Since 2010, GVI volunteers have been supporting a traditional elephant-keeping community’s efforts to bring their elephants out of tourist camps and have them return to live in the forest.
In Huay Pakoot, a group of elephant owners and mahouts, have opted to keep their elephants in the forests surrounding their village. Instead of giving rides and performing tricks in a tourist camp, these elephants now spend every day foraging on native plants, nurturing and educating their calves, maintaining strong social bonds and interacting freely with one another.
The people of Huay Pakoot have a strong tradition of elephant keeping, which has been part of their culture for several hundred years. In addition to bringing the elephants out of the camps and back to their natural habitat, this project also enables the mahouts to stay within their community. Instead of being out working in the camps for months at a time, these young men are now able to participate in family and village life while sharing their traditional knowledge and strengthening the community’s links with their elephants.
This month we welcome our newest mahout, Dah Khur, to the team. Alongside Jordoh, Dah Khur will mahout Boon Jahn and her 2 ½ year old calf Song Kran. Song Kran was born in the forests surrounding the village and has never left – the essence of what this project is aiming to achieve! While still dependent on Boon Jahn in many ways, Song Kran is getting bolder and is beginning to venture further afield on his own. This is the ideal time to introduce a mahout as it allows for a strong relationship to develop without disrupting the bond between mother and calf.
Despite being highly endangered, around 3000 Asian elephants in Thailand are captive and live out their lives working in tourist camps: giving rides and performing in circus shows. Generally the management strategies of these camps focus on providing maximum enjoyment for tourists thereby maximizing profit, however it is the elephants’ social needs and natural foraging behaviour that bear the cost. GVI continues to forge sustainable, ethical alternatives to current management practices and increase the odds of survival for the Asian elephant.
This month, “Bpee Mai” one of two young elephants supported by GVI Thailand has “come of age” and rejoined the herd after completing basic training. This is a fascinating time for the project and a unique opportunity to see how a young bull interacts with the herd as he becomes increasingly independent.
The GVI elephant herd in Huay Pakoot is made up of three adult females, two of which have young calves. Bpee Mai, born on New Year’s Day 2008, is now 4.5 years old. For just over three months he had been living in the village with his Mahout rather than in the forest with the rest of the herd. This time allowed a strong bond to form between Bpee Mai and his mahout, who is now with Bpee Mai full time.
The day he came back was full of anticipation. Would the herd accept him? Would they be pleased, defensive, aggressive? It turned out fantastically! When the elephants were reunited back in the forest, the whole herd gathered around in a cluster of trunk touching, trumpeting and all kinds of vocalizations. This was a show of social interaction more intense than anything we had witnessed to this point and was in line with behaviour of a family group in a wild herd.
The data collection and monitoring we do on this project is primarily to see whether (and how) a herd of unrelated captive elephants interact when put in a semi-wild situation where they can forage and socialize at will. The project is unique in that sense, so it is difficult to predict what the outcomes will be. It is a fascinating time watching a young bull elephant becoming increasingly mature and independent in this setting. In the wild, bulls would move away from the family group and form associations with other bulls. Will this happen here or will they remain as a herd? We will be here to find out!
For now, Bpee Mai is still engaging in play sessions with the other youngster (Song Kran), still staying close by his mother (Mahnah), and still looking up to the matriarch figure (Tong Dee) for guidance. Here on the project, we are keeping track to see if and how this model of elephant interaction is working how it may be applied or improved elsewhere in the future
After 2 years of GVI Thailand working with the community on bringing rescued elephants back to the forest and developing alternate livelihoods, the community of Huay Pakoot has registered as a community conservation group with the Mae Chaem District Office.
This legal registration as a community conservation group is a big step forward in allowing the village of Huay Pakoot to work towards their own goals of bringing elephants out of tourist camps and back into the forest where the elephants can live a more natural existence. The conservation group is made up of 10 local representatives on the board of directors and allows anyone from the local village to become a member of the group. The community’s conservations group will raise money from charitable donations, selling of products and other local ventures in order to cover the costs of bringing elephants and their mahouts back to live in the community forest, providing a salary for the mahouts as a means of making a living in a way that allows the elephants to live a more natural existence in the surrounding community forest. These elephants will be free from the harsh conditions and intense work environment of elephant tourist camps and have freedom to roam in the forest and forage for food. The conservation group will look after the health of the elephants and see that they have enough food and adequate medical attention and health checks. The group will oversee tourism in the village and allow tourists to visit the elephants in the forests to see them in their natural habitat and learn about Karen elephant keeping traditions. Elephant riding and circus tricks will not be allowed. This type of “community based tourism” is quickly becoming a popular catch phrase in Thailand as more and more traditional communities are finding ways to bring income and tourism into their communities while still maintaining and respecting their unique culture and tradition.
The legal formation for Huay Pakoot’s community conservation group is a great move towards allowing the community to take responsibility for the work in increasing their elephant herds living a natural life in the forests and decreasing the elephants and mahouts forced to rely on area tourist camps. The conservation group puts the responsibility into the hands of the local people allowing GVI Thailand, volunteers and staff to continue to support these initiatives that span the realms of wildlife conservation, community development and community based tourism.
Jacqueline Lee is an InTheField Traveler with GlobalGiving who is visiting our partners’ projects throughout Southeast Asia. Her “Postcard” from the visit in Thailand:
Hiking over hills and deep into the forest, we came across 3 adults and 1 baby elephant. I was able to spend a day with Global Vision International staff and volunteers getting to know the elephant herd they have sponsored and supported back into the elephants’ native habitat. This also includes the mahouts’ (elephant caretakers) return to their local villages.
My trip started with a project orientation including everything from safety, to risk, and even about the culture of Thailand and the local Karen group. The next morning we were off to the village of Huay Pakoot outside of Mae Chaem led by staff member and elephant-specialist, Kylie. On the way we stopped to pick up loads of bananas as treats for the elephants. These bananas serve as a way for new volunteers to get to know their specific elephant that they will be observing and documenting during their time in the village.
The elephants we got to know were Mana, Tong Dee, Boon Jon, and Song Kran along with their mahouts (the other member of the herd, Bpee Mai, was off to receive mahout command training which is a part of local tradition and culture). One of the mahouts had been caring for his elephant for 50 years. Getting to know the staff, I learned that one was an elephant specialist, helping collect the data on the elephant behaviors. Another staff and volunteer were in veterinary school, and the rest of the volunteers were passionate about animals and conservation. Staff are not only gathering data about elephant behavior from volunteers, they also are studying the various types of plants the elephants eat, what traditional plant medicines the elephants take in the forest, and how they relate to each other. This team hopes to provide new data and research on these Asian elephants never gathered before.
While there, the local community was so supportive providing homestays and a traditional “Dee Joo” welcoming ceremony. The community and mahouts drive the projects activities. Because of this project, not only were the health and well-being of the elephants supported, they were able to stop working in stressful and harmful tourism and street begging activities, return back to their forests, and the mahouts were able to return to their homes and still make an income for the family. GVI is creating an eco-tourism model to be replicated that shows villages and elephants do not have to be involved in harmful, invasive tourism, but can be integrative, collaborative, and mutually beneficial.
GVI is hoping to expand the number of elephants reintegrated back to the local habitat.
Although highly endangered, many Asia elephants live out their lives working in tourist camps: giving rides and performing in circus shows. Generally the management strategies of these camps are structured to provide maximum enjoyment for tourists thus maximizing profit, but this does not typically bode well for the elephants working there. On our Thai Elephant project, we are helping a traditional elephant-keeping community return their elephants to live in the forest, where they can socialise naturally and forage on native plants. We are happy to celebrate the 2nd birthday of one of these lucky elephants, Song Kran.
Song Kran’s mother, Boon Jan, was working in tourism before she became pregnant. Her owner is from the traditional elephant-keeping community of Huay Pakoot, and, understanding the importance of a varied diet and social bonding for elephants, he brought Boon Jan away from work to live in the forest while she came to term. Song Kran was born in the forests surrounding their village - and has never left. There is much to celebrate with Song Kran turning 2 years old on 13 April 2012. Song Kran embodies the objectives of this project, to allow captive elephants to live naturally in the forest. As the project continues to prove its effectiveness, we look forward to a long life for Song Kran free from ever stepping foot inside a working camp.
It is extremely difficult to raise healthy infant elephants in captivity. An elephant’s gestation period is 22 months and a newborn calf must nurse for up to 4 years. In the wild, Asian elephants form highly sophisticated social groups and exhibit allomothering – which means a mother relies on support from other adult females in raising her calf. Today in a typical tourism facility, Asian elephants are not allowed to form social bonds, naturally raise their young, or choose what they eat – with detrimental consequences to their ability to raise healthy and happy calves.
Our Thai elephant project aims to impact the management of Thailand’s highly accessible yet still endangered population of 3000 captive elephants, by empowering an indigenous community to keep their elephants in the forest and care for them with traditional and more natural methods. This project has been documenting the social and foraging behaviour of elephants allowed to roam in the forest since July 2010, and continues to seek new alternatives to increase the odds of survival for the Asian elephant.
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GVI Charitable Trust Manager