Born in England, Nigel gained a reputation as a skilled street fighter in post-WWII London and found himself in serious trouble when he stole a rival gang member's girlfriend. Fearing for her 15-year-old son's safety, Nigel's mum sent him off to Australia in 1959, where he found work on a farm in Victoria. For the next four years, Mason travelled the country doing a variety of jobs: cutting timber and sugar cane, picking fruit, hunting kangaroos, and helping construct the Sydney-Melbourne standard gauge railway line.
Following a failed marriage, Nigel travelled to Bali with a couple of hippie mates in 1980 and liked it so much that he decided to stay. He fell in love with a local woman named Yanie and the couple tied the knot in 1985. Together they opened the successful Yanie's Restaurant in Kuta, and went on to set up a popular tourism business called Bali Adventure Tours in 1990.
Six years later, Mason stumbled upon nine elephants stranded in a dried-out rice paddy near the remote village of Taro. Unable to abandon the stricken creatures, he bought the land they were on and landscaped every centimetre of the 3.5 hectares until it bore no resemblance to its barren beginnings.
The Elephant Safari Park was born that same year. Through rescue efforts and a world-class breeding program, the park's elephant herd now numbers 30; three of which were born in 2009.
"The baby elephants have become attractions in themselves," says Nigel,"because unlike at the zoos in Sydney and Melbourne, you can actually interact with them here—touch them, feed them—it's a very special experience."
The park also boasts a five-star lodge, allowing visitors to eat and sleep amongst the huge animals and interact with them in a variety of ways during their visit.
"People meditate with the elephants, kiss them, and spend hours just sitting and watching them until dark," says Mason.
"Every one of our 30 elephants has a different personality, so the diversity of those [human] interactions work just as well for them.
" But there is a very serious side to the operation. The Sumatran elephant is one of the rarest and most endangered species on Earth. According to Mason, less than 1100 remain in the wild. And with its natural habitat in dire straits on Sumatra, Indonesia's largest Island, the picture is not pretty.
"Outside our park, things are not too good for Sumatran elephants, as the jungles of Sumatra have been mostly destroyed," Nigel explains. "Sadly, there is not much the average Aussie can do to change that. Corruption and greed are the great destroyers of Indonesia's rainforests, and until that changes this situation will continue.
" Since 1985, almost half of Sumatra's forests have been wiped out through logging or cleared to make way for crops, such as oil palm plantations. And since then, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the elephant population has declined by almost 85 per cent.
As the elephants' natural habitat is reduced, they are forced to feed on the new plantations, much to the annoyance of local farmers. It's not uncommon for elephants to be killed as common pests.
"When it comes to animal-related business in Indonesia, the animals take second place and are too often exploited and abused," says Nigel. "Many Asians don't have our love for animals because they are just too busy surviving."
Elephants that get in the way of that survival are rounded up and placed in 'elephant camps', which Mason describes as being more like concentration camps. The sites are supposed to act as refuges, but are so underfunded by the government that the conditions are appalling, and many animals simply die. Around half of Sumatra's elephant population is now in these camps.
In 2002, Nigel Mason set about rescuing 10 distraught Sumatran elephants, including babies, from one of the camps. However, the massive operation, that was to feature a convoy of trucks and a 3000km journey across three islands, was scuttled when the Indonesian Government changed the law, effectively preventing the rescue from taking place. Just months later, some of the captive creatures died.
"Leaving Riski, a baby elephant that was stuck in the camp, is one of the most unforgettable experiences I've had," sighs Nigel. "I knew it was going to die, and it did. So when our third baby elephant was born at the park two years ago, we named it Riski, after the one that was left behind."
In a happy twist, a determined Mason returned to the same camp in 2005 and successfully saved 10 elephants. The devastation of the first failed mission and the subsequent white-knuckled attempt that lasted 100 hours is all captured in the documentary film Operation Jumbo, which has screened on the National Geographic Channel.
The Elephant Safari Park has now been open for 14 years and is regularly voted Bali's number one must-see attraction. Well-regarded travel website tripadvisor.com recently awarded the park a 4½ Star Certificate of Excellence, and it won the 'Best Management' gong at Indonesia's 2010 environmental tourism awards. Fellow wildlife warrior, the late, great Steve Irwin, declared it the best elephant park he had ever seen.
As a flip side to the good work the park continues to do with animal conservation, it has also become a destination for the rich and famous; 2010 saw Julia Roberts, Tony Blair, Calvin Klein and Michael Franti visit. But despite the support of wealthy celebrities, Nigel says he receives the most consistent support from "good old Aussies".