Jakrapob Thaotad – known as Jake – is the quiet man behind the foundation of STEF. At one time he might have seemed an unlikely person to become the driving force for a charity dedicated to building better lives for Asian Elephants given that, since the age of five – when his family elephant Choosri roared at him and he ran away to hide – he had been terrified of elephants. But that all changed when he decided to return home to Thailand after studying (he graduated in medical sciences) and working in the UK for 10 years.
After persuading his cousin, Sitthisak Songkaew (better known as Lek), to remove the roaring Choosri from the logging camp where she was working and to bring her home to work on the family land in Phang Nga, the cousins decided the best way to pay for Choosri’s keep and make a living for themselves was to set up an ethical elephant park in which the welfare of the elephants always came first. The Phang Nga Elephant Park opened in 2015.
But Jake wanted to educate not just tourists but his own people on the importance of the health and welfare of Thailand’s elephants which are so embedded in his country’s culture. Realising the need for better healthcare for elephants in the southern Provinces of Thailand, Jake set out to build a hospital and to provide a mobile clinic so that elephants, even in the most remote areas of the region, could receive medical treatment.
Teaming up with British veterinarian Dr Andrew Higgins in 2017, STEF was formed and registered in the UK so that fundraising for the elephant hospital could be addressed to a wider international community. From our Timeline, below, you can read about the progress made since STEF’s foundation, and how we are improving the lives of endangered Asian elephants and protecting their future. Please help us to continue this vital work.
The STEF Veterinary Centre – Timeline
Gaining sufficient funding
In November 2017 Jake’s first step was to gain sufficient funding for his project so, working with Dr Andrew Higgins, STEF was duly registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. Soon afterwards our sister charity, STEF Thailand, was registered with the Governorate of Phang Nga Province, Thailand. STEF’s first project was to raise funds for the creation, from scratch, of an elephant veterinary centre.
In February 2018 Jake secured a 6.5-acre plot of land, about 30 minutes’ drive from the town of Khok Kloi, where the veterinary centre could be built. The site was largely covered by an old rubber tree plantation most of which had to be removed and replanted with a more diverse range of trees. A month later STEF launched its Sponsor a Tree campaign, aiming to renew the site with trees that provided a more sustainable ecosystem as well as food and shade for elephants. The clearance led to the discovery of three water pools, badly in need of dredging, and the decision was taken to develop these as a place for the elephants to bathe and cool down.
Designs finalised for the Veterinary Centre
In January 2019 the designs for the veterinary centre were finalised. These included an office, laboratory and elephant barn, to be reached by a 270m track from the local road, itself little more than a hard, dirt track. Power arrived at the site later in 2019 in the form of solar panels on the office roof, thanks to sponsorship. Sponsorship was also responsible for the running costs of a new pick-up truck which would ultimately become our mobile veterinary clinic. By the end of 2019, the track to the centre had been completed, major landscape work had been done, and the office and laboratory nearly built. We were ready to go ahead with the large elephant barn (to provide a safe place for the elephants to be treated) – we just needed the funds pay for it.
In January 2020 funds arrived in the form of a huge donation from the Hawthorne Trust, enabling the completion of the barn and the remaining work for the veterinary office, later named the Hawthorne Building, in honour and thanks for the Trust’s fantastic support. With this quick progression, STEF aimed to have the centre ready to receive elephants later in the year. But that was before the arrival of Covid-19. Luckily the virus didn’t stop our plans to get the mobile clinic up and running.
Appointment of Veterinary Officer
In July 2020 Dr Pattarawan Phumpanna, a specialist Thai veterinary officer, was appointed to work at the new centre. Known to everyone as Dr Aon, she began helping to prepare the centre for the first government license application, which in due course and after rigorous inspections, was eventually granted. The centre was now able to receive its first batch of drugs, fluids and ointments in preparation for the first clinical trip of the mobile unit.
The launch of the mobile clinic
In November 2020 in spite of COVID complications, the day arrived and Dr Aon ventured out into the surrounding villages of Phang Nga to provide mobile services to the local elephant communities, including some very remote ones. The mobile clinic soon began to have a significant impact on the health of local elephants, and it became evident just how important the veterinary centre would be once it was fully open. Trustees, helpers and supporters were inspired and galvanised by the success of Dr Aon’s work with the local elephants, and soon further work on the site was underway: a secure storeroom for medications was built, a standby generator was purchased (as back-up for the recently installed electric elephant hoist), accommodation was planned for the elephant carers who would accompany their animals to the centre. All these projects needed funds, but we were fortunate to secure enough through generous donations and grants.
Progress made on diagnosis of a deadly elephant virus
In September 2021 building work (such as the mahout accommodation) had been slowed down by the coronavirus restrictions, but we were thrilled to make progress on the diagnosis of a deadly elephant virus by securing a vital piece of technology – a mobile qPCR machine. This acquisition was the first of its kind in Southern Thailand and was purchased thanks to funding from our amazing supporters in Thailand. The qPCR machine can detect in less than a minute the presence of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) – an often-fatal virus for young elephants. Catching the virus in its early stages increases the chances of survival.
The 5th year of STEF’s existence!
In January 2022: it is the fifth year of STEF’s existence! A few essential jobs still needed to be done, such as installing a weighbridge (to accurately record the weight of a sick elephant – essential for the calculation of medication doses and to monitor health) and some road repairs to allow access for large lorries transporting elephants, but finally in March we were ready to do a test run of the veterinary centre with two elephants kindly loaned to us from the Phang Nga elephant park. “Choosri” and “Namneung” were duly put through their paces, testing out the weighbridge, the ha ha for unloading, the stocks and hoist in the barn, the paddock area and, while they were there, receiving injections for skin parasites. All the systems worked well, and the site was declared ready to receive its first patients – a huge milestone for STEF and for the elephants of Southern Thailand.
Our first patients arrive
In July 2022 our first patients arrive (see the news story); we take on another vet to help Dr Aon (see Dr Mink), and we begin to take bookings for the veterinary volunteer programme (see volunteers). Although the hospital is now open, we continue to operate the mobile clinic to visit sick and injured elephants in remote areas.