by Pamela D. Gauci, San Francisco Chronicle
“Why not come and take some pictures?” That simple question led Silicon Valley executive Carol Stevenson to give up her high-powered job and begin a second career in photography and documentary filmmaking.
It was 2009 when a friend invited Stevenson to attend an elephant polo match at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Rai, Thailand. At the time, Stevenson was a senior sales director for the Asia-Pacific division at Sun Microsystems. Her high-tech career, spanning three decades, had taken her to Singapore, India and Thailand.
“I always had my trusty camera with me wherever I went,” Stevenson said, curled up on a couch in her Muir Beach home. “I spent weekends and time off photographing my travels.” Her trip to the Golden Triangle foundation, a camp set up to rescue and provide sanctuary to elephants in danger, gave her an opportunity to spend time with domesticated elephants and their mahouts, or keepers.
“The elephants are so intelligent,” Stevenson said. “They’re absolutely magnificent, and their bonds with the mahouts are amazing.”
The relationship between elephants and mahouts is an integral part of Thai history and culture. Many mahouts are born into the vocation, and the secrets to becoming an “elephant whisperer” are passed down to them. As children, they are paired with an elephant and remain bonded with the animal for life.
But urbanization and cultural shifts are changing the mahout way of life. As a result, the tradition of the mahout is in danger of disappearing.
Stevenson, realizing this, contacted the camp’s owner and requested full access to the elephant refuge to document the lives of 28 mahouts and elephants over the course of five years, through photography and video. When her request was granted, she quit her job to work full time on the project.
“Our long-term goal is to work with people on the ground in Thailand for sustainable solutions for the future of domesticated elephants,” she said. “One of our short-term goals is to rescue elephants in dire need, taking those injured or traumatized off the streets.”
Stevenson explained that domesticated elephants have traditionally been working animals, used for many years in Thailand’s logging industry – until logging in the country was banned in 1989.
“In some ways,” she said, “the domesticated elephant is an animal that has outlived its so-called uses. The only options left for domesticated elephants and their mahouts are tourism or sanctuary.”
Recovery from trauma
Many mahouts’ only option is to take their elephants to city streets and beg for money for a living, Stevenson said. The mahouts are typically given money from tourists and city residents for the opportunity to feed a “street elephant” bananas or a handful of sugarcane. The noise and chaos of the urban environment traumatizes the animals. They are often hit by cars, or injured when they step into manholes.
Stevenson told the story of a young elephant named Lynchee who was saved from the city streets while her mahout was begging for food for her. People involved in elephant rescue noticed that the elephant was suffering from a severe case of head bobbing, a sign of trauma or physical abuse.
“This was a really bad case,” she said. “No one was really sure what had happened to her, but she was clearly traumatized. The lead mahout at the camp volunteered to work with her.”
The mahout stayed by Lynchee’s side for months, singing to her. Stevenson documented the process of Lynchee’s recovery.
“After six months, their bond was unbreakable,” Stevenson said. “He would start singing to her and she would just fall to the ground and start squealing with delight.”
Lynchee, who has since been sponsored through private donations to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, was recently “adopted” by two other elephants.
“The three of them are like a family, always together,” Stevenson said. “This is an example of the best possible practices in action.”
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