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Om Koi, as you may have noticed, we have not been featuring any elephants nor promoting our volunteer program for some time now. The reason for this is that we have not supported Om Koi for the past four months due to concerns over their treatment of the elephants.
When we launched our pilot volunteer program back in June, things were going well, and the elephants were being well-cared for. Our agreement with Om Koi included provisions that the elephants be allowed to roam free during the day, and that there would be no use of bullhooks or separation of mothers and babies, among other things.
However, about five months ago, we began to notice a decline in the overall well-being of the elephants. We started asking questions and demanding answers, but unfortunately things did not improve. It was then we stopped support. We needed to send a clear message that they needed to keep their end of the bargain. A new contract was written, with stricter provisions, and sent to Om Koi to be revised and signed by the owners.
Soon after, we learned that baby Kham Saen was separated from his mother, Mue Mue, after being reunited with her. The owners of Om Koi informed us that they planned to sell the baby elephants, Mho Loh and Ar Kan (Lek Lek), which we could not condone. Negotiations to buy them started, but they were by no means easy. Then, we were made aware that they were planning on selling Mho Jae and TG Baby. Initially, they offered them for one price. Although, we agreed to buy them for the initial price, they then raised it. The lack of seriousness on their part put a greater strain on an already difficult situation.
The final straw came when we learned that baby Par Gae Meh had been sold. We begged them to stop the sale; we offered to buy him immediately; and Lek frantically reached out to see why they had done this. However, there was nothing we could do. The baby was gone! We too felt the same devastation, rage, frustration, confusion and even betrayal that you might be feeling as you read these words. Hence our very strong stance with Om Koi. Then, when our partner and friend Lek Chaillert went to Om Koi in March to rescue Mho Loh and Ar Kan (Lek Lek) we were hoping the people of Om Koi would show that they were keeping the elephants well, despite the fact that we were not supporting them, in a token of good faith; as we were still trying to find a way to work together. Unfortunately, it was reported back to us that the elephants they saw were being kept in unacceptable conditions.
The people of Om Koi have expressed their desire to continue in our program. During the meeting held with Lek last week, they admitted to having made huge mistakes. In addition, they expressed remorse after seeing that we will not settle for anything less than what we feel our elephants deserve. We have made great efforts to make Om Koi a success story by keeping all our promises to them. A lot of work has gone into this project, such as building them a kitchen, dining room, storage room, bathrooms, a shower, a chain free shelter and a mahout house. They have been trained in different trades. We paid for their training at ENP etc. We have done all of this in good faith, but seeing Mho Jae and Baby Kham Saen so underweight and so poorly kept has not helped their case. We strongly believe that success rests in both parties working towards the same goal.
As a result, we made the difficult decision to halt our volunteer program with Om Koi and our support for now. We will explore possible ways to continue working with Om Koi. It must be clear to everyone that our main concern will always be the well-being of the gentle ones under our care. We are willing to turn the cheek in just about anything, except the well-being and happiness of the elephants. We understand that change takes a lot of time, and that we must be mindful and respectful of the culture. BUT if the owners are not willing to commit to giving the elephants a good quality of life, we will not hesitate to walk away.
Please understand that none of this could have been shared previously, as this would have jeopardized baby Kham Saen, Mho Jae and Baby Jai Dee's rescue. We had already lost baby Par Gae Meh, so we could not risk losing these 3 as well.
We take this issue seriously, and we are doing everything in our power to ensure that the elephants in our care are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. We have not given up on Mue Mue, nor any other elephant. We will continue to try rescue as many as we possibly can.
Thank you for your continued support as we navigate these difficult times.
Diana & Colby
When COVID-19 closed Thailand’s abusive tourism industry in which Asian elephants and caretakers, or mahouts, worked, the elephants and their mahouts returned home to the Om Koi District of Chiang Mai Province, Thailand. Once home, the village owners would have had to sell the elephants into the illegal logging industry to recoup lost income, but with help from Gentle Giants, elephants and mahouts were able to stay in the village. Villagers and owners are very pleased with this new situation, especially because the mahouts, young village men, can now help on family farms.
Through project partner, Lek Chailert, world-renown elephant conservationist and founder of Save Elephant Foundation, the villagers of Om Koi have asked for help to sustain this way of life for themselves and their 55 elephants. Thus, the project Gentle Giants Evolution Om Koi continues the previous work, now striving to make an ongoing and sustainable way of life for the elephants and villagers. In this project year, we are working respectfully with the indigenous elephant owners to help them find a better way to make a living by protecting these elephants, so that they are not forced to sell or otherwise exploit them. This project not only protects elephants and mahouts from inhumane treatment at tourism camps but also helps indigenous people throughout Om Koi, (population approximately 17,000), as Gentle Giants purchases from farmers, we hire local contractors to build shelters and purchase materials from local stores.
Om Koi is the southwestern-most district of Chiang Mai province in the northern highland forests of Thailand. Montane evergreen forests in northern Thailand are high in biodiversity and becoming increasingly fragmented. Om Koi is part of the Indo-Burma Hotspot, in terms of species diversity and endemism, one of the most biologically important regions of the planet. The nearest town to the village we are helping is two hours by vehicle.
The main goals of the current project are:
1) to continue to keep Asian elephants in their natural forest habitat by purchasing indigenous owners’ crops to feed the elephants, thereby by replacing their lost tourism income;
2) to employ local contractors to build chain-free shelters for the female elephants and their (currently) 18 babies that cannot return to the forest exclusively, having been born in captivity;
3) to train the village woman to make jewelry, cook, prepare host houses for a future volunteer visiting project;
4) to train mahouts in more humane elephant care practices; and
5) to help rejuvenate the surrounding forests by returning the elephants, a keystone species, to the forests during the day.
The first phase (December, 2021- June 2022) of Gentle Giants Evolution Om koi is already complete: one chain-free elephant structure has already been built that can house approximately six elephants (this cost is not included in the monthly support; each shelter costs $25,000 USD). The shelter also has a storage room and a medical room. Gentle Giants Elephants has sent eight months support, along with (items not included in monthly amount of $37,000) fresh fruit/Vegetables bought from local farmers and enrichment activities for the babies staying in the chain-free shelter. Training for Om Koi mahouts and village women has taken place in part at Elephant Nature Park. Lek Chailert of Save Elephant Foundation, and Gentle Giants Elephant partner, along with two other staff members are in-country supervisors of Om Koi Evolution. Construction of Kitchen, storage room, prep room, bathrooms, wash room and dining room are already underway and nearly completed for the Volunteer Program
Gentle Giants Elephants partner, in all aspects of this work, is Lek Chailert. Chailert was honored in 2010 as one of six Women Heroes of Global Conservation and was named one of Time Magazine’s Heroes of Asia for her work in conservation in 2005. She was the Ford Foundation’s “Hero of the Planet” in 2001. The National Geographic documentary Vanishing Giants, highlighting Chailert’s work with the Asian elephant, was recognized by the Humane Society of the United States with the Genesis Award in 2003. Chailert is the founder of Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants in Mae Taeng District, Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand.
More than a year ago, Lek and Diana were on the phone, Lek said she was heartbroken because 35 elephants would be taken the very next day to the very cruel logging industry. The owners were desperate, they had no other option to feed their families. Diana replied, they do have an option; GG will take them. "We will support them for a long as we can". 18 of those elephants were from Om Koi. And so, the relationship between the people of Om Koi and Gentle Giants Evolution began. Little did we know it would show the people at Om Koi a new life they didn't even know could exist. You see, for many generations the elephants from Om Koi were leased out to the different far away cities where tourist normally frequented. Along with the elephants, the young men from the village had to also leave. Sons, husbands, fathers were gone for years; working hard to send back whatever funds they could to support their families. Life was very hard, for both the elephants and the men. Even harder was the fact that the families had to be apart for long periods of time. So, when GG offered to support them, in exchange of pictures and videos of happy, healthy elephants, this opened a new world of possibilities for them. A new way of life. The village was happy to have their men back and happy to be able to care for their elephants. GG bought the fruit from the local farmers, so they too saw it was beneficial to have the gentle giants home. As the months passed the villagers realized they didn't want to go back to the way life was before Covid. In September, 2021 they reached out to our partner and friend Lek again, asking if we would build a chain free shelter. Of course, we said yes. The 1st ever chain free shelter was built at Om Koi. In November, 2021 Lek urged us to go to Thailand. The villagers wanted to meet with us. They wanted to keep 35 elephants home (this included the original 18), out of the tourist industry. We couldn't resist the idea of saving these precious lives from a terrible life of slavery. So, off to Thailand we went. While at Om Koi we were asked, on the spot, while in the meeting with the owners/mahouts, would GG help 20 more elephants. We knew that if we hesitated it meant losing these beautiful ones to slavery. We said YES... Typically we secure 2 months of support before accepting a new project, but time did not allow for this if we wanted to keep these 55 sentient beings home, safe, together, unchained in their natural forest habitat. Regardless, for 6 months now, we have made it happen and have been supporting all 55 gentle ones. To say it's been incredibly hard because of the heavy financial responsibility is an understatement! Together we keep these gentle giants free from all abuse and cruelty!
To maintain long-term sustainability, Gentle Giants Elephants plans to develop a volunteer tourism program in which volunteers will pay for the experience of being immersed in the village lifestyle. This will include walking -- at a respectable and safe distance -- with elephants in their natural forest habitat; spending time in the village school with the children helping them to learn English; working with a veterinarian (when available) to help the local animals (dogs, cats, pigs, cows, etc); experiencing and learning about the indigenous flora and fauna and reconnecting with nature. Income from the program will support the villagers and will eventually decrease the need for Gentle Giants to subsidize farmers’ income by purchasing produce. Ultimately, Gentle Giants aims to work respectfully with the indigenous villagers who own the elephants in such a sustainable and successful way that the villagers will hopefully end all captive breeding (something that is already beginning to happen), and that as only wild-bred elephants are born, the elephants will be able to return to the forest completely.
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