Animal Planet

By Zach Rosen   |   April 2, 2021
Sangduen “Lek” Chailert at her elephant sanctuary in Thailand

Kristina McKean’s passion project is saving one elephant at a time in the United States and abroad

Kristina McKean has funneled her lifetime passion for helping animals into a full-time profession by creating The Elephant Project. McKean had always felt drawn to animals and their related causes but it wasn’t until her honeymoon to Thailand with her husband, Aaron, about 20 years ago when the harsh reality of elephants’ living conditions became more visceral. She was watching their treatment at one of the tourist attractions and became overwhelmed by the scene. “I saw all these baby elephants that they had taken from their mothers,” says the Montecito mom of two, Paloma and Penelope. “You could ride them or you could pay to get your picture with them. That moment for me – I couldn’t handle it. I was so upset about it. When my girls were younger, I decided I really needed to do something to help them.” 

The Elephant Project founder Kristina McKean

McKean wanted to find a way to help the elephants and stop the cruel practices the travel industry supports, which includes conditioning baby elephants in a “crush box” – literally designed to crush their spirit. She notes that almost all elephants used in entertainment go through this treatment. “Sadly, despite their status and heritage, many factors have led to a huge decline in the numbers of elephants in Thailand today,” she says. “It is estimated that the country now only has around 4,000 elephants compared with some 100,000 in the middle of the 1800s. Thailand has approximately 3,800 elephants in captivity, mostly in the tourism industry. Many live monotonous lives marked by suffering.” She also notes that in Africa, ivory poaching has killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years. With the animals facing danger and cruelty, both in captivity and the wild, McKean felt compelled to help elephants around the world. 

Before the days of social media when it was harder to organize and communicate with like-minded people, McKean began protesting the appalling conditions of elephants’ treatment at circuses. “They are tortured with bull hooks – it’s horrific. I think if people knew of the abuse, they would never ride elephants or go to circuses,” she says. “Plus, it’s so important to teach our children about ethical travel. Whether you are an elephant lover or not, we need them for our ecosystem – they are essential to mankind.” Through her protesting of circuses, she met others who believed in the cause. At the time, she was also involved with getting petitions signed for different causes but thought it wasn’t enough. 

 In 2014, McKean rescued a German Shepherd from a high-kill shelter in Los Angeles. “There are so many dogs in shelters, but I felt like I had to rescue him, and his rescue really propelled the start of The Elephant Project,” she says. The woman who helped her find a home for the dog mentioned she had a talent and should do more. “I couldn’t go work and help save the elephants at sanctuaries, but at least I could do something from here – and it’s something I know how to do,” she says. As she considered her professional background, the idea for The Elephant Project took root.

Wan Mai at home at the Elephant Nature Park
(photo by Jessica Dalene Photography)

McKean was born in Minnesota but moved to California in the 1990s to attend the University of San Diego to study international relations and Spanish. After college, she worked in product development for Gap Inc., and her mother had worked at Tonka Toys. In 2000, McKean and her husband moved to Montecito. One day, McKean was looking at her daughters’ stuffed animals when the idea came to her to design a plushie so the proceeds could go to support gentle giants. It was then that she realized she had the insight necessary to bring her idea to reality and began creating the concept for the toys. The Elephant Project was founded in 2017 and since then it has been well received. It sells two stuffed animals, Kiki and Tembo, and 100 percent of the proceeds support elephant sanctuaries around the world. 

The Elephant Project’s two eight-inch plushies are named Kiki, which means “new life,” and Tembo, which is Swahili for “elephant.” Kiki is adorned in a pink dress while Tembo sports olive green overalls. Kiki and Tembo were recently featured on The Today Show as one of this holiday season’s “Gifts That Give Back” (photo by Jessica Dalene Photography)

Two years ago, she wanted to bring the documentary Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story to the Marjorie Luke Theatre, and her willing effort paid off – the community and local media quickly got behind supporting the event. She says, “I only had a little bit of time to get people to rally around it, and so many people helped me – 99.9 KTYD, the news – we sold out the theater.” The screening was not only an opportunity to educate the public on the brutal conditions elephants face, but to tell the inspiring story of one woman, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, and her heroic efforts to change these practices and provide sanctuary at her Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. Today, McKean continues to work with Chailert, who was featured as one of Time magazine’s Heroes of Asia in 2005. “We are so grateful for the passionate support of The Elephant Project,” says Chailert. “Kristina is a wonderful voice for us, helping to change the minds of how we treat the gentle ones – one Kiki and Tembo at a time.”

Since the beginning, The Elephant Project has been able to help support more than a dozen elephants and several sanctuaries. McKean also works with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust – a nonprofit that operates helicopters and patrols to stop poachers and trophy hunters in Africa – as well as The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which focuses on helping former zoo and circus elephants here in the United States. “I work with so many different organizations. I am also trying to expand a bit. There are so many elephants in need, I’d like to produce another plushie,” McKean says, noting it can take anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 to rescue an elephant depending on its age and location.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about challenges for the elephants as well since places such as Thailand have faced sharp drops in tourism, which supported the elephant attractions. “It’s been a challenge because of COVID – I can’t be out there. I feel like once people hear my story they really want to help to make a difference.” While McKean does not want to support the industries in any way, the lost revenue from the drop in tourism means that many of these elephants are now starving and chained in cages. She feels that once people are made aware of these problems, they want to do something to help. Fortunately, Kiki and Tembo offer this chance. She says, “Especially during this year, when there are so many sad stories, I think people love a good story.” 

McKean acknowledges there are many other animals that also need help. She wants to do something for big cats such as lions and tigers, which face terrible conditions both in captivity and the wild, where poaching, trophy hunting, and habitat loss have endangered different feline species and have threatened the ecosystem in which these apex predators play a key role. McKean is releasing a new stuffed animal this summer to benefit these majestic beasts. “It’s a lion, but it looks like they’re all in the same family,” she says, also mentioning that she is always open to new ideas for other animals and suggestions. Currently, Kiki and Tembo can be found locally at Diani Boutique or online at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Gifts for Good, and of course at The Elephant Project’s online shop, which also offers original lion prints by local artist Pedro de la Cruz with 100 percent of the net proceeds going toward big cat rescue organizations. As McKean says, “If you’re going to buy a gift, why wouldn’t you buy a gift that at least gives back, or at least helps elephants?”  


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