“Elephants: Wild Again!” is a graphic novel about Maek, a young elephant who is torn from his mother in the wild jungles of Thailand. He must learn the true meaning of spirit as he fights to find his way back home.

The story is a collaboration between the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand and Mark Oftedal. It is based on an idea by Edwin Wiek, and is written by Mark Oftedal and Steve Fleming. The artwork is by me, Mark Oftedal. I began posting pages in October 2015, and I’ll keep posting until it’s complete.

That’s the quick overview. For anyone interested, the extended explanation of what the comic is really about follows:

First off, Thai people love elephants. You see elephant imagery everywhere in Thailand. Thai people and elephants have a deep connection that goes back centuries. Before modernization elephants were the nation’s vehicles, transporting people and goods, especially the heavy logs that only an elephant could drag out of the forests. But in the late 1980’s when a logging ban came into effect, the nation’s elephants were out of work.

Many of these logging elephants landed in tourist camps where visitors pay to feed and ride them. Others ended up begging on the streets, where passersby pay to touch and feed the elephant. It’s illegal but still commonplace. While street begging can make a living for the elephant caretaker, it’s not healthy for the elephant to walk on hot concrete, confront traffic and pollution, and suffer poor nutrition.

That’s life on the streets. Life in the wider tourist industry also has problems. One of the most highly valued assets of an elephant camp is a baby elephant. The high cost of breeding domesticated elephants fuels trade in wild caught babies. Usually the mother and sometimes her aunties are shot before the baby is captured. Poaching is illegal but enforcement is difficult.

Wild elephants, as you might imagine, don’t naturally follow orders. To make them controllable, poached elephants must undergo a brutal training session called “phajaan”. Phajaan is an old tradition that separates the elephant from their wild spirit. The elephant is bound and beaten for several days, until it loses its will to fight. Videos of phajaan have been published on YouTube including this one by Edwin. But wait! Before you hit that link, think about whether or not you want to watch highly intelligent and emotional beings getting tortured. These videos gave me nightmares. It’s dark.

That darkness is why we’re making this comic. I love elephants, I think everyone does. But elephants face a harsh reality in the modern world. I feel that dramatizing this reality will help people understand the challenges facing people and elephants. Our message is one of hope and spirit. The hero of our story is an elephant who is poached, undergoes phajaan, and finds himself begging on the streets. Against these odds his spirit manages to inspire the elephants and city folk around him. I hope his story will inspire you, too.

My plan is to upload at least a page weekly until the story is finished. Once it’s done we’ll translate it to Thai and print out comic books that the WFFT and other organizations can give to youngsters. Beyond that I hope to interest some Thai and other publishers in the story, so our message can spread throughout the kingdom and beyond.

Thank you for reading, and for your support!

Mark