The issue of elephants in tourism is an emotive and complex subject. And nobody knows that better than the people in Thailand who are devoting their lives to improving elephant welfare. People like Kerri McCrea and Sombat Wirakhwamdee, founders of Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai. In 2020, the dedication of Kerri, Khun Sombat and the staff at Kindred Spirit was recognised at the Responsible Thailand awards. The Chiang Mai elephant sanctuary was commended for their approach to elephant welfare and their commitment to the local community.
Bringing elephants home to the forest
Opened in 2016, Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) is actively bringing elephants back to their natural habitat while also raising awareness about the captive elephant situation. To achieve this, KSES works closely with the local community, elephant owners, and research partners. Kindred Spirit wants their elephants to live their lives as naturally as possible with as little human influence as possible and do not promote elephant rides or any form of elephant performance.
Kerri and Sombat
Co-founder and manager of Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, Kerri McCrea grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland. Surrounded by animals from a young age, Kerri always wanted to work with animals and went on to complete her zoology degree at Queen’s University Belfast. Kerri moved to Thailand in 2013 and spent time with various elephant projects, including one in Mae Chaem district where she met Sombat.
Sombat Wirakhwamdee is co-founder and head mahout at KSES. The Thai man is from the Karen tribe and his family have a long tradition of working with, and caring for, elephants. After leaving school, Sombat worked at a number of elephant camps in North Thailand, before returning to his home in Mae Chaem to work on a project where elephants were returned to their natural habitat. It was here where Sombat met Kerri. Drawing inspiration from how content the elephants were in the forest, together they created Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary.
Meet the elephants
The resident elephants at KSES belong to Sombat’s family and have been a part of his family for generations. The sanctuary pays a monthly salary to Sombat’s family to rent the elephants. This is an innovative approach and a better alternative to buying elephants. The main issue with buying elephants is that it can perpetuate the illegal trade in buying animals poached from the wild.
The forest at KSES is a sanctuary where the elephants can roam and live with little human interference or conflict with villagers. While this is not possible for every captive elephant in Thailand, Kindred Spirit works hand-in-hand with their community and other organisations to try and improve the situation for other captive elephants.
Meet the mahouts
Working as a mahout in Thailand is often a misunderstood and maligned profession. While it’s understandable that most of the focus from tourists is on the elephants, the role of the mahout should never be forgotten. And this too is a complex issue.
Sombat’s family have a long and proud tradition of working as mahouts. Their genuine connection with the elephants was the inspiration for the sanctuary being named ‘Kindred Spirit’. The mahouts are the people who know the elephants best. They work every day with the elephants, so the welfare of the mahouts is just as important as the elephants.
Meet the local community
The community-based tourism approach that Kindred Spirit has adopted means that when locals benefit, the elephants do too. Kindred Spirit actively gives back to the community by providing an income for villagers, creating homestays for visiting volunteers to stay, renting land, and creating jobs. Staff and volunteers at the sanctuary teach English at the local school and free English lessons are also provided to the homestay owners and the mahouts. This inclusive approach is a shining example of responsible tourism in action.
What is responsible tourism?
Responsible tourism has been defined as, “making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit”. This also means ensuring that the rights and needs of all those who support your holiday are respected. People who live and work in a tourist destination should benefit as well. The broad concept of responsible tourism can also include what is sometimes described as ecotourism, and sustainable tourism. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), defines ecotourism as, “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”.
Q&A with Kerri
Elephant tourism is an emotive and complicated subject. In this question and answer interview, we asked Kerri for her advice and what to look for before visiting any elephant centre in Thailand.
What is your response to people who say all Thailand’s captive elephants should be released into the wild?
This is a comment we hear quite often, and I agree completely that all elephants should be released into the wild. Unfortunately, it’s not a case of “should they be released”, rather it’s a case of “can they be released?”. The answer is not an easy one. There are currently around 3,000 wild elephants in Thailand, and over 4,000 captive elephants. Due to habitat destruction and deforestation, the wild elephant population has a lot of conflict with the local communities who share the same area. This human-elephant conflict causes a lot of destruction and frustration on both sides, and can also lead to fatalities. There is clearly not enough natural habitat left in Thailand for the already wild population, so how can we release an even larger captive population? Where would they go and how could they, and the local communities, be kept safe? The elephant situation in Thailand is a very complex one, there’s just not enough forest left for their release to be feasible right now. What is more feasible is working together with the local people and communities to provide alternatives that benefit all. This is part of our mission at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary.
What advice do you have for anybody planning to visit an elephant centre in Thailand?
Knowing which places are the right ones to visit is always a tough one. Many projects have a good marketing team who know what words to use to bring in tourists, but the reality might be very different from the marketing. One thing I would recommend is getting in touch with someone or an organisation who is reputable, knows this industry, who can be honest with you and give correct advice. I receive emails from potential tourists from time to time, simply seeking advice about where to go. Even if they cannot make the journey to us at KSES, I am always happy to help guide people in the right direction towards the elephant projects that are high welfare, or are on the right track. Aside from this, doing your research and asking the right questions will also help you gauge any red or green flags. Questions such as:
- How do the elephant’s receive veterinary care?
- Do the elephants have access to forests? If so, how much time do they get to spend in the forest? If not, what enrichment is provided for the elephants?
- Are the elephants working (this includes mud bath/bathing/riding)? If so, how many hours do the elephants work?
- What do the elephants do when there are no tourists around?
- How are the mahouts taken care of? What benefits do they receive?
- The mahouts are the people working day in and day out with the elephants on the ground, so their welfare is just as important as the elephants.
And more specifically, what advice do you have for anybody planning to visit Kindred Spirit in the future?
Here at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, we work very closely together with our local Karen community. From our homestay program, to our workshops and English lessons, our guests always have the most fun and make the most of their time, when they come in with an open mind, are culturally aware of their surroundings and are happy to learn more about elephants and the people who live and work with them. As we are off the beaten track, we are only currently able to offer overnight stays at our site, not day trips. This means you not only get to have an unforgettable time seeing the elephants in their natural environment, but you also get the cultural immersion of getting to know your homestay, their language and the village. Our elephants also have a huge area to roam in, so we have to hike up and down mountains to be able to find them. Our hikes change each day depending on where the elephants choose to roam, so make sure to bring your walking shoes! We are currently closed to guests due to the ongoing pandemic, but we hope to be able to open our doors in the not too distant future, so be sure to check us out for your next trip!
Published September, 2021
All images and video © Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary
A massive thank you to Kerri and Khun Sombat for their time and help in putting this article together. And congratulations to them and all the team at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary for their Responsible Thailand award.
Elephant centres across Thailand have been left reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 situation. The same is true for Kindred Spirit who are helping to support dozens of other elephants in the area. If you’d like to know more about Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary and the work they do, check out their website and give KSES a follow on Facebook and Instagram where you can enjoy lots of heart-warming photos and videos of elephants being elephants. And until you get back to Thailand and visit them in person, for another way of helping out Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, visit their fundraising page and Etsy online shop.
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