It was back in 2008 when the Blaine family from the UK travelled to Thailand on a trip that would have life-changing consequences. Sarah and Felix together with their children, Joe and Natasha, spent time volunteering at an elephant centre. As they would discover, the issue of elephants in the tourism industry in Thailand is a complex one. And with each subsequent visit to Thailand they learned more. Spending time at trekking camps as well as bonafide sanctuaries, the Blaine family experienced the different facets of this emotive subject.
After a decade of visits to Thailand, Sarah and Felix established the Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF). The foundation is a UK registered charity dedicated to improving welfare for captive working Asian elephants and also recognises the crucial role of Karen indigenous mahouts. MEF rescues elephants caught in the tourism industry and introduces them to protected forest in projects across Thailand. The approach of MEF means that the elephants, the local community, and the forest all benefit.
When visiting Thailand please do your research and choose carefully where you spend time with elephants. Always think about what is best for the elephant rather than ticking off a bucket list desire.– Sarah Blaine
Inspiration behind Mahouts Elephant Foundation
On one trip in 2012, the Blaine’s met an old elephant called Somsri. Already in her 70s, Somsri had endured an arduous life including a period spent street begging in Hua Hin. Somsri suffered from various health problems and was dangerously underweight when the Blaine’s first met her. A new home was found for Somsri and she was able to live out her final days in dignity at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai. It was in Somsri’s memory that the Blaine family set up the Mahouts Elephant Foundation.
The work of Mahouts Elephant Foundation
The work of MEF is multi-faceted, but everything they do is aimed at improving the welfare of the elephants and mahouts (also known in Thai as kwan chang).
MEF aims to promote responsible tourism and to encourage tourists to Thailand to only visit sanctuaries or projects that share their vision for elephant welfare. The foundation works with elephant facilities and mahouts in tourist areas and beyond to develop models of responsible tourism which benefit not just the elephants, but also their handlers.
The role of the mahouts
MEF recognises how important it is to support the mahouts and the foundation has developed community driven solutions that allow mahouts and elephants to thrive together.
MEF adopts a safari-style model of elephant tourism in direct partnership with mahouts. Instead of selling their elephants or taking them to work in tourist areas, the elephant handlers are able to keep their elephants close to their home village. At the LIFE (Living In the Forest with Elephants) project in northern Thailand, MEF works with Karen hill tribe mahouts. However, the approach is designed so that it can be replicated throughout elephant rangeland in Thailand.
The photo above is the perfect example of how this approach works. Mahout Kuh Jor and the female elephant, Mokijue, have a bond that has grown stronger over more than two decades. When it became profitable in the early 2000s to sell elephants into tourism, Kuh Jor begged his father and uncles not to sell Mokijue, but instead leave her to live in the forest. Fortunately, Kuh Jor’s family agreed. Now in her forties, Mokijue roams freely in the forest with her daughters at her side while mahout Kuh Jor watches over them.
Q&A with Sarah Blaine
Anybody who cares about elephant welfare in Thailand knows it is a complex issue and brings forward passionate views. Through her own extensive first-hand experience in Thailand, Sarah is well-placed to provide insights and we asked her for her thoughts.
What is your response to people who say all Thailand’s captive elephants should be released into the wild?
When people say all of the captive elephants in Thailand should be released into the wild it raises an interesting discussion; one of the major threats to wild Asian elephants is habitat loss. Their natural habitat is being lost at an alarming rate due to development and farming. There are large national parks and protected forest in Thailand but these areas are often fragmented meaning the natural movement of elephants is disturbed leading them to come into contact with humans creating human-elephant conflict.
I feel with research and management of these remaining forested areas there could be more captive elephants allowed in these areas, possibly with mahouts becoming more like rangers to keep them safely within the habitat. Elephants need a lot of space to roam and forage for vegetation and I believe this is possible to achieve with a vision of creating more projects like ours in these large forested areas.
What would you like to see the Thai authorities do to improve the welfare of captive elephants?
I think more regulation of the industry would help. A strategy for utilising large forested areas and national parks for projects like ours, to allow elephants the opportunity to roam and forage under the guidance of mahouts. We have shown this model is a success and it is what a large number of tourists are now seeking out. This creates a good business model that creates better welfare for elephants and an ethical and stable revenue source for owners and mahouts. The forest also benefits as research clearly shows that forest health thrives with the presence of elephants which in turn protects many other species of wildlife.
What advice do you have for anybody planning to visit an elephant centre in Thailand?
When visiting Thailand please do your research and choose carefully where you spend time with elephants. Always think about what is best for the elephant rather than ticking off a bucket list desire. We believe the only way forward is to simply observe elephants from a safe and respectful distance.
And more specifically, what advice do you have for anybody planning to visit Mahouts Elephant Foundation?
When visiting our project guests leave with memories to treasure for a lifetime. Witnessing elephants living naturally in a vast forest habitat is an incredibly beautiful experience. Combined with this our guests are immersed in a unique and ancient culture while they are with the community. We advise guests to come prepared for walking in the forest up and down some steep hills and be ready to be welcomed warmly.
Visit Mahouts Elephant Foundation
A visit to any of MEF’s projects directly helps the welfare of the elephants and mahouts. If you travel to Thailand you can visit the LIFE (Living In the Forest with Elephants) project. Located in a remote village in north Thailand near the border with Myanmar, this is an area with a large forest where previously captive elephants can roam freely. The elephants are under the watchful eye of their mahouts to ensure they are safe and well with daily or weekly checks being made as required.
With little in the way of work opportunities, the villagers in this remote community previously sold their elephants to the tourist industry. But the Mahouts Elephant Foundation’s work with other Karen communities has shown that there is an alternative that benefits the villagers, the elephants, the mahouts and the forest.
In 2018, the community was awarded homestay certification after meeting the strict criteria laid down by the Tourism Authority of Thailand Homestay Standard. This enables visitors to stay in the village and this form of community-based tourism helps all involved.
Volunteering with elephants
Embark on a memorable 6-day volunteer project at the LIFE project. Learn all about the elephants and their habitat from the mahouts as you hike into the forest and observe the elephants from a safe and respectful distance. This project also has a focus on the local community so you can enjoy an immersive cultural experience. Learn about traditional fabric and bamboo basket weaving and provide hands-on help with community projects.
Immerse yourself into Karen culture as you are welcomed into a Karen hill tribe community on this 4-day adventure in the heart of the jungle. You will be hosted by a Karen family and become part of the community and learn first-hand about their traditions and way of life. Under the guidance of the local mahouts, you will be able to spend time with the elephants as you track them through the forest and learn about their habits and activities.
Other ways to support Mahouts Elephant Foundation
Each elephant supported by Mahouts Elephant Foundation has their own personality and own story. You can support MEF by sponsoring an elephant or making a donation. For more details on Mahouts Elephant Foundation and to arrange a visit or support them, visit their website and follow their Facebook page:
All photos used in this article are from the Mahouts Elephant Foundation Facebook page
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