S1 E3: Sarah Blaine: How to See an Elephant

Sarah Blaine is the founder of the Mahouts Elephant Foundation, a project in northern Thailand and a model for what elephant tourism should and hopefully one day will look like.

Ten years ago, Sarah and her husband, Felix, and their two small kids got on a plane, showed up in Thailand at an elephant trekking camp for tourists, eager to learn to help and to just be a part of things. But shortly after they arrived, they realized something was really off. The elephants were miserable. The conditions were terrible, and the Mahouts, the guys who train and handle the elephants, were living in abject poverty and in a cycle they just couldn't get of, living in these little, tiny shacks, barely able to afford to eat or take care of their families. And so Sarah looked at Felix and they quickly left and went to another camp, and things weren't much better.

And this set them on a decade long journey. For the first few years, they researched and they learned all that they could. They went to camps, they went to sanctuaries, they spoke to tons of elephant handlers, to locals from villages all over Thailand, they found a Karen village up in the North that seemed to be a perfect fit for the project they’d envisioned.

 And so they created the Mahouts Elephant Foundation, which is an 8,000-acre sanctuary for rescued elephants, where both the Mahouts and the elephants can be safe and free.

In Thailand, there are only 6,000 elephants left. They're critically endangered. Half of those that remain are captive, the other half wild. The wild elephants live in national parks and the captive elephants work in tourism and entertainment. And they have pretty hard lives.

Some of them have unbearable lives. And so that is what Sarah and Felix decided they wanted to change in any way that they could.

The reason so many elephants have ended up working in tourism and entertainment is because in the '80s, logging became illegal and when it did, itput a lot of elephants and their Mahouts - well, all of them, out of work. And for the handlers, this was the only way they knew how to survive. It was generational. This is all their fathers had done, their grandfathers and back beyond, beyond, beyond. And so they fled to the cities, and a lot ended up begging in the streets in Bangkok, and a lot ended up in tourism.

I visited the Mahouts Elephant Foundation last spring. I had this conversation with Sarah a few months after that. When I arrived at a small Karen village up in northern Thailand, I looked around and wondered, "Where are the elephants?" I didn't realize that Sarah's model of tourism is very different. There were no elephants until the next morning when we had to go find them. So, she and I and about six other people, and three or four Mahouts, went to find the elephants, which meant we hiked through the forest for hours.

It was 100 degrees and we were trudged up and down the hills until, a few hours later, we walked into a opening in the forest and there, at a large mud pit, were a family of elephants right there in front of me. It felt like something out of Alice in Wonderland.

We followed them around throughout the day. We followed them up and down hills, we trekked through the forest, we watched them eat and play and interact. None of us really spoke much to each other because it was so incredibly mesmerizing. When I say it felt surreal, it felt like this enormous gift of being dropped into this incredible world and being allowed to witness it without feeling like you were imposing or in any way getting in their way.

And this is the model Sarah's created and since then, they've opened up a second project, and hopefully they're going open up a third and a fourth and a fifth, and many other people will replicate what they're doing.

Meet & Sponsor the Elephants

Mahouts Elephant Foundation supports 7 beautiful elephants to stay safely living in their forest home, at two different project sites; Walking with Elephants and LIFE.

Each elephant has their own unique story and personality. Take a moment to read about each of the beautiful elephants that are supported by Mahouts Elephant Foundation


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Walk With Elephants

Mahouts elephant foundation are proud to offer you an opportunity to visit a remote Karen hill tribe village to see elephants living deep in the forest.