Back to the forest

A better life for Thailand's captive elephants

Tourism has had a devastating impact on Thailand’s captive elephants, but a new project in a northern Karen village suggests it might also be their saviour.

Amid tangled vines and stepping-stone crossings where the cool stream lapped my feet, I paused. The sound of snapping bamboo heralded the arrival of a herd of five Asian elephants. Their wrinkled hides were sticky with red riverbank mud and they browsed heartily, tugging up trunkfuls of greenery amid the humid jungle. Two of these animals had a particularly sad story that I’d been following online. At just a year old, baby Par-Gae-Mae lost his mother after she ingested agricultural crops that had been sprayed with pesticide; the calf was found crying beside her body. He was now being cared for by a soulmate in grief, Mo-Go-Nar, who had lost her own baby to herpes (EEHV) and had adopted him.

We followed the herd upstream to a waterfall. The young elephant slipped on a rock and blew a squeaky trumpet of dismay. Yet these captive animals are generally finding peace in the Om Koi jungles of northern Thailand; they are free, for now, from the cruelty that the country’s elephant-tourism industry metes out upon them.

There are 59 elephants at the new Evolution Om Koi Project, a collaboration between the American non-profit Gentle Giants and the Karen hill-tribe people, the owners of these animals. The aim is to find a more compassionate form of elephant tourism; one that delivers income to the community so that they can avoid sending these creatures to barbarous riding camps.

Any visitor to Thailand cannot fail to notice that elephants are an enduring and omnipresent national symbol, whether taking the form of jade statuettes in Buddhist temples, embellishing the labels of beer bottles, or as batik fabric patterns sold in tourist markets. When I arrived at Chiang Mai railway station, on my way to Om Koi, I even stepped outside onto a little plaza and was surrounded by four stone elephants.

Yet, for all their veneration, Asian elephants are declining across their range – not just in Thailand – and are subject to brutal abuse in captivity in the name of tourism, and sometimes religion. In the wild, the IUCN has upgraded their threat level to critically endangered, and the numbers make for some tough reading. At the end of the 19th century, 300,000 were estimated to inhabit Thailand’s jungles. Now an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 wild elephants remain, perpetually on the run from human-wildlife conflict as the national parks become increasingly isolated refuges.

Baby William is a young star among the Om Koi elephants

Baby William is a young star among the Om Koi elephants

Meanwhile, some 3,800 captive elephants are subjected to physical and mental abuse at riding camps, circuses and illegal logging operations. Thai law forbids taking them from the wild, so captive females are forcibly put to bulls to provide babies that will become the next generation to be exploited. Those little ones will undergo the enforced compliance of phajaan: removal from their mothers and being beaten and stabbed by bullhooks until their wild spirits are crushed.

When COVID-19 struck, riding camps were shut down. This might seem a good thing, yet it also precipitated a welfare crisis as elephants began starving in the camps that went bust. These animals are invariably rented to the camps by their actual owners, many of them ethnic Karen living on the border with Myanmar. It was a situation that went largely unreported until one dramatic moment.

In May 2020, the rescue of 11 riding-camp elephants by Lek Chailert, a world-renowned elephant conservationist, saw their plight suddenly become news. Like a modern-day Hannibal, Chailert led these elephants on foot for three days, taking them back to the jungle of their Karen owners in the Mae Chaem region. In the wake of this, the non-profit Gentle Giants was formed to fundraise elephant upkeep during the pandemic.

“I became aware of the terrible situation that elephants and their mahouts were going through when Thailand’s tourism industry came to a halt,” said Diana Muñoz, one of the co-founders of Gentle Giants. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisation was supporting several hundred elephants across Thailand in order to keep them in food. But it was clear to Muñoz that once the pandemic ended and tourism restarted, the elephants would return to the same cycle of abuse. For the economically marginalised hill-tribe communities, renting them to camps and for logging remained a tempting source of income.

“Lek told us of 35 elephants in Om Koi that were going to be taken to logging because their Karen owners didn’t have any choice,” said Muñoz. So, to keep the community’s elephants in their native jungle, Gentle Giants began supporting the villagers financially. “This was an eye-opener for the people of Om Koi; they were able to see they could do things in a different way.”

Soon, the elephants they were supporting increased to 55 (and now 59 due to impregnation by the males who live wild around Om Koi). A more sustainable way of offering support was needed, so rather than just compensating the Karen to not send their animals into logging or riding camps (which is costing Gentle Giants US$35,000 [£28,950] per month), an idea was hatched to create a self-sustaining income whereby eco-volunteers would pay to stay in Om Koi, to be immersed in local culture and visit the elephants in their native habitat. Part of the agreement with the village was that the mahouts refrain from controlling their animals by using bullhooks or chaining them. To stop the elephants crop-raiding at night, chain-free shelters are being funded, with the first one now up and running after US$25,000 (£20,675) was raised to build it.

“The local community is eager to be involved, as they see a way to keep their sons and husbands at home (rather than travelling to the camps as mahouts),” said Muñoz. She hopes this can be a template for a new, more compassionate and cruelty-free elephant tourism across Thailand. Yet it needs a regular stream of visitors to make it work. In order see it in action for myself, I became one of the first eco-volunteers to visit the project.

Setting off from Chiang Mai with two Karen-speaking guides trained by Lek Chailert, it was a seven-hour drive to the village in Om Koi, climbing into the lushly tropical hills near Myanmar, some of Thailand’s wildest landscape.

Traditional Karen clothing

Traditional Karen clothing

An ochre-coloured soil track took us to a hillside village, Tung Ton Ngiaw, surrounded by rice-terraces and jungle. Locals here speak a Sino-Tibetan language and live in wooden, tin-rooved houses that are raised up on stilts. Many of the Karen women and elder men wear home-woven, red embroidered fabrics, which are also on sale – another revenue stream for the villagers.

The volunteer accommodation was basic – a mattress on the floor and cold-water showers – yet I felt instantly welcomed into the community and quickly discovered that while the villagers depend on earning money from their elephants, they do not like the riding camps, nor having to spend so long away.

The lives of the mahouts have been vastly improved by not having to go to the camps – instead they now monitor their elephants to make sure that they stay away from the crops of the village

The lives of the mahouts have been vastly improved by not having to go to the camps – instead they now monitor their elephants to make sure that they stay away from the crops of the village

One mahout, called Chuan, recalled taking his elephant to a riding camp near Chiang Mai: “I was there for three years. I was stuck. It was part of the contract that I had to sign,” he complained. “My elephant, Moh-Par-Na, gave rides all day, mainly to Chinese tourists. She was chained all night. I felt so bad for her, but how else can I feed my family? We have no choice. I am so happy to be back home, and the elephants deserve rest. Already they’re getting healthier, eating more and feeding from the jungle – and we no longer have to be so hard on them.”

He said that he was prepared to earn less money from ecotourism, rather than accept the higher prices that the camps will pay for renting his elephant, so long as it meant he could stay at home.

Each day, I undertook a community activity and at least one elephant trek. Besides a welcoming ceremony featuring the village’s shaman, where I was blessed for a long life, I also took part in rice planting one morning. It was hard work spending my time immersed in squelchy mud under the watchful gaze of the locals. Perhaps they were wondering if my slow-paced amateurism might result in crop failure? On another morning I attended their elementary school to give an English lesson to a classroom of polite local children. I asked them to name the top ten things that Thailand is known for, and smiled when ‘weed’ came in at number three and a pop princess managed to usurp the king.

Stays in the Om Koi Karen village don’t just benefit elephants – volunteers spend time teaching children English in the elementary school.

Stays in the Om Koi Karen village don’t just benefit elephants – volunteers spend time teaching children English in the elementary school.

Otherwise, I enjoyed unrushed viewings of the elephants in their native habitat. The experience was completely magical. I would even argue that this is the best elephant watching anywhere in Asia because the animals are comfortable and rediscovering their wild instincts for browsing. They had also experienced captivity, so it meant that they were at peace with having humans around.

I could see how relaxed the mahouts were. Just watching over their animals, to make sure they remained in the jungle and not too close to the community’s crops, is a far easier life than dragging selfie-loving tourists around all day. I saw no bullhook use; instead, the mahouts enticed their elephants to a waterhole with a treat of bananas, which the animals eyed avariciously. It was adorable to watch the two little ones, Suk Dee and William, manically splashing around, hosing water like dainty fountains, while their mothers larruped mud all over themselves with a swish of their mighty trunks.

On another day a recent wild-born baby called Moe Sae got thoroughly overexcited by our presence and chased us around before slumping to the ground exhausted under Mother’s protective gaze. We were urged to avoid touching this infant as she needed to develop her wild instincts, although it was hard to avoid this bouldering little tyro. I reflected on how, if this initiative works, this five-month-old will never endure phajaan; she will exist in a semi-wild state, untrained and unchained.

But can it succeed? Once Chinese tourists (who account for the lion’s share of riding activities) start returning en masse with the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions, will the inducements from the camps to the elephants’ owners prove an overwhelming financial temptation?

Diana Muñoz hopes not. “True sanctuary is for elephants not to have to entertain humans in any way,” she said. “We truly believe this can break the mould of elephant tourism if visitors are shown how incredibly beautiful it is to see these gentle giants express themselves and interact without fear in this magical, natural habitat.”

Volunteers will have the opportunity to spend a morning in the rice fields

Volunteers will have the opportunity to spend a morning in the rice fields

Baby Moe was so excited that he chased the volunteers around

Baby Moe was so excited that he chased the volunteers around

About the trip

A six-day adventure in Om Koi includes transportation from your hotel in Chiang Mai, all meals, guides, activities and homestay accommodation. Trips run with a minimum of four people and are currently booked through the non-profit Gentle Giants.

Getting there

There are no direct flights from the UK to Chiang Mai, though daily direct services with Thai Airways fly from London Heathrow. Flights take around 11.5 hours. From Bangkok you can find numerous flight connections to Chiang Mai with local airlines, including Thai Air Asia and Bangkok Airways; these typically take around an hour and cost from £44. A slower, more interesting way to get there is to take the 12-hour sleeper train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphung Station (Krungthep Aphiwat Central Station is due to open and replace this soon); this leaves at 7.35pm and arrives in Chiang Mai at 8.40am the following day.

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