The Elephant Caretakers of ThailandAugust 17, 2023
Exploring BiodiversityOctober 22, 2023
By Patrick McGee – 8 week intern
Nestled deep in the forests of Thailand, a journey of about 4 hours west of Chiang Mai, lies an unassuming hamlet to the normal person, but home to remarkable people. This is Ban Naklang. The home of the Pakinyaw, better known as the Karen. A hospitable and welcoming community. Despite the hardships of their ancestors escaping persecution from their native Myanmar, and adapting their language to the Thai and English alphabets, a culture and heritage thrives in this village.
For centuries the Karen have upheld the legacy as elephant keepers. This tradition past down the generations traditionally is held in high regard. It is an honor and privilege for a man to become a mahout, an elephant caretaker. A mahout has an enormous responsibility, ensuring the elephant in his care is safe and away from danger. As elephant habitat continues to be lost due to human encroachment, the purpose of the mahout has become ever more prominent.
Conserving the world’s wildlife has always been a major passion of mine. The opportunity to study Asian elephants in their natural habitat was a decision made without hesitation. But the notion of conducting wildlife research while living in a rustic mountain village with a tribe largely unbeknownst to the world made even a seasoned traveler apprehensive. The language barrier being of the most concern. Yet, it was the desire to travel and return to a region of the world that I once considered home that was the primary influential factor.
A favorite memory of my time, was during a hike, we sat down to lunch in an open field still ecstatic from observing Dodo, a large bull elephant. Mountains towered above forming an impregnable wall of lush green vegetation of the most abundant shades. Doves, Taylorbirds, and other avians sang their morning songs. Gibbons hooted and whistled in distant tree canopies demonstrating their territorial dominance. Elephants grazed and frolicked in the valley living their best lives away from logging and tourist camps. A euphoric daze descended upon the valley, making it an ethereal utopia. A paradise not lost but safeguarded from the outside world. Time almost became stagnant. Moments seemed like minutes. Minutes turned to hours. Hours became years. Years lasted centuries. Instances such as this are why conservation is such a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
While observing elephants is exciting in its own right, the villagers are just as entertaining. First there is Boon Yune from my homestay. A husband and father with a playful personality. His ongoing joke entailed expressing interest to view the elephants, but then stall at the last moment with another bogus excuse he conjured up. Gwah Do Amoh is the spouse of Boon Yune. A strong, stoic mother of four sons who made you second guess asking her to do your laundry. Yet, she would crack a smile when you complimented her cooking. Nee is the owner of her own café, Nee’s Corner. An espresso, latte, smoothie, Thai iced tea, or crepe, she caters to your craving. Then there’s Gae, the sweet bubbly guide/naturalist/interpreter. She was easy to converse with, and during one-on-one English lessons, she strove for perfection. She works two jobs, being a guide and “just living”. And of course, the mahouts. A jovial band of young men who take pride in their role as guardians of the elephants and carry out their duties with distinction. So many characters live in Ban Naklang and yet there was never enough time to interact with them.
While the dream of studying elephants in their natural habitat in Southeast Asia was fulfilled there was more to this experience that was gained. The Karen are a remarkable people who have interwoven their culture with nature. Without elephants to perform their duty as caretakers of the forest, there would be no forest. And without the Karen to care for the caretakers of the forest, there would be no elephants. Despite the hardships the Karen have endured and the pressures humans have put on the environment, both are resilient and can thrive if given the opportunity. The world could never be the same without elephants and those who protect them. The Karen, the elephant keepers.