With little research about the plight of the endangered Asian elephant in Thailand, conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions brings travellers on a journey to bridge that research gap. Working alongside the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand, the expedition is a 9-day immersive experience that pairs elephant observation with community-based tourism.
I joined the November expedition deep in the forests surrounding Thailand’s Mae Cheam district, to meet the elephants that reside there and learn about the conservation efforts of these highly intelligent creatures. The Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) is located roughly 5 hours drive from Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s north. The sanctuary was founded by Irish-born Kerri McCrea and her partner Sombat, a local resident of the South Naklang village. Kerri and Sombat met while volunteering with elephants in the region. They both share a passion to rescue elephants from the harsh conditions of tourist camps and bring them home to the forests.
For much of Thailand’s history, elephants played the role of property. They were work salves and war tools. The agricultural industry used them as transport and the now legally-extinct logging industry had them towing remnants of their natural habitat – ironically, the one industry that has led to their status as an endangered species. Nowadays, elephants play a significant role in Thailand’s tourism industry. There are more domestic elephants in Thailand today than there are wild elephants. The decline of the wild elephant in Thailand has been largely caused by loss of habitat, paired with the cultural use of elephants as property. This decline in population has made research on these creatures a difficult task, hence the partnership between Biosphere Expeditions and KSES.
The five elephants that reside at KSES are deemed semi-wild. This means that while they live an existence closely resembling life in the wild, they are still accompanied by their mahouts. This decision is made with the elephant’s safety at foremost consideration, to ensure that there is less chance for human/animal conflict and less exposure to threats, such as ingesting pesticides from cornfields.
Listen to my podcast interview with the founder of KSES –
The 9-day Biosphere expedition brings a team of scientists and travellers to the village of North Naklang to observe and document the interactions and activities of the 5 resident elephants: two females, Too Meh (58 yo) and her daughter Mae Doom (24), and three males, Too-Meh’s grandsons Dodo (14) and Gen Thong (8), as well as Boon Rott (14) who is not related to the others.
Our team is hosted by the warm-hearted Karen people who call this village home. KSES has developed an inclusive community-based tourism model that allows members of the village to earn income from guests travelling here. Villagers earn income through a homestay program, as well as culturally-immersive activities that include basket and scarf weaving, cooking classes and language lessons.
I am assigned to the home of Chee Chee. Her traditional hill-tribe home sits amidst the close-knit collection of houses in the village. The setting takes me to another era as I watch chickens and piglets play under the stilts of the home; traditionally dressed women gather around a pot of tea burning on an open fire. Karen homes sit high above the ground so that livestock such as buffalo can be kept underneath. Here in North Naklang it is also a way to keep safe from potential floods and unwanted guests, such as snakes. My room is a comfortable space, with a mattress covered by a mosquito net. There is a bedside table with a mirror, an electrical outlet and a small guestbook. Being curious, I read the previous guest’s letter which shows gratitude for Chee Chee’s hospitality. Once again, I find myself feeling at home in a foreign space that is so different from the place I was born.
Across a river lies the headquarters for KSES and Biosphere Expeditions, connected to the village by a rickety bridge made of wire and wooden planks, resembling a premodern epoch. At first, I hesitate to cross, feeling as though I could fall through one of the planks at any time. Of course, that’s no concern for the villagers who cross this bridge on motorbikes piled with barrels of corn husk cultivated from the fields. I quickly reverse my monkey mind and adapt to a villager’s mindset—calm and unfazed by anything that is not immediately life-threatening. I imagine that’s what we’re meant to live like as a species, but years of rules and regulations moulded us into bubble-wrapped creatures ruled by fear and anxiety about the future. I think that’s one of the things I love about spending time with communities whose minds operate differently to my own. It offers up a beautiful perspective that I can take with me anywhere, anytime.
I cross the rickety bridge, hands held tightly to the ropes on either side. Our team gathers at the headquarters for a briefing that details what we can expect for the next nine days. We are prepared for the best and worst of what can happen. An expedition is no walk in the park and the coming week we will trek through forests and fields to observe the elephants in their natural habitats. The Biosphere Expeditions team run through a series of risk management procedures and speak with us about what to expect out there in the forests: exposure to insects, adverse weather, steep terrain and the potential for encounters with creatures such as snakes (a rarity). Our team listens intently. As an Australian, I wasn’t too fazed by the idea of coming into contact with a snake, I was more fascinated by the demonstration of the venom extractor and how it uses pressure, like a reverse syringe, to draw venom from the body and reduce the chances of it spreading. Others may have raised eyebrows about the slithery concern but our expedition leader Anthony assures us the worst thing that usually happens on the expedition is heatstroke or a twisted ankle. “Wear a hat, watch where you step and don’t be a hero”, he advises. “If you’re not comfortable or feeling ill, ask for help.”
Briefed and ready for adventure, our dinner is homemade food cooked by the women in the village. Our presence here contributes to the community-based tourism program set up by KSES, with the aim to provide economic stimulation and cross-cultural exchange for local Karen people—the largest of 6 ethnic minority groups in Thailand. That night, after our team of citizen scientists had been well acquainted and prepped for the week’s research activities and adventures, I sleep soundly in Chee Chee’s home to the peaceful sounds of the flowing river.
Dawn breaks and I get ready for our first trek to meet the elephants. Each citizen scientist chooses a research activity for the day. There are five placements to monitor the activities of each of the five elephants and two placements to monitor the interactions of the female and male elephants. Monitoring the activities and interactions of the elephants provides research data that can then be used to generate guidelines for elephant care – guidelines that aim to increase elephant welfare in Thailand and Southeast Asia and make rewilding more elephants easier.
The trek to reach the elephants is one to two hours depending on where the elephants are, the weather, and how many times we stop for a break. We walk out of the village, past agricultural fields of corn and other vegetables. Local farmers greet us with a “Da Blu” (Hello, in local dialect) as we walk past them. The terrain changes from fields to forests and then back to fields again, providing a diverse backdrop of visual stimulation as we search for the Fabulous Five. The elephants are free to roam in roughly 3000 acres of land that sits in Thailand’s Doi Inthanon National Park. This means that on any day they could be grazing in the fields, opting for a bamboo lunch deep in the forests or down by the river cooling off from the sun’s rays. It is up to us to meet them where they wish to be – KSES aim for the elephants to roam as freely as possible.
We reach the top of the hill and stand on the dirt road that divides the forests and connects one small village to the other. To our left is a large field in between what seems like endless verdant ranges. I spot an elephant, it has long tusks meaning it’s one of the males. Kerri informs us it’s Boon Rott. Beyond him, I notice another two elephants, Mae Doom and Gen Thong. Further down the hill is Too Meh and apparently, Dodo had wandered deeper into the forests for some bamboo.
On any given day we scout for the elephant we are going to observe and spend two or three hours documenting their activities. Our timers are set to go off every five minutes so we know when to document. In between observations, we watch them interact, we chat amongst one another or we just take in the magnificent views surrounding us. An alarm goes off and others follow. I am documenting Gen Thong and so I watch what he is doing and then tick the appropriate box on my form. I am lucky enough to catch him playfully interacting with Boon Rott. The pictures are worth a thousand words.
Over the duration of our stay, the elephants stayed in the same area of forest – so we never had to wander too far to find them (except in the case where Dodo went on one of his meanderings). On some days the elephants spent much of their time grazing in the fields. On other days the boys wandered off together into the forests while the girls stayed close to the fields. As each day went on we witnessed the dynamics of the herd: How the males, Boon Rott and Gen Thong played together, how the baby of the group, Gen Thong, stayed close to his aunt Mae Doom or interrupted her flirting with Boon Rott. The eldest female, Too Meh, preferred to forage, while the eldest male Dodo preferred to wander off on his own, some days wandering more than three kilometres away from the others.
Our role here was to observe and document, but before long we had developed a relationship with the elephants. We became familiar with them and their mahouts as well. I loved watching the relationship between elephant and mahout, a strong, unlikely bond between human and animal. Mahouts play an important role in the elephant’s lives, keeping them safe from wandering off into fields with the risk of human/animal conflict. Sadly, the act of releasing a domestic elephant into the wild unattached to its mahout is not a viable one. There is not a lot of natural habitat left for wild elephants in Thailand. Some elephants have spent their whole life in captivity and have developed bonds with other elephants in their vicinity. With these considerations in mind, the next best option is to create a scenario that benefits both the elephants and the mahout – allowing the elephants to roam in a large area of forest and allowing the mahouts to live close to their home villages.
After observing the elephants for several days you can tell they live good lives here. KSES ensures that the elephants have the best standards of animal welfare possible, and they do this through income generated by their tourism projects and partnerships, like the one with Biosphere Expeditions.
Watch this short Instagram video that explains more about the expedition –
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Biosphere Expeditions brings a team of citizen scientists to Thailand each year to monitor and document elephant activity. This year, our team was able to collect 65 hours of activity data, 13 hours of association data, 7 hours of foraging data (documenting what food the elephants eat). We also completed two biodiversity trails (the biodiversity trails help KSES determine the health of the insect population in the region in a changing climate). On those biodiversity trails, we recorded 436 arthropods from 9 different families and 52 other types of insects that didn’t fall into a regular category.
The nine days are both challenging and rewarding at the same time. We are away from camp for five to nine hours a day, observing the elephants and conducting important research. In the evenings we recovered and were fed amazingly well by the women in the village. Throughout the week we learnt about the work of KSES and Biosphere Expeditions and interacted with the local community. Kerri even provided us with a language lesson so we were able to communicate a little with our hosts. I felt at home and admire what Kerri and Sombat have co-created – a sustainable model that supports the local people and provides a safe space for rescued elephants.
As the week came to an end, we had succeeded in our mission to research Asian elephants in Thailand. The data we gathered will be written up into a scientific report which will facilitate increased elephant welfare and provide a showcase and pathways for putting elephants back into the forest where they belong. The overarching mission of Biosphere Expeditions is animal conservation. They offer experiences across continents, helping to protect all kinds of wildlife and wild places. The future of the planet and its species rests in our hands, and it’s experiences like this one that bring us closer to a more harmonious and sustainable world.