Meet John Roberts
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation has many meaningful feathers in its cap. Among other things, it is currently caring for more than 20 elephants rescued from Thailand’s crowded city streets, working with the mahouts’ families to build financial independence, funding research on how elephants could help children with autism, and protecting an 18,000-hectare elephant corridor of standing forest in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia.
So, who is the driving force behind the Foundation? What is his motivation? How did this journey begin – and what’s next? Should all elephants roam in the wild? What’s the most surprising thing about these majestic creatures? No one can answer these questions better than John Roberts himself, the founder of the Elephant Foundation.
Here is a short excerpt from our interview with John:
Q: When was your first encounter with elephants?
JR: I saw my first elephant on the lawn of Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park in Nepal in October 1999. I saw my first wild one from the balcony of the tented camp there about three months later.
Q: What was the turning point that made you decide to devote your life to elephants and conservation?
JR: I don’t think I ever decided. I travelled after University, volunteering in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas, then did a year in Parks in Northern Australia. It was sometime during those two years that I realised I couldn’t go back to a ‘normal’ life – but it still took a long time before it became clear that my ability to explain the wild to guests could be used not only to further conservation but also to make myself a sustainable living.
Q: Did it turn out to be what you expected?
JR: The trick is to not have expectations! At no point did I specifically have this mapped out, but it has allowed me to be flexible both in my management of the Foundation – reacting to a changing world – and in my life.
Q: If you had another chance, would you do it all over again?
Q: Many people say elephants should run in the wild and that we should not ride elephants. Can you explain your views briefly?
JR: Certainly elephants should all be wild, where they’re free to make their own decisions and perform ecosystem services. This is the reason a large amount of the Foundation’s money and effort is spent keeping wild elephants wild – we have MOU’s in three Thai National Parks to protect wild elephants and our own 18,000 hectares of forest in Cambodia where they roam free.
Thailand, however, has around 3,500 non-wild elephants and we also need to find ways to look after them. There isn’t enough wild to put them back into, so a well-planned tourism activity such as ours is a great way to do that – they get to walk around as a group, meet new people and lead a rich and varied elephant life, while our guests get to learn about elephants and a little of what it is like to be a mahout. The elephants enjoy it: there seems to be a modern misconception that captive elephants live entirely in misery and fear no matter how you look after them. I have to say that in 16 years of living among elephants I have seen no evidence of this – I have seen elephants looked after badly and I would never seek to bring a wild elephant into captivity but I’m entirely comfortable with this as a way to keep those already in captivity fed, watered and amused.
Q: If you have to share one little known fact about elephants, what would it be?
JR: I don’t know! That they have six sets of teeth throughout their lives? That their trunk has around 40,000 muscles and no bones? There are so many little known facts about them that it is hard to choose. Most importantly right now, as many as 40,000 a year are being killed in Africa (40,000 incidentally is close to the total number of Asian elephants in existence) for their ivory – this has to stop. So please, don’t buy ivory!
Q: What are the most memorable moments for you in the jungle?
JR: For me, any time I’m with really good local trackers, watching them follow signs in the jungle and then coming across wildlife when on foot…I can stand and watch wild elephants for hours. Shorter sightings of predators such as tigers or leopards are equally memorable.
Q: Your family lives with you, tell us a little about your home life.
JR: My wife is from Northern Thailand so this is her home. Our four-year-old son is blonde but speaks Northern Thai fluently (for a four-year-old, that is), so he is prone to surprising those who don’t know him. We live on a little piece of land (whose lawn takes too long to cut) in a solar-powered wooden house and that’s about it. My wife loves fruit and spicy food so we plant a lot of fruit trees and grow a lot of chillies.
Q: What is your favorite pastime in the Golden Triangle?
JR: Non-work? I like sitting down on my balcony at home, with a glass of good beer at sunset, and enjoying the peace and quiet – doubly special as I don’t often get to do that as there’s usually something to be done around camp or the hotels until after sunset. Still, it’s good to know it can be done.
Q: What's next for the Foundation? Where is money going to go?
JR: The Foundation has been able to punch above it’s weight so far by being flexible, science based and able to fill the gaps between Government protection work and those of international NGO’s. There are some projects like the Positive Reinforcement Target Training Workshops, the Thai Elephant Therapy Project for autistic kids, and the aforementioned Cambodian Cardamom Elephant Corridor that I hope will always be with us. We will of course continue to look after those elephants we have on site and keep an eye out for others that can be sustainably helped.
Most of all, though, we need to keep a large mobile fund available that will allow us to respond very quickly to elephant care/conservation emergencies as and when they occur. Long-term projects are great and we’ll continue to keep the ones we have but what is really missing from the elephant world at the moment are funds that can respond quickly to solve a particular problem or to protect an area against poaching or address a Human Elephant Conflict issue for long enough that longer-term funding can be raised.
We also want to remain at the cutting edge of elephant care; the next few years will see large investment in on-site projects to allow our elephants even more freedom. We’d like to ensure there is no need for elephant care charities for the next generation, so we’ll also be investing further in education both for the mahouts’ kids in Ban Ta Klang in Surin and general Conservation Education work in Thai schools.