Returning Elephants to The Karen Hill Tribe


Dino, our Journey to Freedom tour guide, has worked as a chef, eco-tourism guide and has lived with the Karen Hill Tribe for seven out of his thirty five years.  He reveals that the Karen people are peaceful and simple.  Their spirituality is one of animism, wherein spirit is imbued into absolutely everything.  Like the Buddhist religion and Thai culture in general, men are the leaders of the spiritual and social communities – women are not considered for the leader nor shaman positions, though they do participate in the spiritual ceremonies.  The Karen men have traditionally been the exclusive income generators of the family and the Karen career lineage is famously known as the “Elephant People”.  In antiquity, the Karen people originated in India, migrated to Burma and then down into what is now Northern Thailand, which is why their native language is Karen – not Thai – and why they have a religion separate from the Buddhist national.

The Karen men supported their families through the honorable tradition of the elephant/man relationship.  Capturing and training wild elephants for logging these magnificent hills.  Thailand banned teak logging some 30 years ago, after ¾ of the nation’s natural resources had been cleared, elephants (requiring massive land for foraging) had become an endangered species and many Thai lives were lost due to the increasing severity of the monsoon season’s effects without the teak forests to balance the flooding and climate control.  With the ban on teak logging, the Karen people abruptly lost their ability to generate income, living high in the unreachable altitudes of their mountainous homes.  Poverty, illness and loss of pride replaced the recognized status of the nobel Karen “Elephant People”.

Sadly, elephants, which were seen as valued family members by the Karen community, were rented like equipment to anyone whom could work them.  Most elephant families were split up and sent to tourist trekking camps, some were sent to tourist painting and performing camps, some were taken on the city streets to beg for money from tourists.  Each option is progressively more abusive to this endangered species, the Asian elephant,  because the mahouts or camps that now rent the elephants see them as transient money making machines rather than honorable family members.

The Elephant Nature Park, the project I have volunteered for twice now and have just completed a week of work with before embarking on this project, the Journey to Freedom, is the rescue home for these abused animals working in Thailand’s tourism industry.  Forced breeding  (the method accepted as standard by trekking and performance camps) results in crushed pelvises of many female elephants.   Forced breeding is essentially elephant rape and is so mentally damaging to the highly intelligent elephant that 100% of forced bred mothers try to kill their babies upon birth.  Elephants giving rides to tourists on their backs are chained all day and night when not carrying human weights in seat boxes that literally break their spines.  It is not uncommon for the renting camp or mahout to give trekking elephants methamphetamines, or speed, to keep them carrying tourists all day, then begging for money on the streets all nite.  The performing elephants (painting pictures, playing musical instruments or doing headstands) are put through additional training methods which are the most violent form of animal abuse I have ever seen, resulting in the deaths of 60% of the baby elephants put through it.  Scrawny street begging elephants are often seen with tell tale signs of mental illness, rocking and head bobbing, for the elephant communicates via infrasound, subsonic waves felt through their feet and trunks – the city cacophony of sound literally drives them crazy, they are often hit by cars and all of the above utilize continued behavioral control via the bull hook.  Notice the white spots or bloody spots on elephant foreheads, behind their knees, behind their sensitive ears.  All this towards an already endangered species.  All this for us tourists.

Tourists will often not see the crippled and fallen elephants.  Volunteers at the Elephant Nature Park will, though.  All the elephants in the ENP program are rescued from the above fates and are being rehabilitated.   The bull hook is not allowed at the ENP, and the elephants are free to roam – never having to “work” again.  It is the ENP’s goal, and Dino’s biggest mission himself, to return these elephants to the wild someday, saving the Thai Asian elephant from extinction and tourism industry abuse along the way.

Bangkok is the only Thai city that, as of July 2009, has enforced Thailand’s national ban on elephant street begging within city limits.  Tourists are fined for supporting this illegal activity and the mahouts are arrested – but police do not know how and are afraid to confiscate the elephants!  So the Karen Hill Tribe is called in to round up the loose street elephants and guess what is found – the Karen man must only shout a few commands to the elephants and they literally follow him wherever he leads.  This is because practically all elephants in Thailand are rented family members of the Karen Hill Tribe.  The Karen do not get more money when their elephants are killed by meth addiction.  They are not given more money if their elephants are used for illegal street activity.  The Karen family is torn apart by the need to rent their elephants and it pains them to know they are being abused so.

The Journey to Freedom project I am volunteering for is an Elephant Nature Park associated program, both conceived by the world famous wildlife conservationist, Lek, meaning “small” in Thai – a 5’1 tall woman with a heart as big as an elephant’s.   Some Karen people have expressed their desire to bring their family elephants back home, but admit that they are unable to afford to feed and care for them and their own families without the 8,000 Bhat of rental income/month (approx $264) they accept from trekking camps now.  The Journey to Freedom Project creates a contract with the interested Karen family, agreeing to compensate them with 8,000 Bhat per elephant they wish to bring back home, so long as no bull hook is used, it’s only job is to be free to roam the vast mountain jungles to wild forage it’s food and that volunteer tourists, like myself, can come experience the Asian elephant returned to the wild.

The Journey to Freedom Project is an extremely progressive cultural and wildlife conservation project which has successfully brought  eight elephants back to the wild since it’s inception in October 2010.  But only three eco-volunteer groups, including my party of two, have enrolled in this life-changing experience.  Our fees assist the project, but for now, Elephant Nature Park and Lek are paying out of pocket to support the eight elephants.  This project needs volunteers.

Our dinner with the village elders and our conversation with Dino comes to completion as the night sky closes over us revealing a skycape of three dimensional constellations and asteroid belts so seemingly close, I feel I could sneak Venus as a personal crown jewel.   Tomorrow I will hike the jungle to look for the Journey to Freedom elephants in their wild habitat.  We are the first English speaking foreigners most of this village has ever seen.  They are certainly the first Karen I have ever stayed with.  My eyes find closure to the progressively slowing sounds of the wooden bell around a momma goat’s neck and the occasional wail of a still breast-feeding child.








all photography by Teddy Yonenaka

  1. Don

    March 13th, 2015 0:39

    Thank you


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