The Tyrone woman caring for elephants in rural Thailand
Wild Geese: Kerri McCrea, founder of Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand
Kerri McCrea with two of her elephants, Mae Doom and Too Meh.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Co Tyrone surrounded by cattle, Kerri McCrea nurtured a passion for wildlife and conservation while also inheriting her father’s pioneering can-do spirit. After graduating with a degree in zoology in Queen’s University in Belfast in 2013, she moved to Thailand where she worked with elephant NGO projects in remote local communities for three years in the mountainous north of the country.
During that period, she witnessed the plight of domestic working elephants in the tourist trade, many of the animals driven to exhaustion with poor nutrition and inadequate social time. She became determined to improve their lives and combat illegal trading.
Along with her Thai husband Sombat, whose family have kept elephants for many generations, she founded the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary in May 2016, returning elephants to their natural habitat from the tourist camps and parks.
“We started with four elephants and now have five in our programme. There are now 50 elephants that have returned to our area from camps,” she says.
The pandemic has hit the country hard. With nearly 40 million visitors a year, tourism accounts for more than 20 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product and, in northern Thailand, its collapse has meant that elephant parks and other attractions have been shut down.
That has left nearly 1,000 animals out of work, their owners having to face feeding costs of more than €30 a day which is more than three times the minimum wage in the country. Parks that once had 1,000 visitors a day are now lucky if they have even a handful.
“Our elephants are roaming the forests with their mahouts, but not in the fields where there are pesticides and fertilizers because it isn’t safe for them. There is enough food for them in the wet season but in the dry season that dries up. Then we have to drive for three hours to find food in the nearest town where the locals grow and cut corn – an elephant needs 200kg of food a day,” says McCrea.
“I live in a very remote hill tribe village called Baan Na Klang about five hours from Chiang Mai. The Karen – the largest ethnic minority group – are known for their weaving skills and we are trying to sell some of their work online because there are no tourists now.
“There is no public transport. People use mostly motor bikes to get around, if they can afford them. I am the only non-Thai in the village. Before we would have had volunteers coming and going, but I am now accustomed to no running water, so it’s cold bucket showers, erratic electricity, irregular phone signals and no wifi,” she says with a laugh.
She also speaks the local language which “is a lot simpler than Thai, so within a couple of months [of arriving], I was able to hold a conversation and it has grown from there. The people are so friendly and are always looking out for me and that and the elephants is why I am here. It is a great life.”
What she loves most about the elephants is their strong personalities – “They know what they want and will go for it. And when you see the effect on them going back into the forest [from the tourist camps], it is so transformative.
“Each elephant has its own mahout [handler] and they form a relationship with the elephant and a lot of them grew up together, so it is a beautiful thing to see,” she says.
Her five elephants have very different characters – “one is very naughty, one very unpredictable and one that was freed into the forest is now very chilled, and it is nice to see that transformation.
“The oldest bull was very playful once but is now a little unpredictable whereas the oldest female is quite stubborn. She worked in the tourist industry for so long that she is now making the most of her new freedom and is very maternal. They are certainly not gentle giants,” she says.
It is a lively village. “We have elephants coming and going, buffalo coming and going, dogs everywhere, chickens, pigs and cats. It is a much more natural way of life. My family have been out on visits here and everybody loves the attitude of the people.”
Last November, she and Sombat got married in their garden with their families and guests, “half Karen and half western” with a marquee, music and dancing.
Life remains a struggle but nothing if not resilient – an inherited family trait – she remains undaunted.
The pandemic has shifted focus on the ethical treatment of elephants in the tourist trade, with growing awareness that they should not be ridden as an attraction.
“Everyone has been affected by the collapse of tourism, but there needs to be a shift to a more ethical model where elephants are put first and not the tourists and establishing good elephant welfare standards.
“A lot of decisions [in the future] will be down to tourists demanding more ethical treatment. In the meantime, I believe that with the help and support of the public, we can make it through this crisis period.”