Journey to Freedom is an Elephant Nature Foundation project that empowers communities in the mountains of Thailand while working to restore their sacred bond with the Asian elephant. After years of logging and trekking operations, the region’s elephant population has been decimated: small villages are unable to afford such voracious animals without their working income. Poverty forces villagers to lease their elephants to large tourism or street begging operations in the cities, damaging the bond they shared and putting the animals in unhealthy, traumatic environments. The ENF is working to reverse this trend through providing sustainable ecotourism revenues and volunteer aid in exchange for villagers returning their elephants to the region. Mahouts must treat the animals humanely, no hooks or short chains, and allow them to roam the jungle during the day. By bringing volunteers and income to these isolated communities, the project gives an economic value to intact habitat and healthy, naturally behaving elephant populations.
From October to April, the Journey program takes paying volunteers to several mountain villages where they aid development projects, teach local children, and walk with the elephants. Because my project week occurred in the rainy season, we were unable to build or walk to the third village. Though our project was rescheduled and less time was spent with the elephants than expected, the volunteers enjoyed their one week home - stay in the village of Mae Jung Sam nonetheless. To see the experience, follow the link to my captioned photo story of the week’s program: