FOCUS: Anchalee Kalmapijit – Maesa Elephant Camp, Thailand
Anchalee Kalmapijit is a thoroughly modern businesswoman with a deep sense of appreciation for the traditions and culture of her native Thailand. The oldest of three children of a fruit farming family, she first lived on the farm in the mountains of Mae Rim.
However, farming is a difficult and unpredictable job, and the fruit sales failed to adequately support the family from time to time. Her father tried other jobs, eventually moving to Chiang Mai to work in a hotel as manager. It was a demanding job and he was away from his family too much, but he learned a lot. He learned that Chiang Mai was a rapidly growing tourist destination, and that tourists love elephants. There was only one elephant camp in the area, not enough for all of the tourists. There was land on the mountain. The idea jelled, and in 1976 the Maesa Elephant Camp was born.
At first there were fewer than ten elephants involved in the camp, and they were rented from tribal people. Anchalee was very young, and she and her brother were terrified of being close to the huge beasts. They had only seen elephants on the road, a very different experience from encountering them in daily life. They helped by going to the market to shop for food for the mahouts. She was more involved with the people at the camp than the elephants, but that would change much later.
There was no electricity, no telephone at the camp and 13 year old Anchalee learned to drive the family automobile up the mountain to deliver messages, including bookings made by tourists. One time the mahouts and elephants didn’t show up for a booking even though Anchalee had delivered the message. It then became clear that the family should own, and therefore control, the elephants that worked at the camp. She was 13 or 14 when she began to manage the staff.
As a teenager, she was both a businesswoman and a student at Sacred Heart School in Chiang Mai. Among other subjects, she studied and excelled in English. Gradually she understood that her family had plans for her that didn’t include the elephant camp. She graduated and went to England to live with family there and study. But Thailand called, and she came home to work for Thai Air when she was twenty.
It was a popular job with Thai girls and women. They saw travel and glamour and good salaries. They didn’t understand the hard work and training that went with the job. Hers was the first group to have to take an international English language proficiency examination. She considered herself fortunate to have lived in England. Many of the applicants could read and write English, but understanding the spoken word was difficult for them. It took months and many interviews, many examinations before she was accepted. She traveled to Bangkok by train for every appointment, even just to see the results of the last interview. She competed with “city girls”. At long last she was a flight attendant, and she did indeed travel the world. She flew all of the domestic routes, and then went to India, Frankfurt, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, London and the Middle East. She says that dealing with all of those cultures “made her strong”. Passengers eat, sleep and walk off of the plane, but flight attendants may have to be hostesses, servers, psychologists, nurses and accountants on one international flight. She was trained and retrained. She was constantly learning and evolving.
Then she married and left her job. Her family in Maesa needed her. They now had two elephant camps, one in Maesa and one in Mae Dtang. She went to Mae Dtang and worked in the kitchen. There was a lot to do. Eventually she left the kitchen and found the elephants. She moved back to the original camp and simply fell in love with them. She had a moment of realization, a moment when she understood that this was not simply about a family business. This was about wonderful creatures that were facing unprecedented survival challenges, creatures that had worked together with Thai people in the jungle for many years, creatures with exceptional abilities.
So Anchalee, who had been a little girl who was very scared of the big beasts, became a grownup woman determined to do her best for them. She brought in an excellent fulltime veterinarian, she brought in the Livestock Department of the Kingdom of Thailand, and she obtained the coveted ISO 9001 certification for the camp. On the business side, she responded to the needs of Thai tourists by developing an elephant show that included the fun things that elephants can do while maintaining an authentic and educational show demonstrating how the elephants worked in the teak forests. It is very important to her that the elephants, staff and tourists are all happy.
A few years ago some of the younger elephants tried their trunks at painting. They were surprisingly successful. Details of their artistic development are available in a book that is sold at the camp. This year, they cooperated in producing a huge painting that the Guinness Book of World Records has classified as “The Most Expensive Painting by a Group of Elephants.” Their paintings have been shown in special exhibits abroad as well as in Thailand.
But this isn’t enough for Anchalee. She wants to do much more to preserve and exchange knowledge about Asian elephants. She is working with the Singapore Zoo to publish a book of knowledge, and plans to organize an art show there. She has affiliated with several Thai universities, each of which is affiliated with universities abroad. She is thrilled that Chiang Mai University has an agreement with the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington, D.C.
Yes, she will continue to work in the tourism side of the elephant camp, but she says that, “It is very important to me to leave something of substance about elephants for the next generation.” They (and the elephants) will be grateful for that, Anchalee.