John Roberts is a busy man. Between running the elephant camp at the Anantara Resort in Chiang Rai, rescuing begging elephants with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, and coordinating volunteers and scientific researchers, he still found time for an interview with Elemotion Foundation. Interview Oct, 2010
1-Tell me about the different projects you are running.
We have three different operations. There are two commercial operations, one working for the Four Seasons Golden Triangle with 4 elephants and one working for Anantara with eight elephants. Those elephants are fully looked after by the hotels, and, in turn, they can make money for the hotels when we have enough guests. The rest of the elephants are under the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. That is a non for profit organization. We look after elephants we say can’t help themselves such as young elephants or pregnant elephants. At the moment, we have no old elephants, but that would also be possible.
2-Have you had any births?
We’ve had three elephants born here. We don’t have a breeding program. But, we give the elephants a degree of freedom, so it does happen. And, we like baby elephants.
3-Are you involved in any new projects that you would like the public to know about?
Anantara is sponsoring a clinic for the Thai Elephant Therapy program which will be held in Lampang. The elephants are working with autistic children as assistant therapists. The children have shown improvement in balance, social skills, and other improvements. This clinic which will give free treatment to 8 Thai kids.
4-At Anantara and Four Seasons, the elephants do some kind of work. Could you tell me about the kind of work the elephants do and how it differs from the work done in an average tourist camp?
First of all, we do have trekking here. It is not our signature activity, but we don’t ban it. In my opinion, trekking is not necessarily dangerous or harmful to the elephant. It becomes dangerous or harmful to the elephant when it does too much trekking. For example, it has to work for ten hours a day, or the equipment is left on too long resulting in saddle sores, etc. But, in my opinion and in my experience, just doing one hour here and there doesn’t do any damage at all, so we do allow it. And we limit it to one hour here or there.
Our signature program is called mahout training. The idea is to give the guests an idea of the bond between the elephant and the mahout. At the very simplest, we do a one hour session where you learn to climb on, go forwards, backwards, left, right, and then walk back up to the hotel. Or, you can choose to do two hours in the morning or two hours in the afternoon where you actually go into the forest with the elephant. If you have had some practice with it before hand, you can take it into the deep water and have some fun with it. If you haven’t had any practice before hand, we don’t let you in for safety reasons. And then, the advanced course is a three day course where we teach how to do a basic veterinary check of an elephant. You are with the same elephant for three days. Some guests do volunteer to come down here and muck out. It’s a nice program and it suits the 5 star guests that we have here.
5-Where do you find the elephants you rescue for the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation?
The first one walked past as I was sitting in a pub in Bangkok. That is where we got the idea to start doing something. In the beginning, we just found them. Either we took a mahout with us, or a taxi driver, who thought we were crazy, going around Bangkok, searching, and finding the elephants. That’s become more difficult to do now because of the increase in the law. People are wary, even of us, of giving up their position. We do have a very good relationship with them, so we can generally find them if we have to. We’ve never turned anyone into the police. Anyway, if you turn someone into the police, that generally results in a fine. It doesn’t actually solve the problem. It just makes everyone a little bit more broke. Since the start of Chang Yim (government program welcoming elephants and their mahouts back to the Surin province), we’re hoping it will be a little more difficult to get the next elephant we rescue, but that’s a good thing.
6-Depending on the elephant’s origin, is there a difference in the way the elephants have been trained such as language commands, etc. And, how do you deal with that?
There is. We do have three elephants here that are from Chiang Mai who have been trained by Karen and know the northern language. It hasn’t posed a problem because we always bring the mahout with the elephant. So, we have quite a nice little melting pot. From my perspective, there is a good deal of mutual respect between the Karen and the Surin mahouts. A good elephant man recognizes a good elephant man
7-When you rent or buy an elephant, do you always bring the mahout and their family here with the elephant?
The mahout comes, and the family has the choice. Learning what we have by experience, if we don’t bring the mahout, he just goes out and buys another elephant. So you’re not actually solving the problem. There about 40,000 elephants in the wild, so they can be had fairly easily, even if illegally. If you don’t bring the mahout out of the picture, he can just get another elephant. It’s actually rescuing mahouts rather than elephants. It’s a way to look at it, and that’s the way you’ve got to look at it.
8-Why is it important to rent the street elephants and not just buy them?
These guys are traditional, generational mahouts. They have their own separate language, and they’ve always looked after elephants. That is what their fathers did and what their grandfathers did. It’s their cultural identity. So, if you have a mahout without an elephant, and he has money in his pocket, which he will have if you have just bought an elephant off him, he will buy another elephant. It is very, very rare that maybe somebody is retiring. In 95% of the cases that’s what is going to happen. If he was making money with the elephant on the streets, it is very probable that he will do this again with the new one. Or, if he was surviving doing 10 hours a day in a trekking camp, that’s what he’ll do with his new elephant. So, if you buy the elephant, you’ve succeeded in helping one elephant, but you’ve put another who is potentially having a nice wild life, or maybe a young baby still with its mother, in danger of losing that nice life. And as I understand it, there is wild capture going on in Burma. Some very good conservationists, both in Thailand and some global agencies, have said that there are elephants being smuggled across the border from Burma and registered in Thailand. It isn’t too hard to see that the easiest way to get an elephant is to buy an ex-wild one from Burma.
9-Your elephant camp is open to researchers and interns such as veterinarians. Why do you do this?
Well, I started out volunteering, and I’d like to give other people a chance to do the same. That is why the interns may come here for free. We tend to live in an isolated world. If we are going to learn things, we need to share information. And, I believe in teaching youth.
As for the researchers, they scientifically prove or disprove what they think they know. Just thinking you know something is not enough on which to base an argument or theory. You must scientifically prove it. This knowledge might lead to more people understanding the situation that elephants find themselves in. They may start to think about what we can do to save the wild populations, or it may lead to more people thinking about how to make sure the elephants in captivity are well looked after. Also, if we are going to build new laws in Thailand to set a standard of care or standard of work, you must have scientific proof that certain practices are beneficial or harmful. Only then, you can build a law on it.
10-What do you want your guests to learn or remember when they leave?
There are people involved in the equation too. Elephants are currently being domesticated, and there will continue to be domesticated elephants as long as there is a cultural need for them in Thailand. By writing the mahout out of the equation as a cruel, evil man or by ignoring them, we are not going to solve any problems. As long as there are domesticated elephants, there is a need for mahouts. So, you might as well talk to these guys who have been doing this for generations and who actually know what they’re doing. If there are bits of what they’re doing that we don’t agree with, rather than banning them, I work with them. I try to show them that my ideas work rather than just saying “You’re fired, get out of here.” Let’s work with them. It’s not just about looking after the elephants. You must keep the mahouts in the equation. You have to look after them, and in 99% of the time, you must listen to them because they do know what they’re talking about. I want people to understand how good they are at their jobs and why we need them.
11-How can regular people help?
Visit the camps suggested on your website, any one of them. Visit well-run camps. Make sure your agent knows that you visited a well-run camp and suggest that they recommend that camp, even if it’s more expensive.
If you do see an elephant on the street, get the mahout’s phone number. Send it to me, send it to someone. Depending on what you want to do, contact an organization that will help you. Don’t try to do it yourself because you will pay too much. Also, once you buy an elephant and give it to someone, they then have to look after the elephant. Go through the organization first, so they can plan it
Donate to a charity that you feel to be a good one. Be sure that it is a registered charity in the country, and be sure that the organization it donates to is a registered charity.
12-What is your final goal?
My final goal is for Thailand to have, in 25 years, a sustainable number of domestic elephants and for those elephants and their mahouts to be well looked after. Sustainability has to be decided, whether we increase the jobs for elephants or whether we decrease the population. And by domesticated elephants, I include, if it does turn out to be an advantage, domestic elephants that have been released into the wild, that are in a managed population with people looking after them. That would be the ideal.