Hi there! My name is Kunsang and I’m excited to be writing my first blog post for Thailand Elephants! I’ll quickly introduce myself as I’m new to readers of this blog. I’m from Toronto, Canada and I work in an office job, but when I travel, I like to be active and do something that’s somewhat unique. I’ve been learning about conservation in the past few years and thought it would be interesting to combine conservation with travelling. In searching online, I came across some organizations that have conservation holidays that anyone can join, even if they don’t have a scientific background. I went on my first conservation holiday a couple of years ago to Costa Rica to see dolphins and liked it enough to go on another one. This time, I wanted to see elephants…and I had never been to Thailand before…
Before going to Thailand, I don’t remember having seen an elephant in person before. I had read about elephants living in zoos in Canada suffering negative health consequences because of the cold weather, the small enclosures and the concrete they were walking on, so I knew that I did not want to see elephants in such a facility. I wanted to see elephants in their natural environment, so I decided to go on a Biosphere Expeditions research expedition to Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) as a citizen scientist. I liked that the five elephants at this sanctuary got to roam in a large forested area and got to sleep in the forest at night. It was important to me that we would only be observing the elephants and they did not do anything unnatural.
I also liked that the goal of the research expedition was to create guidelines for Asian elephants living in captivity. Initially, I wondered why such guidelines were necessary, but then I learned that there isn’t enough forest in Thailand for all elephants to roam wild. I felt that a set of guidelines to inform how Asian elephants in captivity preferred to spend their time and how much they socialized with one another was important to create and would hopefully lead to elephants living a better quality of life in captivity. And if I could contribute to the well-being of these animals in any tiny way while being able to see them in person, I was all for it.
I headed to KSES in Northern Thailand last November with some excitement. The sanctuary is in the forest near a Karen Hill Tribe village that is about a 5-hour drive from Chiang Mai. After getting settled in, we set out to find the elephants and their mahouts, the people that work with and tend to the elephants. I remember that first hike to where the elephants were was tough! It was hot, humid and the terrain was uneven and muddy at times. I wanted the Asian elephant’s natural environment and I got it! Lots of trees, a river or two and some meadows at altitude in the hills of Northern Thailand. I was used to walking on flat, paved sidewalks and was not sure I could do all this hiking for a week. However, seeing the elephants for the first time was incredible and something I’ll never forget. We saw the young 6-year-old, Gen Thong, his aunt, Mae Doom, and grandmother, Too Meh, first before seeing Boon Rott, a male who was 13 years old at the time, on that first day in the forest.
Getting to see the elephants made the hike worthwhile. As the week went on, the hikes became easier and we settled into a routine of hiking to where the elephants were and following them for a couple of hours as we collected data on what they were doing and how they were socializing with each other. We saw the elephants foraging, scratching themselves, having a mud bath or a dust bath, walking in the river and using a leafy branch to swat away pesky bugs. We also saw the elephants touching each other with their trunks to socialize or just standing close together in each other’s company as they foraged. We had a home-cooked lunch in the forest or back at base.
On returning to the village, we would talk about the day and what we saw. We would have dinner, plan for the following day and sit around chatting. During the week, we also got to see the newest elephant at the sanctuary, Dodo, a 13- year-old male. We were told his behaviour was unpredictable while he was working in tourist camps, but here, we saw no signs of this as he seemed content to forage and spend time with Boon Rott.
I loved being able to see elephants in the forest, doing what they wanted to do and going wherever they wanted to go, except for into the fields where there were still crops of course. After a while, you could see how each elephant had a different personality. Some of the elephants would give us a sniff when we first encountered them before usually going about doing their own thing, although Boon Rott seemed to be more interested in people than the other elephants. There were a couple of times Boon Rott seemed to stand with us as we waited around for other members of our group. I’d like to think he was waiting with us and just hanging out. There was also one time when Gen Thong came right over to us as we were eating lunch. Gen Thong seemed particularly interested in a lunch container that contained a banana. I don’t believe that the individual who packed that lunch ended up eating it and not surprisingly, I don’t think anyone packed a banana to eat in the forest after that!
One of the things that amazed me was how such a large animal could be so agile and move along forest paths with such ease. While we humans (i.e., the citizen scientists, not the sanctuary staff or the mahouts) carefully picked our way along the path while tightly holding onto our walking sticks, the elephants would silently and quickly move to wherever they wanted to go in search of more vegetation. A few times, I lost sight of the elephant I was tracking and I would wonder how I managed to lose sight of an adult Asian elephant in a matter of seconds. In my defence, I think the forest was particularly dense when this happened…
As KSES works closely with the community it’s in, we also got to experience aspects of village life. All citizen scientists stayed with families in the village, which was a unique experience. On our first night, we received a blessing from a village elder. We had a lesson in the local hill tribe language and I took a weaving lesson. We had the chance to buy scarves, bags and skirts that were hand woven by the villagers. Some villagers spoke English while most spoke a little English. One of KSES’s co-founders, Kerri, would translate for us, but when we were on our own, we tried to remember the words of the hill tribe language we learned while sometimes resorting to hand gestures, pointing and smiling. While hiking to get to where the elephants were, we would pass rice fields where we sometimes saw the villagers working. After learning about all the hard work that goes into working the rice fields, I will never look at my bowl of rice the same ever again!
We also learned a little bit about issues Asian elephants face and about elephants in the tourism industry. What we learned was sobering and the situation can feel somewhat hopeless, but the work that KSES is doing to bring elephants back to the forest is uplifting and I commend their staff for making a difference. I hope that the data collected by us and others will create a set of guidelines that will allow other elephants in captivity to live like the five at KSES do. Although I only spent a week at KSES, I will not forget my time there and hope one day to go back. I am happy that these elephants get to live where they do and hope that they get to spend the rest of their lives roaming, socializing and foraging to their hearts’ content in the forest.
Want to visit Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary? Check them out on our Ethical Venue page!