We are being watched. Waking to the call of wild gibbons, I peer out of my hammock into a clearing bathed in dawn light. The mahouts are stoking the campfire, and on the hillside opposite, four elephants – matriarch Thong Kam and three younger ones – keep a benign eye on the handful of humans temporarily sharing their forest home.
That the elephants are enjoying this unspoilt forest four hours’ drive east of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a victory for UK charity Mahouts Elephant Foundation. Three years ago, it managed to free three of these elephants from a life of cruelty at a Chiang Mai tourist attraction and walked them 100km home to their ancestral forests. Letting us drop in on these impressive beasts is a way of raising funds to rescue more elephants from misery and exploitation.
The charity was started a decade ago when, on a family holiday to Thailand, Brit Sarah Blaine saw elephants being made to dance, kick footballs, even paint pictures to entertain tourists. There was human misery, too: the animals’ mahouts, doing this for lack of alternative employment, were – and generally still are – execrably paid and housed by the attraction owners.
Determined to do something – and wise enough to see that a GP’s wife from Worcestershire couldn’t just wade in and tell people what to do – she started working with a hill tribe known for its love for elephants, the Karen. Young men from this ethnic minority group turned to work in the tourist industry after a ban on commercial logging in 1989 put many mahouts out of work – and the Thai government was happy for tourism to take up the slack.
The foundation raised funds to allow Karen tribesmen to leave their tourist jobs and come home with their elephants. And now its Walking with Elephants project brings them extra income from visitors who come to spend a few days at a homestay and trek into the forest to watch the elephants in their natural habitat.
The Karen village of Huay Pakoot sprawls up a steep hillside, with dogs and chickens running between wooden stilted houses. We stay with Vee Lah and her family in a new three-room building behind their farmhouse with – in a first for the village – a bathroom with a hot shower under the house.
Dinner (soup, spicy vegetables, a little pork and lots of rice) is at the home of village elder Manit who, as a young man, worked with his elephant in logging camps. But while logging camps were hard, life at a tourist attraction is much worse, I learn, with elephants kept under control with metal hooks and starved to keep their hormone levels down.
For the Karen, elephants are part of the family. So having them and their mahouts away from home leaves a big hole, and some young mahouts ease their loneliness with drugs or alcohol.
Next morning, we hike out of the village for about an hour to where thirtysomething Thong Kam (elephants’ natural lifespan is similar to ours) and playful youngsters Mario and Bai Fern now live. Emerging from the trees to warm up in the sunshine, they soon pop over to check out the new humans.
The elephants now spend 18 hours a day eating, using their large brains to select a varied diet of forest plants and even mineral supplements. They walk for miles, bathe in the water hole – and go a bit mad in the rainy season, when Mario especially likes to slide backwards down muddy slopes on his bottom. It’s a far cry from life before.
Three years ago, Thong Kam gave birth to mischievous “toddler” Sunti, who is growing up here in almost complete freedom. Almost, because these are not wild elephants – there isn’t enough wilderness left in Thailand for that; but life in this forest, with mahouts to keep an eye on them and provide extra grass in the dry season, is the next best thing.
Visitors stay for three or four days, trekking to elephant hangouts and having a go at crafts such as weaving and basket-making. The highlight is a night of wild camping, in tents or little roofed hammocks slung from trees – warm and comfy once you get used to your bed swaying with every move.
As well as time with the elephants, I enjoyed the way camping offered a window into the mahouts’ way of life: foraging for food, gossiping around the fire and using machetes to shape bamboo into cups, mats, dishes – even a kettle. The charity now also runs a similar project in a more remote village near the Myanmar border.
Before I leave, Sarah wants me to see what she’s fighting against, so we visit an elephant attraction near Chiang Mai. A crowd is going wild as they watch the performing elephants, then jostle to snap pictures sitting on elephants’ knees or raised high on curled trunks. “It’s really painful for them to sit like that,” Sarah says. “And look, that one’s head’s bleeding, and the little one’s biting his trunk: it shows he’s distressed.”
The difference between these dead-eyed animals – all scabs, cuts and damaged feet from hours chained up on urine-soaked concrete – and those we’d hung out with in the forest is heartbreaking.
Seeing African elephants on safari is a once-in-a-lifetime, premium experience, and rightly so. But in Thailand elephant lives are cheap: here, a ticket to watch exploitation and suffering costs little more than £30 a head.
I look around at the yelping tourists (many of them westerners) and wonder how they can think this is OK. They’d probably be horrified to see a dancing bear on a European street, a circus with live tigers, or even chimps dressed up to drink PG Tips. So which are the “dumb animals” here? I know what I think – and all power to Sarah and her cause.
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