Thailand’s Ecosystem Engineers: Q+A with Never Forget Elephant Foundation’s Ava Lalancette

The Never Forget Elephant Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that operates on the Northern Thailand/Myanmar border. NFEF returns endangered captive elephants home to their natural jungle habitat while providing service to the local Karen Hill Tribe population.

Through their work, NFEF aims to inspire sustainable solutions for elephant and environmental health. In this part of the world, elephant welfare is a multilayered and complex issue that involves both the animals and locals.

Founder and Executive Director Ava Lalancette spoke about the Never Forget Elephant Foundation’s work and how they work alongside local communities for the benefit of elephant welfare. The success of future elephant populations relies on communities working together in the context of local solutions and now during a pandemic, as Ava explains.

When did Never Forget Elephant Foundation start? What urged you to start NFEF?

“We started Never Forget Elephant Foundation in January 2019 and publicly launched the Foundation on April 1, 2019.  After spending extended periods of time in Thailand and learning about the challenges that captive elephants and their owners face, a small group of us came together to help a local Karen Hill Tribe community that needed assistance with their elephants. We believe that by working together with people who have owned elephants for centuries and really understand the problems they face, we will end up moving the needle into a more ethical and environmentally-friendly approach in managing captive elephants in Thailand.”

How hard was it to create and build NFEF? What made its creation possible?

“Creating Never Forget Elephant Foundation has been like putting a puzzle together.  Each piece from teamwork, to communicating, to submitting legal paperwork, to building a business plan, etc, plays an important role in building the Foundation.  And without one piece, the puzzle is not whole.  So, we have really been focused on keeping a high level approach as we further build and manage the Foundation.

What has made the Foundation a success is teamwork. It sounds cliché, but without teamwork, not only between the members of NFEF, but also between NFEF and our community, we would not be where we are today.  One of our guiding principles as a team is to listen before we speak. We deeply respect each other as talented human beings and each one of us brings a unique perspective to how we will advance the work of our mission.  The NFEF has built great trust with each other and as volunteers, each one of us honours the time and sacrifice we have given to the mission.

We also use this principle of respect when we approach conversations with our community.  We have a lot to learn from the people in our village and showing up with a goal of wanting to grow with them is the foundation of our interactions. This approach has allowed us to create an atmosphere of trust between our team and community and because of this trust we have been able to build a really special relationship with our community.”

Did you travel to northern Thailand/Myanmar initially? What drew you to travel there from the U.S.A?

“Yes, I, Maria and Holly met previously in Thailand in 2017 and formed friendships and started learning about the captive elephant crisis.  We then met up again in 2018 and in 2019 we decided to start the Never Forget Elephant Foundation together.  Our team is now spread throughout the globe – Seattle, Washington USA (Ava), Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Holly), Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom (Lara), Glasgow, Scotland and the United Kingdom (Dionne). Our board members are located in New York, Maine and California. Due to COVID, we are all in our respective homes and will return to Thailand as soon as it is safe to do so. We have a great team on the ground in Thailand running our daily operations and look forward to returning soon.”

What is your attraction towards these elephants, and why are you in service to them?

“Elephants are incredibly special animals. They have an energy that is unlike any other animal. What is so captivating about them is their sheer size and their emotional intelligence. They could choose to hurt you, but we have seen when elephants are given space and can go about their days as they wish, the forgiveness and love they show us is remarkable. Spending time with them ends up making us better people. Elephants truly challenge and inspire us to show up to be the best versions of ourselves.

We are in service to them because we cannot bear to think about a world without them living in their natural environment. As ecosystem engineers, they play an essential role in maintaining the biodiversity of the jungle. You can liken it to the role that sharks play in our oceans. Without sharks, the biodiversity of the ocean would collapse and the same would happen without elephants.

In being a nomadic species, elephants need a lot of space.  They do not belong in cities or in zoos and getting them back into their natural environment not only benefits the health of the jungle, but it also benefits their health. We have watched the physical and mental health of our elephants improve since returning them to their natural habitat and witnessing this transformation further illustrates just how important it is for them to be in their natural environment, foraging on the nutrients they need and forming social bonds as they choose.

We could write many pages about why we are in service to elephants, but simply, we are in service to them because we owe it to them and we owe it to future generations. We can do better, and the Never Forget Elephant Foundation program has demonstrated the amount of potential that we all have collectively to improve the lives of these endangered animals, while we can also provide opportunities for our local community they didn’t have before.”

What are the major issues that face elephants in this part of northern Thailand/Myanmar?

“When talking about elephants in Thailand they are in two separate categories – wild and captive. There are approximately 6,000 to 7,000 Asian elephants in Thailand, split evenly with approximately 3,000 elephants in each category.* The problems wild elephants face versus captive elephants are different, but there is high level commonality between the two.  Asian elephants were also classified as an endangered species in 1976, although they do not have any special rights with this designation and have the same rights as livestock under Thai law.

In both cases, the problems elephants face are due to humans.  For captive elephants, not having ample space for them to forage, to form social bonds or for them to travel is detrimental to their overall health.  If you travel to these elephant camps, you’ll see elephants used as props instead of respected as the individuals they are. Not only is this heartbreaking to see, but when we took that experience a step further and learned about biological diversity and just how important it is for them to be in their natural environment not only for them but for the environment and for us, it really lit a fire in us to help make a change.

This issue is quite complicated, though, because it is illegal to release captive elephants to the wild. Not only is it illegal, but it is inhumane. These are elephants that have been around humans their entire lives and they do not have the same experiences as their wild counterparts. Releasing them to the jungle without any guidance or intervention is not a solution.

Wild elephants, and their captive counterparts that are being returned to their natural environments, are in competition with humans for land.  Elephants are migratory animals and humans have taken away a tremendous amount of land from them which have also interfered with their natural migratory paths. The elephant-human conflict in Thailand is very high as wild elephants that wander onto farms and eat crops are at risk of being killed.  And, captive elephants must be controlled in a way so they do not get into situations where they could be in conflict with humans.

To summarise, in both instances the biggest problem they face is humans. We are hopeful here at Never Forget that someday we will be able to have some influence in protecting more land for more elephants so they can live in a safe way which not only benefits them, but also benefits the local environment and ultimately ourselves, too.”

How many elephants has NFEF rescued? What is involved in a typical rescue?

“Since starting our rescues in early 2019, we now have 14 elephants in our program at Never Forget Elephant Foundation. This also includes four elephants we rescued in March as a result of the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic as the tourism industry closed and elephants were at risk of being sent for logging in Thailand (illegal) and Myanmar (legal).

The timing of the rescues has to work out just right because, many times, the elephant owners sign contracts with elephant camps in the city without knowing exactly what they are signing or exactly how long their elephants will be under contract. This is also part of the reason why we work so closely with our community to understand the challenges they face.  It is a very complicated issue.

Once a particular elephant is identified to join Never Forget Elephant Foundation, we will have the elephant’s owner handle discussions with the camp owners and will provide transportation for the elephant from the camp to the project. This means the elephant is loaded onto an open-air truck and, if she is in Chiang Mai, she is driven approximately five hours where she is unloaded and walks through the jungle back to our project with her owner(s).

We do not purchase elephants and believe that by giving elephant owners an alternative option in how to have an income from the elephants, this ends up being more impactful for the owners and their families in the long run. The tourism industry with elephants really started in the late 1980s when logging was banned in Thailand after mass floods in the northern part of the country. Owners were then forced to lease their elephants to tourist camps so they could make income from them. Now, in the Never Forget model, we return the elephants home to their natural environments which also benefit the community through our service program.

We visited one of the tourist camps before one of our first elephants, Mae Tau Po, was rescued. Seeing elephants on short chains, without opportunity to forage on the natural food they need and having their social bonds broken all while under the guise of being an ‘ethical sanctuary’ was quite difficult to see. And after our initial meeting with Mae Tau Po, we saw how cracked and dry her skin was from constant bathing and she also appeared to be underweight. Since joining the Never Forget Elephant Foundation program, Mae Tau Po’s physical health has blossomed and the health of her skin has drastically improved. Each elephant also goes through an individual mental or spiritual transformation and we have seen the elephants in our program really come into their own as individuals.”

NFEF works alongside the local Karen hill tribe, which is a marginalised ethnic group and victims of Myanmar’s civil war. What effect has your foundation had on this local community?

“Our local community is the heartbeat of our Foundation. Without the support of our village, we would not be where we are today. It has been an incredible journey to experience the trust we have built with them and both of us are dedicated to our relationship. By western standards, the families in our village may not have a lot of physical possessions, but our team is consistently blown away by the amount of generosity and love they give to each one of us. This mission is a heart-forward project where we all can sit around together and really connect and learn from one another.

There are a couple of different ways the program impacts our community. First, through our elephant rescue program, the people who own the elephants get to be home with their families. Many times, the father or grandfather has owned elephant(s) and has spent a great deal of time away from their families, travelling to care for the elephants as they have leased them out to places in the city. They haven’t had much other choice but to do this, and since they love their elephants, they have been away for longer periods of time with the elephants. So by returning elephants home, our program gives elephant owners new opportunities to be home with their families, instead of travelling to the city to stay with their elephants.

Our second program is our community service program. This allows us to develop connections with the members of our village and to, hopefully, provide some new opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise. We have different activities through this program when we have visitors and they include spending time with the kids at the school where we learn Karen and teach English, we do a movie night with the kids at our project, village clean up with the kids and finally, we will be starting a scholarship program to help kids go to University. There are so many kids who are aspiring to be doctors, nurses, tour guides, to name a few, and it is an honour to build the Foundation to help them in a meaningful way.”

NFEF has a volunteer program. What does the program offer to volunteers and the elephants?

“We have a Visitor Program here at Never Forget Elephant Foundation where visitors can come and spend a week with us at the project. Visitors can expect to hike with the rescued herd in the jungle, sleep in comfortable bamboo huts, eat delicious plant-based, organic meals and spend time with our community connecting in a meaningful way. Many of our visitors have left the project with a renewed sense in the possibility of humanity.

In addition to our standard week-long stay with us, we also offer an opportunity for custom yoga retreats. We have had a number of yoga teachers come to the Foundation with their students which was an incredible experience for not only the students and teachers, but also for us. There are great similarities between the practice of yoga and our program. We provide a true karma yoga experience where students are able to feel immense gratitude through spending time with the elephants and community. We worked with the local community in designing and building a very special outdoor yoga shala that is located in a quiet space on our property.”

Now, we are living through a COVID-19 pandemic. How has the pandemic affected NFEF? What can readers do to support NFEF during this time of uncertainty?

“COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on our program. As a new non-profit that opened our doors to the public in December 2019, the timing of closing in March this year was incredibly unfortunate. We rely heavily on our Visitor Program to provide financial resources to help advance the work of our mission and as you can imagine, not having this right now has put a big strain on our program. We put together some resources on how people can get involved with us and also outlined how COVID-19 has impacted our program.  The most impactful ways to get involved with us are to consider joining our monthly giving program and to help get the word out about NFEF via social media on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.  [Readers] can also subscribe to our mailing list which you can do here and follow us on social media.

Do you have any parting thoughts?

The captive elephant crisis in Thailand is an extremely challenging and complex situation. It does not have a ‘one size fits all’ solution. We believe many elephants and communities can be positively impacted by looking at the situation with a compassion-forward approach where we listen to each other and get to the heart of the issues we face together. We are hopeful there will be a lot of change for elephants in Thailand in the future, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic where more and more of us are now inspired to assess our relationship with the natural world.”

You can learn about the elephants at the Never Forget Elephant Foundation by visiting the Meet the Herd section of the NFEF website.

As mentioned by Ava, you can support the NFEF through their monthly giving program or keep up to date with their progress via Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

You can also read the reviews from those who have stayed with the foundation through a Google search. Type in “Never Forget Elephant Foundation” to read them. You can also read more about the foundation’s work and reviews on their Facebook page.

 

Sources:

All photos featured in this blog post were supplied by Never Forget Elephant Foundation

*Footnote: Data according to Royal Thai Embassy, Washington D.C.

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