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.
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!
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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…🥰