the forest, they decide where they go and we respect their need for space and distance from humans. Photographing a family group behaving naturally like this is a unique experience and an opportunity that most travellers to Asia sadly miss out on.
We believe that this is the safest and most respectful way to visit elephants and watching our guest’s faces and reading their reviews we know they feel the same.
Many thanks to Sarah for sharing her story. Keep up-to-date with the latest news from the Mahouts Elephant Foundation on their Facebook and Instagram channels. If you’d like to find out a little more about the walking with elephants experience near Chiang Mai, have a look here.