We have been fortunate to meet so many great people helping to improve the lives of Asian Elephants. Learn more about these experts as they share their story with Elemotion. All interviews are in original language.
After spending an afternoon in the forest with the elephants, Elemotion Foundation sat down with Jack Highwood, founder of ELIE and EVP. He spoke to us about his unique project. We were intrigued to hear about how he has combined elephant welfare, community development, and elephant conservation. Interview, June 2012
>Why did you choose to start an elephant project in Mondulkiri?
Well, I’ve been through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia… But, I liked it here. This province has half of the wild elephants (in Cambodia) and a majority of the captive elephants. Because it is an important spot, I wanted to start something for elephants here.
>How did you start ELIE (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment)?
In the beginning, I started doing veterinary care, treating the elephants in the villages, and doing research.
There was an elephant in one of the villages which had a huge back abscess threatening the spine. This is very dangerous. The infection can eat down into the back, closer to the spine, and kill the elephant. Ten of the families which owned the elephant agreed to stop working it and allowed me to treat it. The treatment was going very well. The abscess was healing and the infection was almost gone. Then, the 11th family, who only cared about working the elephant, took it away to log and it died.
That is the problem here. And, that is the problem with tourism in general here. The tradition of elephant catching, taking elephants from the wild, means that when an elephant dies, they can just go get another one from the wild. Of course, this is illegal now, but the mentality remains the same. The elephant is not valued like it should be. So, if the elephant gets sick, they just carry on working it. And it goes downhill. And, that is the problem with tourism. Huge pressure from the guesthouses and tour companies is put on the elephant owners to make sure the elephants are ready to work, regardless of their wellbeing.
>So, what did you do?
I wanted to rethink the method we were using. Going to the elephants was clearly not working; no matter the condition, the elephants were still being worked. We were trying to treat them, but they just kept going downhill. So instead, I decided to make a place where elephants could rest. I changed track and I changed direction.
>So you created Elephant Valley Project (EVP). Please tell me about the start of EVP?
At the beginning, I had a very Thai idea of an elephant camp in mind. We did offer riding, no seat, just sitting on the neck or some mahout training. But, then we started to think more about the elephant. What did the elephant want, not what did the tourist want? And from the very first day we stopped riding the elephant, it was so clear that the elephant was better off. So we thought, how do we get the elephants back in the forest again? How do we get the people connected back to conservation? How do you encourage people to stop hunting? How do you get them good income? How do you support what they need in the community?
Now, we have 650 hectares of natural elephant habitat. We have tropical forest, dry forest, old farmlands, bamboo, and many kinds of grasses. We can let the elephant graze around on this. We have 11 elephants with a capacity of 30. So now we have a circle forming. People are coming to experience the elephants in their natural habitat which brings income. Part of this income can then be used to benefit the villagers.
>How do ELIE and EVP benefit the local people?
First, you have to have the trust of the local people. By building the sanctuary here, we create jobs; looking after elephants, looking after guesthouses, working on construction, maintaining the land. We have 36 full-time local staff. We provide jobs with a regular salary and we are also flexible for those who want short-term or part time work.
We also help with healthcare. From our income, we spend about 20,000$ US dollars to pay healthcare coverage for over 500 adults and 1000 children. Before we came here, there was a 50% child mortality rate for children under 5 years old. Since we started healthcare coverage, only 3 children have died in the last five and a half years. We also spend about 25,000$ on land rights and human rights. The locals have healthcare coverage, translators for doctor visits (villagers speak the local Bunong language), income, food, clean water, and now we are also starting to sponsor law enforcement. This will help protect their lands and resources. And all of this is due to the elephants. Their lives are better because there are elephants here. They now have a reason to keep this forest for the elephants.
Elemotion Foundation was delighted to spend three days with Dr. Deepani Jayantha, Born Free’s Sri Lanka Representative, as she showed us first hand the trials and tribulations of Sri Lanka’s wild and captive elephants. Learn more about Human Elephant Conflict, Born Free’s work, the lives of captive elephants, and ways to watch wild elephants responsibly. Interview, Oct, 2011
>What is Human Elephant Conflict, and why is it an important problem in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka is an island of about 65,000 square kilometers with about 13-15% of the total land area cover declared as protected. We have approximately 5,000 wild elephants. And, we have about 21 million people who need places to live and space for agriculture and industrial work. So, there is large amount of land pressure. The land has to be shared between these two species.
As for the protected areas, only some are bordered by electric fences. The majority of protected areas in Sri Lanka have been interconnected. And in between, there are forest reserves in which you can find elephants. It has been studied that the majority of the elephant population, more than 60%, live outside the protected areas, which means, they inhabit human settlements. This is partly because the remaining wild habitats are poor in food sources. While around the human settlements, they can find more palatable crops, such as paddy, corn fruits and vegetables. So this is an incentive for them to come out of the protected areas. Also, they need to move in between forests. This information is in their genes, especially in the case of males. They need to go to different areas finding females ready for breeding. All of those facts make up the interface of Human Elephant Conflict. The elephants are quite often coming in contact with humans. And if they raid crops, the people take immediate measures to get rid of the elephants. Elephants are quite adaptive, so when they are subjected to continuous harassment, they develop this dislike towards humans. And, they may try to attack humans if they get a chance.
>What measures do the villagers take to try to get rid of the elephants?
They use shot guns and trap guns. They put poison in the food the elephants eat. Homemade explosive ‘Hakka Patas’ is sometimes mixed with vegetables in the field and cause extensive damage to the mouth of the affected animal. There are other ways that elephants get injured too. Sometimes traps are set for other bush species, but elephants are injured in these traps as well. They can accidently fall into agricultural wells or abandoned gem mines. So in those examples, you can’t say that people hurt the elephants deliberately, but it happens.
>What measures has Born Free taken to help with Human Elephant Conflict?
As a model, we work with Rathambalagama village which has been heavily affected by Human Elephant Conflict. There we have two components of the conservation project: A. We work with the school and the village children. We want to make the village kids better farmers and more responsible adults in the future to live with this conflict. So, our aim is to give them a better education all around, which includes teaching them about conservation issues, in particular, Human Elephant Conflict. We also help the school with the education facilities, such as infrastructure, better farming models, etc. And, my argument is that these are the future farmers; if you can educate the today’s kids for better livelihoods or alternate livelihoods, it will have a positive impact on the environment by reducing the number of future adults who will depend on their habitats around for farming.
B. We work with the farmers. We promote Elephant Resistant Crop farming, the crops that are not being raided by elephants. Most of them are spices that have aromatic tastes which the elephants don’t like. Black pepper, ginger, saffron, betel leaves are such. The farmers usually lose some of their harvest, whether paddy or corn or vegetables, when the elephants raid their crops. But, if one farmer can dedicate a small plot of land for Elephant Resistant Crops, instead of planting the whole area with paddy, corn, or elephant susceptible crops, then the income the farmer can get from the Elephant Resistant Crops can buffer the loss from the elephant susceptible crops. Our harvests will be sold to the local indigenous medicine department because these spices are used in local medicine. So, we see that the farmers have a better future.
>How long have you done this Elephant Resistant Crop project?
We have only completed one year. So, we will be giving more seeds and saplings this year. We hope that in another 5 years time, the farmers will have seen the results and adopted the practice.
>Every year, thousands of tourists take jeep safaris in national parks to see wildlife, including wild elephants. What can tourists do to make sure that the elephants are not disturbed?
It is best to start with the jeep vehicle, the driver, and the guide. A tourist can always have a good dialogue with their driver and guide to inform them that they do not want to disturb the elephants or hassle them in the wild. Tourists can ask their jeep driver not to exceed the standard speed limit, which is about 25km/hour in a national park. Ask him not to drive into the herd or raise the engine. Ask him to be sure to keep a good distance (about 20-25m) from female herds with calves. Females with calves are quite protective and defensive. They can even become injurious to the vehicle and tourist as well. So, tourists better keep that in mind. Again, it is always good to maintain silence. Silence is rewarding. They can observe natural behaviors of the animals if silence is maintained. And, they should not feed wild animals, in general. As a responsible tourist, they can also ask the driver and guide not to disturb the animals for photo opportunities. Continuous disturbances and harassment will be harmful to the visitors one day. You never know when that day will come. It is always good to take precautions. Wild animals are wild, and they need to be respected. It is our duty to give them their space because we are entering into their habitat.
To learn more about responsible elephant watching: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/elephants/campaign-action/sri-lanka-elephants/responsible-tourism/elephant-watching/
>What kind of behaviors can tourist enjoy observing in wild elephants compared to captive elephants?
The biggest difference between captive and wild elephants is in captivity, they are kept as single animals and they are always tethered to the same place. Obviously, that restricts their normal behavior. Normal behaviors are grazing, feed walking, or interacting with other animals such as touching, playing, smelling and mock fighting. All those can be observed in the wild, but in captivity, perhaps only a few of those behaviors can be observed in Pinnewala animals. However, it is very clear that captive elephants show signs of stress, agitation, and anxiety. Because of that, they do not tolerate the presence of humans, especially during procession periods. Today, we went to the temple of Tooth Relic and we learned how easily they try to hit the mahout or visitors. Captive elephants don’t show normal wild elephant behaviors. Instead, they show a series of stereotypy; like swaying, swinging, rocking. Naturally, elephants always move. When you stop them from moving, they show these kinds of stereotypical behaviors.
>What is an elephant back safari? Where do those elephants come from?
There are about 120 captive held or privately owned elephants in Sri Lanka. They are mainly kept in temples and owned by politically strong people such as ministers and chief Buddhist monks. These animals are the ones that are sent to ‘peraheras’, or religious processions, as well as to elephant back safaris.
That is the origin in general, but the real origin is something else. The majority of the current population is coming from the wild. Before 1970’s, the government allowed capturing elephants from the wild. Today, wild capture is banned. Those animals who came from the wild are still the captive population. A few animals were recruited to the captive population from Pinnewala. To add to that, several animals were given away from the Elephant Transit Home. And we know for sure, about 10 juveniles are there in captivity who have been abducted from the wild during the last 8 years .
The captive elephants are shifted between places. Different peraheras, or processions, take place in different areas of Sri Lanka. So, it is the same animals that are shifted between places. During the peak tourist season, these animals are sent to Habarana and Sigiri for safaris.
>Tell me about their daily living conditions.
Safari elephants are kept alone. The majority of the time, if they are not giving a safari ride, they are kept tethered to the same post or tree. Unfortunately, the rope or chain length is extremely short. They cannot move much. They just sway. Their day would usually start from 8 – 8:30am and would go up to 5:30pm. They make safari trips of one hour, or one and a half hours maximum. At noon, they are usually sent to the water, but if tourists demand, they still have walk on tarmac. They can carry a maximum of four people on their backs in a special cage. I can’t say that the cage is the best structure to serve that purpose. It doesn’t fit with the contours of the animal. The cage is pulled tight to the animal with ropes and chords. These animals are fed with limited food and water. They do not have free access to water. Food is basically palm leaves and fig branches which is not provided throughout the day. Today, we observed how reluctant the animals are to go on the safari tour. Some have foot lesions, wounds, and infections around the nail. It looks like the mahouts extensively use the ankus, or the bull-hook, on the animals to control them. We observed several jab wounds; we observed animals limping; we observed chain cut wounds. Apart from that, the safari elephants are being heavily controlled with chains. Hobbles and other chains are used to control their stride. The safari elephants stay at one particular place for 4-5 months. It looks like they do not receive proper veterinary attention, partly because it is expensive. The elephants do suffer in this industry.
Direct from the offices at the Elephant Transit Home, Dr. Tharaka Prasad speaks to Elemotion about this unique orphanage, Human Elephant Conflict, and Sri Lanka’s governmental policies to protect elephants. Interview, Oct, 2011
>The Department of Wildlife Conservation began the Elephant Transit Home in 1995 to rehabilitate and release wild orphans. How do you find these orphans? Why have they become orphaned?
The information is received from the villagers. There is a system where the village head should report the elephant to the police or the wildlife sector, which is then passed on to us. Once we get the message, we go and rescue the baby. They can become orphans by falling into the pits, agricultural wells, or getting caught in traps. Manmade structures cause this situation.
>In what condition do they arrive? And, what are the major challenges they face?
We they reach us, they are heavily damaged, sometimes with bruises and closed or open factures. Once we treat the animal’s wounds, we have to feed it with artificial milk, cow’s milk, which causes lots of digestion problems. If they are intolerant, it can cause diarrhea. After several days of dehydration and diarrhea, the animal can die if we don’t monitor it closely. The main challenges are to maintain the hygienic feed intake and control infections.
>When do you decide that an orphan is ready for release?
In the wild, once the elephant is about 4-5 years old, they can be self sustained . They are less dependent on their mother, so with this principle, we assume that the best release age should be within this period. So, the release groups are made of batches of 4 to 5 year olds. We gather them and keep them as a family, and ultimately release them together. Before we release them, we fix VHF transmit collars on a few of the babies for monitoring purposes. The collars have different frequencies emitting pulser type signals with different channel frequencies which allow us to monitor them. And, these collars have sensors which will show us if it has stopped moving after 20 hours, called inbuild mortality sensors. It will emit a different signal which indicates that the animal has died. So far we have released 78 orphans. Out of 78, only 4 died in the wild due to diseased conditions. Some have integrated with wild herds very successfully, 4 were recorded in calving. There is also one disabled elephant which was released and has adapted in the wild. This is the first in all of Asia. I heard that several programs like Elephant Transit Home have started since then. Some are in India.
>How many are released at a time? How long, and how often are they monitored once released?
There is no fixed number, but we release at least three animals together. The project’s success is based on successful integrations with wild elephant herds. When the orphans are released in larger numbers, they try to live with their own group. They don’t try to join the wild groups. If they live with their own groups, they don’t gain any experience in the wild and don’t know how to face problems in the wild. So, when we release them in smaller numbers, such as 3 or 4, they tend to integrate better. Smaller numbers is more successful than higher numbers. The original plan was monitor twice per week. But, we found that to be not possible because there was lack of infra structures and lack of staff to monitor . So, we try to maintain monitoring once every two weeks. We must track the animal to find the location and observe them. We need to physically see the animal to observe the body condition, and note their companions to see if they are integrating.
>The biggest problem facing Sri Lanka’s wild elephants is Human Elephant Conflict. How does the Department of Wildlife Conservation view and address this problem?
The Department used several GPS collars on wild elephants, about 25, and monitored them for two years and collected data. This was done with the collaboration of other non- governmental organizations one called, Conservation Center for Research. We noted that several animals were living outside the protected areas. First, we tried to drive the animals from their living area into the protected area. Our drives were not so successful because we only considered from where we must drive them away. We did not consider habitat enrichment of the destination. If they have no food or water, they will come back to where they were before. It was our mistake. They do not stay. So, we observed three times that the elephants go when we drive them away, and then they come back. Elephants are clever. Sometimes they break through the electric fence. They know how to escape.
So, we identified certain areas as elephant managed reserves. Now, we try to maintain these areas without disturbing the people. Our target is to cover the villages with a fence. But, there are not enough people to maintain the fences. The villagers are taking the responsibility only during the cultivation seasons. After harvesting , they ignore all. Other seasons, they don’t want to maintain them. The government doesn’t have the extra money to hire the labor to maintain these fences. It is too much money for them. So, the problem persists. Because of the problem, elephants are dying. On average, it is about 200 per year. Every week, three elephants die. The human rate is about 50 human deaths per year.
The death of humans is mainly due to their negligence by making unusual movements at unusual times. They know elephants are there, but they go anyway. Sometimes, alcohol is involved. Other times, male elephants are a problem. They arrive in the villages and break the houses for stored food. Those animals should be removed by the Wildlife Department. But for those males, our plan is to develop elephant holding pens. We’d like to keep the animal inside the pen during their aggressive periods by doing things like putting additional food. And sometimes, we may have to use hormones to control the aggression. We tried twice injecting an inhibition hormone, which reduces testosterone levels. At first, it worked very well. We saw that the animal is not moving much during this time, while normally they would move much more. But, later on, we couldn’t follow up because a collar malfunctioned.
>How much of the Department of Wildlife Conservation’s work is dedicated specifically to elephant conservation?
Elephants are our main concern. It is a keystone species. By protecting this species, you automatically protect other wildlife species too. But also, everyone likes elephants. When they are hurt, people are very concerned. So, we must try to protect them. We have an elephant policy. It has 6 or 7 regulations. These policies concern domesticated elephants too.
>What policies exist to protect domesticated or captive elephants?
They must be registered under our Department by law. But, it does not always happen that way. When the owner requests veterinary assistance, we are legally bound to visit the elephant. But, they never request our assistance. They have their own veterinary advisors. There are some veterinary professionals issuing contradictory certificates too. As soon as the elephant is smuggled from the wild, they might make a certificate saying they observed a cow which was pregnant had this baby. They are issuing these false certificates, and we try to crosscheck with DNA. They have few pairs of genes, so it is easy to crosscheck maternity. But, they won’t allow the blood to be taken from the suspected false mother. In reality, the mother might still have lived in wild and can’t be checked. They say they won’t allow her to be tranquilized because it can risk her life. They make objections in court that the tranquilizer contains highly levels of narcoleptics, which can cause death. Therefore, they will not allow tranquilization to be performed. Or sometimes, they say that the mother had died, and they already burned the carcass.
Mr. Corea speaks to Elemotion Foundation about the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society’s work, their unique volunteer program, solutions to Human Elephant Conflict, and temple elephants. Interview, October 2012
>What kind of work does the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society do to reduce Human Elephant Conflict?
The way we approach Human Elephant Conflict is to look at what it means in today’s context. Earlier, it was purely seen as a wildlife management issue. But, today, it has transcended to a point where it is one of our biggest environmental and socioeconomic crises, especially in the rural areas. And, of course, anything to do with a socioeconomic crisis ultimately translates into a political issue.
In the beginning, the approach by the government, the Department of Wildlife Conservation, was to fence elephants into the national parks. And, that was not working. One reason is because the national park boundaries are administrative boundaries. It is not the ecological boundary of the elephants, or any wildlife in the park, for that matter. So, instead, we put the electric fences around the villages. The village boundary is a definite socioeconomic boundary which the villagers understand. And that’s exactly where we don’t want the elephants to go. They can go anywhere else. And anyway, over 70% of the wild elephants live outside the protected areas. So, it doesn’t make sense to fence the park. When you complete fencing a park, you cannot ever guarantee that all the elephants are in the park. So, knowing the fact that 70% live outside the protected area, you are just unnecessarily stopping elephants from going through their natural ranging. In our model, the concept is fencing elephants out rather than in.
>How long have the fences been operating? What results have you seen?
We established the first fence in 1997, and it’s still operating and has been continuously operating for nearly 14 years now. We will be celebrating the second fence’s 10th anniversary next year.
The impact has been remarkable. Just by addressing the conflict and stopping the elephants coming into the villages, we have increased income of the average villager by 212%. Agriculture production has gone up by 93-97%. And, you can see this affluence in the village now. When we started our work, 99% of the village homes were mud huts. Today, you can’t even find a mud hut. We had to build a mud hut as a model to show visitors how these people used to live. But, the most important changes have been the attitude of the villagers. They don’t perceive the elephant as a threat anymore. Today, the villagers say, we take our children to show them elephants. (They can be seen right outside the village near the reservoir, especially during the dry season.) Earlier, if the villagers saw elephants, they would be making noises and trying to chase them away. But now, that doesn’t happen at all. The elephants are bathing, drinking, grazing. The people, maintaining a distance, are doing the same; bathing, catching fish, and socializing. It’s remarkable to see these two species which were once in conflict are now, at some level, tolerating each other and coexisting. And, that is mainly because we stopped the negative impact that they had on each other. So, our focus is to create this kind of situation where there is conflict.
>Can this be replicated elsewhere? And, do you think this model can be sustained in the years to come?
To emulate this is in other areas, we need support from the state and government institutions. At that level, there are lots of obstructions for various reasons. Again, it transcends across the three main aspects of this issue, the wildlife management or environmental issue, the socioeconomic crisis, and the political issues. It can become difficult to navigate. An important idea that we need to get across to politicians, administrators and development planners is that our development efforts in areas that have elephants have to be around the elephant—meaning the elephant and its needs have to be given priority. The needs of the elephant have to be in the center of all our development efforts for these areas. This is the most cost effective and sustainable manner to develop. This also ensures that we are safeguarding one of our biggest natural assets. To disregard the elephant in our development efforts will put a huge burden on our environment, economy, and communities. Development efforts up to now which have completely disregarded this important consideration has created intense conflicts, which is highly detrimental to both people and elephants and is very costly to mitigate over the short and long term. If we are to resolve human-elephant conflict to a level where it is tolerable and manageable then we need to be preemptive and proactive. Right now most of the ongoing efforts by the government are reactive measures which are applied in an ad hoc manner, so not surprisingly, the success rate has been dismal. Especially when you compare the outcomes of these efforts with the scale and magnitude of human-elephant conflicts, presently we are losing on average over 200 elephants per year due to conflicts. Around 50 people on average every year are also killed by elephants in conflict areas. In addition just the loss in agriculture production alone has been estimated to be close to US$10 million per year. So as you can see, this is an issue that needs a more focused and integrated systematic approach to resolve it.
In regard to our efforts, a very important issue is how to maintain the status quo of what we have achieved at our project site in Wasgamuwa. How can we sustain this model or maintain this tolerance? It is very fragile. Anything can disrupt this, especially if a plan for large-scale agriculture or human settlement program is created to develop the land area directly outside the villages. That would completely jeopardize balance. Today the common language is economics. If something has economic value, people will tend to pay special attention. One of the ways we are looking at doing this is eco-tourism. Our projects are attractive to a certain kind of tourist who is looking for an exceptional experience.
>You spoke about the electric fences, do you have other projects in place to help reduce the impact of Human Elephant Conflict?
We have other alternative and supplementary programs. One program involves trying to provide farmers with buffer incomes by using Elephant Resistant Crops. If an elephant destroys a villager’s rice crop, they will have an economic buffer with their Elephant Resistant Crops. And, this will keep them from harassing the elephant or trying to poison it. Today, they use some very horrendous methods. For example, they put explosives into vegetables and fruits, so that when an elephant eats it, it shatters their jaw. And, of course, the elephant starves to death because it cannot eat. Livestock is also a good option for places where Human Elephant Conflict is a problem. Elephants have no conflict with livestock, such as cattle. So, rather than permanent cultivations, dairy is a great alternative. If the elephants eat your grass, it is not such a problem as if they ate your bananas, or corn, or rice. These are the measures that we are trying. Some of these concepts of ours are also being emulated in places in India, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
>How important is the economic welfare of villagers in mitigating Human Elephant Conflict?
I would like to expand the scope of the question. More than just the socioeconomic wellbeing, you need to talk about awareness. You want people to understand the various contexts in which the elephant is important. Elephants are important figures in biodiversity, religion, and culture. When you talk about the socioeconomic welfare of people, you are talking about the people who are only at the interface of the conflict, those that suffer when the elephants come into their villages. But, when it comes to awareness, you have to look at people across the board. The Asian elephant and the people of Asia have a relationship that goes back more than 5000 years. There are people who do not know that. And, what is unique about this relationship is that at no time in the history of mankind has there ever been such a relationship between people and a wild animal. And I doubt that there ever will be another relationship like that.
But the welfare of people is very important. I think that in any measure we develop, people should see a tangible benefit that they can relate to. It is also important to make them realize that that change has come because of the elephants. In our discussions with the communities, we try to remind them that we are there today because you have elephants in your backyard. And the affluence you see now is because of the elephant. I think people understand that. I believe it shows because the measures that were applied by us years ago are still being used, such as maintaining the fences
>Tell me about your volunteer program.
It is very important for us. Not just for the money it brings us, but the volunteer is sending a very strong message to the villagers. The elephant was something they took for granted and considered a nuisance. Now, all of a sudden, they see this person who has travelled from far away, leaving everything familiar, coming to an unknown place, and trusting people they have never met. All these things, the villagers question. They are very curious about this person. They look at this person who has come from abroad and they think, “Would I do that?” They see this person alone and having tremendously great time. In this, they see the elephants and projects have a value and that shapes the attitude of the people. If you come to our project sites, the volunteers become part of the village fabric. The volunteers are offered the same acceptance as they give to one of their own people. So, it’s a great environment.
We have been operating the volunteer program since 2002. The revenue that the volunteers bring helps us to maintain the fences, create new projects, and sustain the program. We like having new volunteers come and experience conservation efforts and learn about the local people, culture, and traditions. Our programs offer a broad, integrated experience.
>Tell me about temple elephants.
The temple elephant issue is a huge dilemma. The elephant is very closely associated with Buddhism. I don’t see how this association can be changed. But, from a more humane perspective, there must be a better way to maintain the elephants which are used for this purpose. And that is the issue; most of the temples do not have the facilities to keep elephants. And you can see that easily. You can go to any number of temples, including a prominent temple in Colombo, you will see that the way the elephant is kept is horrible. Some of the major temples, such as the Temple of the Tooth Relic, have more than ten elephants.
One of the solutions that I would like to promote is to have a common facility where these elephants can be kept. From there, the elephants can be transported to the temple functions. So, when the elephants come back to this facility, they can be off their chains and interact with each other. Of course, there will be management issues, such as mixing and matching animals that are compatible. But, I think that is a better way to keep these animals. And, I think overall, it will give credibility to the justification of having to use these elephants. Plus, it shows that on our part, we are concerned. We care about the elephant. We are not just treating it like some inanimate, cultural object. We are looking at it as a living, feeling animal that has certain needs and requirements to lead a fulfilled life. Right now, there is a one way relationship: shackling and keeping them to use for our convenience. There is really nothing from our side that is being done to make that animal’s life better. This needs to be resolved immediately because these animals have a horrible existence. It comes down to what the great Mahatma Gandhi said that ‘A nation can be judged by the way it treats its animals.’ I think we should listen to those words of wisdom.
John Roberts is a busy man. Between running the elephant camp at the Anantara Resort in Chiang Rai, rescuing begging elephants with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, and coordinating volunteers and scientific researchers, he still found time for an interview with Elemotion Foundation. Interview Oct, 2010
1-Tell me about the different projects you are running.
We have three different operations. There are two commercial operations, one working for the Four Seasons Golden Triangle with 4 elephants and one working for Anantara with eight elephants. Those elephants are fully looked after by the hotels, and, in turn, they can make money for the hotels when we have enough guests. The rest of the elephants are under the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. That is a non for profit organization. We look after elephants we say can’t help themselves such as young elephants or pregnant elephants. At the moment, we have no old elephants, but that would also be possible.
2-Have you had any births?
We’ve had three elephants born here. We don’t have a breeding program. But, we give the elephants a degree of freedom, so it does happen. And, we like baby elephants.
3-Are you involved in any new projects that you would like the public to know about?
Anantara is sponsoring a clinic for the Thai Elephant Therapy program which will be held in Lampang. The elephants are working with autistic children as assistant therapists. The children have shown improvement in balance, social skills, and other improvements. This clinic which will give free treatment to 8 Thai kids.
4-At Anantara and Four Seasons, the elephants do some kind of work. Could you tell me about the kind of work the elephants do and how it differs from the work done in an average tourist camp?
First of all, we do have trekking here. It is not our signature activity, but we don’t ban it. In my opinion, trekking is not necessarily dangerous or harmful to the elephant. It becomes dangerous or harmful to the elephant when it does too much trekking. For example, it has to work for ten hours a day, or the equipment is left on too long resulting in saddle sores, etc. But, in my opinion and in my experience, just doing one hour here and there doesn’t do any damage at all, so we do allow it. And we limit it to one hour here or there.
Our signature program is called mahout training. The idea is to give the guests an idea of the bond between the elephant and the mahout. At the very simplest, we do a one hour session where you learn to climb on, go forwards, backwards, left, right, and then walk back up to the hotel. Or, you can choose to do two hours in the morning or two hours in the afternoon where you actually go into the forest with the elephant. If you have had some practice with it before hand, you can take it into the deep water and have some fun with it. If you haven’t had any practice before hand, we don’t let you in for safety reasons. And then, the advanced course is a three day course where we teach how to do a basic veterinary check of an elephant. You are with the same elephant for three days. Some guests do volunteer to come down here and muck out. It’s a nice program and it suits the 5 star guests that we have here.
5-Where do you find the elephants you rescue for the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation?
The first one walked past as I was sitting in a pub in Bangkok. That is where we got the idea to start doing something. In the beginning, we just found them. Either we took a mahout with us, or a taxi driver, who thought we were crazy, going around Bangkok, searching, and finding the elephants. That’s become more difficult to do now because of the increase in the law. People are wary, even of us, of giving up their position. We do have a very good relationship with them, so we can generally find them if we have to. We’ve never turned anyone into the police. Anyway, if you turn someone into the police, that generally results in a fine. It doesn’t actually solve the problem. It just makes everyone a little bit more broke. Since the start of Chang Yim (government program welcoming elephants and their mahouts back to the Surin province), we’re hoping it will be a little more difficult to get the next elephant we rescue, but that’s a good thing.
6-Depending on the elephant’s origin, is there a difference in the way the elephants have been trained such as language commands, etc. And, how do you deal with that?
There is. We do have three elephants here that are from Chiang Mai who have been trained by Karen and know the northern language. It hasn’t posed a problem because we always bring the mahout with the elephant. So, we have quite a nice little melting pot. From my perspective, there is a good deal of mutual respect between the Karen and the Surin mahouts. A good elephant man recognizes a good elephant man
7-When you rent or buy an elephant, do you always bring the mahout and their family here with the elephant?
The mahout comes, and the family has the choice. Learning what we have by experience, if we don’t bring the mahout, he just goes out and buys another elephant. So you’re not actually solving the problem. There about 40,000 elephants in the wild, so they can be had fairly easily, even if illegally. If you don’t bring the mahout out of the picture, he can just get another elephant. It’s actually rescuing mahouts rather than elephants. It’s a way to look at it, and that’s the way you’ve got to look at it.
8-Why is it important to rent the street elephants and not just buy them?
These guys are traditional, generational mahouts. They have their own separate language, and they’ve always looked after elephants. That is what their fathers did and what their grandfathers did. It’s their cultural identity. So, if you have a mahout without an elephant, and he has money in his pocket, which he will have if you have just bought an elephant off him, he will buy another elephant. It is very, very rare that maybe somebody is retiring. In 95% of the cases that’s what is going to happen. If he was making money with the elephant on the streets, it is very probable that he will do this again with the new one. Or, if he was surviving doing 10 hours a day in a trekking camp, that’s what he’ll do with his new elephant. So, if you buy the elephant, you’ve succeeded in helping one elephant, but you’ve put another who is potentially having a nice wild life, or maybe a young baby still with its mother, in danger of losing that nice life. And as I understand it, there is wild capture going on in Burma. Some very good conservationists, both in Thailand and some global agencies, have said that there are elephants being smuggled across the border from Burma and registered in Thailand. It isn’t too hard to see that the easiest way to get an elephant is to buy an ex-wild one from Burma.
9-Your elephant camp is open to researchers and interns such as veterinarians. Why do you do this?
Well, I started out volunteering, and I’d like to give other people a chance to do the same. That is why the interns may come here for free. We tend to live in an isolated world. If we are going to learn things, we need to share information. And, I believe in teaching youth.
As for the researchers, they scientifically prove or disprove what they think they know. Just thinking you know something is not enough on which to base an argument or theory. You must scientifically prove it. This knowledge might lead to more people understanding the situation that elephants find themselves in. They may start to think about what we can do to save the wild populations, or it may lead to more people thinking about how to make sure the elephants in captivity are well looked after. Also, if we are going to build new laws in Thailand to set a standard of care or standard of work, you must have scientific proof that certain practices are beneficial or harmful. Only then, you can build a law on it.
10-What do you want your guests to learn or remember when they leave?
There are people involved in the equation too. Elephants are currently being domesticated, and there will continue to be domesticated elephants as long as there is a cultural need for them in Thailand. By writing the mahout out of the equation as a cruel, evil man or by ignoring them, we are not going to solve any problems. As long as there are domesticated elephants, there is a need for mahouts. So, you might as well talk to these guys who have been doing this for generations and who actually know what they’re doing. If there are bits of what they’re doing that we don’t agree with, rather than banning them, I work with them. I try to show them that my ideas work rather than just saying “You’re fired, get out of here.” Let’s work with them. It’s not just about looking after the elephants. You must keep the mahouts in the equation. You have to look after them, and in 99% of the time, you must listen to them because they do know what they’re talking about. I want people to understand how good they are at their jobs and why we need them.
11-How can regular people help?
Visit the camps suggested on your website, any one of them. Visit well-run camps. Make sure your agent knows that you visited a well-run camp and suggest that they recommend that camp, even if it’s more expensive.
If you do see an elephant on the street, get the mahout’s phone number. Send it to me, send it to someone. Depending on what you want to do, contact an organization that will help you. Don’t try to do it yourself because you will pay too much. Also, once you buy an elephant and give it to someone, they then have to look after the elephant. Go through the organization first, so they can plan it
Donate to a charity that you feel to be a good one. Be sure that it is a registered charity in the country, and be sure that the organization it donates to is a registered charity.
12-What is your final goal?
My final goal is for Thailand to have, in 25 years, a sustainable number of domestic elephants and for those elephants and their mahouts to be well looked after. Sustainability has to be decided, whether we increase the jobs for elephants or whether we decrease the population. And by domesticated elephants, I include, if it does turn out to be an advantage, domestic elephants that have been released into the wild, that are in a managed population with people looking after them. That would be the ideal.
If any there is one word to describe Katherine Connor, it is matriarch. Katherine founded Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, a home for abused and retired elephants, in 2005. Her compassion and devotion does not stop with her 13 elephants. This mother of two guides and cares for an extended family of staff, mahouts, dogs, cats, and visitors. In this interview, Katherine speaks about an important project, the Star Medical Clinic. Interview Oct, 2010
EMF: Tell me about your project to build an elephant clinic at BLES.
BLES is an elephant sanctuary that takes in overworked, abused, and neglected elephants. We can take in elephants that are emotionally broken, and we can heal them. Right now, we can’t take in elephants that are physically broken because we don’t have the medical facilities available. We have always planned to build a clinic as a part of our sanctuary so that we can offer medical aid to our elephants and to the elephants in neighboring villages. It’s needed. There is a gap here. Elephants die because they don’t get the sufficient care that they need.
EMF: Where will the clinic be located?
Last year, we were lucky enough to secure land to build the clinic. The land is 2 km away from here. We wanted it slightly separated from the sanctuary because we don’t necessarily want sick elephants interacting with our healthy elephants.
EMF: Why is it important to have a clinic near BLES since there are two established elephant hospitals in Lampang, just a 3 hour drive from here?
The hospitals in Lampang are overrun. The vets don’t get enough support. They have too much work to do. And that’s why when one of my elephants is sick or injured, and I call for a vet, I have to wait at least four days before a vet can get out here. And that’s just not good enough. It’s not their fault. It’s because they genuinely have too much of a work load. If we had a clinic here, we’d have an on-site veterinarian and we’d also have sufficient equipment like an ultrasound, an x-ray, an overhead crane… When the vets come with the mobile vet clinic, there is only so much equipment that they can bring with them. And a lot of times, they decide that the elephant needs an x-ray, so they need to take it up to the hospital in Lampang. If we had a clinic here complete with x-ray, ultrasound, and everything else, then we could save time, money, and stress for the elephant, the owner, and the vet.
EMF: How difficult is it to transport an elephant up to Lampang?
It is really difficult. The trucks are insufficient. It’s incredibly dangerous. The elephants get very stressed. Sometimes the journey is too much, and the elephant dies. We had an elephant last year who died on the way to the hospital because it just couldn’t handle the journey.
EMF: Will you offer treatment to elephants outside of BLES? How many elephants are in the surrounding area?
Yes. In the neighboring villages around here, there are at least 30 elephants. The majority of those are working in the illegal logging trade. A few of them are used to beg around the markets. And, a remote few are just kept in the forest, chained, and not working because their owners love them like a part of the family. They don’t want to sell their elephant, but there is no work for the elephant to do. And BLES wants to be able to offer every single elephant in every single situation some kind of chance. An opportunity.
EMF: After the clinic structure is built, will you continue to need support to help pay for medicine, supplies, and staff?
Absolutely. The more support we get, the more help we can offer to the elephants in need.
EMF: Will you have an on-site veterinarian?
I have a yes and no for that answer. I would like to, but I hope there won’t be enough work to keep the vet here full time. However, one of the biggest projects I want to establish when the clinic is up and running is a free spay and neutering program for the cats and dogs in all the villages. So, our vet will have to be experienced in general practice as well as elephant practice. We will also offer support to buffalo and cows. For the local people, we will establish workshops, maybe once a month, where the locals can just come, observe, and learn. And hopefully, they will want to grow up to be vets, doctors, mahouts, or something to help.
EMF: Why did you decide to name the clinic the Star Medical Clinic?
Star was our baby. She was the first baby elephant to be born in this village in this area. Although this village has always been a traditional elephant village, they’ve always used the elephants to log. So, they only ever brought in adult elephants and discouraged them from breeding. They didn’t want babies because they couldn’t work the babies. Back in those days, it’s really important to remember that there was no tourist trade because logging was still legal.
Star was born here. And, she was, to sum her up in one sentence, she was a wild, free spirit. She was unfairly taken from us. She was killed in a freak happening here. In the two and half years that she blessed us with her life, she touched hundreds and hundreds of people. She was a very special elephant. Now, every elephant, every animal is special in their own way, but Star twinkled. She really did. And, when she died, I made her a promise, just like I did to Boon Lott when he died, that I would not let them be forgotten. I would not let them become just another statistic, just another dead baby elephant. Boon Lott was special. The world knows about Boon Lott. Star was special. The world will know about Star because we’re going to name the clinic after her.
EMF: Other than treating sick and injured elephants, creating a spay and neuter program, and providing support for local people what other benefits do you hope that the clinic will bring?
One thing I do want to mention about our clinic is that we will have something that is not available at either of the elephant hospitals, and that is a recovery, herding area. I’m a huge believer in order to heal your body, you have to heal your mind and your heart first. If I’m sick or injured, I want to be comfortable. I want to be relaxed. I want to be able to eat when I want to eat, sleep when I want to sleep… I really feel that elephants are exactly the same. They will have a fenced off area where they can walk, graze, feed themselves, and exercise. And, it will be private from the sanctuary because like I said, we don’t want sick elephants interacting with our healthy elephants just in case anything is contagious.
Known for her small size, this larger than life Thai woman has created a safe haven for abused elephants. She has been a recipient of several prestigious awards and the focus of hard hitting documentaries. In this interview, Lek Chaillert sits down with Elemotion Foundation to discuss her elephant park, future projects, and feelings about her elephant ‘children’. Interview Sept, 2010
1-Tell me about the new construction projects at the park?
This year, we are working on repairs and adding an elephant shelter. Normally, we must chain the elephants at night because we have no fence. My goal is to never see elephants chained. So, in the new shelter, the family can cuddle and be happy together without chains. At night, we will have a camera so we can view them and follow their behavior. They are very happy in the daytime. I want to see how they feel free at night. I want them to sleep well. Like you and me, we do not want to sleep with a chain on our legs. I want them totally free.
2-How many visitors do you have?
Approximately 40 people a day. About 1,200 people a month (volunteers and day visitors together).
3-Where do you find the elephants that you rescue?
We find the elephants we rescue from everywhere; street begging, logging, trekking, tourist circus. We get so many calls for help. When we get a complaint, we go to see the elephant which needs help. And if it is really urgent, like they are dying, we start negotiations with the owner. If they don’t ask too much money, we will take them to the park.
4-You are training some of the young elephants with positive reinforcement. Since they are at the park and will never work a day in their lives, why do you train them?
When the baby is first born, I introduce myself right away to the mother, the baby, and also the nanny. I communicate with them from the first day. The mother can feed the baby milk, and the baby also knows that sometimes I sing for her, pet her. And when she needs to sleep, I lullaby her and chase the bugs for her. She feels a lot of care. This is the first lesson I call love and trust. When she receives the love from me and she trusts me, even the herd trusts me. Then for the second lesson, I will train her to listen (to) the word. To listen (to) the word means if I ask her, she will learn to lie down, in case she is injured on her feet. Or if she has sore teeth, she will open her mouth for me. Then I can help her. We do positive reinforcement training only to help the elephants. We don’t want to train them to perform or obey for humans.
5-Do you feel that you have a gift or something special that helps you to communicate and interact with elephants?
I don’t think that I am a special person. Elephants are very intelligent. Somehow they know that when I stand next to them, I won’t harm them. They can read your mind. If they know that you love them, they will never do any harm. Anyone can have that gift if you really love them.
6-Tell me about elephant heaven and why is it important?
Elephant heaven is really my goal and dream. The young elephants need a place to run free where they don’t have to go bathe or wait for people to feed them. We will make a real home in the forest for them, a safe place. The mahouts will guard the elephants from a distance. If the elephant needs us, it can come to us. But we won’t disturb them. The volunteers can still visit and see them, but from a high (observation) place. This will be a real home for the elephant.
7-You have programs such as Jumbo Express and Surin, do you have any other projects that you would like people to know about.
Yes, we have a new project that we just created in June 2010 called Journey to Freedom. After I did research about the Karen and their elephants for many years, and I found that the situation is quite sad. In northern Thailand, we have the Karen people who have handled and looked after elephants for many hundreds of years. I found that the new generation does not want to handle elephants anymore. Because the economy and society has changed, many of them come to the city to study and learn about new technology. Some families lease their elephants to the owner of a trekking camp. These elephants get abused and are overworked. They swing their heads and are not happy. I want to make the Karen proud of their treasure. So, we are bringing the elephants back to them. I ask any Karen elephant family if they are interested to join our project. We will bring their elephant back from the camp and pay them, the same that the camp pays, to free their elephant. Now, we have seven elephants who live in the jungle, all different ages. You can see the project on our website. And, we bring volunteers to come and see how beautiful the elephants are in the nature. The volunteers can also work with the Karen people. This is a beautiful area. The program will operate on the 4th of October this year.
8-Can you tell me a little bit about the research you have done on elephant painting.
So many people say that in elephant painting, the elephant never gets abused. The elephant suddenly jumps up and starts painting. That’s not true. I have researched this for a long time. If you don’t force them, they will not paint. No way, it will never work. Sometimes they use very young babies who do not accept (the training) easily, so they get beaten. When the baby elephant gets beaten, it gets stressed. They are painting because they want to survive, not because they want to do it. They are afraid of the painting. I guarantee that behind elephant painting, the training is not nice at all. During the training the baby elephant may be injured, and some can die.
9-What is your message for Thai people?
We spread the news to young people in schools and universities about the elephant and tell them the situation. It is important to raise awareness about the elephant in Thailand. I want to tell to Thai people that we must be proud of our beautiful creatures. The elephant has helped Thailand a lot. In history, they helped to save our country, build the roads, and fight battles together with the king. They are part of our society, but the young generation seems to forget about that. Also, I want our Thai government to do something to make sure that elephants get enough protection. At the moment, we don’t have a strong law to protect them.
10-What is your final goal?
I want all the elephants to be happy and get respect, not only from just Thai people but from people around the world. I want this for all animals. I close my eyes and see people being more kind to animals. When they are traveling, I don’t want them to think that their money can be used to buy the animals to entertain them. They should care more and be more responsible. I hope that in the future, animal circuses are out of the program. Elephant painting, dancing, and circuses should go. All animals should be out of the tourist industry.
11-What do you want your visitors to learn or remember?
In the park, we focus on education and telling the situation of the Thai elephant. We want people to see elephants in the nature and respect them. We try to send our message around the world. And also, we hope and expect that when people leave the park, they go out and educate more people. We want to build a network. As the park owner, I am like the gatekeeper. Every day, I build the fence to protect the elephants and other animals.
12-Do you have a favorite elephant, either past or present?
I can’t just say that. When you have a big family in your house, certainly you have to share your love for everybody. You have to care for them all. You can’t just pick. When the mother has several kids, she can’t just pick which baby she loves more. When a new elephant arrives and is very sick, I have to leave the healthy ones to look after the sick one to make sure that it survives. When they are better, I start looking to rescue one more. I love all (of them) the same.
13-Do you believe that the bonds between elephants, whether maternal or companionship, are stronger than the bonds we share as humans?
I have worked with elephants for many years. I have never seen any bond like the love between elephants in any other animal, even humans. The love among them is unconditional love. They are totally opposite from humans. When they submit their love to somebody, they love forever. And, the more they stay together, the more polite they are to each other. This is totally opposite from humans. Or, if an elephant becomes a nanny, not even (blood) related to the baby, she can die for that baby. They will leave anything if that baby elephant cries or screams. All elephants will come to the baby’s rescue. It’s beautiful.
14-Do you have a hero or someone who inspires you?
I have many heroes. Diane Fossey is one person I admire. Aung San Suu Kyi. She is another one who does not give up. Nelson Mandela is also one of my heroes. I have so many heroes who I take as examples in different ways.