The Tyrone woman who's helping to save elephants in the wilds of Thailand
A retired Co Tyrone teacher has praised one of his former pupils for her pioneering work to improve the lives of villagers and elephants in Thailand.
Kerri McCrea (26) from Donemana grew restless in 2013 working for a pharmaceutical company in Antrim, so she gave it up to work with elephants in Thailand through Global Vision International (GVI) and went on to found the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary.
The animal lover hoped the two-year programme in Ban Naklang would open doors for her to work with wildlife back home, but now the Queen's University zoology graduate has no intention of returning.
"I fell in love with this place and I had started to pick up the language. I have no desire to go home, but my parents tell me it's time for a visit," she said.
Kerri also fell in love with Sombat Wheeraqwandee, a Thai man who was working with GVI.
Sombat's extended family owned nine elephants.
When Kerri completed her two years with GVI she started teaching English in Chiang Mai, and returned to Sombat's village at weekends to work at an elephant camp. But she became increasingly upset by the squalid living conditions the animals were forced to endure.
"They were the worst conditions I have ever seen. They were being worked to exhaustion, with poor nutrition and inadequate social time. Even Sombat's father was annoyed," she said.
This prompted Kerri and Sombat to launch the non-profit organisation, which not only helps relocate elephants to the forest, but provides alternative livelihoods for their mahouts and owners. They launched the project in May 2016.
"We wanted to do something which allows the elephants to live as freely as possible and go back to their natural habitat, but we want to be able to help the village too by employing locals as guides and hosts for our guests," Kerri said.
"Our Home Stay programme means locals can provide accommodation for our visitors and interns, which generates an alternative income for them."
Deforestation in Thailand poses a major problem to the concept of the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, so Kerri has expanded the project.
In addition to providing English lessons, she is trying to encourage locals to move away from corn farming, which is a major revenue source.
"This will free up land we can use for forestation," she said.
In dry season, usually from February to March, farmers in the region burn their fields to prepare the land for the next year. Added to high levels of traffic pollution, this creates a toxic atmosphere north of Bangkok and causes respiratory problems.
"We are trying to set up workshops to warn of the dangers and teach locals more sustainable methods," Kerri said.
Kerri's former teacher Stephen Birkett taught at Strabane Grammar School - now Strabane Academy - for 40 years and has visited her twice in Thailand.
Now retired, he told the Belfast Telegraph he is very proud of her and said Kerri "has impressed me more than any doctor or successful entrepreneur ever could".
"Kerri is doing a wonderful job. She is helping people improve their lives and the lives of the elephants in an ethical way," he added.
Still in its first year, the project has been commended by the Green Thailand Excellence Awards.
Kerri has thanked her former biology teacher for his support and said she relies on people like him to support her vision.
"Stephen visited me in Chiang Mai about a year ago and I told him my plans. He has followed my progress and has been one of the most supportive people, we still rely on fundraising to keep the project going," she said.
- More information on Kerri's and Sombat's vision to help alleviate problems associated with the more than 4,000 elephants in captivity throughout Thailand can be found online at kselephantsanctuary.org and donations can also be made via the website