Our quest for an ethical elephant encounter: the Mahouts Elephant Foundation.

Like many people, meeting some elephants was one of the things we were really looking forward to on our South East Asia trip last year. Finding a truly ethical elephant encounter is surprising difficult, given the number of elephant sanctuaries and tourist opportunities, in Thailand especially.

Elephant tourism is a huge industry, and modern elephant keeping in an ethical way is a complex topic. This is the account of our experience with the Mahouts Elephant Foundation: a young project that is returning elephants to the forest.

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Our family wanted to see elephants in Thailand, but only if we could do it truly ethically. We had a wonderful experience with the Mahouts Elephant Foundation, in the mountains around Chiang Mai. Their program is returning elephants to the jungles and is a model for sustainable tourism, which benefits whole communities.

WE ARE AFFILIATES FOR VISIT.ORG, PLEASE READ OUR DISCLOSURE FOR MORE INFORMATION.

Choosing an ethical elephant experience

Elephant camps, rides and shows are increasingly scrutinised as the world is learning about the cruelty inflicted on elephants in captivity. If you are unaware of the issues with riding elephants and seeing elephant shows like them performing tricks or painting, please take a moment to read articles like this from the BBC.

I had researched for some time about the most ethical and natural way to see elephants in Thailand. Knowing I did not want to support any business that offered elephant trekking or entertainment shows narrowed the search significantly.

Yet I still felt many of the experiences advertised as ethical were shallow, and were not really allowing their star attractions to live a normal life. With increased awareness of sustainable travel, many operators are defining themselves as an ethical elephant park or rescue centre. There are some sanctuaries are doing great things, but according to the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group, composed of regional elephant specialists, veterinarians, researchers and conservationists:

“At present, no tourism-funded ASEAN elephant facility meets all the requirements that define a true sanctuary.”  (Elephants in Asia Ethically, 2017)

Pictures from all the advertising show happy travellers hugging and bathing the elephants, and feeding them loads of fruit. These experiences are no doubt better than making elephants perform, but niggling questions I had about their practices were “do elephants really eat fruit all day in the wild?” and “do they actually want to be washed and cuddled by different people every day, and stand around for photos with these strangers?”

I was really happy to find some different elephant experiences than these offerings. Deep in the mountains, 4 hours from Chiang Mai, a couple of experiences promised being able to see them in a semi-wild environment. These sounded much better! Trekking through the jungle to find the herd, comprised of elephants who are able to graze all day and move wherever they wish, sounded perfect.

A happy Asian elephant in the forest: it's natural environment.

A happy Asian elephant in the forest: it’s natural environment.

We would also be able to stay with a Karen Hill Tribe; people who have been living in the mountains, farming and keeping elephants for many generations. Meeting and learning from them sounded like a wonderful experience for us all. Ant and I had hoped to have some true homestays with our kids, so we could really get to know people from other cultures and get to experience how different their lives are to ours.

We booked a 4 day/3 night elephant trek through Visit.org, who promote only 2 ethical elephant experiences in Chiang Mai province. We chose The Mahouts Elephant Foundation‘s program after communicating with both about our needs. The Mahouts Foundation confirmed that their herd was quite close to the village at the time, so the hike involved to find their elephants would be manageable for our young kids.

About the Mahouts Elephant Foundation

The Mahouts Foundation helped most of their elephants leave a working camp, where they were kept in sub-optimal conditions. The founder Sarah and her family, with other staff and the elephant’s mahouts, walked with the elephants for 8 days from Chiang Mai to their current home in the forest.

The documentary

This is an episode of documentary series My Life from the BBC, detailing the walk home with the elephants (as viewed from Sarah’s children Natasha and Joe).

It is a wonderful story of hope, and a great model for ecotourism. Other communities have asked the Mahouts Foundation to create similar programs for them, as many want to return elephants to the forests and they know how gentle and supportive the Mahouts Foundation is.

From Sarah Blaine, founder of the Foundation:

This is the model we want to keep replicating and taking to more communities, return more elephants to these vast forests. This will in time create a shift in elephant tourism where people choose to see the elephants living naturally. Maybe this will slow the demand to the cities in time, we hope so. This is a young project mission but more and more communities are asking us to help them, there is a desire to return these elephants back to the forest but they need the tourism to work to sustain this. The model is protective of the elephants welfare, the forest and culture and community.”

Contact and more information

Look up more information on the Mahouts Elephant Foundation’s website: http://www.mahouts.co.uk

Our expedition to the Hill Tribe village

We were collected from our accommodation in Chiang Mai by Mint and Soonboon from Mahouts Foundation. Soonboon drove us the 4 hours through very hilly and sometimes muddy terrain, through Doi Inthanon National Park.

It wasn’t the most comfortable journey sometimes! But it was an adventure and we got to see the beautiful mountains surrounding Chiang Mai along the way. On my request we stopped at Wachirathan waterfall to have lunch, which was stunning.

Wachirathan waterfall in Doi Inthanon National Park

Wachirathan waterfall in Doi Inthanon National Park

Our homestay in Huay Pakoot

Upon arriving at Huay Pakoot village we met the resident Mahouts Foundation staff Becca and Phoebe, and our host family Por Yor and Suda. The family (with the help of other villagers) had recently completed a dwelling next to their own house which was our accommodation. We were the first people ever staying there, and they were very proud of what it meant to have visitors staying with them. We felt quite special to be their first guests too!

The new residence for our homestay

The new residence for our homestay

Our house had a living area and two bedrooms, and was simple and spacious. The beds are on the floor and mosquito nets are provided. It had electricity but no plumbing inside: the toilet and bucket shower were outside.

Allegra loved the bucket shower, even though it was quite cold in the evenings and early mornings! If you haven’t come across one before, it is simply a large bucket full of cold water. You get a hand-scoop to splash the water all over yourself with, which the rest of us tried to do while the weather was still warm, but Allegra happily stripped off and did at any time!

The toilet was a western toilet with no button flush: flushing the toilet is also done with a bucket and scoop. It was another adventure! It is great to experience these things and realise that this is how people really live still today.

The welcome ceremony and meal times in the village

We were treated to a ceremony to welcome us to the village, before eating our first meal that night. The ceremony consisted of a blessing being spoken as a woollen bracelet was tied around all of our wrists. The bracelet had to remain attached for our entire stay in the village, for it to bring luck and good fortune to us.

Anthony receiving his bracelet from Manit, head mahout and former village chief

Anthony receiving his bracelet from Manit, head mahout and former village chief

Our hosts cooked the meals for us in their home and brought them over to us, but did not eat with us like the Foundation staff did. In their culture, eating with guests is not the norm; watching them eat and then eating once they are finished is. We found this quite uncomfortable at first, as it felt very strange to be watched as we ate! But is was something we had to accept, as it is the way of the shy Hill Tribe people.

Meeting the elephant herd

After breakfast the next morning, we packed up ready for the hike to the elephant herd. The trek began on the road, past the village and some corn crops, before heading into the forest.

The stunning view not far from Huay Pakoot village

The stunning view not far from Huay Pakoot village

Usually the Foundation program arranges for guests to camp in the forest on that second night, as the hike to find the elephants is too long to be completed there and back in one day. A camp is set up so that guests get to see the elephants for two days before returning to the village.

When we booked, we were given the choice to camp or not, as the elephants were so close to the village at the time we were told we would be able to see them for 2 days either way. We chose to return to the village in that case, to save packing up our things again and trekking with heavier backpacks each way.

Trekking through the forest

Trekking through the forest

I’m unsure whether the elephants were further from the village that day than anyone thought they would be, or whether the trek was just more difficult for us than we all assumed; but before we even found the elephants we knew we could not manage the hike back and forth for two days in a row.

The walk was difficult in some places due to the hilly and sometimes muddy terrain, and it was really long. After several hours we had still not found the mahouts or the herd. It was beautiful though, and very exciting when we finally started hearing the elephants in the distance!

Finding the elephants

It was amazing to learn as we hiked about how quietly and easily the elephants can move through the jungle. They’re so agile, they are almost like mountain goats! We felt like big heavy animals, clomping our way through; while the enormous elephants can move silently if they want to, and stay hidden extremely well. That is why these guys wear cow-bells!

Watching the elephants was magical

Watching the elephants was magical

Arriving at the place where the elephants were currently grazing was wonderful. Yes, it was relief to finally be there, but it was also really magical to see them in the jungle. They are very curious and intelligent, and they came straight over to us newcomers to check us out!

Thong Kam and Bai Fern walking together

Thong Kam and Bai Fern walking together

Bai Fern reaching for some leaves

Bai Fern reaching for some leaves

The mahouts and the Foundation staff kept the elephants at a safe distance from us, and they did not encourage us to get closer, or to feed them or pat them. I realised that I had hoped to feel an elephant’s skin or one’s trunk if it were interested in me, and Allegra was very keen to pat one too.

But I saw that they are trying to preserve the elephant’s status as a wild animal, not a domestic pet. Keeping us at a distance ensured that our role was non-intrusive and always safe.

Mint keeping an inquisitive trunk from getting too close!

Mint keeping an inquisitive trunk from getting too close!

And watching them happily grazing, playing with each other, moving around and generally just being elephants, was enough. It was more than enough: it was an absolute blessing to witness them in their natural environment.

We learned that happy elephants are pretty much constantly moving. Their ears flap and their tails swish, and they are always on the go. This short clip shows just how much they move about!

We also learned that the elephants all have different personalities just like us, and that some like to cross their back legs as they are munching on their food. This was one of my favourite realisations! I just adored how relaxed and peaceful they were, and watching Thong Kam as she stopped for a few minutes to cross her legs is a memory that will stay with me forever.

Regal matriarch Thong Kam

Regal matriarch Thong Kam

Elephants sure eat a lot! We saw that they strip bark from trees, dig up roots and eat leaves and vines. The forest has enough variety to give them all that they need to be healthy.

We learnt that as soon as these elephants entered the forest, they began foraging naturally even though they had been fed differently in the elephant camp. Their instincts are strong and they do not lose their knowledge over time.

Bai Fern and baby Sunti munching on some leaves.

Bai Fern and baby Sunti munching on some leaves.

Here are some more pictures from our time spent just watching them; happy elephants in the forest.

Watching the herd moving and grazing.

Watching the herd moving and grazing.

Beautiful baby Sunti. He was born in the forest!

Beautiful baby Sunti. He was born in the forest!

Trunks and tails, swish, swish, swish.

Trunks and tails, swish, swish, swish.

Becca the biologist was a wealth of knowledge about the elephants

Becca the biologist was a wealth of knowledge about the elephants

The jungle and her family makes Bai Fern a happy elephant!

The jungle and her family makes Bai Fern a happy elephant!

Mario having a scratch.

Mario having a scratch.

Just after a mud bath! (which they did privately)

Just after a mud bath! (which they did privately)

Lunch in the forest

After watching the elephants for awhile, they moved on to keep grazing while the mahouts set up for cooking lunch in the forest. Mint and Phoebe had brought some ingredients along, and the mahouts carved some pots to cook it in out of bamboo! They also carved serving dishes and mugs from the bamboo with their machetes, which was very impressive to see.

Dante and Allegra played at a little stream after helping to collect firewood, and once lunch was served we enjoyed it on banana-leaf plates with some rice. It was a beautiful and natural way to eat.

Cooking vegetables in bamboo pots

Serving lunch in bamboo trays

Serving lunch in bamboo trays

We also had some cuppas after eating, and Allegra needed a nap before we headed out again to find the elephants. She rested on me for an hour under a tree, which was just about the nicest place we’ve ever stopped for a nap.

Would we get to see the elephants again?

The mahouts went to find the elephants so we could catch up to them once Allegra woke up. They were gone for some time, and Phoebe came to let us know that we wouldn’t get to see the elephants again, as they had wandered too far away.

I was disappointed thinking that our experience them was already over. We had assumed that we would also see the elephants after lunch, and after such a long drive to the village and huge hike through the jungle, I really hoped to have more time near them. (It was a good lesson in not assuming anything when it comes to wild animals!)

But, then one of the mahouts appeared to let us know that the elephants were headed back our way! They had wandered almost back to the village in that time, but were on their way back to us now. We were very happy to be able to see them again, and waited nearby for their return.

Our final encounter

The herd arrived a short time later, and we were really fortunate to see them walking together as they would anywhere in the wild. Most of them just walked right past without worrying about us, however Bai Fern came up close to sniff us out! This was the closest we got to an elephant, and it was quite amazing.

It was all because she wanted to, and it wasn’t encouraged or discouraged by the mahouts. They and the Foundation staff know that it’s her personality to be very inquisitive, and even though she was close, we were safe at that time.

Allegra felt a bit nervous with such a big creature coming right up to us! But as she says in the clip, she’s “very brave”, and she was. Having the calm mahouts and staff next to us reassured us that this was going to be a gentle encounter. What a blessing it was!

We didn’t follow the herd after that, as we had to start heading back to the village. The mahouts settled the elephants in for the night as we began the long trek back. We left satisfied that we had observed the beautiful creatures enough, and learnt much about them in the process. It was an exhausting but amazing day.

Trekking back to the village. Notice Allegra getting a ride!

Trekking back to the village. Notice Allegra getting a ride!

Other activities in the Hill Tribe village

Picking strawberries

The following day, because we couldn’t manage the hike again, the Foundation staff arranged for us to go strawberry picking in the morning. We had to be up early to get a ride with Root, the farmer, which in hindsight wasn’t a great idea for the kids. They were exhausted after the huge trek to see the elephants, and it would have been better to let them sleep in.

But we made it and picked some beautiful organic strawberries for a short while. Their farming methods on steep mountain-sides are really amazing. We found it hard just to walk up through the steep and slippery corn field to get to the strawberry patch!

Picking strawberries up the hill

Picking strawberries up the hill

Not a bad haul!

Not a bad haul!

We were also treated to some spectacular views up there, and could hear wild gibbons calling to each other.

Up the hills we go!

Up the hills we go!

Shops and handicrafts

Root also runs a small cafe in the village, and he grows and roasts his own coffee beans. After a rest at our place we went to get a cuppa and ice-cream at his shop. He has an incredible view over the mountains, and no wall obstructing it!

Down the hill to Root's cafe

Down the hill to Root’s cafe

Ice-cream at Roots cafe

Ice-cream!

We also visited a lady who still weaves traditional cloth using a large loom, just as it has been done for hundreds of years. It was amazing to watch her work. She can weave the cloth from scratch and make it into a Karen-style shirt in 4 days if she doesn’t have many interruptions.

I asked to have a go at the weaving, and realised it would take me many months or probably years to create even one piece of material! It is a real skill, that would be rhythmic once you had the grasp of it, but is still very labour-intensive work.

weaving Karen cloth

I bought some beautiful cloth from her, and a shirt she had woven and embroidered with beads hand-made from seeds. They are such special reminders of our time in the village, and of the beauty of traditional skills.

Our final day in the village

On the last morning of our stay, Por Yor and Suda invited us to come to their house to have breakfast with them. I had asked the night before if we could speak to them a bit more, as with their customs and shyness we hadn’t had much chance to connect.

We discovered that as well as their own Hill tribe language, Por Yor and Suda spoke Thai. That was great as we didn’t need the Foundation staff to translate for us, because Anthony had a wonderful app that translated Thai to English!

With Poy Yor and Suda after breakfast together

With Poy Yor and Suda after breakfast together

We had a memorable morning using his phone to communicate more directly to each other. They were such warm and friendly people, who were really pleased to have us stay with them. Suda said she would miss us now we were going.

After packing up and  we said farewell to Becca, Phoebe, Suda and Por Yor, and began the long drive back to Chiang Mai. We had made new friends, had a glimpse into the lives of beautiful people who live in the mountainous hills of Thailand, and been blessed to witness elephants living freely and happily.

With the Mahouts Foundation staff and our homestay hosts

With the Mahouts Foundation staff and our homestay hosts

How was this an ethical experience?

This experience is a wonderful example of sustainable tourism. This program was created in conjunction with the mahouts and the Huay Pakoot villagers, who have worked with the Foundation to create a program that benefits their whole community. It gives the elephants a natural life, which is a real pleasure to witness and support. And it utilises the mahout’s skills and knowledge in a way that does not harm their elephants, yet does provide a living income.

For the mahouts

The mahouts are often overlooked or seen as the bad guys when it comes to elephant tourism. They are not always the owners of the elephants, but they are their keepers. In best case scenarios, they are loving and supportive companions to the elephants, spiritually-bound for life. But in the tourist camps, instead of coming from generations of knowledge, men are only given a few day’s training and then are called a mahout. And those that do have real skills and knowledge like Manit are forced to use their elephants under extreme conditions, for very little or even no pay, just relying on tips.

This model is exponentially better for both the elephants and the mahouts, bringing both home to where they belong. Experienced mahouts can pass on their knowledge to the new generation in optimal conditions too.

Allegra with Mint and mahout apprentice Racha

Allegra with Mint and mahout apprentice Sunti

For the elephants

These elephants are loved and cared for by people who want to see them be happy. They are not made to do anything unnatural, and they are obviously healthy and relaxed in the forest. They are eating their natural diet and can forage to their heart’s content, which is pretty much all day!

The elephants inhabit a large area of the forest and can roam very freely as they would in the wild. They love to live in their family group and have the freedom to forage and play. In observing them living naturally, the Mahouts Foundation is able to do research on their behaviour and foraging, which helps them inform on welfare standards for elephants in camps. 

You might have noticed that each elephant wears a very long chain around one front leg. I questioned why and there are several reasons:

  • For the mahouts to attach the chain to a tree overnight, so the elephants can still forage for food but the mahouts will be able to find them in the morning. The chain is very long so the elephants can untangle it with their trunks, and so they can still roam enough distance. The chain is loosely tied to their stronger front leg and does not hurt it. It is also tied to a small tree, so that in the case of an emergency the elephant can break the tree to escape.
  • The chain is also useful if the elephants get into a farmer’s field. They love corn and can demolish a lot of a crop very quickly if left to it. So the chain can be tied up by the farmer to prevent too much damage before the mahouts can herd them away.
  • The chains are also helpful to track the elephants through the jungle, as they can be hard to locate once the cow bells are too far away to hear.

We saw that these chains definitely do not harm the elephants. There are no cuts or bruises on their legs and they moved easily and freely.

For the environment

Returning more elephants to the forest means having enough wild spaces to support them. It is imperative that the forests remain intact for the future of elephants, who are an endangered species (and all wild animal populations). This in turn supports human communities, and educates everyone about the crucial role of the natural environment.

David Attenborough quote

For tourists who want an encounter with some elephants

This type of experience is quite unique, as it gives travellers a chance to safely and closely observe the elephants, while still preserving the animal’s autonomy and natural way of life. The mahout’s involvement guarantees that we will get to see the elephants, unlike a safari where there are no guarantees. It also enables our inquisitiveness to help the people who are committed to treating the elephants well.

We fully support models like the Mahouts Foundation offers. No, we didn’t get to touch the elephants, or feed them or get a selfie with them. We had a much richer experience than that.

The experience was steeped in effort on our behalf, as the tourist. We didn’t demand that the elephants amaze us with tricks that they’ve learned, or make them keep still for a pat or a photo.

Instead we learnt about them and what they’re really like, what truly makes them elephants. It is not that they can do things that humans can do, or that they will do things to please us. Animals are fascinating in their own right, and they do not have to succumb to our will to prove their worth.

We also made a great effort to get to the elephants. We paid with our time and money to see them in their natural habitat, living healthily and happily. We didn’t support an endeavour that takes them away from their environment for our convenience, forcing them to live in artificial conditions.

I believe these practices are a better way to act as a tourist. These experiences are special because they connect us with other species and other cultures. When there is great effort involved, there is great will to make the connections, and much deeper understanding is achieved. And we realise just how precious the encounters are instead of taking them for granted, or assuming we are entitled to them just because we are tourists.

I’m really glad our kids are seeing that we can maintain an animal’s dignity and still have a great experience with them. And I’m glad we all got a taste of Thai village life, and can see how a community is supported by forms of tourism like this.

I hope you can see from all of our pictures and this story, how wonderful it really is just to be able to observe a magnificent creature in it’s own habitat. Don’t they look so happy and natural, living in the forest?

In supporting elephants to have their freedom, we have the amazing opportunity to really see them for what they are. We also are protecting their future, helping surrounding communities, and preserving the forests that give life to us all.

Links for further research about seeing elephants ethically

Take a pledge to support elephants for the future

Pledge with World Animal Protection to show that you want an end to elephants being used as entertainment in the tourism industry.

Pledge with the Elephant Crisis Fund to help protect African elephants from being hunted for ivory.

Free elephant wallpapers and printable colouring pages

Pin this post for laterOur family wanted to see elephants in Thailand, but only if we could do it truly ethically. We had a wonderful experience with the Mahouts Elephant Foundation, in the mountains around Chiang Mai. Their program is returning elephants to the jungles and is a model for sustainable tourism, which benefits whole communities.

Another ethical animal encounter we have had as a family was volunteering with a turtle conservation project in Malaysia. Read about our week at the Juara Turtle Project here.

12 Responses

  1. Dawn says:

    This is such an amazing experience. I really like that the elephants there were really taken care off. This is a really nice way to spend some time with these cute creatures. It is also so cute that the elephants were named after Bai Fern and Mario. Great post, thanks for sharing.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Ah, Just my type of topic! Thank you so much for sharing and spreading the word. Elephants are such awesome giants and am looking forward to having an experience similar to yours. It’s more than about time that elephants get the respect they truly deserve.

    • Emma says:

      Indeed Sylvia, it’s certainly time. They are amazing creatures and it was perfect to see them so happy in the forest. I’m sure you will savour your experience with them too!

  3. Lisa says:

    Such an important topic, they’re incredible animals and I love the detail you’ve included here. Amazing work!

  4. Adrienne says:

    Wow, what an incredible experience! We visited Elephant Nature Park, where the elephants were in captivity (although as ethically as possible) but I would have loved to see the roaming free in the wild. Great photos too!

  5. Amber says:

    I had goosebumps reading this. What an absolutely fantastic experience x

  6. It’s so great to find out about this project and read your wonderful article about your experience. This really is tourism at its most sustainable, and hopefully there will be lots more projects like this in Thailand in the future.

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