Going it alone – Setting up Thailand Elephants

Returning home in late 2014 after managing an Elephant Reintroduction Volunteer Programme for two years in a Karen hill tribe village in Northern Thailand, Gemma Annan and fellow intern Jade Clayson decided more needed to be done to educate tourists regarding captive elephant welfare in Thailand. Putting a team together comprising of childhood friend Claire Horton, sister Alix Annan and good friend Kerri McCrea, who has since founded the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand; Thailand Elephants was created and became a registered charity in June 2016.

With Gemma, Jade and Kerri’s wealth of knowledge and experience in wildlife conservation and the captive elephant industry the charity is able to keep their followers updated with the current elephant welfare situation and recommendations of ethical venues to visit. The team all commit their spare time to the charity so it relies on their dedication and commitment to educate and offer advice to tourists. I caught up with Gemma to find out more.

What inspired you to set up Thailand Elephants?

I spent two years managing the GVI Elephant Reintroduction Volunteer Programme, and I was struck by both the terrible cruelty experienced by many elephants in Thailand and by the positive effect on the elephants returning to the forest.

Elephants have been ‘domesticated’ and used for logging and entertainment in Thailand for many generations, but since the introduction of the logging ban in 1989 elephants have had to earn their keep another way; hence the development of elephants camps aimed at tourists. Riding elephants has become a popular activity, and where there is demand there is money, where there is money there is often corruption and this can lead to very poor welfare. This is unquestionably the case throughout Asia and even many parts of the Western world.

With animal rights activists posting evidence of elephant cruelty on social media sites, it would appear people are becoming more aware of the problems captive animals face. However those who are keen to profit from tourists’ ignorance claim that elephants are ‘expressing their creativity’ by doing tricks and painting pictures and that they are perfectly happy and well cared for giving rides.

But the truth is that unlike horses or dogs, elephants cannot be truly domesticated. In order to give rides, perform tricks and beg on the streets, elephants endure cruel ongoing training techniques and often live in extremely poor conditions. It is important to remember that today not ALL captive elephants undergo such brutal training; the experience is different for each individual elephant.

Myself and Jade knew more needed to be done to reduce the amount of tourists funding unethical practices so we decided to set up a website and become active on social media. Leading on from this we expanded our team and became a registered charity.

Did you encounter any challenges in setting up the charity and how did you overcome them?

As yet we haven’t encountered any major logistical challenges; Claire is a Civil Servant working for Defra and has experience working for the Charity Commission so without her hard work on the legal aspect, setting up would have been a lot more challenging. We all run Thailand Elephants on a voluntary basis so finding time to make the charity grow is tough as we all study or work full time, but we do what we can when we can which for now seems to be working well. The charity is growing slowly and gaining positive feedback.

What are the main threats to wild Asian Elephants in Thailand?

Not all Asian elephants possess tusks like the African so luckily poaching for ivory is not as big a threat, but it does still happen. Poaching for elephant skin for traditional medicines is becoming popular in places such as Myanmar but poaching for the tourist trade has been common practice for many years now. With corruption and poorly enforced laws elephants are often taken from the wild and are able to be smuggled across borders to spend the rest of their life in captivity.

Habitat loss and human conflict is the major threat to wild elephants throughout Asia, with the growing human population increasing demand for homes and farm land, conflicts often result in human and elephant deaths. Palm oil plantations are one of the biggest reasons for habitat destructions and put many of Asia’s elephants at high risk of localised extinction.

An elephant in a natural setting in Thailand (Gemma Annan)

An elephant in a natural setting in Thailand (Gemma Annan)

What kind of unethical practices do captive elephants experience?

Elephant calves are often broken through a cruel process known as ‘the crush’ (AKA the Phajaan) and this is then reinforced by ongoing cruel treatment throughout their life. For wild caught elephants the training process is much more intense and can sometimes lead to death. It is important to remember that these training methods are a traditional part of culture as many Thai and Karen people believe an elephant is not workable without some form of crush training to become completely dependent on the mahout.

Thankfully todays training methods are generally less intense in Thailand when training captive born elephants, using positive reinforcements. But calves will undergo some form of training and are often taken away from their mothers several years too early and may not be returned for many years later, if at all.

I have worked with some incredible mahouts (elephant keepers) who have dedicated their lives to their elephant and I can understand why more forceful techniques would be used for training a three or four ton and potentially dangerous animal. Luckily mahouts are starting to understand positive techniques can work just as well and are leaning more towards these techniques rather than the intense crush videos shown online, you can find out more here.

Captive elephants being trained to perform tricks (Gemma Annan)

Captive elephants being trained to perform tricks (Gemma Annan)

Are there any links between the domesticated Elephant industry and the status of the wild population?

Smuggling elephants from Myanmar to Northern Thailand is a still a big problem, although it is now illegal. I have read that for every baby elephant captured on average four or five related adults will be slaughtered.

Previously in Thailand captive elephants were not registered until eight years of age. Registration was based on photographs and microchips, but following agreement at the CITIES Convention elephant owners will now have to register elephants by the age of three months old using DNA samples. This is a great step forward and should hopefully discourage poaching from the wild for the tourism trade.

What can people visiting Thailand do to help both captive and wild elephants?

Do your research and only visit ethical venues in which they are sure captive elephants are also treated well behind closed doors. Ask questions before you make your choice and pay attention to reviews; tourist can follow our Go-To Guide for more help on choosing an ethical venue.

There are over a hundred National Parks in Thailand but not all have wild roaming elephants, we have written a blog to help if you want to see wild elephants along with information of how to act among the wildlife.

Don’t be suckered into giving money to mahouts with illegal street begging elephants, life on the streets is one that is generally worse than one in a camp. Elephants may be kept in backstreet alleys, often on rubbish sites or in back yards hiding from the authorities, here they live a miserable life full of pollution, malnutrition and inadequate health care. This leads to multiple health issues.

So far, what would you say has been the charity’s biggest achievement?

We have gained a healthy following on social media and are frequently asked for advice in choosing the right elephant venue to visit; we see this as a big achievement as each tourist who asks is one less person supporting unethical practices.

We completed a two day, 25 mile South West coastal hike in May 2016; friends and family took part and raised £750 which we donated to Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary to help them with startup costs.

Group photo on the fundraising hike (Gemma Annan)

Group photo on the fundraising hike (Gemma Annan)

What methods do you use to deliver your education programme?

The majority of our education is currently done through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and our website; we aim to keep all of these pages up to date and constantly review our recommended list of ethical venues.

I have done workshops in Primary Schools, delivering a workshop with basic elephant biological and habitat information (relating to the National Curriculum) and the most important part – the tourism industry. I find the use of shocking photos and information beneficial as this will stay in the child’s mind for longer – at the end of each session the children are always keen to help and say they will never ride an elephant!

My favourite way of educating is by getting out and talking directly with the public, we have done spray jams (street art events) and this is something we want to increase in 2017, as it targets a different audience and has had a great response – our Ride A Bike Not An Elephant piece in Bristol’s Bear Pit was left up for 2-3 months without being tagged over, which is quite a big deal in the graffiti world!

Looking to the future, what objectives do you have for Thailand Elephants in the next few years?

  • Create new initiative projects which raise awareness and help prevent tourists supporting unethical venues.
  • Play a role in tour operators switching to ethical practices.
  • Undertake more education and outreach work in Schools, Colleges and fairs.
  • Continue to promote and support ethical venues and projects financially.
  • Undertake at least one big fund raiser per year to raise awareness and funds.
  • Continue to support and assist in the running of the annual Exeter Global Elephant and Rhino March.
  • Develop our team of advocates to help promote the work of Thailand Elephants and spread our message.

Having gone through the experience of setting up a charity from scratch, what advice would you offer for people looking to do the same?

Think of ways to do something different, both when it comes to awareness raising and fundraising. Our graffiti jams got a lot of attention as it’s an unusual way to get people interested in the issue. We’ve raised funds in creative ways such as designing a unique Thailand Elephants soap with a local soap maker who gives us a portion of her profit.

In terms of the legal side, there is lots of information on the Charity Commission’s website to get you started with legally registering your charity.

How can people support Thailand Elephants?

Check out our website, follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; the more active followers we have the more people we will reach with up to date elephant information. Ask friends and family to follow us, especially if they want to visit elephants in Asia.

If you are interested in becoming an advocate for Thailand Elephants then get in touch, we want people all over the globe helping to spread our message of: #DoYourResearch and #RideAbikeNotAnElephant

If you can help financially then all funds will be used to help us continue raising awareness through events and marketing as well as giving sponsorship to in situ projects which will directly help to relive the suffering of Thailand’s captive elephants. PayPal – info@thailandelephants.org

Many thanks to Gemma for providing an insight into the setting up and work of Thailand Elephants. Below are links to their social media pages and website, as well as the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary.

Interested in elephant conservation? Check out the Conservation Careers Internship – “Elephant Conservation – 24 week Internship in Thailand” here.

Kick start your career on this multi-faceted internship in Thailand’s stunning Chiang Mai region. Teach English to community members, assist with plant biodiversity studies with a focus on elephant foraging, and contribute to the rehabilitation of elephants which have been rescued from tourist camps. Discover the fascinating culture and lush mountains in this Northern region of Thailand in your free time. Read more here.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Conservation Enterprises, Organisational Manager