Strong to the very end – Pang Tong

Pang Tong, (“Mrs Gold”), first came in to my life 16 years ago. I was a young, clueless, backpacker, making my way around Asia and she was a mother, of a tiny, two month old calf, called Boon Lott….

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I will never, ever, forget the first time I saw Pang Tong. She filled me with fear and absolute wonder. She was the most beautiful being I had ever seen – so fierce, so powerful and intimidating, so defiant and so strong… Pang Tong was the epitome of elephant.

For the last sixteen years, Pang Tong has been a constant inspiration to me. Her unshakable strength has carried us both, if not all of the BLES family, both elephant and human, through some deeply tough times. As I sit here, remembering the sacrifices it took to create BLES, the highs and lows of every rescue we have embarked on and every single achievement and accolade we have accumulated throughout the years, Pang Tong is there, shining her untamed, fiery light, over us all.

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Pang Tong, is the sole reason why BLES is in existence.

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When her calf, Boon Lott, took a tragic fall, causing severe nerve damage and paralysis, Pang Tong and I refused to give up on him. We raised Boon Lott, nursing him, protecting him, comforting him. He was our baby – She was his day time mother and I was his night time mother. Boon Lott went from strength to strength, but eventually lost his fight for life in June 2004. Both Pang Tong and I lost a son on that devastating day and I honestly believe neither of us has ever stopped mourning for him. He was our child and we dedicated every ounce of our being in to raising him.

 

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The day Boon Lott died, I had him wrapped up tight in my embrace. He lay on my lap and in whispered words, only interrupted by my heavy tears, I made him a promise. I vowed to dedicate the rest of my life to the protection of his kind, his family and of course,  his mother.

Shortly after Boon Lott’s passing, I rescued Pang Tong from her life of constant beatings and moved her to Sukhothai. It was a brave, if not stupid, move on my part, as I hadn’t even started building BLES or even really decided if that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

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Anon took her in to his home without hesitation and he spent his days walking Somai and Pang Tong through the forests of Baan Tuek, where we would eventually create the sanctuary we live in today.

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Once I had raised enough funds to start building BLES, I moved back to Thailand and worked relentlessly with the community here, to create a facility that would embody everything that it means to live in true sanctuary – for all beings.

The days were long and intensely hot. I had times of unbelievable frustration and faced challenges I never thought I could overcome. Throughout it all, Pang Tong and Somai were there. Every time I rolled my eyes up to the sky, in moments of desperation and exhaustion, my eyes would always land on them. Standing side by side, gazing down from the tops of the hills at us, looking like a king and queen, proudly watching as the promise I made to Boon Lott on his dying day came to fruition.

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Somehow, I knew that Pang Tong knew this was my memorial to her and to our baby boy and it was her constant presence that grounded me and refocussed me whenever I had doubts and notions about giving up and flying back to England.

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Pang Tong was our matriarch, before we even had a BLES herd. We have never lived a day without hearing her passionate trumpets, without watching her stomp past us. We have never known life without our beloved Pang Tong and I never imagined I would have to face a day, without her, my sister, being right here with us, like she has always been…

This is why this is the hardest blog I have ever had to write…

I have sat here for hours, crying, reminiscing, crying again, shaking my head in utter disbelief and holding on to my chest to try and stop it from hurting so much. The truth is, I am struggling to comprehend and then compose what we have been through these past few days. I don’t know how to say the words that are going to cause so much heartache and I still can not believe that what I’m about to share is actually true… How can it possibly be? Pang Tong, the elephant that has been here longer than anyone else, the elephant that was supposed to outlive us all, the one who was meant to go on and on, forever…. How can it be that she has gone??? HOW CAN IT BE?????

Pang Tong was in her mid fifties and it is normally around this age that elephants start to lose their final set of teeth. This causes all sorts of complications and over the past six months, Pang Tong’s health has been slowly deteriorating. She was a strong-willed woman and typically didn’t like trying anything new. For example, she point blank refused to take advantage of giant tubs of shredded up supplementary food, specially prepared for her. We did this as an attempt to make things easier on her digestive system, as blockages can cause great discomfort and even death in captive elephants. But, she only wanted to walk deep in to the forest every day and select her own branches, leaves and grasses. Pang Tong was a stubborn lady and as much as I always admired this quality, I also pleaded with her to let us help her. In true Pang Tong style, she protested at every opportunity.

So, Pang Tong started to suffer from regular bouts of constipation. We constantly performed enemas and the vets from TECC would frequently come to offer their advice and support and administer fluids.

Four days ago, Boo Lor, Pang Tong’s dedicated mahout for the past eleven years, noticed that Pang Tong had not defecated during the night. She was very bloated and clearly in discomfort. Boo Lor and I started the usual preparations to perform an enema, but as we did, I had this strange, agonising ache in my stomach. Something felt very wrong. The mahouts jumped in to action, but despite their best efforts, they could not reach any of the dung that was stuck in her digestive tract.

We led Pang Tong to the pond, with hopes that being submerged in the water would stimulate her bowels. She entered the pond slowly and carefully and then in her own time, made her way to the far side, where her soulmate, Somai is now buried. She lay there, on her side, every now and then moving on to her other side, beside Somai’s grave, for over two hours. her breathing was deep and slow. Her eyes were closed for long periods of time and as I sat on the grass watching her, I wondered if this was a sign. Many of you will say I am crazy, but it felt like Pang Tong wanted to be as close to Somai as possible. Our pond is very large and she could have settled anywhere, but she made a very deliberate line for where Somai was laid to rest three years ago. She settled right there and didn’t move. Was she trying to gain strength from him? Was she asking him to take her away? Was she reaching out to his spirit and saying her goodbyes? Well, I think she was.

Pang Tong’s stomach continued to swell and she was looking increasingly weary. I called the vets, who immediately came and we soldiered on through the stress, did everything we could think of, but still, Pang Tong did not defecate.

The next day, we decided we should relocate Pang Tong to the hospital for emergency care. She was even more bloated and had started collapsing. She was not passing gas or even trying to defecate. It was deeply upsetting to see her in so much discomfort and we were all at a loss. So, we loaded her on to our truck and drove as quickly as we could to the elephant hospital in Lampang.

The journey took four hours and Pang Tong’s legs were giving out on her throughout the ride. She was shaking and at one point started to lash out at the truck. Boo Lor stood right beside her the entire way, giving her reassurance and as I drove along behind, following them, not taking my eyes off of them, my thoughts were filled with Boon Lott…

As soon as we arrived, the vets administered fluids and drugs to stimulate her bowels. I sat on the floor, watching and feeling so incredibly helpless, as Pang Tong twisted and contorted her body out of sheer desperation and pain. She repeatedly ripped out the IV lines from the back of her ear and she was lunging out, attacking anyone who went close to her. She was collapsing more and more frequently and it was getting harder for her to rise to her feet. I wanted to run to her to calm her, but she had gone crazy. She was smashing her head against the support frame, she was tugging at the ropes and straps put around her body to support her weight so hard, she was tearing her skin. Pang Tong was fighting us tooth and nail and making it all so hard.

Hours were the only thing that passed that night. The drugs were not working and Pang Tong was exhausting herself.  In the early hours of Saturday morning, Pang Tong took one last angry lunge out at the humans around her. Her back legs gave way and she fell to the ground. She died instantly…

I screamed, ran to her and fell to my knees. I wrapped my arms around her and just screamed again and again. No words came out of my mouth. Just harrowing sounds of grief and disbelief. My whole body was shaking and I buried my face in to hers, trying to ignore everyone standing there, watching us. One by one, they walked away, until there was no one left, but the two of us.

Fourteen years earlier, I sat in that exact same spot, on the floor, in the hospital, cradling Pang Tong’s dying baby in my arms.

I got towels and warm water and started washing the blood stains from her face. I watched my tears wet her skin, just as I had watched my tears roll down Boon Lott’s cheeks, all those years ago…

As I sit here, still trying to fathom it all, it is my belief that Pang Tong wanted to be reunited with her son. I honestly believe that the reason she was fighting so damn hard, was because she didn’t want to be here anymore. I truly think that she was in control and that she lead us to Lampang so that she could complete our life journey.
You see, it is in Lampang where my journey with Pang Tong and Boon Lott first began. We met in Lampang and so in a way, it makes sense to me, that we parted ways in Lampang too.

I sat holding her and stroking her head, running my fingers through her hair, over every wrinkle and crevice in her face, just as I had with Boon Lott, fourteen years ago. I wanted to remember every tiny detail of her and absorb all of her being with every breath I drew.

Hours later, my tears eventually stopped falling and I fell asleep beside her.

Boo Lor woke me in the morning and once I realised where I was, I burst into tears again. The mahouts tried to comfort me, telling me she was at peace now, but all I could think about was how empty our lives were now that she was no longer here.

As the sun started to rise, I had to shake myself out of my grief and start organising her funeral. I had already decided where she would be buried. I was determined to lay her to rest right next to the grave of her baby boy, Boon Lott.

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Pang Tong’s funeral was immense and nothing short of what she deserved. As soon as news spread of her passing, people from all over the country, came to offer their condolences and pay their respects to her.

Pang Tong was a legend and as we all stood, circling her grave, dropping our flower petals and words of love on to her lifeless body, I thanked everyone for being there for her. I told them all the story of Pang Tong, her baby Boon Lott and a young British backpacker, that together changed the world, just a little bit and created a movement of compassion. I reminded them all, that Pang Tong was the one who breathed life in to BLES and gave us all a reason to live and give back to the elephants.

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As I stood there, beside the graves of the two elephants that I have loved the most, tears, once again rolling down my face, I stopped talking and slowly smiled. My tears no longer felt cold and sad, they felt warm and proud. I looked around at everyone, laying down their flowers and offerings, comforting each other, arranging pebbles and leaving their own personal marks and messages to our beautiful matriarch. Some of them had known Pang Tong for sixteen years. Some of them had known her less than a month. Regardless, of the length of time, one thing was evident: Pang Tong had touched us all. She had brought us all together, from our varying walks of life, from our distant corners of the world and there we were, united in our admiration for one of the strongest, most beautiful and respected elephants in the world.

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The Universe works in meaningful ways when you allow yourself to be open to the signs. It is no accident that Pang Tong’s ceremony was performed under the shade of the trees planted in memory of her baby, Boon Lott. It is not a mere coincidence that the elephant cemetery is full, yet the space beside Boon Lott’s grave was free….

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This, as much as it hurts me, is how this was suppose to end. This is what Pang Tong wanted and this is the way every mother and calf should rest – side by side, their spirits reunited, and this time, nothing can tear them apart.

Pang Tong, you were like a sister to me. Without you, I would not have embarked on this crazy life journey and realised my destiny. Without you, I would not have my beautiful children, my incredible family and we would not have any purpose to our lives. You created BLES and I promise you, just as I promised your baby, I will never, ever, give up. I will carry your fierceness in my heart and keep on fighting with everything I have, so that we can keep on giving your family, the elephants, the lives they should have always had.

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I am sorry you had to suffer so much during this lifetime. I know I will see you and Boon Lott again and until then, I will smile when I feel your spirits with me, walking beside me through the forests of BLES.

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There are not enough words…

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Pang Tong – you’re the best thing that ever happened to me…

– Rest In Eternal Peace –

 

 

 

 

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Kenya – Where My Dreams Came True

Back in April 2018, I boarded a plane bound for Nairobi.

I am surprised I actually remember anything about it, as I was walking around in complete disbelief, in a dream like daze…

You see, for years, I have dreamed of travelling to Africa and watching herds of wild elephants. It was always my biggest wish, to be in the presence of a fully grown, adult, male African, elephant, as there is nothing greater, stronger or more impressive, to walk our planet. But, dreams are dreams and I honestly, never thought I would find myself with a packed suitcase, walking around Bangkok airport, very impatiently waiting to check in for a flight to Nairobi!

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Travelling with me was my ten year old daughter, Hope and very dear friend Anna. We giggled and chatted non stop, at the airport and on the plane – Im not sure which one of us was more excited!!

The flight was perfect and then BAAM – all of a sudden we had landed!!

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This was my first time ever visiting Africa, but I know it will not be my last! I have fallen so deeply in love. In love with a country, in love with it’s people, in love with it’s diverse and rich wildlife, in love with the culture, the food, even the weather – I have fallen completely in love with the colours of Kenya.

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It has taken me until now, (mid September), to be able to sit down and put the entire experience in to words. Still, people are asking me how my trip was, and I still, shake my head, get tears in my eyes and manage to muster the words, ‘It was incredible’. The truth is, that just doesn’t do it justice. This trip to Kenya was, from start to finish, the most inspiring, moving and meaningful trip I have ever been on. Every moment, from the picturesque sunrises, to the stunning sunsets, were full of breath taking beauty. I have never experience so much kindness and been made to feel so welcome. I was humbled and honoured, all at the same time.

We stayed at the  atmospheric Ol Tukai Lodge, within the boundaries of Amboseli National Park.  – http://www.oltukailodge.com/  The staff here were just the loveliest people, with most welcoming smiles. Staying within the park, meant we were constantly surrounded by wildlife. From the cheeky and persistent vervet monkeys, to the wide variety of birds, elephants, hippos, frogs, baboons, hogs, gazelle – we saw it all!

Two of my dearest friends, An and Eric, have established an eco tourism company and we were treated to exclusive drives around Amboseli with them. An’s passion for the wildife is contagious and Eric’s deep knowledge, respect and understanding of his homeland is nothing short of inspiring. These two make the perfect team and we were so proud to be driven around by them, getting intimate glimpses of the elephant families, that have become like friends to An and Eric. Their company is called Elephant Garden Safaris –  https://www.elephantgardensafaris.com/

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If you are planning on going to Kenya and want a truly ethical, personal and exquisite experience, they are the ones you should contact.

Our time in Kenya was filled with so many stand out moments. One of them was meeting the legendary conservationist, Cynthia Moss and enjoying afternoon tea with her at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants research camp. We chatted like we were long lost friends, shared elephant stories and discussed the different issues elephants faced in our relevant countries. Cynthia’s smile and energy resonates. I was overwhelmed by her warmth and generousity and I didnt want the afternoon to end! Please be sure to follow their important work – https://www.elephanttrust.org/

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Another woman I was so thrilled to finally meet, was Angela Sheldrick, CEO of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

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We visited the DSWT orphanage in Nairobi and I was left feeling endlessly grateful for the work of everyone there, but also so desperately heartbroken. The orphanage was caring for 29 tiny orphaned elephants when we visited. We were able to stand behind a fence and watch 28 of them, drink their morning bottle of milk, play in the mud puddles and slowly learn the skills that are imperative to their eventual re release back in to the wild. There was one orphan that we were told was still too weak and traumatised to join the others and when Edwin, the head keeper shared this with us, I felt the burn of emotionally fuelled tears filling my eyes.

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All the orphans there are survivors. They are also victims. Some of them are there as a result of drought or falling down wells. Most of them are there, because their mothers, sisters and brothers, were murdered in front of their very eyes, for their incisor teeth – more commonly known as tusks.

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Even though I am an avid advocate for a complete ban on ivory and have never engaged in the trade, I still cant help but feel deeply guilty when I watched these innocent and beautiful beings at the orphanage. I walked away thinking about what more I could, in my little pocket of the world, in Thailand, could do, to protect the elephants of Africa…

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Hope and I decided to foster two of the babies. My calf was Ekensha. Ekensha is a victim of poaching and she was born on the 18th February – the same day that my darling Boon Lott was born! Ekensha was discovered by the rescue team with a snare almost severing her trunk. After a three hour surgery to repair the damage and almost 100 stitches, Ekensha, despite being heavily sedated, pulled out the stitches that were hold her truck together! Over the next few months, Ekensha’s wound began to heal and she has now been left with a small hole a third of the way up her trunk. This does not hold her back one bit and I was impressed by her confidence, playfulness and determination to live. I had already fallen in love with her when I first set eyes on her. I couldnt stop watching her walk around the mud area, cheekily spraying mud over everyone. When Edwin shared her story, my heart jerked and I knew she was the one for me. Then, when I read that she shared the same birthday as Boon Lott, I smiled through tears and thought about how the Universe works in the most amazing ways.

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Hope decided to foster sweet, little, Kiasa. Rescued by the DSWT team, when she was just six months old, Kiasa was found separated from her herd, but protected by two adult bull elephants. At six months, Kiasa was still milk dependant and despite the bulls best efforts to break branches for her to feed on, she would not have survived without intervention.
I was interested to know why Kiasa’s story had touched Hope more than the others. When I asked her, Hope replied that family are the ones who stand by you, no matter what… This is one of our house mantras and even though we share these words amongst each other, almost daily at BLES, I was left speechless. Moved, once again, to tears, by the true beauty of her words, we walked together, holding hands, through the gardens of the orphanage.  Earlier that morning, as we were getting ready to leave the hotel, Hope reached for two red roses that had been given to her the night before. She asked me if I thought it would be ok for her to bring the roses to DSWT and lay them down for the late, Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who had sadly passed away 10 days before our visit. Hope’s compassion and understanding for others, never fails to amaze me, but I was stunned by her thoughtfulness and empathy.

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Over recent years, Dr Dame Daphne and I had been in regular contact with each other. When our bull Seedor Gam passed away and then days later, my best friend of 12 years, Stud, Daphne wrote me a letter, offering her condolences and support. That letter is still on my wall and I will treasure it always.

As we were watching the orphans getting settled for the night in their stables, I heard a voice behind me. I turned and there stood Angela, Daphne’s daughter. We stood and talked for a very long time about her mother, our children, our passion for wildlife… I am not sure if I can fully express how much it meant to me that Angela took time out of her busy day, at what must have been such a painful and difficult time for her, to talk with me.

DSWT – https://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/index.asp will forever have my support. They are on the frontline and creating significant change. I am eternally grateful for, and to them.

I could honestly write on and on about the many memories I am so blessed to now hold in my heart. Through my trip to Kenya, my family circle has grown and for that, I owe four people, in particular, a very special thank you…

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Anna, An, Eric and my darling, Hope… Asante- sana for creating these memories with me… XxXxX

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Nameste Nepal

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Last month, I had the joy of travelling to the magical & captivating country of Nepal.

This was my fourth trip there and I make no secret of the fact that Nepal holds a very sacred place in my heart. Im not sure exactly, what it is about Nepal…. The people are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The landscape is breath taking, the food is mind blowing, the language is almost musical. The way of life is tough, but easy at the same time. Family is everywhere and everyone has a smile – every time I go back, I feel like I am going home, not away….

The reason for my most recent trip, was to intern with Carol Buckley and her organisation, Elephant Aid International, helping to care for the captive elephants in a province called Sauhara, where there are 120 elephants, both owned by the government and privately. We were there to specifically work on the elephant’s feet. Carol has been travelling to this area for seven years now, building relationships and gaining respect. The people in Sauraha are clearly very fond of their ‘Sister’ – you feel like you are with a celebrity when you are walking beside Carol! Everyone has a hug or a hand shake for her!

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Our days started at around 9am each day. We would work on three elephants, break for lunch, travel to a different location and then work on three or more elephants there. The health of most of the elephant’s feet we saw, was disturbing. Urine burn, thinning pads, overgrown nails, deep splits in the nails, bacteria growth – the issues were endless. It was fascinating listening to Carol diagnose the condition of the elephant’s overall health and the way he/she was managed, by simply examining the feet.

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This was not my first time working beside Carol, but during this particular trip, I feel like I learned more than ever from her. The one thing that always blows me away about Carol, is how generous she is with her knowledge, experience and deep understanding of elephants.

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Working on the elephant’s feet was invigorating. The mahouts, who are all comfortable with Carol and can communicate with her in a mixture of broken Nepali and English, were always eager to get hands on and so often, we would step back and watch, as the mahouts mastered the skills of foot care. Watching them correct and direct each other was fantastic and to see the absolute pride Carol had beaming out of her as she ran around supervising and guiding them, bought tears to my eyes. One of my mantras for life is, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ and that is what I was seeing – a change, a positive movement, to improve the wellbeing of captive elephants.

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One of the highlights during my time in Sauhara, was spending time with my dear friend Lean Quenard and learning how she is also creating change. Lena is a whirlwind of a woman and someone I admire very much. I love how she affectionately calls the elephant in her care, Lucky Kali, her, ‘Goddess’ and I really enjoyed our sunrise walks, through the morning mist, watching Lucky Kali throw dust all over herself, for hours on end. Lucky Kali is the first, privately owned elephant to be retired in Nepal. Typically, once elephants get too old to carry tourist around on their backs, they are sold to India and used as temple elephants, which is one of the worst fates possible.

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While we were there, we were lucky to meet little Samrat Gaj, a young bull, who is currently being supported by another woman, which means for now, he gets to spend most of his time enjoying freedom with Luck Kali. The two of them are the best of friends and it is my greatest hope that they can stay together, forever…

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Hopefully, with Lucky Kali and now other elephants in Sauhara, proving positive change is possible, showing an ethical alternative and leading the way to sustainability, more and more of the privately owned elephants will want to follow suit.

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You can support Lena and find out more about her organisation, Assosiation Moey here – http://association-moey.org/site/lucky-kali/

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Another huge high point of my trip, was visiting my good friends at Tiger Tops! I can not say enough good things about this place. The hospitality is faultless. I was excited to get back to Tiger Tops and see the elephants there and it was no surprise that they all looked extremely healthy and happy. Tiger Tops has been pioneering the way for ethical elephant management in Nepal for years. They were the first facility to stop using elephants for safaris and they were also the first facility to allow their elephants to go chain free. These changes have been groundbreaking and now more facilities are following the example set by Tiger Tops. A visit here is an absolute must. Thanks to the tireless conservation projects led by the Tiger Top’s staff, Chitwan National Park now homes 68 mammal species and boasts over 543 bird species. These can be seen and heard when you venture out with one of the naturalists, (Mr Bhim is my favourite!). On our nature walk, we watched not one, but two male rhinos, go about their business! It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I didnt dare breath – it was beyond thrilling, watching the rhino, graze, snort, lie down – doing what rhinos do!!

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I think the biggest treat for me during this trip, was seeing Mal Kali again. I first met Mal Kali three years ago. Her story is one of hope and it still touches me beyond my being. Mal Kali is an elderly elephant. Some say she is 70, some say she is 80… But everyone agrees she is special. About four years ago Mal Kali collapsed. She was working as a patrol elephant for the government at the time. Carol worked with the mahouts and veterinarians there to help save Mal Kali’s life. Once Mal Kali regained her strength, it was decided that Mal Kali would be retired and she was released in to Chitwan National Park.

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Nobody expected to see Mal Kali again, but still, to this day, she has established the ideal routine for herself. At around 4.30pm everyday, after spending her entire day roaming through the jungle, she will appear and then slowly walk towards the government facility. The mahouts there all know she is coming and they prepare cooked rice, with masalas and salt and have it ready and waiting for her each evening. After she has slurped up the entire contents of the pot, she wanders to her chain free enclosure and feasts on her kuchis (elephant sandwiches). She spends her nights, close to her old human and elephant friends, knowing she is safe with them. At sunrise, the mahouts open her gate and she walks away, with her head high, ready to start another day, roaming through the Chitwan jungle. Nobody knows what she gets up to out there and I think that is just fabulous!

The first time I met Mal Kali, I was going through a tough time. I was questioning my existence and wondering if I was cut out for the animal welfare world. Watching her walk, as free as an elephant should be, towards the people who care for her and watching them dote on her every need, reduced me to tears and at the same time reignited that flame within me. I now have her photograph on my bedroom wall and she is the first thing I see when I open my eyes each morning. It warms my soul, knowing there are captive elephants in our world, living as if they were wild. Knowing there are humane humans, dedicated to their wellbeing and I am proud to call them my friends.

So now, here I am holding on to Mal Kali’s strength and elegance, and allowing it to lead me through my next rescue mission, here in Thailand – the retirement of Pang Fai.

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Pang Fai is an elderly elephant, who for the past 32 years has lived in our village of Baan Na Ton Chan. She has spent her entire life working in the timber trade and performing in processions and now, her owner, is ready to let her go. He recognises that he can no longer take care of her, as he himself, is also getting on in age and the hard, physical demands of providing for an elephant, is now proving to be too much for him.

We are trying to raise 12000 GBP or 16700 USD, to secure her retirement. By donating to our fundraiser, you are helping to give this lovely old lady back her life. She will be free to explore our forests, eat whatever she likes. She will be able to freely interact with other elephants and she will never have to day another day’s work. Isnt this something worth contributing to?

Please help us, help Pang Fai – https://www.gofundme.com/pang-fai-retirement 

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Trunks of love and thanks for your compassion and support xx

‘Dhanybhad’ to my Nepali friends

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Beautiful and Strong, Boon Thong

My tears are falling fast and heavy tonight…

Beautiful, old and oh, so wise, Boon Thong, lay herself down this morning. She knew it was her time to let go…

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Boon Thong, after five years of living in sanctuary at BLES, where she was free to be in control of her own life, to make her own decisions, to express herself, to find a friend in her devoted mahout, Phi Gom, to rest her worn out body, to explore the forests of Sukhothai – put very simply – to be an elephant once more, has peacefully passed away.

Boon Thong was in her late sixties. A lady of substance, elegance and strength, she enjoyed her little morning routine. Every day, we would make her vitamin balls. Boon Thong would patiently wait, while Luke, my youngest son, would struggle to manage the sticky rice balls in his little hands and then lift them up to her. She always took her time eating them and I would always watch, smile and wonder, if she was buying Luke time…

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Boon Thong was a creature of habit. She had her favourite spots in our release areas that she would always gravitate to during our daily walks. She always scratched on the same tree and she always stopped at the same spot in the stream to throw mud all over herself.

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Boon Thong, with a life time of scars tarnishing her petite frame, was a constant surprise and inspiration to us all here at BLES. She looked like a frail and delicate soul, but she had the most vibrant inner strength and determination to make the most of  every day.

Saying Goodbye to Boon Thong was heartbreaking, yet heartwarming at the same time. I was so saddened to see my darling friend slipping away, but I was also so full of gratitude that we got to spend five whole years watching her thrive.

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I sat by her side for nine hours today. I massaged her legs and stroked the bristly hair on her head. I whispered words of love in to her ears and wiped the tears from her eyes, and then from mine… Losing someone we love, even when it is their time to go, even when they pass so peacefully, is just so hard.

Boon Thong has been buried beside Sontaya and close to Permpoon, Sao Noi and Naamfon. Five shining stars. Five soaring spirits. Five friends, we will always hold deep in our hearts…

Walk on Boon Thong, with your strong and distinctive stride, through the long grass, filling every field, as far as the eye can see…

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Be free forever, my sweet, darling, Boon Thong xx 

 

 

Welcome Sappraiwan – Jewel of the Forest

I have the most exciting news to share with you all!

2018 has got off to the most spectacular start for us all here at BLES! After months of planning, we can finally announce that BLES has a brand new family member – Plai Sappraiwan!

Sappraiwan is a special and beautiful, fourteen year old bull, who has the most incredible life story.  He grew up with his mother, which is sadly a rarity in Thailand, if not most of Asia, as calves are often prematurely separated from their mothers and sold in to the tourism industry.
Sappraiwan’s mother, Saitong, was one of the first elephants to call The Sappraiwan Resort, her home, 17 years ago. Saitong was a street begging elephant, who was rescued by a kind hearted man, who at the time, was the owner of the Sappraiwan Resort. This man was so distraught by seeing elephants walking the streets of Bangkok, that he bought six of them and relocated them all to his then resort. A compassionate act of selflessness, that should have had a fairy tale ending…

Three years after being saved from the streets, Saitong gave birth to a strong and healthy bull, who was christened Sappraiwan – ‘Jewel of the Forest’, in honour of the resort. Sappraiwan was fortunate to be able to grow up with his mother constantly by his side and naturally separate from her when he came of age.

The original six rescued elephants, quickly bred and are now a biological herd of fourteen elephants, consisting of mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers, cousins…  There are three generations of elephants within this captive herd, which is remarkable.

Sappraiwan, who at fourteen years old, is now classified as a sexually mature bull, is unable to breed with any of the females at the resort, as he is related in one way or another, to all of them.  It has been confirmed by several specialists, that keeping Sappraiwan at the resort, constantly chained, surrounded by females that he can not freely interact with, could lead to him being increasingly frustrated and aggressive.

The elephant owner, now in his late seventies and eager to make things right for his beloved elephants, visited BLES last year and this was when conversations regarding Sappraiwan’s welfare began.
It was agreed that Sappraiwan could be relocated to BLES, where he would enjoy a chain free life and be allowed to interact with other elephants, both male and female.

BLES, being a true elephant sanctuary, does not breed or encourage our elephants to mate. The sole reason for relocating Sappraiwan to BLES, was to significantly improve his quality of life and welfare, by increasing his roaming time and allowing for social interactions.

Sappraiwan was safely relocated from the Sappraiwan Resort, to BLES, in early January 2018. His journey was smooth and that really is a tribute to his dedicated mahout, Phi Shamnan, who accompanied Sappraiwan throughout the journey.

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The next few months are going to be challenging, to say the least. One because the drag chain secured around Sappraiwan’s ankle, has not once been removed, over the last twelve years. Two, because Sappraiwan has a multitude of complex behavioural issues…

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We are taking this transitional stage very slowly with Sappraiwan and are so proud of the achievements we are already making together. Sappraiwan is a symbol of hope and reminds us what can be achieved when we allow compassion to lead us and put understanding before judgement.

I am so proud to welcome Sappraiwan to BLES and to now be solely responsible for his upbringing. It is a true honour, to have worked together with Sappraiwan’s owner and his family, the mahouts at Sappraiwan Resort and David Owen, who was instrumental in co ordinating and managing Sappraiwan’s relocation to BLES.
I am deeply thankful to everyone involved, for entrusting Sappraiwan to me and my skilled team of mahouts and confident we will soon start to see him thrive.

Sappraiwan’s arrival to BLES has been the best start to the new year and I am excited to post updates on his recovery journey, to rediscovery.

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As always, trunks of thanks to everyone for your continued faith and support – we would not be where we are today, without every single one of you. Thank you for being the change and creating a chance for the captive elephants of Thailand.

 

The Sweetest Elephant Ever – ‘Granny’ Thong Dee

Every now and then, you meet a soul that shines, a spirit that soars and a being, that despite all the cruelties life has thrown her way, is sweet and full of love…

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Thong Dee was the sweetest elephant we have ever known here at BLES and I am still wiping away tears and shaking my head in disbelief, as I find myself sitting here, sharing the news of her passing…

Thong Dee was rescued by BLES, two and a half years ago. Her owners, who loved Thong Dee dearly, could see that she was getting too old and weak to continue giving rides to tourists. They, themselves, were also tired of camp life and so reached out to BLES and asked for our help.

Since her very first day at BLES, it was obvious that Thong Dee was warm hearted and had not let the cruelities of camp life, harden her in any way. She was playful, social and oh, so, curious!

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Thong Dee quickly became a favourite with the mahouts. They all admit to having a soft spot for her and my two eldest sons, Noah and Arron, adored her so much, they always called her, ‘Granny’… Whenever not at school, they would go walking with her in the forest, cut down food for her and watch her gently move through the forest.

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Thong Dee’s death, has hit us all incredibly hard, but my sons have been left inconsolable…

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It was a hot afternoon and Dom, Thong Dee’s mahout, had been out walking with her. She had spent some time soaking her feet in the stream and throwing mud over her back. When she was ready, she turned towards one of the many hills surrounding our sanctuary and started to slowly, but steadily climb it.  Dom, tried to convince her to stay near the stream, but Thong Dee was determined and so Dom stood back and let her go. As she eventually disappeared in to the bushes, Dom, who was following her from a distance, saw her pause for a few minutes, as if she was looking for someone. Thong Dee took a few more steps up the hill and then turned to look at him, as he lay herself down on the soft, damp ground.

Dom instantly knew that something was wrong and so called me to let me know that Thong Dee was down. Phi Sot, Noah, Arron and I, jumped on a motorbike and sped through the forest, desperately trying to find them. When we did get to where Dom and Thong Dee were, Noah and Arron ran to her, and dropped to their knees beside her. She raised her trunk and reached out to them both, as they sobbed and begged her not to leave them. Noah buried his little face in to her and in whispered tones, that only Thong Dee could hear, he started praying. Arron, who had wrapped his little arms as tight as he could around her, removed the Buddah from his neck and placed it on her head.

After a few minutes, Phi Sot called the boys, saying it was time to head back home. Noah, who is eight and Arron, who is five, silently stood, wiped the tears from their faces and bowed their heads in respect, to their much loved granny. Thong Dee, raised the end of her trunk again and let out a deep breath…

I hugged my sons, kissed them both and told them how proud I was of them. Phi Sot put a protective arm around them both and ushered them back down the hill.

Dom, who had been sitting in the bushes, watching, gave me a broken smile and a nod, which I understood to mean that he needed to distance himself from the heartfelt  emotions that were racing around.

And so I sat, on my own, at the top of that hill, holding Thong Dee’s beautiful trunk in my hands. I could still hear Noah and Arron crying. They had only been gone a minute or so and then all of a sudden, Thong Dee’s grip tightened around my hands and her body started to shake. Within a few seconds, the shaking ceased and she let go…

Could it be that she was holding on to say goodbye to the boys? Could it be that once they left, she felt at peace enough to finally pass? Well, I believe so and I believe it with all of my heart.

After a few minutes of just being with Thong Dee, breathing in the power of her passing and appreciating the beauty that surrounded us, I softly called for Dom. Red eyed, he came. No words were needed… He knew she was gone and as he stood, staring at her lying lifelessly on the ground, he quietly asked me if any other elephant had ever died up where we were. I smiled and told him about Beautiful Boon Mee, who had died in almost the exact spot that Thong Dee chose to be her final resting place. Boon Mee had been one of our orignial rescues and at the grand age of 84, Boon Mee, just like Thong Dee, had walked herself up the same hill and lay herself down to rest. I asked him why and his reply stunned me. He said he felt like Thong Dee was looking for a long, lost friend…

We have no way of knowing if Boon Mee, who passed away seven years ago and Thong Dee had known each other. It is highly possible they could have worked together at some point over the years, but we will never, truly know…

Thong Dee has been buried right beside Boon Mee and it makes me smile, to think of them both, being together…. Maybe they were family… Maybe they were friends… It doesnt really matter. Now, they are angels, forever in our hearts.

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(Pang Noi, Pang Suai and Sompord, stand by Thong Dee and Boon Mee’s burial sites, the day after Thong Dee’s passing)

BLES your beautiful heart and soul Thong Dee…. You have left this world a brighter place and we are better beings, because of you.

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We will always love you.

 

 

Plai Tong Jai – Forever Loved

Eleven years ago, Anon and I overheard an old man complaining about his ‘stupid and lazy’ elephant. Anon approached the old man, introduced himself and asked if we could go to see his elephant. The old man eventually agreed and together, we embarked on a life changing journey….

Tong Jai, meaning heart of gold, was deep out in the forest, when we found him. He was emaciated, depressed and had a badly infected, large, maggot infested wound, on his spine.

It was clear that Tong Jai needed our help. We set straight to work and were able to successfully relocate Tong Jai to BLES, in no time at all.

Tong Jai’s skeletal frame, was covered in puncture wounds, scars and even bullets. His ears were torn and cut and his skin was dry and damaged. A visiting vet examined Tong Jai and claimed that he wouldnt live longer than three months. Locals laughed at us, telling us we had wasted our money and some people nicknamed him the ‘Ugly’ elephant.

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Anon and I ignored them all and surrounded Tong Jai with all the love and compassion we could. Anon became Tong Jai’s key caregiver and the two of them quickly developed a deep devotion to each other. Their relationship was unique and under Anon’s unwavering care, Tong Jai began to thrive. He slowly gained weight, he started going in to musth, his physical and physcoligical wounds healed and he started to socialise with our other rescued elephants. By trusting in Anon, Tong Jai was able to be a true elephant once more.

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Over the past eleven years, Tong Jai’s health took many turns. Anon was always right there, faithfully beside him, often caring for him around the clock, through the night, come rain or shine.

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Friends, it is with a very heavy ache in my soul, that I share the news of Tong Jai’s passing.

Tong Jai had been slowing down and losing weight three weeks prior to his death. We could all see that his impressive old age, (late seventies) and the cruelties of captivity, were finally taking their eternal toll on him.

Tong Jai passed away so peacefully. Anon and Tong Jai had been out slowly walking through the forest, grazing and dusting. Tong Jai didnt walk far or eat much, but he was at peace and in control of his life. He spent the afternoon lying in the pond, every now and then blowing cool water over his boney body. Anon and Tong Jai then walked home, taking their time to appreciate every moment, completely at ease in each other’s company. Tong Jai  found himself a comfortable place to lie down and as the sun set, Anon lit a small fire beside him, to help warm his worn out body.

Two hours later, Tong Jai’s steady breathing slowed and then stopped. His eyes were closed and his huge body was glowing from the warm light of the fire. Anon and I sat with him, telling him how loved and cherished he was. We reminisced about all the years gone by and all the treasured memories we now had, thanks to Tong Jai. We both wiped away tears, as we waited for the eventual and inevitable passing of our friend.

Tong Jai’s time with us, was such a gift. We were honoured to have been able to provide him with true sanctuary and see him thrive.

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Over the past eleven years, Tong Jai became a much loved part of our family. He was a living legend, who evoked awe inspiring emotions, if you were ever lucky enough to be in his company. He had a presence like no other bull and seeing him stride through the sanctuary, literally made you hold your breath…

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And so we say goodbye, to a truly wonderful being, who taught us the importance of staying strong, the beauty of proving people wrong and the power of trusting in friendship.

BLES your beautiful heart Tong Jai… Forever in our hearts – Forever loved xx

 

 

Our Little iMac…

“Nothing can dim the light that shines within” – Maya Angelou

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There are many sayings about being a bright light to motivate others… iMac, my little wheelchair bound champion, embodied all of them and was not only a daily source of sheer joy, he was a constant inspiration and a firm reminder that when you get knocked down, you pick yourself back up and keep going.

I am so sad to be writing this tribute, but it is the very least I can do to honour the illuminating being that was iMac. To many people, he may have been just another dog, but to me and my family, iMac was a treasured and much loved friend.

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iMac has passed away, after a very quick and unexpected decline in his health. We noticed that he was not his usual, energetic, playful and noisy self, but he sadly passed away, before we were able to take him to the vet. His sudden death, has left us all in a deep state of mourning and I keep catching myself saying goodnight and good morning to him, every time I walk past his enclosure, despite the fact he has been gone now for several days…

I found iMac four years ago. He was a filthy mass of hard, matted hair, clusters of ticks, hundreds of fleas, months worth of poo stuck to his back legs and bottom… He was thin and covered in badly infected sores, caused by dragging himself along, desperately trying to survive.

I spotted him as we were driving to BLES and screeched to a halt. I was honestly convinced I had found a strange wild animal, as iMac was barely recognisable as a dog. I took a few deep breaths and then got out of the car.

I watched him drag himself across a heavily trafficked road, apparently oblivious of the speeding trucks and motorbikes. He moved towards a house and I decided to follow him. There was a woman lying in a hammock and I asked her is she knew the dog. She reluctantly grunted and after I explained that I ran a sanctuary, she waved me away, telling me to take the dog away.

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I was shocked at her lack of empathy and found myself at a loss for words. I looked down at the dirty and very stinky dog hovering around my ankles and he beamed up at me. His eyes were so bright, so full of love and life and that was it – right there – that was the moment I fell hopelessly in love with iMac.

I scooped him up and put him in the car. He panted with excitement and didnt once look back at his old house, his old life.

The next day, I took iMac for a haircut. To this day, I still get a lump in my throat when I remember his transformation. I was a nervous wreck as I waited for him to come out of the groomers. I had no idea what we were going to find underneath all that dirty, matted fur and I couldnt believe my eyes when he was carried out – he was a completely different dog!

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His hair was soft and so white. His eyes were even more alive and he was clearly thrilled with his new look as he kept trying to jump around!

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Again, I scooped him up. Our next stop was the hospital. X-rays showed several old breaks in his pelvis and back legs and we discussed our options for iMac. We decided to have a wheelchair made for him and I started creating an enclosure for him, that would keep him safe.

The past four years with iMac have been delightful. I always used to joke that iMac thought he was a rottweiler and it was a daily highlight to watch iMac zoom around in his wheelchair, running over everyone’s feet, terrorising our other, more patient dogs. He found friendship with Paws and Ladyboy, two of our rescued cats and brought big smiles to everyone who met him.

iMac was an absolute delight and was always eager to befriend new rescues, guiding them through their recoveries.

iMac was my little ray of sunshine and the sanctuary feels so empty without his energy. We do not know the cause of his death, but we do know that he was reborn the day he was rescued and lived every single day to the max. I am sure iMac didnt realise the extent of his injuries. In the four years he lived with us, he never once stopped playing, trying to stand and walk.

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Making the dogs dinner will never be the same now. iMac used to bark and bark at me, as he watched me prepare the dinner for the dogs and I would always talk back to him… Those conversations meant nothing to the rest of the world, but to me and iMac, our chats were such a high point.

I loved iMac so much and my heart breaks a little bit more, when reality kicks in.

iMac inspired so many people and touched the hearts of everyone who was lucky enough to meet him. Im so thankful I was able to be a a chapter in iMac’s life and am very proud of the special little being that he was.

I have planted a jasmine tree opposite his enclosure. The jasmine flower is white, sweet smelling, pretty and delicate. People continuously admire it’s beauty and sweet fragrance and I am confident that iMac’s story will forever be retold, when people appreciate his tree.

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Rest In Eternal Peace my darling boy. You were so loved xxxx

To Ride or Not to Ride? – Should that even be a question?

There is thought to be an estimated 9500 captive elephants across Asia. Approximately, 3000 of those are currently being used for entertainment in tourism.

Thailand has the highest population of captive elephants in the whole of Asia and a shocking 77% of those elephants are ‘living’ in inadequate conditions.

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Basically, this means that elephants being kept in these facilities are chained to the ground on short chains, sometimes only 1 meter in length. If they are elephants that are known to play with the chain, they will also have their front feet shackled together or be secured by a back foot, as well as the front. There are several other factors that result in a captive elephant showing signs of distress: Lack of water, poor diet, being overworked, restricted movement, not being allowed to socialise, vocalise or display natural behaviours such as dirt throwing – the list goes on.

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And how do elephants show that they are stressed? Just like we do… Some elephants pace, rock, self harm, develop anorexia, cry, lash out, give up.

In 2005, Dr Gay Bradshaw, Ph.D., Ph.D. confirmed that elephants and chimpanzees were displaying signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She established that African elephants were exhibiting psychological symptoms. These included, inter- and intra-species aggression, depression, mood disorders, and emotional dysfunction, including infant neglect. All were related to a series of human-caused trauma: mass killings, translocations, social disruption, and habitat loss and degradation. Her findings were further supported by neuroscience research stating that the brain structures affected by trauma (cortical and subcortical areas of the right brain) are highly conserved across species.  (Bradshaw, G.A., Slotow, R.,Balfour, D. & Howison, O.Mahwah, N.J.: Erhbaum. )

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Over the past ten years, BLES has rescued 27 elephants. Each of these elephants have expressed various signs of long term psychological and physical strain. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the video of sweet Sontaya, swinging left to right, non stop, with so much vigour, she had inflammation around her shoulders. Permpoon had trust and aggression issues, Tong Jai, refuses to allow any other mahout, other than Anon, to get close to him – these are just three examples of elephants being wrecked by captivity and destroyed by tourism.

When release from abuse does occur, the road to recovery is not easy. Elephants coming to sanctuary experience tremendous improvements, yet they still carry the scars and burden of their past. Similar to human prisoners who survive, captive elephants are diagnosed with Complex PTSD, as well as other trauma-induced conditions.

The 14 elephants living at BLES are the fortunate ones. They have been removed from the torturous life of circus shows and back breaking rides. We are proud to be able to provide true sanctuary to our small family of elephants, but what about the remaining thousands that are still trapped?

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This is where YOU come in!

World Animal Protection – WAP, recently released a well researched document that revealed the frightening facts and figures behind elephant tourism in Asia. The study claims that 54% of people surveyed found it unacceptable to watch a show or performance involving wild animals.

The first time I read this, I was relieved to see that the percentage was over half. Then, it dawned on me – ONLY 54% of people surveyed – why so few?

In todays world, I passionately feel there are no excuses for contributing to the cruelty of captivity. We have so many resources available now, mostly Wifi and good old Dr Google, as well as TripAdvisor, to name a few. We can type in any question and within a fraction of a second, have the answer. There have been a number of documentaries made, highlighting what happens behind the scenes of elephant tourism. Articles, blogs, papers, but most importantly conversations, take place, all around the world, explaining why riding elephants is now not the number one thing to do, when you visit Thailand.

In the past ten years, there has been a visible increase in the number of elephant friendly facilities. These venues allow the elephants in their care to interact naturally, do not offer riding as an activity, allow tourists to observe the elephants and encourage visitors to gather food for the elephants, muck out sleeping areas, plant trees – lots of eco positive activity that is rewarding and does not encroach on elephant welfare.

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I guess the key thing in all of this is that we have to be prepared to put the animals, in this case, the elephants, first. We have to accept that we might not get to touch them, stand next to them, take a selfie with them, because despite what we have always been conditioned to believe, we, humans, do not have the right to invade another being’s (elephant’s) space.

I take a very firm stance on this controversial matter. I have always said that captivity is about compromise – there is no black and white approach to elephant tourism in Thailand and honestly, I do see both sides of the never ending arguments.

Mahouts and elephant owners are fed up of ill informed tourists, blaming them and wagging their fingers, accusing them of abusing their elephants. These tourists, of course, have the best of intentions, but often, behaving like this can end badly and mahouts end up resenting foreigners and ignoring their underlying message of compassion.

On the other hand, I can understand why tourists would be upset by seeing an elephant on a chain and jump to the wrong conclusion.

The simple fact is, if you want to get close to an elephant, throw buckets of water over it, feed it, touch it – nine times out of ten, those elephants will be stressed and will need to be controlled, either by being tethered or by a mahout carrying a hook or worse, hiding a nail in his hand.

The point I am trying to make is that you, as individuals, travelling to Thailand, have the power to really make a significant change for the captive elephants of Asia.

You are the ones who decide where to spend your money. If you continue to pay to watch elephant shows, the elephants will have to keep dancing. If you chose to sit in a bench, balanced on the back of an elephant, the elephants will continue to suffer. The camp owners and mahouts are meeting the demand that tourists are creating and now is the time to change that.

To be clear, I am not boycotting the hundreds of elephant camps in Thailand. Quite the opposite actually. I encourage people to go to the camps and instead of riding the elephants, pay to walk with the elephants. Imagine if every tourist did this? How quickly the face of elephant captivity would change?

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Instead of being critical, I urge you to try and relate to the hardships the thousands of mahouts face daily. The mahouts, like the elephants are victims and are often unfairly represented. It costs nothing to be compassionate. To be humane, not human.

The power to create change is within all of us and our gestures do not have to be grand or impressive. A simple, ethical choice to walk, not ride an elephant could start the ripples we need to end the cruelty once and for all. Every single one of you can make that move, take that step and be a part of ending the suffering.

As Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, Global Wildlife and Veterinary Advisor, World Animal Protection so eloquently puts it, “Once tourists understand the suffering, they will make the right choices. If you love wild animals and want to see them, choose to do so at a genuine elephant-friendly facility or in their natural habitat, through a responsible tour organiser.”

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When we know better, we do better – if you are travelling to Thailand, you owe it to the elephants to educate yourselves and empower others to be responsible travellers.

 

 

 

Sleep deep Permpoon, our pretty, pink lady…

It has taken me several days to gather the strength to announce the news of Permpoon’s passing…. To say her death has hit us all incredibly hard here at BLES, is putting it lightly…

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Permpoon was a lady of strength and poise. She represented patience, perseverance, determination and independence. Every time I watched Permpoon, gingerly make her way through the long grass, gathering big bundles and slowly stuffing them in to her mouth, I would always be filled with this overwhelming feeling of thankfulness. Her rescue was one of the most complicated BLES has ever embarked on. Egos, politics, drama and bureaucracy, stalled the rescue of Permpoon for three months. It was a very tough time for everyone involved, but no one more so than our pretty Permpoon. Tied to a tree, she stood in the same place, wondering why the world had forgotten her. She lost weight and her arthritic and achey body, suffered greatly from the lack of exercise and poor diet.

During those three months, I went to visit Permpoon to let her know we had no intention of giving up on her. We point blank refused to walk away from her rescue and I often get asked where I drew my strength from during those dark and confusing days. The truth is, I drew my strength from her – from Permpoon. Her deep, dark eyes were filled with such sadness, but when you looked past that, there was a shimmer of hope, a sparkle of determination and that was what kept me focused and driven – Permpoon’s staunch mission to survive and then thrive, under our care.

And thrive, she did! It really was such an honour to be around Permpoon. When she first arrived at BLES, she was a ball of anger and aggression. Her mahout, Phi Daam, fell in love with her instantly and was intent on building a friendship with Permpoon, based on trust and respect. I remember watching him, nervously reaching through the bars of the quarantine house, to feed Permpoon and every time she would lash out in his direction. He would respond calmly, telling her it was ok. Telling her, he loved her and would again reach out with his hand to offer her reassurance.

Permpoon was a tough cookie and it took Phi Daam about a week to gain her trust completely. I remember the tears of excitement in his eyes when he came to me and said he felt she was strong enough to join our other elephants on a walk in to the forest. Together, Phi Daam and I walked out with Permpoon. She was slow and so fragile, but – and this is the thing about her I will always hold on to – she was SO DETERMINED. Her delicate frame masked her fierceness. She had an inner strength that blinded us all, right until she drew her last breath…

Permpoon had been collapsing on and off for the past twelve months. Her ageing body, that had been through six decades of exhausting labour, was beginning to give out, but Permpoon’s will to live on, motivated us to keep on helping her stand and give her the best possible care we could.

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On Christmas Day morning, Permpoon collapsed again. We all knew what we had to do and  swiftly set up the tripod and hoist. It quickly became apparent that Permpoon’s body was not strong enough to stand and so, after several attempts, we agreed to remove the harnesses and let Permpoon rest. We surrounded her with blankets and rigged up a giant tent to protect her from the sun. I sat with her for hours, holding her trunk in both of my hands, telling her how loved she was and that it was ok to let go. Her breathing was laboured and she refused to eat or drink. As the sun set, so did my hopes of Permpoon ever standing again…

Permpoon’s mahout did not leave her side. He slept in a hammock, with a small fire burning beside them and kept a 24 hour vigil.

We all expected Permpoon to pass during the night, but we should have known better. The next morning, Permpoon was moving, swinging her legs and lifting her head up. She was trying to stand and as the mahouts speedily prepared everything, I held Permpoon’s trunk and told her that as long as she wanted to fight, we would fight with her.

We spent the next four hours cheering Permpoon on, helping her rise, allowing her intervals of rest and following her lead. We massaged her legs to encourage blood circulation and we supported her with all our physical strength when she searched for something to lean on.

Permpoon did stand again. Her legs were shaking and once again, her breathing was laboured. We could all see how hard she was trying and we all wanted to help her so desperately, but when I looked up in to her eyes, I could see straight away that her spirit was gone. I told the mahouts to slowly release the hoist and undo the harnesses. I was heartbroken, but knew that Permpoon’s time had come.

As she lay on the ground, motionless, Phi Daam went to her, with tears openly rolling down his face and whispered to her that he loved her. I believe it was at that very moment that Permpoon passed and am so proud that the last words she heard, were words of genuine and unconditional love.

One by one, the mahouts said their goodbyes, wishing Permpoon well and telling her to come back to them again. I waited until the very end and when they were all gone, I wrapped my arms around her head and sobbed uncontrollably. I am not sure how long I stayed there, embracing her… I just didn’t want to let her go.

We have buried Permpoon beside Sweet Sontaya, close to Sao Noi and Naamfon. Sitting amongst their graves, I am consumed with so much grief and heaviness, which is often hard to articulate. It is tempting to allow the sadness to consume me, but I hold these girls and all the other special souls we have lost over the years, so deep in my heart. I treasure the memories they have gifted us with over the years and I am just so grateful to be able to have given them back, what should have always been theirs, before it was too late.

2016 has been an emotional and at times, soul-destroying year. But in those moments of misery, I have searched for the lesson and I am thankful to be able to always gain something positive from my pain.

I am so sorry to deliver such sad news, but wish you all a wonderful, safe, happy and healthy new year. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, for the constant strength and support you all give so generously to us – BLES is a family and we send love to you all.

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Rest well Permpoon. You were SO loved and admired… We will never, ever forget you… xx