The Transformational Journey of Dag Goering and Maria Coffey, founders of Elephant Earth Initiative

So how did my husband Dag and I find ourselves heading Into the World of Elephants?  – a journey we’ll be sharing with spectacular images and stories on Wednesday October 26 at the Rotary Arts Centre in Kelowna.


Like all the other really big things in our lives, it happened more by chance than planning. In 2007, Dag turned 50, and he was restless. When I noticed the books about camels and nomads piling up next to his side of the bed, I knew something was afoot. Some men react to mid life crisis by buying expensive toys or falling in love with younger women.  But Dag, a veterinarian, photographer and my partner in the adventure travel company Hidden Places, had a different reaction. He decided he wanted join a Tuareg camel train, crossing the Sahara from Timbuktu to the salt mines and back again.  And he wanted to be useful along the way.  So off he went for a month to study camel medicine in Rajasthan India, where he did indeed fall in love ….


While he was in Jaipur, one of the elephants used to carry tourists up to the Amer Fort gave birth. Captive elephants don’t breed easily, and this was the first such baby born in Jaipur for 70 years. A fellow vet invited Dag to examine the eleven-hour-old infant. Inside the hectic stables, he watched as small, skinny mahouts deftly controlled their 10,000-pound charges. A full-grown female suddenly wrapped her trunk around his wrist and pulled him close. Dag is a big man, used to restraining cows and handling horses, but now he was at the mercy of this enormous animal, aware that in an instant he could be seriously injured or killed. Yet he felt no fear; the elephant held him not only with its trunk, but also with its intense gaze. He stared back, mesmerized. The elephant’s eye was small, yet it seemed like the opening to a vast, unknown world. When the mahout gently tapped the elephant’s trunk, Dag was released. But the moments he spent in that elephant’s grip were seminal.


He came home a man transformed. The camel train was put off indefinitely and we set off together to learn about elephants. Our first stop was Southern India, where we discovered vast tracks of forested wilderness, home to many of India’s 15,000 wild elephants. These were the lucky ones, compared to the many captive elephants we saw, plodding on hot roads through crazy city traffic or loaded down with gold at the insanely noisy Hindu temple festivals. Dag was so moved by their plight, he volunteered in an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, learning about more humane ways that they could be kept in captivity. He worked in an elephant hospital, treating injuries ranging from deep sores caused by ill-fitting howdahs (the baskets that tourists sit in while riding elephants), to a foot blown away by a land mine on the Burmese border.


Over the next few years, piggy-backing onto trips we were leading for Hidden Places, we did research on elephants in Laos, Nepal and Kenya. We learned how at risk these amazing creatures are:  in the wild from poaching and from habitat loss, and in captivity from inhumane training methods and poor welfare. We founded Elephant Earth Initiative, to support grassroots projects that are helping elephants in pragmatic, science based ways. Recently we’ve donated close to $10,000 to elephant projects in Kenya and Thailand:  sponsoring the GPS collaring of a rogue bull, supporting a group of village women who are making paper from elephant dung, and building shelters for rangers in a key elephant reserve. Our next stop is Burma, to advise a retired vet who plans to set up a small elephant sanctuary.


Along the way we’ve met wonderful people. And elephants continue to captivate us. We’re constantly amazed at their similarities to humans: their strong family bonds, their intelligence, and their emotional complexities  – they love, grieve, bear grudges, exact revenge and play jokes on each. And we’re forever touched by their compassion.


When an elephant is about to give birth, other females in her herd surround her. They stroke her with their trunks, comforting her as she goes through labor. Once the baby is born, they circle protectively to keep predators away, and help the mother to clean her offspring and to get it standing  – pushing it with their feet, and pulling its little trunk with their big trunks. They are there for each other, loyal and caring to a fault. They have a lot to teach us.

Join Dag Goering and Maria Coffey, founders of Elephant Earth Initiative, Wednesday, October 26th, 7.30pm – 9pm at Rotary Centre for the Arts, Boardroom for a multi-media presentation “Into the World of Elephant“.

Entrance free, or by donation for Elephant Earth Initiative,





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