SARAH and Felix Blaine from Peopleton near Worcester have been passionate about the natural world for a long time.

About seven years ago they went with their two children, Joe and Natasha, to Thailand to take part in a voluntary project helping elephants used in the tourist industry. This experience was to change their lives.

Sarah, aged 47, said: “I have always had a passion for elephants and all animals. We had wanted to do something like this and we found a project on the internet. It is something we really wanted to do.

“As soon as we were there we realised the scale of the problem. It is sad that one of the biggest threats to the elephant population in Thailand is the tourist industry. It is a profitable industry and they will kill a whole herd to get a baby. It is acceptable to do that there,” said Sarah.

Elephants were originally captured for logging industry but when logging was banned by the Thai government in 1989, the elephants and their riders – mahouts – turned to the tourism industry in order to survive.

Baby elephants are taken from their mothers and the herd to be trained to beg in the streets, give rides to tourists, perform in circuses or do tricks for audiences.

These elephants spend many hours on short chains, they often have a poor diet, they receive few or no health checks and are rarely allowed access to ponds for bathing. The abusive, cruel and painful training methods add to their misery.

Sarah said: “It is just wrong. I looked at these elephants and said: ‘Someone has to do something about this’. Then I thought ‘Why don’t we do something?’.”

Turning that thought into action came after the Blaines encountered an old elephant called Somsri in December 2012. She was in her 70s and had lived a very difficult life begging in the streets of the seaside resort of Hua Hin.

Dangerously thin and exhausted, the Blaines decided to help her and Sarah accompanied her on her long journey to the Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai, North Thailand, to enable her to live out her final days in dignity and peace.

Sadly, she only enjoyed a few weeks of freedom at the sanctuary before she died and it was in Somsri’s memory that the Blaines set up the Mahout Elephant Foundation to help other elephants like her. “The turning point for us was meeting Somsri,” said Sarah, a former nurse and interior designer.

The charity aims to facilitate change for the 4,000 captive elephants working in Thailand and strive for better welfare of the these majestic creatures as well as helping to return as many as possible to a natural environment.

It also hopes to drive down the demand for the current type of tourism which uses elephants as entertainment and help people appreciate the elephant in its more natural environment.

Sarah said: “We firmly believe that elephants do not belong in captivity. We work on the ground in Thailand supporting and creating sustainable and welfare focused projects where tourists can still watch and safely be around elephants while keeping welfare firmly at the top of the agenda.

“We also work in the UK raising much needed awareness and education with the general public, tourists, tour companies, school children and young people embarking on their travels to Asia.

“Through a combined approach that also takes into account the needs and livelihoods of the mahouts, who in most cases own the elephants, we believe change will happen. We firmly believe in working closely with the mahouts, their families and the communities they live in to achieve a change that is sustainable well into the future.”

She said the villages in Thailand want their elephants back but they need support to do that. Sarah, 43 year-old Felix – a GP in Worcester, Joe aged 15 and Natasha 12 this summer undertook a 130km walk through the forests of Thailand alongside a mother and baby elephant, rescued from a tourist camp in Chang Mai in northern Thailand, to return them home with their mahouts.

Called Walking Elephants Home, they were accompanied by former Worcester News political reporter Jack Blanchard – Felix’s cousin - who now works for the Daily Mirror. Their story was covered by the national newspaper last week.

The walk took seven days and involved setting off at 4am on some days and camping in the wilds of the jungle - sleeping under the stars.

Sarah said: “It was tough but it was a life-changing experience. Everyone was blown away by it. It is an experience most people do not get. It is a privilege to walk next to elephants. I just want people to realise what a unique opportunity it is to walk these elephants back to their village.

“We really see great hope for the future. I think the mind-set is changing. I am very positive about the future. Walking Elephants Home is our biggest project to date and we really want it to grow in the future.

“We want this to be a progressive charity that can make a real difference to these captive elephants. We are now offering people an opportunity to come and see the elephants we are sponsoring back in their home environment.”

Anyone who would like to know more about the Mahout Elephant Foundation can visit And anyone who would like to donate to help the Walking Elephants Home projects can visit

• In the past, Thailand’s forests teemed with a vast wild elephant population estimated at the beginning of the 20th century to be in excess of 300,000 with a further 100,000 domesticated animals

• Official statistics indicate there are now 3,000 to 3,700 wild elephants in the country but experts believe this may be much lower and as few as 1,000

• The dramatic drop in the numbers of wild elephants in Thailand over the past 100 years has been accompanied by a big increase in the human population and major habitat loss as the forests have been cleared for agriculture. The pressure caused by habitat destruction has been exacerbated by the poaching of bulls for their ivory and young calves to be trained for tourist shows