On 8 April at approximately 8:30pm, Maemoon and Kamjan arrived at our Conservation Project Site in Pai. They arrived with their mahouts (elephant trainers/keepers) from Huang Bong, a Karen hill tribe village just South of Chiang Mai. It took them 8 hours of driving through the narrow, winding, and often unpaved roads of Northern Thailand to get there; it took us two years to ensure they'd feel right at home.
Kamjan and Maemoon are mother and daughter and they are inseparable. Kamjan, the mother, is 45 years old and in her 7th pregnancy; Maemoon is 36 years old and in her 5th (and she's due very soon)! They had both been working at an elephant camp in Chiang Mai, giving 4-5 elephant rides, 8 hours/per day since they were 3 years old. By a stroke of luck mixed with relentless determination, we were right on time to offer them a different life.
Their mahouts are young brothers who come from a family of 24 mahouts, dating back 4 generations and over 32 family-owned elephants. Since the age of 13, the mahouts have each trained at least 10 elephants and worked in over 6 elephant camps. When we asked them if they could ever imagine their life without elephants, they tenderly gazed at their faithful companions and shook their heads in a solemn "no."
The mahouts live on our Conservation Site with the elephants and keep a protective eye on them from dusk until dawn. Their day begins at 4am to cut the elephants' food; the rest of the day is theirs to enjoy the scenic grasslands of Pai in the company of friends, family, and visitors from all over the world.
"I am happy to be here," said one of the mahouts. "Not only because it feels like home, but because when I see [my elephants], I know that they are happy, and I have never seen them so happy."
For Kamjan, Maemoon, and their mahouts, this is a major accomplishment. For us, it is only a humble beginning.