Last December, Ava Lalancette volunteered at a program called Journey to Freedom in Northern Thailand. It wasn’t her first time, she’d been volunteering for years. But this time there was an element of novelty: she was trekking with elephants in the middle of the jungle instead of helping out at the Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary under the umbrella of Save Elephant Foundation (also responsible for Journey to Freedom). “I knew immediately after trekking with them for the first time that this could be a beautiful way to get to know them while they enjoy their freedom,” she tells me. “Two weeks in, I knew I had to be a part of the solution.”
Being a part of the solution is exactly what Ava became when, barely a month later, she founded the Never Forget Elephant Foundation (NFEF). The non-profit, which has already rescued seven elephants, has a different business model compared to traditional elephant conservation NGOs. Instead of buying elephants that are being abused and putting them on acquired land so that they can spend the rest of their days in peace, the NFEF leases them from their owners and returns them to nature.
Now is the time, I suspect, for a bit of context. Elephants have been exploited, physically abused and forced to work for many generations in Thailand. Originally, their primary function was to work in the logging industry, pulling tree trunks through unstable terrain, which could and would often hurt their backs and break their bones.
In 1989, the Thai government prohibited the use of elephants for logging, which became an immediate problem for owners, who had until that moment leased their elephants to the logging industry. Having an elephant is traditional and all too common in rural Thailand, often being an extra source of income. But now the elephants couldn’t work anymore, and owners couldn’t support them without some sort of financial return.
Thus, the elephant tourism industry began. Now the owners could lease the elephants to companies who provided elephant riding, performances, unethical “sanctuaries” and other types of entertainment. The thing is, elephants are wild creatures. They won’t follow your command easily until they go through a process called “phajaan,” which can be translated to “Soul crush.” Sounds dramatic, but it’s the reality: for an elephant to be responsive to commands, his soul has to be broken.
To do that, elephants go through a domestication process that can last for weeks, where they endure severe physical and mental torture and starvation. Bullhooks, fire, chains, and ropes are tools used to cause pain and to instill subservience. They’re kept in small enclosures, often chained, with their trunks tied to prevent suicide (in which the elephant steps on his own trunk to block airflow). The pain is so much that they will try to kill themselves to end it if given the chance: how horrifying is it that we humans are capable of making another being suffer to that extent?
But I’m not here to talk about despair. I’m here to talk about hope. You see, despite all the horror and pain involved in this industry, there is hope too. The owners don’t necessarily want or endorse this cruelty, but they can’t find another way to deal with the expenses and it’s difficult to resist the potential profit that the situation brings.
This is where NFEF comes in. Their idea is to pay the owners what they would receive by renting the elephants out to tourism – but instead of working, the elephants will live freely and peacefully in an area provided by the owners themselves located outside of Mae Tuen, about 400 km southwest of Chiang Mai. They won’t buy the elephants because, according to Ava, buying elephants funds the captivity industry.
A new beginning
NFEF has three main areas of focus on its conservation efforts. The first one is to bring elephants home and provide them with a safe environment to live in for the rest of their lives; the second, to build a healthy relationship with the owners and the local Karen Hill Tribe community; and finally but not least, the third, nurture compassion and understanding through education.
The idea is that visitors will be able to stay one week in the program (starting the first week of December 2019), where they will work on activities such as going out on daily treks with elephants to learn more about them; spend a night in the jungle with an elephant; build structures needed in the Visitor Village as needed; clean up garbage; volunteer at local school and teach English, etc. They will have access to three plant-based meals a day made with fresh and local produce from the area.
The initial price for the program, set to begin every Monday to Sunday, is US$875 . Reservations will start to be taken pretty soon, so be sure to check their website regularly. If you’d like to help with donations, they have two fundraising needs now: one to help them keep the lease of the elephants (called Elephants Belong to Nature) and another one to help build the Visitor Village (called, well, Build Visitor Village) where visitors will stay during the program.
To learn more about NFEF and their awesome program (and how to donate), visit their website here.