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In August 2015, UK-based charity Mahouts Elephant Foundation kicked off a new project to retire working elephants in Thailand back to the forest where they belong. On the first of many voyages to help these elephants, they walked a mother and baby from their lives working at tourist camps in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to retire back to forests surrounding the Karen tribe village where they belong.
The Mahouts Foundation team walked for 8 full days, sometimes more than 12 hours a day, to one of many Karen hill tribe villages in and around Chiang Mai. I met them at the end of their journey at the village welcome ceremony, just as they arrived with the elephants. The elephants will not stay near the village, but will be taken deep into the forest away from humans and farmland.
The village is beautiful and we leave the elephants outside as we settle down to be blessed by the village elders and have a welcome meal. At this point I know nothing about the people who live here and I'm given a sign of things to come: Sarah Blaine, founder of Mahouts, asks when the elephants will be taken to the forest. The response is a bit of a confused look from the head mahout "They are already there, we took them there straight away!".
This was typical of the villagers throughout my stay. They are extremely knowledgeable about the elephants, as they have cared for them for generations, but developing your culture so entwined with animals does not always mean that the animals' welfare is a top priority. I have seen first-hand people treating animals cruelly despite growing up alongside them for generations.
That is not the case for this village. They care deeply, and very simply put, have the same base assumptions about their elephants as they do about humans. Elephants don't get chained up, they don't get locked into small areas, pushed, beaten, or even pressured verbally. The elephants are a part of the village.
The following morning the mahouts lead us into the forest for a few hours, and when we reach the area they were released the previous day, we start to track them. Elephants kept near to farmland not only cause damage to crops and buildings, but to themselves as well. Aside from farmers having to physically defend themselves from the elephants, there have also been recent cases of elephants ingesting large quantities of pesticide. This causes sickness and could easily kill and elephant in large amounts.
We track the elephants via small broken stalks, big footprints and huge balls of elephant dung. We eventually find them foraging near a cluster of bamboo, and the first one I see is Thong Kam (a.k.a. Mum), with her daughter hidden behind her.
Thong Kam is a strong but very gentle elephant who immediately gave a loving impression as a mother. I like to spend some time to introduce myself and to get to know the animals before I take photos, but not having much time with these elephants I began shooting once I saw them, and gradually moved closer. Suspicious of this strange man with his big clicking eye staring at her, she calmly moved in between me and her daughter.
Thong Kam has spent many years working in tourist camps, coming home to the village for respite every few years, but for daughter Bai Fern, it's her first time seeing the forest.
Bai Fern, nearly 4 years old, was born out in the camps and this is the first year that she has been old enough to make the long and tiring trek back to the village.
She was really making the most of her new surroundings, like a kid in a candy store. Learning each new type of vegetation, what she could and couldn't eat, and running through the river.
With enough support, the new project to support the village with eco-tourism and home-stays with the help of Mahouts, Bai Fern will never have to go back to work again.
Mario is a little elephant who is already lucky enough to live in the forest. If the project continues to be successful in the future then Mario will never have to go to work and can spend his whole life in the forest where he belongs.
He is a cheeky young elephant but he gets along well with Bai Fern and Thong Kam and it's great to have 2 young elephants together. The three of them stuck together and looked after themselves.
Mario acts bit more wild than his two new friends, but this is a good thing, and having such a huge area to roam, far away villages or farms, they are not a threat to anyone.
Leaving the elephants to the forest, we get out our hammocks and set up for the night, enjoying the chance to do what future eco-tourists will get to experience when they come to see these semi-wild elephants in the forest.
They wander wherever they wish, with short 'drag chains' attached to one foot of Thong Kam, the mother. There is no need to attach one to Bai Fern as she will stick to her mother for years to come. This chain is loose, unattached to anything, and doesn't restrain their legs in any way. It is attached to only one leg, and it's function is two-fold. It is to indicate to farmers that the elephant is owned, controlled and controllable if they where to stray on to farmland. Mainly though, it is to help the mahouts to track the elephants through the thick forest, breaking grass and leaving a mud trail as it goes.
While the area they have to roam is huge (we couldn't see how much as it stretched beyond the mountains), as they are living free and checked every day or so by mahouts from the village, they do not want them to reach the limits of the forest after a few days and hit farmland, where they risk being shot or poisoned. The alternative is to chain them up overnight, or simply keep them captive. The word 'chained' paints a horrible picture, and while it is no doubt a compromise on having wild and free elephants, it is both a necessary one and in my opinion, a small one.
In reality, these elephants, able to roam freely day and night not in corrals or long night chains, are the most free captive elephants I have ever encountered.
As we wake early, the guides make cookware, cups and kettles out of wood, bamboo and leaves, and set about making tea as the group reflects as what we've experienced.
Sunlight streams through the treetops and we head out to track the elephants again with the soundtrack of wild gibbons in the distance. We left them just before dark so we catch up with them soon, after around an hour or trekking.
This time, the elephants decide to head towards the river near our base camp, and drink and splash around in the mud. Thong Kam wins my heart when she stops Mario from knocking me into the water... he is a cheeky devil!
There always comes a time at sanctuaries when the elephants need to return to camp or head of to their night areas where they are penned or chained for the night. This is simply a reality of rescuing elephants that have no safe wild areas of forest to live in.
But today, as the elephants cross the river and disappear into the forest, there is a strange silence. I turn to the village mahouts to ask what happens next, but they are already walking the opposite direction back to camp.
And that's when it hit me: these elephants really are free.
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