- Mary Rogelstad
- October 20, 2022
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Brice Cooper is just one of the students whose life took a different course after learning about elephants in Thailand. In 2015 she joined a Rustic Pathways program on elephant conservation that immersed her in the caretaker process.
During that program, she was paired with an elephant named Mo J and the elephant’s mahout or caretaker. Cooper learned how to direct the elephant to do different tasks. She also fed Mo J and took her to a nearby river to give her a bath. That role ended up changing her career focus.
“It was as if a switch was flipped in my mind. It opened up a world to me in which I was working with animals in nature rather than a clinic or a zoo. It sparked a change from wanting to be a veterinarian to becoming a wildlife conservationist,” Cooper said.
Cooper went on to earn a degree focused on wildlife conservation from Cornell University and is taking steps to rehabilitate animals. Now other students will be able to walk in her footsteps.
The new Thai Elephant Conservation Project will take students to the 360-acre Sappraiwan Elephant Sanctuary next summer. There they can learn about animal behavior and the lifestyle of the local indigenous people who are the caretakers.
Why the Elephants Need Help
It’s been a long road for the elephants in Thailand to get to where they are today.
In the early 20th century it’s estimated there were about 400,000 elephants in the country. Then the human population boomed and the logging industry exploded, leading to tremendous habitat loss.
Elephants were used as tractors to pull the logs. In essence, they were employed to destroy their own habitat. That deforestation took a major toll, leading to mudslides and causing the elephant population to dwindle to less than 7,000.
In 1989 the government responded by putting a moratorium on logging. Rustic Pathways’ Southeast Asia Manager Keegan Kennedy said this immediately created a challenge for the mahouts, who are the caretakers for the elephants.
“These were not wild elephants. They were born with people so they couldn’t be released or they’d die,” Kennedy said. “Conservation centers were created to support the elephants and teach people how to live with them. Elephants need people as much as people need the elephants.”
The mahouts led the way in ensuring the remaining elephants survived and thrived. Students are paired with a mahout while they’re at the sanctuary so they can see how the caretaker’s lives differ from their own.
The Mahout and the Elephant
Many mahouts are members of the Karen indigenous group, and they pass down the elephant caretaker role from generation to generation. A mahout is matched with an elephant and then undergoes a marriage-like ceremony in which he pledges to care for the animal.
The mahouts live with the elephants in the jungle and train them. They’re responsible for their care and for safety measures. Kennedy says during Covid many mahouts took their elephants home to their villages when conservation centers had to close.
One key goal is to create a symbiotic relationship between people and the elephants. Kennedy says there are wild elephants that still live in the mountains near Thailand’s borders, but that they’re too dangerous for populated areas. The mahouts make it possible for a country without much wealth to safeguard the elephant population in other regions.
“There are thousands of elephants but so little resources… There’s no budget and no land,” Kennedy said.
The challenges include elephants encroaching on farmland since the animals need a large amount of food. During the program, food issues are among the day-to-day tasks students learn to tackle.
Hands-On Lessons for Students
At the elephant sanctuary, the students start their journey by giving an offering to the Hindu god Ganesh, who is the god of the mahouts and the god of light. The offering usually includes incense and a chant. The students will learn that elephants are sacred to Hindus and Buddhists and are treasured in Thailand.
After the welcome, students get busy with the animals. They’re introduced to the pesticide-free farming methods used to grow food for the elephants. They may collect supplementary food like grass or pineapple leaves or stash treats so that the elephants have to use their problem-solving skills to find them.
On the health front, students see how herbs are used to create medical spa treatments. And they learn how sounds ranging from loud trumpeting blasts to low frequency noises known as infrasound allow elephants to communicate across distances as far as six miles.
Later the students get a glimpse of how the struggle for the elephants began. When the teens head to Chiang Mai, they learn about deforestation and work in a tree nursery.
“Habitat loss is the biggest threat elephants face,” Kennedy said. “The students see how conservationists are planting fast growing trees to attract pollinators and help wildlife.”
Bringing Those Lessons Home
Maya Elia, who traveled with Rustic in 2015, says these moments stuck with her when she returned home. She was struck by the contrast between her modern life and the life of the mahout.
“When I came back to Dallas, I looked around and saw crowded shopping malls and I missed the vast Thai jungle. Rather than waking up to bathe our elephants in a river, I woke up to check social media,” Elia said. “I missed being surrounded by the gentle giants that I had become so close to during my week in Thailand.”
Elia ended up turning her memories into action. For nearly three years she sold “elephant pants” that were like what she wore in Thailand and sent the proceeds back to the sanctuary.
Alumna Sully Sims almost missed out on these kinds of experiences. She was hesitant to go to Thailand and only went after a friend encouraged her. He told her she may not have another chance to go to Thailand and if she didn’t go she may regret it later.
“I got to work with one of the world’s most amazing creatures!,” Sims said. “Sometimes I think back to those weeks and have a hard time believing they were even real. And to think I almost didn’t go!”
For more details on the program in Thailand and its itinerary, please visit our elephant conservation page. In addition, a couple of other program options include a day with the elephants. View all our Thailand programs for details.