Mahouts Elephant Foundation – Thailand.

I recently took a trip to Thailand, the first time I’ve been back since my backpacking venture many, many years ago.  This time, I had very different things on my mind and very different intentions 😉……..

The purpose of the visit was to spend time with Sarah Blaine, Founder of The Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF) that she and her wonderfully inspiring family set up in 2015.  After Sarah, her husband Felix and their two young children Joe & Natasha witnessed the horrors behind the elephant riding business in Thailand, they decided to try and do something about it.

The horrors…

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MEF Model

Their idea was based on establishing an alternative business model for Mahouts (elephant owners) whose income is traditionally based on rental paid by riding camps for the use of their elephants.

They started by rescuing two elephants from a riding camp in Chiang Mai after agreeing to compensate the Mahouts for their loss of income whilst they set about creating a new tourism model based on walking with, and observing elephants, in their natural habitat – as opposed to riding them.

A life changing moment for the Blaine’s was when they and a group of close friends personally walked with their first two rescued elephants, and their mahouts, from Chiang Mai to the elephants’ area of origin in the Northern Thai Highlands. A gruelling 7 day, 83 mile journey with all sorts of unexpected challenges en route. Their final destination was where Walking With Elephants (WWF) was established – the first MEF project.  The BBC covered this amazing story which was brilliantly told by Sarah’s young children Joe & Natasha and it was aired on CBBC.  A link to this inspiring 30min film can be found at the end of this blog. It is really worth a watch!

To date, MEF has rescued 7 elephants from the tourism business in Thailand, all of whom are now living a much improved life in the forests and are being given the respect and care they deserve. The mahouts are also happy as they have experienced no loss of income and are pleased to be living side by side with their elephants once again. I am also pleased to tell you that we have recently heard that MEF currently have a few more rescues in the pipeline – we will be sure to keep you posted on their progress via our social media links.

My time with the MEF team and their elephants

I was fortunate enough to be given a personal tour of the MEF projects by Sarah Blaine and her wonderful team on the ground. This included long and fairly exhausting treks deep into the mountainous forests, but all of the hardships were forgotten when we eventually found, observed and walked with the rescued elephants.  It was wonderful to see them happy, and just being elephants.  They are so intelligent, and unlike me, are incredibly fast and graceful considering their size – it was hard keeping up!  They are also unbelievably good climbers!

 

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Elephant Riding – The History

There are well over 100 elephant riding camps in Thailand and its a big business. Elephants are not designed to have large chairs put on their backs and they DO NOT like giving tourists rides whatever you might hear. This cruel practise of capturing, training and commercialising elephants for riding, was born in the late 80’s when logging was banned by the Thai government. For generations elephants have been used in the logging industry to move the fallen trees onto trucks bound for the international market place. Teak is what was mainly being logged until one day there were no teak trees left (surprising that isn’t it?….NOT !) so the government banned it, leaving thousands of Thai families and their elephants with no employment.

Coincidently it was at this stage that tourism started to boom in Thailand so the elephant owners started to offer tourists elephant rides for money. Today it’s a massive industry worth millions of dollars.

The Truth…

On the surface, elephants in riding camps seem ok but if you look closely you will see the physical and mental scarring…. A day in the life of an average riding elephant goes like this:

  1. Tied to a tree all night using a short chain and sometimes with no access to food or water, or social interaction with other elephants. The chains often break the skin around the elephants ankles causing them to bleed.
  2. In the day they are literally on standby waiting for tourists to arrive for rides. They often wait all day in the hot sun with no shade, and sometimes no tourists come so they stay chained all day. When its busy, they are ridden by tourists all day which is exhausting, and when the day ends, it’s back to being chained.
  3. If you look carefully, you will see that almost all of these elephants are showing signs of stress. They will often rock their heads from side to side, which is a sign of stress and boredom. Many animals in captivity display this abnormal stereotypical behaviour, eg. zoo and circus animals, and it is considered an indication of very poor psychological well-being. This behaviour is not seen in wild animals.

The Future

We are proud to be supporting this wonderful project and we wish them every success in the future. For further information on their mission and indeed their tourism offering should you fancy an adventure, please visit their website http://www.mahouts.co.uk/

Here is the Blaine’s story I mentioned earlier – it will warm your heart…🥰

 

Sarajevo Street Dogs


sarajevo
Photographs: Maria Slough Photography

I recently travelled to Sarajevo to visit an OAT supported project called Saving Suffering Strays (SSS). The project was introduced to us by two amazing animal warriors here in the UK, photographer Maria Slough and actor Peter Egan. They approached us a while back with a view to OAT investing in the project.  They are both big supporters of SSS and have been for some time. I travelled with Maria to Sarajevo and she introduced me to the SSS team on the ground, as well as some of the wonderful rescue dogs.

The person who runs the project is Milena Malesevic who has dedicated her life to rescuing and rehoming street dogs since 1998. She is supported by a wonderful team of dedicated volunteers based in Bosnia, the UK and Europe.

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Milena and me

Maria

SSS currently operate from 3 locations, Milena’s home where critically injured or ill dogs are nursed back to health by Milena personally, a dog shelter run by a wonderful couple Melissa & Mersad who take care of healthy dogs whilst SSS search for new homes, and a facility outside of the city which comprises of a large piece of land with kennels which is a forever home to dogs who are not able to be re-homed. Milena's Flat

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mersad and melissas kennels

happy bus

Kill Shelters

The dogs being cared for by SSS, is a relatively happy story. However, on the flip side, one of the saddest parts of my trip was visiting what was previously a “kill shelter”. In many eastern European countries, dogs are gathered from the streets and placed in shelters and then, as and when the numbers become too big, they are killed in the most inhumane ways. Officially, this government facility is no longer a kill shelter but it was still incredibly depressing seeing the dogs here……😢

Kkill shelters

The future for SSS

Maria, Peter and Milena are currently looking to consolidate the SSS operation. This will involve consolidating the lifetime care and intensive care facilities into one location.  Milena will then live and work from this location which will make life a lot easier from a logistical and management perspective, and will significantly improve the living conditions for the dogs in her direct care.  If you would like to help them to achieve this proposed development, please take a look at their “buy a brick” campaign.

If you would like to ‘Buy a Brick’ then please click here

In the meantime, and in order to quickly and efficiently help with capacity issues to relieve the pressure on Milena and her wonderful team, OAT committed to relocating 100 of Milena’s rescues from Sarajevo to Just for Dogs in Derby in the UK for rehoming. You may recall our OAT 100 campaign last Christmas.  It has been a huge success and 89 of them are now safely here in the UK and 70 are already in their forever homes with a further 9 reserved for families undergoing home-checks.

OAT image WIDEWhilst I was in Sarajevo, I helped load a number of the OAT 100 dogs on to a happy bus bound for Just for Dogs in the UK. A few days later, I caught up with the bus on its arrival.

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New life

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HERO – The special one….

One very special dog who stole my heart is Hero. An abandoned dog who was found tied to a tree. He came to Milena’s attention when someone reported that they had seen him tied up and witnessed him being stoned by a group of children. 😡 Milena rescued him and took him for veterinary care immediately.  Sadly one of his eyes was so badly damaged it had to be removed. According to an amazing eye specialist David Williams, who examined Hero on a pro bono basis last week, the other eye has a degenerative retinal disease meaning that he is blind in this eye and there is nothing that can be done to change this. However, he is well adapted to his disability as the blindness will have developed over a period of time.

At the moment Hero is being fostered by Team OAT, being the Olsen Family, their lovely housekeeping couple Rosa and Jose and myself. He is getting lots of love and attention and is settling in nicely. We are now looking for a suitable forever home for Hero so if you, or anyone you know, have the time to dedicate to this very special dog and would like to consider adopting him, please let us know and we will keep you posted on his progress. He will need a large garden to run free and regular lead walks for outside stimulation. We estimate he is 8/9 years old.

home sweet home

Special thanks goes to Maria Slough for allowing us to use some of her wonderful photographs in this blog 💕

Another thank you goes to my friends Andrew and Libby White who joined me on this incredible trip. They have a genuine love and interest in the work of SSS and indeed many other animal welfare and conservation projects.

If you would like to adopt a dog from SSS then please click here

to donate to the project please click here

That’s it for now, next stop Thailand in July to visit an elephant project – Mahouts Elephant Foundation…

 

 

 

 

 

Rehabilitation & Re-wilding at Shamwari

A few weeks ago, I travelled to Shamwari Private Game Reserve in South Africa, to visit their brand new Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.

It has been built to accommodate injured, sick or orphaned animals in their rehabilitation process, and has been designed to minimise human contact and thereby maximise re-wilding success. Only small numbers of pre-arranged visitors will be allowed to visit the facility which incorporates an information/education centre and cleverly designed hides, which provide an opportunity to view animals from a distance without disturbing them.

Critically injured, and sick animals, will continue to be treated at the existing veterinary centre on the reserve until they are ready for the rehabilitation and re-wilding process.

The facility is truly spectacular and we are so pleased for Johan and his team that their vision has finally come to fruition.  OAT are proud supporters of the project and we would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to our close friends, Alicia & Simon Hosking and Janey & David Simpson, for generously matching our contribution and thereby enabling its creation.

Here is a brilliant 2 min video and some pics to give you an idea of what its all about!

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Extinction memorial

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Whilst there, I was privileged to be able to take part in the process of moving some of the animals from the veterinary centre to the new facility. An amazing opportunity for which I will be forever grateful!

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baby eles

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First European Elephant Sanctuary!

Earlier this month I went to visit Elephant Haven European Elephant Sanctuary (EHEES) a project OAT are very proud to be supporting.

It is situated near the town of Limoges in France.  The sanctuary was founded in 2016 by Sofie Goetghebeur & Tony Verhulst, who collectively, have over 30 years experience working with captive wild animals, particularly elephants. The concept was driven by their passion to provide retired circus elephants and indeed any elephants in need of sanctuary, with a purpose built facility that is suited to their needs. The emphasis is on the needs of the animals and not the public.

Sophie & Tony

The Issues

There are almost 700 elephants currently living in circuses, zoos and other captive environments in mainland Europe.  Due to increased public awareness of captive animal welfare issues, a number of countries have already imposed a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses and it seems many more will follow suit. Also, many zoos who are not meeting the required welfare standards are also under scrutiny, and laws are clamping down on the illegal import and trade in wildlife. All of this is positive news for wildlife going forward, but the knock on effect will mean that many animals are, and will continue to be, in need of appropriate rehoming. Many other animals, big cats for example, are able to be relocated to large sanctuaries in their native countries, but with elephants, this is simply not possible.   

Circus

Solutions

Recognising the impending need to provide a facility that is purpose built for retired and rescued elephants, Sofie and Tony looked for an ideal situation with adequate space to create very large elephant paddocks, build large elephant barns and ideally in a warm climate.  I am pleased to say they have succeeded, and Elephant Haven European Elephant Sanctuary is due to open its doors, and be ready to receive their first elephants in September 2019. 

Imagine waking up one morning and deciding to build Europe’s first elephant sanctuary, quit your job, move country and embark upon your mission. Most people, including their families, thought Sofie & Tony had lost their minds.  But together they stayed focussed, and they are now only a few months away from turning their dream into a reality.

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Supporters

Sofie & Tony have already managed to secure generous grants and donations from a number of animal welfare organisations including OAT, World Animal Protection, and Bridget Bardot, and a number of individual supporters have, and continue to support them. Corporate sponsors have provided much of the equipment and tools required for the construction work and fencing, and I was also very encouraged to learn that a large number of volunteers continue to give their time, expertise and labour to help this amazing project.

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The development of the project hasn’t been without its challenges and I am sure there will be many obstacles to overcome in the future.  However, considering the passion and dedication of Sofie and Tony, I have no doubt they will succeed, and will soon be providing many elephants in Europe with the compassionate care, respect and dignity they deserve.  OAT are certainly in it for the long run and will be behind them all the way!

A few extra pics from my trip.

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OAT supported Projects collaborating in Zambia

I have just returned from Zambia where I was visiting 2 great projects that OAT has been supporting for a few years now:

Elephant Orphanage Project (EOP), who rescue and rehabilitate orphaned elephants (mainly victims of poaching and human wildlife conflict) and the Zambia Primate Project (ZPP) who rescue and rehabilitate primates that have been illegally held captive as pets, for bush meat or are destined for the pet trade. Both organisations work tirelessly to rescue, rehabilitate and release these animals back into the wild.

Travelling with me on this trip was Johan Joubert & Megan Sinclair. Johan is the Director of Wildlife & senior vet at Shamwari Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape – South Africa and Megan is his senior vet nurse and assistant.

Plane

Although Shamwari already have a sophisticated veterinary unit for critically injured and sick wildlife, they are in the process of building a new Rescue, Rehabilitation & Soft Release facility for animals that need minor medical assistance with minimum human interaction before being prepared for release. OAT and friends of OAT have contributed towards the building of this new facility which is scheduled for completion in April this year.  In the spirit of collaboration, we thought it would be a good idea to introduce Johan and Megan to the rescue, rehabilitation and re-wilding projects we support in Zambia so that they can share knowledge and establish contact for the future.

Our first stop was EOP’s Lilayi Elephant Nursery facility in Lusaka where young orphans spend the first few years of their rehabilitation process. Thereafter we travelled to Camp Phoenix, the soft release facility in Kafue National Park, where the elephants progress for the next stage of their rehabilitation.

J&M meet the team

assisting Nkala

Here is a very cute video of the youngest eles coming into the Lilayi Nursery boma for their morning milk after a morning of grazing in the bush…

 

After our time with EOP we went on to meet the ZPP team at their re-wilding and release facility for primates, also located within Kafue National Park.

ZPP

This trip was a huge success and the Shamwari veterinary team learned a great deal from both EOP and ZPP.    We couldn’t have been happier with the outcome, as not only will Shamwari’s wild and injured animals benefit from this trip, but all three parties have now established contact and will be able to share knowledge and experience going forward.  A big thank to EOP and ZPP for being so helpful, willing and hospitable.  A big thank you to to Mukambi Lodge for accommodating us all and making us so welcome.

A few more pics from our trip 😉

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First visit to Uganda

I recently had the privilege of visiting the Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. It was my first visit to this beautiful country and I can honestly say I had one of the best wildlife viewing experiences to date.

The purpose of my visit was to spend time with the Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) who have been operating there for approx 20yrs and are dedicated to protecting Uganda’s national parks, protected areas and conservancies.  Uganda has 10 national parks, Murchison Falls being the biggest, which is 3,800sq kilometres.

01 Murchison Falls

02 Giraffe & Nile

03 Big Tusker

In the 1960’s Murchison NP was one of the best places to see wildlife on the African continent due to its abundance of wildlife. Sadly over the last few decades poaching has taken its toll and wildlife numbers have been drastically reduced.

I met and spent time with various members of UCF and The Uganda Wildlife Authority UWA  including Mike Keigwin Trustee & Project Lead of UCF and UWA’s (Uganda Wildlife Authority) senior wardens and wildlife veterinarian.  I was also privileged to meet Julias Obwana, the warden in charge of law enforcement for Murchison Falls Conservation Area and winner of Africa’s Best Ranger at the 2018 Tusk awards 👍🏻😀.

UCF were seeking support to set up a mobile veterinary clinic (vehicle + equipment) that will patrol Murchison Falls NP on a daily basis and be available to respond to wildlife in need.  The UWA constantly receive calls from tourists and park rangers reporting snared and injured animals, but sadly they are seldom in a position to attend to these victims due to the lack of a vehicle and equipment. In addition, UCF anticipate a further increase in wildlife injuries and displacement due to numerous mining developments in an around the park.

Subsequent to my visit OAT has agreed to support UCF & UWA in this area and we are hopeful that a fully equipped veterinary vehicle will be up and running within the next month or so. I will post pics when we receive them. 👍

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05 Park Rangers

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OAT are very proud to be supporting UCF and UWA and we look forward to developing a long and successful relationship.  We wish them every success with the wonderful work they do, protecting Uganda’s wilderness and the beautiful wildlife that inhabits it.

Just returned from Zambia visiting the Elephant Orphanage Project, more on this shortly……🐘

 

 

Coco is Free !!!

Hi All,

You may remember my visits to The Chimpanzee Conservation Centre (CCC) in Guinea (North West Africa) over the last 2 years and my story about Coco, a very special resident chimp there, who stole my heart. I met Coco on both my visits and fell in love with him.  He is my all-time favourite animal – don’t tell my dogs Shooosh🤫🤫

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After being taken from his mother in the wild as a small baby he was kept by hotel owners and tied to a reception desk to entertain guests.. He was even taught to smoke and drink beer as a form of amusement.  At the age of 18 he became too big and dangerous to manage inside the hotel so he was tied to a tree in the garden, again to entertain guests. One day he managed to break free and was shot 5 times in the back and legs by the military police for fear he would harm someone. It was at this stage that CCC took him in and nursed him to recovery. He has lived at the sanctuary since 2001.

Coco is 39yrs old now and has been living at CCC for the past 18 years. Sadly he has spent a lot of this time on his own in a relatively small cage as attempts to integrate him into large enclosures with other rescued chimps have failed due to a number of reasons.  Firstly his inability to socialise with other chimps as being raised by humans, he can’t really speak “chimp” 😥 and, secondly, when CCC did manage to get him into an enclosure for a while,  he managed to escape which posed a danger to CCC staff and himself. He did live in a large enclosure for 5 years at one stage but then he became an escape artist….

Sadly he will never be able to return to the wild as he has been deprived of the natural survival instincts he would have learnt from his mother and peers and he lacks the social skills necessary to become part of a potential release troop.

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The dedicated team at CCC have taken really good care of him and he has food, shelter and human love, but from the moment “we met” when he was living in this cage no bigger than the size of an average kitchen,  I just knew he deserved better. He needed a large, escape proof enclosure for himself, something CCC could not afford to provide him with.

3 x coco before c

 

When I left the CCC camp after my first visit, I looked my new friend Coco in the eyes and promised I would get him out of this cage one day. OAT then agreed to build a state of the art ‘escape proof’ chimpanzee enclosure so that Coco could live out the rest of his life climbing and sleeping in trees and be out in the open where he belongs.  2 yrs have now gone by and Coco’s new very large ‘escape proof’ enclosure was finally completed in late Dec 2018.

I have tears in my eyes writing this because Coco is now FREEEE……..he was released into his new enclosure on the 1st Jan 2019.

Below are some pics & videos of Coco being released and looking very happy in his new enclosure. This was the perfect New Year present for all of us at OAT and CCC and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the CCC team on making this happen. A dream come true for all of us and of course for our beloved Coco. I can’t wait to visit him again which I hope to do later this year!  Notice how he claps and makes excited chimp noises immediately he is let out of the cage! 😀 It might seem extravagant for one chimp, but we and Coco don’t think so! Its life changing for him and every life counts.  CCC have also committed to try and introduce a companion into the enclosure once Coco is settled. I will keep you posted!

4 x coco released