Saturday 18 May was a historic day for southern Thailand. Two Asian elephants took to the highway for one last long and arduous walk, from the south to the north of Koh Samui Island. Leaving just before sunset as the temperatures began to fall; two elephants that have spent their entire lives in captivity and chains embarked on their journey to a new and ethical home. With 20km covered in just over nine hours, guided by the full moon, Somboon and Sri Nuan finally reached Samui Elephant Haven. Kind local street vendors provided kilos of bananas and watermelon to the elephants on their trek to freedom.
Because Somboon, 30 years, is pregnant with only a couple of months until she gives birth and Sri Nuan, 50 years, has not travelled in a truck for over two decades and it was agreed that it was safer and kinder to walk the elephants from Samui prison, through Lamai, Chawang and Bophut to reach the sanctuary. Accompanying the elephants were their mahouts, police escorts, animal vets, a film crew and dozens of compassionate supporters. Elephant Whisperer Lek Chailert oversaw all of this.
Their rescue was in stark contrast to the heart-breaking story of three-year-old “Dumbo”, whose tragic death made headlines around the world the very same weekend. The baby elephant, who was forced to perform daily for tourists at Phuket Zoo, was so weak that his back legs snapped. He died a week later according to Moving Animals, who had launched a viral campaign to free the emaciated elephant last month.
In Thailand, there are less than 4,000 captive working Asian elephants and around 1,000 living in the wild. Most captive elephants in Thailand are involved in elephant tourism. For over two decades, Chailert has been leading the movement toward the ethical treatment of elephants in Asia and ethical elephant tourism. Samui Elephant Haven is one of 40 “Saddle Off” projects supported by Save Elephant Foundation.
Opened in August 2018, Samui Elephant Haven provides a sanctuary for rescued elephants on the tropical island of Koh Samui in Southern Thailand. Along with ‘sister’ project Samui Elephant Sanctuary, it is one of two ethical elephant sanctuaries located on the island. The elephants living at Elephant Haven previously endured stressful lives. With that life behind them, these lucky elephants are now free to express their natural instincts without fear – interacting with each other in beautiful natural surroundings, foraging on native plants, and playing together in their custom built pool and mud pit. Visitors to the sanctuary are provided with a meaningful encounter with these magnificent animals in an environment where they are respected and admired.
Somboon is already a mother to Nong Pech who already lives in the sanctuary, and upon arrival at Samui Elephant Haven, they recognised each other immediately, touching trunks and trumpeting with glee. Nong Pech was stolen from her mother at two years old, and they have been apart for five years. The following day also saw much communication, happiness, trunk touching, and getting to know each other again. The newcomers will be introduced to the existing herd carefully and under the supervision of elephant experts.
Lek Chailert, founder of Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, was born in the remote tribal village Ban Lao in 1962. She is a staunch elephant rescuer and has saved almost 100 elephants from tourist and logging trades across the country. These elephants have all worked from a very young age in logging, elephant riding, street begging, and performing in circus shows; amongst these gentle giants are disabled, orphaned and blind elephants.
Lek’s grandfather was a man of medicine, and he taught her to respect nature and animals. As she grew up, a plethora of animals surrounded her, including a pet chicken that shared her bed. At the tender age of 16, she was forever affected by the cruelty witnessed in a logging camp: it was from this point that she vowed to save these magnificent creatures. She has a connection with these animals; she can sense their emotions. Lek mentioned that when she travels, one of her elephant's pines for her, so regular skype calls have to take place: her voice brings the elephant running across the park.
There is hope that the face of elephant tourism is changing. Over the past few years, Lek has given advice that has enabled more ethical sanctuaries to open across the country. Save Elephant Foundation is a Thai non–profit organization dedicated to providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations. Under its Asian Elephant Projects arm, which is dedicated to helping small, independent elephant tourism operators transition to ethical and sustainable programs, it is leading the evolution of elephant tourism with its “Saddle Off” projects which provide a better life for elephants.