Helping elephants in Thailand

For her birthday, all my friend Loreen wants is an elephant.

Last year, while visiting Thailand, Loreen discovered Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for abused elephants. She donated generously, a gift that her company matched, and she enabled ENP to build a shelter for their elephants.

This year, she’s aiming high. Instead of gifts, she’s asking all her friends to help her rescue another elephant at Elephant Nature Park by donating directly to ENP, or by donating to The Abraham Foundation, a U.S non-profit that supports ENP.

elephant c/o Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park and its founder Lek, are featured in the documentary film, How I became an Elephant. I was horrified to learn of the conditions of so many captive elephants in Thailand, and comforted to see Lek care for and give a refuge to survivors. In the film, she said she doesn’t buy elephants from people who will use the money to abuse more elephants. A position that I completely endorse. It does, however, take money to negotiate an elephant’s freedom and transport.

Lek offers elephants over 100 acres to roam, form natural groups, and for the first time ever, live without chains and set their own agendas. Amazingly, some of the rescued elephants have been reintroduced to the wild. Many others are too injured and worn out for life in the wild so Lek and her team offer medical care and the best quality of life possible.

In Thailand, elephants are forcibly impregnated and have their babies stolen from them. Babies are beaten “broken,” and forced to beg in busy cities at all hour of the day and night. They are malnourished and suffer greatly. Other elephants are used as beasts of burden in the illegal logging trade, even after injuries and blindness. Still others are used to give rides to tourists or perform tricks such as playing instruments, sports, or painting.

How to help

  • If you’re in the Seattle area, RSVP to Loreen’s fundraising birthday bash on October 24th, 2015.
  • Look at the Elephant Nature Park’s list of ways to help.
  • Donate to Elephant Nature Park at their site or, if you’re in the US and work for a company that matches donations, go through The Abraham Foundation, a 501(c)(3).
  • Never ride an elephant or pay to see captive elephants perform (dance, paint, or anything else). Even if the act itself looks harmless, the ways elephants are physically and emotionally abused to get them to learn tricks is abhorrent).
  • Volunteer at the Elephant Nature Park next time you’re in Thailand!

Saving Elephants: An Interview with ESPFund founder Scott Nelson

I recently met up with Scott Nelson, the founder of ESPFund, an organization that is helping African elephants. I wanted to learn more about how ESPFund came to be. Here’s what I learned:

What is ESPFund?
ESPFund is short for Endangered Species Protection Fund, a Seattle-based 501c3 nonprofit helping to stop the extinction of African elephants, and by extension also helping rhinos, lions, giraffes, and other wildlife. We partner with African communities to help them protect the biodiversity not only of their areas, but of the earth overall, since many species and ecosystems exist only in Africa.

How did ESPFund get started?
I see the over-exploitation of our environment as the biggest issue of our time, and I was not comfortable ignoring my love of elephants and letting others fight for them. I am not able to ignore the killing of such an amazing creature as the elephant. It goes against everything that I am and that I believe about myself and my place in the universe. We can all learn from elephants. Most people would agree that they are amazing, and yet we kill them by the thousands, and historically, by the millions. We are now down to the last remaining few.

baby elephant

What drew you to elephants?
This species is considered keystone, and their prevalence is indicative of a healthy ecosystem. They are so unique, so majestic and representative of the wild blue yonder, and so intelligent, that to me their decimation represents one of the clearest cases of humans destroying our very own habitat. I believe that elephants are like the canary in the mineshaft, and that the fate of humans is linked to the fate of elephants. If we lose them, it means we have irrevocably lost our way and poisoned our own environment beyond the point of no return. If we cannot protect such an intelligent being as the elephant, can we save ourselves from our own destructive ways?

How are you different from other organizations that help endangered animals?
We believe people need better options for channeling their conservation interests into change. Traditionally, many nonprofits start off with a noble idea, but in the growth process, they become large companies where accountability can become hazy, salaries get excessive, and the activities become too self-serving and competition-based. We are volunteers who are motivated by the mission, and our focus is specific, specialized, micro: Stop the poaching of elephants by giving Seattle and others a direct link to conservation in Africa.

In Africa, this must be intertwined with community involvement, so that is why we partner with other nonprofits whose missions center economic development. In this way we appeal to those supporters whose hot button is the poaching of endangered species, and we give those supporters a direct link to the front line. The collaboration aspect also provides a greater degree of oversight and accountability, because nobody wants to partner with a shady organization.

Can you explain a bit about the goals of ESPFund and how you’re meeting these goals?
We want to help communities secure areas where wildlife will be safe in the long run. We start by finding community groups that are trustworthy and motivated. Right now we are focused in Kenya, near Tsavo West National Park and Mt. Kilimanjaro. We have partnered with a community group that falls between the areas tended to by larger nonprofits. We are getting their community rangers trained and equipped so they can work alongside the Kenya Wildlife Service and other private rangers, sharing resources and expanding their reach.

Our goal is to turn this patchwork of private and government rangers into a cohesive, effective network, and get them to a point where their operating area is free of poaching. Along the way we assist the community in forming a wildlife preserve within the protected area so they can bring in tourists and make a living by showing off their amazing part of the world. We then take the same model and apply it to a new area, and so on.

The group fighting for Elephants

What are the highlights of your work with ESPFund so far?
Working with the community rangers is amazing. We trained them on self-defense and first aid, along with training on Kenya’s wildlife laws and integrating with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Many of them are former poachers who are now passionate about saving wildlife. One of the rangers is a member of the Maasai tribe who rides his bicycle for three hours on rough dirt roads to get to get to the patrol area. That’s dedication!

We also recently promoted the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos in Seattle where we had Tom Skerritt speak, along with Sam Wasser from the UW and Wendie Wendt from Big Life. It was part of a worldwide awareness-raising campaign, and we made many contacts around the world that we will work with in the near future. Also, working with the leaders of other nonprofits, planning and strategizing, is promising and encouraging for the future of wildlife in East Africa.

What’s next for you and the Fund?
The elephants are coming! They will be making a stand in Seattle. Look for the Elephants’ Last Stand in the coming months around the city. This will be a large fundraiser. As soon as funds are available, we will be focusing on building a ranger base in Kenya, getting rangers trained by KWS and better equipped, and expanding our efforts into Tanzania.

How can people help your cause?
We need help in all forms! We need contacts and introductions to people and organizations that want to save wildlife.  Donations of funds and outdoor equipment are sorely needed. (editor’s note: Look for the Donate Now button on the ESPFund home page)

We make every dollar count and not a cent is spent on overhead costs. Every member of our organization is donating their time and energy, and I personally oversee the allocation of all assets. We need someone with WordPress expertise to help with our website, and we need motivated and reliable people to join our fundraising committee. A graphic designer is needed for flyer production and other graphics. Soon we will need adventurous volunteers to come to Kenya and help build a ranger base. Lastly, I direct you to our What You Can Do page.

It is imperative that everyone who cares about wildlife starts to think much more frequently about doing what they can to save the animals we have left. And if you care about African wildlife and want to help save it, we want to hear from you.

Anything else you would like to add?
Well, yes, if I may step onto my soapbox for a bit, I would like to close with this:

For thousands of years elephants have been persecuted, while simultaneously revered for their intelligence, compassion, and “godliness.” King Solomon, Roman emperors, and countless ancient kings and leaders in Europe, while hunting the elephants for their ivory and using them for war, along with philosophers like Aristotle, Pliney, and Aelian, all praised the elephants for their power, intelligence, community spirit, and moral virtues. Edward Topsell, a naturalist and parson in the 1600’s, summed elephants up by saying “there is no creature among all the beasts of the world which hath so great and ample demonstration of the power and wisdom of almighty god as the elephant.”

There are many authors, scientists, conservationists, and even the occasional politician, all saying that the wild is vanished, that the end of nature is here. Personally, I agree with them. I have seen it in what most people consider the wildest place on earth: Africa. The African wild is gone, taken over by overpopulation and corporate and political interests. We as humans have successfully tamed, bent, and broken nonhuman life to our desires, and we have proven our dominance over our surroundings, to our own detriment. And we are continuing to do so by continuing to believe and act as if we are separate from other life forms, and smarter than other life forms. In the coming years we will see iconic species after species disappear forever from earth because we failed to respect their instinctual desire for contentment and survival, and we failed to understand that our own survival is intertwined with theirs.

There seems to be a collective view that as long as there is a dam providing us power, a farm providing us food, a factory providing us gadgets and technology, and our 401k is growing, then we have what we need and everyone and everything else is either extra or irrelevant. We forgot that we need nature. Nature does not need us, but we need nature for our own survival. It is easy to forget we need nature, because the day-to-day changes in our surroundings are so minute that we barely notice the slow deterioration of our environment. But when we step back and look at the changes of our planet on a decade by decade basis, then we see how much things have “progressed.”

I believe we as humans on this earth are at a critical point, a point where if we are not actively working to create positive change, then we are actively hurting ourselves and our future as a species. It is time for each of us to change course and show our dominance in new ways. By showing respect for all other creatures and their habitats, we can show that the new dominance is a spirit of protectiveness, humility, and cooperation. It is the only way that we can protect our own future as a species.

ESPFund logo

Thank you Scott! I’m happy to be involved is such a noble and urgent cause.

Global March for Elephants and Rhinos

Every 15 minutes, an elephant is killed.

Every 9 to 11 hours, a rhino is killed.

These beautiful creatures are often poached for their ivory and horns. Whether for trinkets or so-called medicine, there is no justification for their deaths.

That’s why, this Saturday, thousands of people from over 125 cities around the world are participating in the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos. The event will bring awareness to the plight of elephants and rhinos–two species whose very existence is in peril (poaching kills 35,000 elephants and over 1,000 rhinos every year).

The march will put pressure on  governments around the globe to publicly destroy their stockpiles of wildlife parts and show zero tolerance for this illegal trading. The main reason these species are in decline is because of the growing trade in tusks and horns. Here are the details for the Seattle event:

What:  Global March for Elephants and Rhinos
When:  Saturday, Oct. 4th at noon – 2 pm
Where: International Children’s Park, 700 S Lane St, Seattle, WA 98104.

Global march for elephants and rhinos

The march will be about half a mile long. Signs will be provided, but you can bring your own. For more info or to RSVP to the event, check out the event’s Facebook page.

Before the march, a lineup of speakers will inform, inspire, and entertain. Cathy Sorbo, comedian and former Seattle PI columnist, will emcee the event. Speakers include:

  • Tom Skerritt, acclaimed actor and passionate animal conservationist.
  • Wendie Wendt, Executive Director of Big Life Foundation, one of the leading organizations in the fight to stop poaching.
  • Kathleen Gobush PhD, A research scientist who worked with Save the Elephants, a key player in saving elephants in Kenya. Currently she is a Senior Project Developer with Vulcan.
  • Lisa Kane JD, a retired lawyer and author who has advocated for the welfare of captive and wild elephants locally, nationally and internationally.

My friend Scott Nelson is working with the organizers of the Seattle march to make the event a success. Scott recently founded the Endangered Species Protection Fund, a 501c3 non-profit with a focus on protecting endangered species like elephants, rhinos and tigers. The ESP Fund website had a handy march map you can use to get to the event and follow the route.

Please help bring awareness to this crisis and help stop the demand for elephant tusks and rhino horns.

Help send Watoto to a sanctuary–not another zoo

Watoto is one of the three elephants–and the only African elephant–at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo. Over forty years ago, as an infant in Kenya, she was captured, torn away from her mother and family, and brought to the US.


So today, about 70 people, organized by Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants, filed into the Seattle City Council meeting to represent Watoto and ask that the council send her to a sanctuary.

All elephants at the Woodland Park Zoo (the others being Bamboo and Chai) languish in a small enclosure–about an acre in size. That acre is subdivided to keep Watoto apart from the other elephants (they don’t get along). And for over half the year, because of Seattle’s cold, damp climate, the elephants spend 16-17 hours a day indoors.

For large, migratory animals used to traveling great distances, this is a cruel arrangement.

Friends of Woodland Park Zoo Elephants is working hard to have the three elephants retired to a sanctuary. However, Watoto’s situation is urgent: The zoo intends to send her to a different, impoverished zoo!

Watoto is lame, broken and aging. She deserves to live out her days at a place like PAWS or The Elephant Sanctuary.

The Council didn’t let us speak up for Watoto, but our presence–and our shirts–spoke volumes. We will try again. Watoto depends on us.

How to Help

Please take a few minutes to email the Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray. Simply say, “Send Watoto to a Sanctuary” or include these points:

  • A super majority of citizens want the elephants retired to a sanctuary.
  • Since the zoo is moving Watoto, we’re asking that the Zoo honor our values and send her to a sanctuary.
  • Studies have shown that keeping elephants in zoos serves no measurable conservation or educational purpose.
  • Woodland Park Zoo has received $100 million taxpayer dollars from the City and King County since 2002 making the welfare of Watoto all of our responsibility.
  • Twenty-seven zoos have closed or will close their elephant exhibits; let us join those progressive enlightened Zoos.


Tweet: @Mayor_Ed_Murray   @SeattleCouncil   @woodlandparkzoo


July 14/2014 update

We made the news this evening!

August 23rd update

Watoto was found dead in her cage. RIP Watoto. This tragedy highlights how unsuited elephants are for zoos and reinforces the importance of sanctuary.

An Apology to Elephants

HBO An Apology to ElephantsWhat’s the problem with the elephant in the room?” asks veterinarian Mel Richardson rhetorically in the new HBO documentary An Apology to Elephants. He answers his own question: “the room.”

The problem of elephants in captivity is the heart of this film, narrated by Lily Tomlin. It guides viewers through our complicated relationships with elephants. It shows beautiful footage of wild herds and contrasts them with heartbreaking scenes from circuses and zoos.

The documentary interviews several elephant experts, including the late Pat Derby, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). Her sanctuary in California is a refuge for elephants.

The film is difficult to watch. Elephants in circuses and zoos are trained through forced submission and physical violence. The bull hook is an instrument of torture and the elephants learn to fear whoever bears one. But it’s important to know about the plight of captive elephants. How they’ve been ripped away from their families in Africa and Asia just to entertain us.

baby elephant training (PETA)

The performances that these majestic elephants are forced to participate in seems to mock their very elephant-ness. The ringleaders have stench of colonialism on them. Conquer, dominate, exploit, profit.

Ringling Brothers Circus (Amy n Rob)

Elephants have been exploited for a long time. They’ve been used to perform hard labor, as instruments of war, as objects of entertainment, as transportation–not to mention being killed for their meat and ivory. Humans have been unkind to pachyderms and we owe them a better future.

Elephants in the wild form tight social bonds. Male babies stay with their mothers for up to 15 years. Females never leave the matriarchy.

The Oakland Zoo is featured prominently in the film as an example of a zoo that is changing. They’ve increased the enclosure (it’s still just 6 acres, but that’s six times bigger than Seattle’s paltry enclosure). Instead of direct contact (which involves bull hooks), they use indirect contact so trainers are never in the same area as the elephants. When they do interact with elephants, it’s through a fence and with positive reinforcement.

bullhook (IDA)

The trainers acquired the elephants through other, sub par zoos, and to my knowledge they aren’t breeding them. They acknowledged that the wild is the best place for elephants but since these ones can’t be released into the wild, improving their living conditions is the next best thing.

I don’t support zoos and I would like to see the Oakland Zoo elephants to go a sanctuary like PAWS too. Profiting from animals, whether in a zoo or circus, isn’t right. But on the spectrum of elephant treatment, Oakland is doing a whole lot more than most places.

After seeing this film, you can bet I’ll be at the circus the next time it comes to town–protesting it! In this area, Ringling has learned to stay out of Seattle, but they still come to Everett and Tacoma. I’ll be there, speaking up for the elephants who can’t. Elephants as old as I am who see nothing but the inside of trucks, the sharp end of a bull hook, and the jeering crowds in a circus tent.

I’ve written the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and asked that their elephants be released to a sanctuary. I encourage you to do the same. Write to the officials in Seattle or your local zoo.


Have you seen An Apology to Elephants? What did you think? Do you know of other captive elephants who have campaigns to help them?