A New Ecotourism in Thailand

Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving and protecting the lives of Asian elephants. They facilitate the return of captive, working elephants to protected forest habitat through community, educational and research partnerships.

Currently, nearly 5,000 elephants endure life in trekking camps in Thailand, giving rides and performing tricks for tourists. Meanwhile, wild elephant populations are dwindling. MEF works with mahouts living in and caring for an 8,000-acre protected area of forest, used to release captive elephants back into native habitat.

Through this project:
– A group of 3 – 4 elephants will be walked 100+km in phases from tourist camps and returned to the forest to join previously released elephants.
– Ecosafaris, enabling ecotourists to hike and camp in the forest and observe the behaviour of elephants in their natural environment will pay the wages of the mahouts, giving an alternative to captive-elephant tourist attractions.
– Campsites and homestays will be provided by and benefit the mahouts and their families. The presence of elephants in the forest will also bring a greater incentive to protect this forest.
– Research, in partnership with the Centre for Compassionate Conservation, will be undertaken into how elephants integrate and behave in the forest to benefit future transfers of elephants.

The Update

Final update:

The second project site has been successfully established and the project has been able to increase the total protected forest area from 8,000 to 98,000 acres! A tree nursery has been established with 22,000 seedlings and, so far, 3,550 trees have been planted in degraded areas of forest. A big community reforestation day was held in celebration of world elephant day and involved the entire community and local forestry officials.

The ecotourism program has expanded to offer 6-day volunteering trips, giving guests the opportunity to volunteer on environmentally based projects designed entirely by the local community. A competitive glamping program is also being offered and this is being marketed by two major ground operators in Thailand and three smaller travel companies. This has resulted in the ecotourism program being close to the point of being completely self-sustaining.

Such has been the success of the programme, after starting at the second project site, Mahouts Elephant Foundation have been contacted by four more villages, all extremely remote, with vast areas of forest, desperate for a way to keep their elephants out of the cities, and to protect their forests from being cleared for farming. Environmentally destructive wildlife tourism had become the norm in Thailand, often supported by the idea that there is no forest left, and no way to see wildlife in their natural habitat anymore. In the last two years, Mahouts Elephant Foundation have found overwhelming evidence that this is simply not true. There are vast forests left and many communities of people who have coexisted with the forest and wildlife who are currently left out of the value added by tourism to the economy.

Consequently, in the coming years, Mahouts Elephant Foundation aims to continue to develop their model for sustainable ethical community-based tourism – with a hope that it will become a viable commercial model which can be replicated in more communities. We wish them all the very best in this exciting and hopefully ecotourism model.

Image creditt: Peter Yuen Photography