Life in an elephant trekking camp can be extremely arduous for the animals involved. In order to be prepared for their job of walking around with tourists on their back for extended periods of time – often in unpredictable weather conditions, with little time for a break – they must go through a breaking-and-training process known as “phajaan.” This entails shackling young elephants in small wooden enclosures, and regularly starving and beating the animals until they have mastered the tricks of their trade.

However, an organization called Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF), in Thailand, is seeking to transform the traditional role of mahout into one of respectful guardianship, enabling poor people in rural villages where trekking camps are often the primary source of income for many, “to earn a decent wage whilst nurturing an understanding of the elephants’ needs.”

Their latest initiative, Walking Elephants Home, is helping to return former trekking camp elephants to the wild, while also empowering humans in the surrounding villages to create new ways of generating an income.

During the first phase of the project, the team walked two elephants back to their forest home, from the Chiang Mai trekking camp they had been working in: an eight-day journey of over 80 miles. A recent update from MEF said:

“With the help of other organizations, the village community has successfully set up an elephant conservation project and also a home stay project. We have spent the last year having MANY meetings village elders and committee members. It is VITAL that we work to build up strong bonds and relationships which will last into the future. Through mutual respect, care and understanding, we will reach our common goals of protecting vast areas of forest and returning elephants back to live in their natural habitat.”

“Walking Elephants Home” has involved building up a strong, trustful working relationship with the Karen people of northern Thailand. The local people have been steadfast in their support of the project, telling MEF that they “simply want these elephants to live as freely as possible.” They understand that trekking camps have a detrimental impact not only on the elephants who must work there, but also on their own familial relationships. Mahouts who live and work away from the village for long periods at a time may only get to see their families once or twice a year.

To help support this incredible project, why not donate to their JustGiving page?

Lead image: Mahouts Elephant Foundation/Facebook