Saving Thailand's Elephants - Thailand and Myanmar with Jennie of the Jungle Part 1

I just got back from an amazing volunteer trip to Thailand to work with rescued elephants in Chiang Mai. Myself, my co-leader Aron, and our four JOJ volunteers spent a week in the hills of Northern Chiang Mai with the Karen tribe, who have owned elephants for centuries. These elephants were once used for subsistence by putting them to work in the logging industry. They were captured, brutally tamed, and put to work hauling large felled trees from the forest. After the advent of tourism, they were put to work in the trekking and entertainment industry, forced to learn tricks, perform, and carry tourists on their backs all day in the hot sun. Suffice it to say these animals are not treated well. Abuse and cruelty were the only ways the owners knew to keep their elephants in check.

Many organizations are now trying to help Thailand's captive elephants have a better life. On the forefront, Save Elephant Foundation, run by Lek Chailert, is running a number of different projects that benefit both elephants and tribes in the country. Education is the key to saving what remain of Thailand's wild elephants, as well as giving a better life to its captive ones. Lek not only runs the largest rescue center and sanctuary in Thailand for rescued elephants, but she also works with many of the local hill tribes and elephant camps with her educational outreach on how to treat their elephants better. Many of the surrounding elephant trekking camps have stopped doing elephant riding because of the cruelty involved. Save Elephant Foundation's Journey to Freedom project allows volunteers to stay with a Karen tribe and help care for their elephants who are now allowed to roam freely in their natural habitat. In this way, the tribe makes a living on the fees volunteers pay for room and board at the project, and the elephants' precious forest habitat gets saved in order to house the now free elephants. And what a project it is!

Nestled high in the forested hills of remote Chiang Mai, volunteers stay in traditional bamboo huts. With a knowledgeable guide, they spend a week or more hiking into the forest to observe the elephants' natural behavior. Volunteers have the option to assist the tribe in whatever they need, including construction of new buildings and schools, and helping schoolchildren learn English. We also climb up mountains to cut nourishing grass for the elephants, and then enjoy watching them as they enthusiastically mop up the nutritious grass with their trunks. Each elephant group has a number of mahouts (a native caretaker who literally sits with the elephants all day, every day to make sure they are safe and that they stay out of the tribe's croplands). The mahouts are employed by Lek's organization and in this way she offers jobs to the locals. Everything about this project benefits the country, the native people, and the elephants, not to mention the lucky volunteers! Her organization even grows their own coffee, in hopes their sustainable, organic coffee-growing techniques will spread across Thailand.

The first day, my volunteers and I hiked 2 hours into the lush forest to watch the small family of elephants munching and playing. What a privilege to be privy to the acts of semi-wild elephants. Mostly they just eat, allllll dayyyyy, but they also slide down muddy hills on their knees, knock over huge banana trees to eat the tender shoots inside, and cover themselves with mud to keep the mosquitoes away. They also enjoy human interaction, and are curious about their loving peeping Toms. They approach you and allow you to touch their heads and trunks, and sometimes cover you in slobbery trunk kisses. The baby of the group, Gilly, likes to run up to you until you tentatively back away in fear of being mowed over by her large baby body. She was the absolute cutest!!

The elephants certainly seem happy in their forest, where sunbeams kiss their warm skin and trees and vines bow to their strong, pulling trunks. Hanging out with them in the forest is one of the highlight moments of my life, being surrounded by their gentle energy and nuzzled by their curiosity. I could spend days there!

The second day we headed out to cut grass for the elephants. Using small scythes, we searched out the tenderest tall grasses, which grow in the open and are full of protein, and cut them down, filling two trucks. The mahouts help lead the elephants from the forest to the camp (the elephants love their mahouts, and follow them willingly with verbal commands from the mahout), where we fed them the grass and got to hang out with them again. Camp is where their mudhole is, where they romp around in the mud and then come back and kiss you and make you all muddy, too.

The third day we headed to the village and learned more about the Karen way of life. We met some older villagers and sat down with them to "shoot the breeze", as they say. What interesting differences between our lifestyle and theirs. In some ways, they are more "civilized" than we are. They are more connected to their surroundings, to nature, and more reliant upon the Earth than we are. They live life simply, working the fields or making crafts to sell to other villages or to tourists. They live on a high, forested mountain and I found myself envious of the beauty and simplicity. I hope that their culture, which has already been changed by Christian missionaries to a degree, can be preserved.

We visited the kindergarten and played with the children and sat down with them to a lunch given to them by the organization. Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park (Lek's sanctuary) pays for a meal for these children once per week. I made a donation to the school as we walked out, as did some of my fellow volunteers. More good work by the org!!

The next day we hiked up a small mountain to see one of the elephants that likes to be on her own. What a sweetie she was, so gentle and soft, politely stopping to wait for you to get out of her way before lumbering past you; itching herself comedically on trees and large boulders. We walked with her and her mahout for about two hours before heading back to camp, soaking in the scenery of the sun lowering over the hills and fields of this beautiful land.

And the last day we hiked another 2 hours into the jungle to observe the elephant family again. We had lunch among the trees and fed the remains to the elephants (veggies and rice wrapped in banana leaves, tied with a bit of bamboo - all compostable and edible in one bite by the elephants). We hung out with them for another few hours before heading back to camp for our last, chilly night in the mountains. We spent the next night at Elephant Nature Park, the sanctuary that now houses over 80 rescued elephants who are mentally affected or injured from their past abuses. Lek has a relationship with every one of these elephants, as she saved them and nurtured them through their recovery. You can learn the horrifying stories of every one of these elephants, which makes you realize just how big of an impact this project, its volunteers, Lek, and all those employed by the organization, has on the lives of elephants in Thailand. There are about 3,000 elephants left in the country, and only around 1500 of those remain in the wild. This work is crucial to the future of Thailand's elephants.


I will be offering this trip again in January 2021. I would love for you to join me for a once-in-a-lifetime, truly magical experience. You can reserve your spot by visiting

The second half of our trip involved exploring and adventuring around the beautiful country of Myanmar, which borders Thailand. Stay tuned for Part 2 to read about it!


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