Letter Home: Walking With Giants in the Hills of Thailand

What happens when a Wesleyan student discovers a passion for protecting elephants—and begins her career in a small Southeast Asian Village?—

REBECCA WINKLER ’16 began working with the Mahouts Elephant Foundation (MEF) through her Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies thesis project, Walking with Giants; Ecofeminist Insights on the Tourism Industry in Thailand. The foundation’s Walking with Elephants project provides income to a Karen hill tribe village and allows their elephants to return to their natural habitat. The project also serves as a research hub to study Asian elephants and the ways the village coexists with them. Winkler, now project manager for Walking with Elephants, enjoys a unique perspective into the daily life of these huge animals and the tribe that both depends on and protects them. Visit mahouts.co.uk for more information.

I wake up around 5:15 a.m. to the crowing of the roosters around my house. Today I’m planning to head out with our mahouts (traditional elephant keepers) to the elephants—hiking four miles into the forest—and I won’t be home until late. As I get ready, enjoying a cup of coffee made with beans our neighbor picked, I hear my host grandpa and Manit, our head mahout, calling my name. I know there’s been a change.

I won’t be going to the elephants today, Manit tells me. Instead, I’ll be helping the family plant this year’s dry rice. The shaman has decided that today is a “good day”—so everyone will head out to the new rice plot that has lain fallow for the past six years. Back when I was a student at Wesleyan, I was a planner, making lists and schedules to organize my days. Here in the small Karen hill tribe village, I’ve found that planning more than a few hours ahead almost always leads to frustration. “Go with the flow,” is one of many lessons I’ve learned here, where everyone lives at the will of nature.

However, the next day at 6:50 a.m., Manit is knocking at my door and soon we are walking out to the elephants through the forest, all of us chatting as we go. Suddenly I hear a loud buzzing and feel burning on my arms and face. Wasps! I scream and run away, but I have a number of stings and the pain is severe. Eyes brimming, I prepare to head back home, but Manit grabs some leaves from a specific plant he chooses from among those nearby, chews them up, says a short blessing over the wad, and applies it to my stings. The pain starts to recede instantly, and so does the swelling. He tells me to keep pressing it on my skin and I will be fine. “Let’s go,” he says and continues walking out to the elephants. Turning back would make me look weak, so I follow him and the others.

We arrive at our four elephants—Thong Kam, Bai Fern, Sunti, and Mario—and the mahouts untether them so they can head off for their day. We follow along. In the past, before cash crop corn farming led to deforestation, the elephants never had to be tethered at night, and sometimes they still don’t when they are farthest from dangerous pesticide-rich cornfields. Our organization is working with the forestry department on reforestation.

In rainy season, the mahouts are always busy finding wild mushrooms that grow everywhere in the forest. By 11 a.m. they’ve gathered a large bag and decide it’s time to cook lunch. They’ve each brought their own rice, chili, and salt. Another mahout, Cha Tor, cuts down some bamboo to make into a cooking pot. Fresh green bamboo won’t burn if it’s got liquid inside it, so it can be put directly on fire as our soup pot. The mahouts find fresh turmeric, lemongrass, and wild herbs, add about 10 chilis, and boil everything together with the mushrooms. The result is a delicious soup that feeds our whole group.

After lunch we track down the elephants. We never know where or how far they’ll walk; it can range from 10 miles on a long day to less than a mile when they’ve found a spot with plentiful food and water. The mahouts are expert trackers, and it usually doesn’t take more than an hour to find them.

Days when the elephants do less walking are a treat. The mahouts set up hammocks to relax, and I get the unique opportunity to observe Asian elephants in their mountain habitat. I wouldn’t be safe if I were this close to wild elephants, so what I’m able to observe here is the clearest picture into the daily life of Asian elephants that exists. Soon, thanks to a grant from the European Outdoor Conservation Association, we will have a couple of post-docs arriving to help us publish research on the life of elephants.

All our elephants have completely different personalities. Thong Kam is 30 years old and our matriarch. She’s had a difficult life, spending about a decade made to work in an elephant riding camp, performing tricks and giving tourists rides. Now, though, she confidently leads her family through the forest just like any wild matriarch.

I’m proudest of our young female, Bai Fern, age 5, born in an elephant camp. Until she returned home two years ago, she had never been exposed to forest life. She’s protective of her little sibling, Sunti. When guests come, she will often stop Sunti before he approaches them, as if to say, “You have to know better than to approach strangers!” With the mahouts and me, though, she is completely comfortable.

Sunti, Thong Kam’s youngest, was born in the forest here. He’s learning all of the skills of a calf in the wild, and I expect he will be the most well-adjusted.


Mario is 7 years old. His mother ran out of milk when she was breasfeeding him and he seems to be developmentally delayed—a big tusker whose personality is much more similar to Sunti than to an adult. Mario clearly sees Manit as a family member, running to him, rather than another elephant, for comfort.

I’ve now spent about a year with this herd and their mahouts, and I feel like they’re all part of my family. Like the mahouts, I can see the nuances between Sunti’s approach when he want to smell me and when he wants to “play,” which in elephant terms means “knock me over.” I still know so little compared to the mahouts, but I do know how incomplete the lives of most elephants in captivity are. I am determined to produce as much awareness on this and to help as many elephants as I can.

We return to the village at day’s end, and after dinner I join my host, Grandma Cee Dee, for a cup of tea while she prepares her betel nut mixture on her porch. She’s a spitfire lady, never afraid to tell you her blunt opinions on the goings on in the village. Sitting and chatting with her also helps my language skills. I can now hold basic conversations, but I’m working hard to get to the point of full fluency. The Karens’ language is spoken, so as part of our grant funding we are creating a learning center and archive in the village filled with written and recorded stories from the elders about the village and the elephants here.

There’s very little light in the village, so when it gets dark, my body gets the bedtime cue. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring, but I’ve learned to anticipate the uncertainty with openness and excitement.

[Go to video.wesleyan.edu/videos/video/5104785977001 to see Winkler ’16 talk about the Walking Elephants Home project—and read more about the elephants’ personality traits she observes at magazine.wesleyan.edu.]