Started in 2010, the Journey to Freedom project has grown into a nearly independent sanctuary for Asian elephants managed and maintained by Karen people. Their long history of working with elephants used to be centered around the logging industry.
While the 1989 ban on logging was beneficial to the forest and the remaining wild elephants, it presented problems to the captive elephants and their owners. Faced with a loss of income, many Karen saw the only solution was to send their elephants to far away camps set up to entertain tourists. The Karen men would frequently lease their elephants to the camps where they were often mistreated.
When Karen mahouts contacted Sangduen “Lek” Chailert soliciting help to extricate their elephants from the abusive trekking business, the Journey to Freedom project was born. In July 2010, two elephants, their mahouts and a few volunteers walked through the jungle to a remote village known as Mae Chaem, near Doi Inthanon. Once they arrived, the elephants were released into areas surrounding the village.
Today, this area and the project has evolved and is known as the Karen Elephant Sanctuary. It encompasses three villages and 15 elephants, including a set of twins who were born in October 2011.
Journey to Freedom is the next step in improving the lives of the Karen people and the elephants they keep. Its aim is to replace the income the Karen can earn by renting their elephants. Instead, elephants are cared for at home and left to live in their natural jungle habitat. To provide a livelihood to the people, Journey to Freedom allows visitors to come and spent time with the elephants in their natural homes.
The goal of the program is to show that elephants can be a source of income without their being exploited and to provide economic support for humane and culturally sensitive choices. What’s more, the Karen can live closely to their traditional way of life without avoiding quality-of-life improvements. The Journey to Freedom has helped to develop roads, water systems, and even recently installed the first refrigerator in a Karen village.