Katherine Connor: Sustainable Elephant Rescue

Many animal sanctuaries exist on a teetering balance between the rights of animals, photogram demands of tourists, and the traditional lifestyles of native owners. One sanctuary in Thailand set up by an Englishwoman aims to benefit first the animals and second, their handlers. By Gaia Discovery staff.

 Katherine Connor became an accidental elephant crusader on a visit to Thailand. Courtesy CS Monitor.

Katherine Connor became an accidental elephant crusader on a visit to Thailand. Courtesy CS Monitor.

Sukhothai, Thailand. 3 July 2018. When Katherine Connor took a trip to Asia in 2002 following a successful career in retail management, she was looking forward to travelling and sightseeing on a nine-month adventure. But just six weeks after arriving in Thailand, she decided to volunteer at an elephant conservation centre and hospital. While there, she met a baby elephant, Boon Lott. The meeting changed her life, and the lives of many Thai elephant trainers, workers and mahouts (elephant masters).

“I knew there was more to life—and more to me—than working Monday to Friday and getting drunk every weekend,” she said in an interview. “I always tell people to travel with your heart, because it will lead down some interesting paths,” she added. Her path has certainly proved interesting over the last 16 years.

Today, Connor runs an established elephant sanctuary dedicated to the memory of that baby elephant, Boon Lot. The Boon Lot Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) in northern Thailand near the Si Satchanalai Historical Park, that puts the needs of elephants first and foremost. BLES is also proud that it is helping change centuries-old punitive traditions that decreed how elephants should be managed. 

 Local Thai villagers take an active role in the running of BLES. Courtesy BLES.

Local Thai villagers take an active role in the running of BLES. Courtesy BLES.

In the years since she founded the sanctuary, she has rescued and rehabilitated dozens of elephants, has changed the lives of scores of elephant owners, and has been invited to British House of Lords to receive the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) Award for her dedication and commitment to her charges.

But just as importantly, she has given the sanctuary’s mahouts respect and credit for their knowledge, paid them a decent wage and worked with them patiently to show them that the traditional bullhooks and chains were not necessary to control elephants – that there was a more sympathetic and caring way.

The Start

Connor says that when she first arrived in Thailand, she was disappointed that although there were plenty of elephant sanctuaries on offer, few placed the emphasis on the animals themselves. “As far as I could see, nobody was putting the elephants’ first. Every place I visited—so-called sanctuaries—was all about making money, exploiting the animals and bringing in the tourists,” she says.

So she decided to set up her own sanctuary where the elephants would be the central pillar, not the fare-paying visitors. In 2006, the Boon Lot Elephant Sanctuary became reality, with the official opening on May 5th 2007.

 Rescued elephants learn new socialising skills at BLES. Courtesy BLES.

Rescued elephants learn new socialising skills at BLES. Courtesy BLES.

Today, BLES allows elephants to live in a natural environment that encourages them to rediscover their true identity and natural social interaction. Basic skills such as natural foraging, swimming, scratching and dust baths - all things that have been denied to most of the rescued elephants – are fostered and gradually relearned. BLES says it is working to “achieve the impossible” and deterring the threat of extinction of the Thai elephant one elephant at a time as well as raising world wide awareness to the plight of the captive elephants in Thailand.

Broader change

But BLES also recognises that the process of rehabilitation also needs ideas to change outside the sanctuary. As a result, the staff offers support and advice to local elephant owners who may lack sufficient funds to care properly for their animals.

At BLES, mahouts are seen as essential members of the team. The word mahout comes from Sanskrit, meaning ‘teacher of all’, which Connor says aptly describes the mahouts at BLES.

 “We are deeply committed to our village community and provide jobs and housing to several mahouts and their families,” say the staff at BLES. “We encourage local participation in BLES activities and promote education about elephants and their plight, as well as about the environment.”

“Each mahout exudes understanding, respect, and a passion to protect the elephants,” says the sanctuary’s website. This is very different to the traditional mahout/elephant working relationship that relies on animal domination using sharp tools, chains and basically cruel methods.

 Local mahouts work closely with the elephants, without cruelty. Courtesy BLES.

Local mahouts work closely with the elephants, without cruelty. Courtesy BLES.

And because an elephant was historically a source of income for the mahout and his family, it was kept from wandering or doing the wrong thing through the use of a sharp hook or Ankusha, and huge leg-restraining chains.

“It was a challenge for our mahouts to understand that there is a more humane and gentler way handle domesticated elephants,” says the centre staff. “Tradition and ingrained habit were hard to overcome.”

But encouragingly, the BLES approach of gentler, more sympathetic elephant management is being taken up by many other elephant centres in Thailand. Several are now taking in elephants trained by mahouts and owners from across the country who have been to BLES to learn how to better manage their elephants. “Our mahouts are passionate and proud ambassadors for this change,” says the centre. Any rescued elephant is partnered with a mahout who is carefully selected to work with each animal, depending upon its rehabilitation needs. The mahouts are then on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week to care for the new arrival. It’s a big change from managing retail business, but Connor is proud of her achievements.

“Now I’m sitting here on 535 acres of forested land we’ve protected, surrounded by 13 elephants we’ve saved, [together with] more than 50 other rescued animals,” she says. 

Want to know more about Connor and BLES? Check out Animal Planet’s Dodo Heroes, TV series on 8 July, at 9pm. The show features Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary and its efforts to rescue and rehabilitate elephants from Thailand’s tourism and logging industries.