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Celebrating Nature’s Greatest Masterpiece – The Elephant

Today is World Elephant Day – a day to honour and respect all that it means to be elephant. But what exactly does this mean ?

Elephants should be able to make their own choices in life. They should be in charge of where they want to go and what they want to do. They should have access to endless amounts of natural fodder and should be protected by their family or friendship groups. They should be free of human invasion and they should, very simply, be happy.

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There are estimated to be 2000-4000 captive elephants in living in Thailand today. The majority of these elephants work in tourism, performing in shows, giving rides, posing for photos…. Most of these elephants do not have access to a natural or healthy diet. A number of these elephants spend their days tethered on a short chain to a post, standing in rancid puddles of their own urine, surrounded by piles of old dung and trash and have nothing but sky-high hotels and shopping plazas to look at. Many of these elephants stereotype, limp, pace and display aggressive behaviour and I think it is about time more people are asking WHY??

We live in a very privileged society. We have access to limitless information, literally at our fingertips. We can Google search any single thought that drifts in to our head and this is why I am left, day after day, frustrated and confused.

I travel the beautiful Kingdom of Thailand extensively, researching and gathering documentation on the captive elephant situation. I am always left feeling let down. Not let down by the camps or even by the owners of the camps or mahouts of the elephants. My disappointment is directed at the tourists and the thoughtless, selfish way they scramble on to the backs of the elephants, laugh and take photographs of the calves performing their gymnastic displays and walk past the elephants as they swing from side to side out of desperation. I can not fathom how someone travelling to Thailand would not do their research and read all the well thought out blogs, articles and posts that are so readily available on the internet and I honestly feel that there is no excuse in today’s world, for not knowing how damaging your fifteen minute ride or thirty minute show is for these elephants.

Where you spend your money matters and really does make a difference. On this day – World Elephant Day, I ask you to PLEASE think twice about using elephants, tigers, horses, monkeys, etc for your personal pleasure, for your selfie, for your fifteen minutes of fun. Please take the time to find out exactly how your actions affect these animals who are generally kept in appalling conditions, because there are so many eco and ele friendly projects out there, that can offer you a meaningful, unique and safe experience that ensures the wellbeing of everyone – you and the elephant.

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Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary – BLES has been striving forward in our mission to provide true sanctuary for all the animals in our care, since our inception ten years ago. Here at BLES, our seventeen elephants live peacefully and freely and thrive in our care. We have an expert team of mahouts who share a combined passion, wealth of knowledge, hands on experience and deep understanding of humane elephant management. On this World Elephant Day, I want to celebrate each and every one of our mahouts, because without them and their devotion and dedication, our elephants would not be able to be what they were born to be – elephants.

Our BLESele family has been enjoying spending long, lazy days grazing in the forested land BLES has protected for them. All the recent storms have ensured a plentiful supply of lush foliage for them to feast on and lots of muddy pools for them to splash in.

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There is no greater joy than watching one of our elephants wander through the forest, snapping off branches and stopping only to have a good scratch on a tree, before they soak their feet in the stream and spend hours throwing thick, wet mud all over their body. Our elephants do not have a care in the world and this is how we wish all captive elephants could live….  By working together, sharing knowledge, raising awareness and leading by example – I believe all captive elephant CAN live like this.

As I end this entry, I wonder how long it will take for people to realise that if it is wrong to sit on top of an elephant, then it is just as wrong to sit under one. Elephants are not here for our ego boosting exercises or personal gain. They are not here to serve us in any way, shape or form. Elephants are here, walking this earth, to simply and beautifully, be.

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Saying Farewell to Sweet Sao Noi…

There is such an intense and overwhelming ache in my heart right now. It consumes my entire chest and sits, stagnant in my stomach, along with the bundle of knots that have been increasing in size over the past few days…

Life can seem so unfair at times and I have found myself spinning in a non stop cycle of confusion and frustration to relief and understanding.

Here at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), we pride ourselves on taking in elderly elephants and giving them back what should have always been theirs – their freedom, their dignity, their right to chose… We cherish every moment of discovery as the elephants regain their strength and recover from the trauma of working in the tourism industry. Each elephant reacts to their retirement differently. Some of them form firm friendships, some of them focus on eating and replenishing their exhausted bodies, some of them explore every inch of our forested land and walk several miles each day… it can be an emotional rollercoaster walking side by side with our elephants as they go from strength to strength. All of us wish more than anything that their time with us will be long, that their days will be many and their lives will go on and on.

Sadly, this is not always how it works.

Sometimes, when we watch our fragile new arrivals take their first few shaky steps of freedom, we burst with pride for them. Yet, at the same time we share a silent sadness, because we all know that despite our tireless efforts, expert care and endless amounts of love, these beautiful old and oh so wise souls, will not be with us for very long.

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This was the case for our most recent rescue, Sao Noi. Her skeletal body told the unthinkable horror stories from her past that none of us wanted to hear. Her tired eyes were filled with haunting shadows that tore at your soul. But, her smile, sweet, warm and gentle, reminded us that no matter how incredibly tough life seems at times, there is always hope and there is always BLES.

Sao Noi’s health has been a big concern for us and we have kept her on round the clock care since she arrived just over one month ago now. She has blown us away with her inner strength and determination to live every day as if it were her last and now, as I sit here, typing about her passing, I wonder if she knew, more than we did, that her days on this earth were coming to an end.

Sao Noi loved being out in the forest. She would explore every little bit, of every bush, every tree, every puddle and field. She loved the company of people and would often approach us, just to be close to us. Sao Noi also loved the company of her own kind, Boon Thong and Permpoon being two of her closest friends. Sao Noi loved her food and would make quick work of the healthy options we offered her. She loved to smother herself in thick mud and she LOVED a good scratch!

Sao Noi loved her life and we loved watching her live every meaningful moment.

Sao Noi has taught us that the true meaning of contentment, is living, breathing and feeling every single moment. Being in the moment and embracing what it brings….

These past few days have been some of the most emotionally exhausting for the BLES family. We have all been hands on, supporting Sao Noi in her moments of need and doing everything we possibly could to make her as comfortable as possible. She stood so paitently when the vets from TECC came to administer emergency IV fluids and she trusted in us so whole heartedly when we were hoisting her back on to her feet, after she had collapsed.

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The moment she passed from this world on to the next, will always be etched in the depths of my heart. With her eyes closed, she let out a deep and long purr… I sat with her, stroking her and told her over and over how very loved she was. I closed my eyes and listened to everything she was listening to. The playful songs of the birds, the rythum of the raindrops, the gentle breeze – all we could hear, as we lay on the ground, were the sounds of nature.

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I am so proud of the easy passing Sao Noi made. I am grateful that we were able to watch her thrive and I am thankful for every precious moment we shared. My heart is full of thanks for my mahouts and their genuine compassion and incredible dedication to Sao Noi’s wellbeing. As always, I am indebted to you, our wonderful supporters around the world who made the rescue of Soa Noi happen. I am so appreciative to Sao Noi’s previous owner for letting her go.

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We held a beautiful ceremony in celebration of Sao Noi’s long life. The head monks from our local temples came and blessed her body and then we buried Sao Noi in the forest, beside beautiful Naamfon, who passed away in October of last year.

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We all made offerings of fruit and flowers and Phi Sot, our head mahout, covered Sao Noi’s eyes with a small towel, as he didn’t want the dirt to spoil her pretty eyes. As he lay the towel down, he touched her cheek and told her to go and find Somai. He told her that Somai would take care of her.

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Once the digger truck had finished covering Sao Noi’s body, Phi Gom, Sao Noi’s mahout, planted grass and pineapple heads in a circle for her. Even though the time they had spent together was short, the impact Sao Noi made on Phi Gom was profound. Wiping away tears, he told us that he would never forget her sweet smile.

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None of us will ever be able to foget Sao Noi and the joy she brought to our lives. Although my tears are still falling, I sit here and smile, as I imagine her walking through the long grass, together with Somai, Naamfon and all the other souls we have been blessed to share our world with. I miss her so much, but I am also filled with a sense of relief for Sao Noi. She is no longer trapped in this life that wore down her body and broke her spirit. She is well and truly, free….. God bless her beautiful being.

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SAO NOI IS SAFE!

Let me start this long awaited entry off with a bit of back tracking… Just four weeks ago, BLES welcomed Sontaya in to our ever growing family. Beautiful, old, worn out and depressed, BLES supporters from around the world, rallied round and helped us save Sontaya from a tourism camp in Pattaya where she had been used to carry tourists around in a heavy metal chair, on her boney back.  Giving these rides to tourists can literally cripple an elephant. The combined weight of the chair, plus three humans on the back or neck is unimaginable. Foot problems are common, not to mention painful and are often left untreated. The elephants are forced to work on, through their pain and misery…

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You can read all about the rescue of Sontaya here: – https://blesele.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/sontaya-needs-saving – https://blesele.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/sontaya-is-home/

Sontaya’s story is all too familiar and sadly in Thailand there are thousands of elephants exploited and over worked, just like she was. As an internationally recognised organisation, leading the way in elephant welfare, BLES strives to make a positive impact to the lives of as many elephants as possible. We do this in various ways, such as educating tourists travelling through Thailand, working together with camp owners to implement more humane conditions, building relationships with mahouts throughout the country and ALWAYS leading by example.

We meet many elephants when we are on the road and during the rescue of Sontaya, we met another very special, but very sad elephant. She was emaciated and exhausted. We were told not to approach her as she was aggressive and we were also told repeatedly that she was not for sale.

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Her name was Sao Noi, which means Little Girl. In her sixties, she stood in a makeshift shack, chained up next to Sontaya. She stared at the people walking by her, ignoring her, as if she was pleading for some attention. It was heart breaking to watch, but when we left the camp that day, I just knew we would see her again. I couldn’t shake the image of her skeletal body standing like a statue, from my mind. Not a single day went by without my thoughts drifting to Sao Noi. Each night I would look up to the stars and ask the Universe to take care of her. Well, my prayers were heard and answered –  it wasnt long before we were contacted about rescuing her!

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The BLES team quickly jumped in to action. We launched a fundraiser and called on all of our incredible supporters to help us raise the funds for the rescue of Sao Noi. 100% of the money needed was raised in an impressive two days and there was such an incredible energy around BLES. We were so excited about being able to help Sao Noi. We had only spent a brief period with her at the camp, the day we rescued Sontaya, but she touched us all profoundly. She is the kind of girl you meet once and never forget.

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With the funds in hand, The BLES team drove through the night on roads that now feel increasingly familiar. We now have our regular stops and favourite places to catch a bite to eat and even have our very own rescue soundtrack that we all sing along to as we drive! It rained the entire journey, but that didnt stop us from making good time. We arrived in Pattaya in the early hours of the morning and as the sun rose, so did my heart, knowing that we were at last going to release Sao Noi from her miserable existence.

I couldnt wait to see her and tell her that her time had finally come. That she would no longer spend her days, tied on a short chain to the spot, in a wonky shack and having the occasional bundle of food thrown at her feet. After ten long years of serving as a ‘taxi’ elephant, Sao Noi’s owners retired her from giving rides in December. She had been the family elephant for several decades and they were not prepared to let her go, until they saw the transformation of Sao Noi’s stable mate, Sontaya.

The owners had followed Sontaya’s journey back to BLES via our Facebook page and watched in disbelief as Sontaya quickly washed away her aches and pains from camp life and discovered how to forage in the forest, cover herself in mud and socialise with other rescued elephants. Sontaya was transformed within days of arriving at BLES and Sao Noi’s owners were so moved by this, they decided Sao Noi should be allowed the exact same retirement.

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Travelling back with Sao Noi was stressful. There were several times we thought her legs would give way from under her. She ate well throughout the journey and remained calm, but at one point, her eyes were rolling and she looked dangerously weak. We persevered on, through the non stop rain. Anon sat in the back of our truck, which had been donated to BLES in the days leading up to the the rescue of Sao Noi, by LUSH North America and kept his hand on her leg the entire way. We made regular stops and wrapped Sao Noi up in a golden, specially made, water and wind proof coat, to keep her fragile body protected from the elements. Anon, sat in his hammock, strung up beside her, without a top on, wearing a huge smile! He rubbed Sao Noi’s legs, to help keep her warm, and fed her grass and peeled bananas to help give her energy. I could see his concern for her all over his face, but I could also see his determination to ensure her safe arrival to BLES.

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Twelve hours and many M150s (Red Bull) later, we were home! It was 3am, dark and pouring with rain. The truck reversed towards our loading bay and Sao Noi very slowly and carefully stepped off of the truck and on to BLES ground!  Before she walked in to our quarantine house, Anon bent down to her ankle and removed her chain. There were tears and cheers as we all watched Sao Noi cautiously walk towards the spectacular welcome home buffet that had been prepared for her, by our guests. The quarantine house looked amazing! There were drapes and even tinsel, wrapped around every pillar and post. Signs had been written in Thai and English saying, ‘Welcome home Sao Noi’ and it was obvious that everyone was delighted to be welcoming our new old girl home.

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Sao Noi’s buffet was laid out in a heart shape. At first, Sao Noi stared in disbelief at the feast. We changed her coat, as the gold one was wet from the ride and then, ever so daintily, Sao Noi reached down and wrapped her trunk around a mango. She held on to it for several seconds and then slowly put it into her mouth… Her eyes closed as she popped the mango in her mouth and it was clear to us all that after a lifetime of hell, she at last found her heaven.

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The next day, Sao Noi had many visitors! Mahouts, housekeepers, my children and some of the elephants made a point of introducing themselves to our new arrival. Even Tong Jai and Mee Chok reached over the bars of the quarantine house to make friends! But there was one elephant in particular that Sao Noi was eagerly waiting to see – Sontaya!

Sontaya swiftly approached Sao Noi, which seemed to startle her! Once she had calmed down and enjoyed a few juicy melons, Sao Noi reached out to her long, lost friend. It was magical watching the two of them, entwine their trunks, purr and rumble, gently trace each other’s bodies with the tips of their trunks and even snuggle together. They shared a basket full of melons and in celebration, Sao Noi started throwing mud everywhere!

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Sao Noi walked through the forest, scratching on every tree, kicking up muddy holes and waving leafy branches around. Within hours of arriving at BLES, Sao Noi looked like a completely different elephant. She was free and she knew it.

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Early the next morning Sao Noi had collapsed. The BLES mahouts knew exactly what to do and worked together brilliantly and calmly as they prepared the hoist and harnesses. I stayed right by Sao Noi, whispering to her, asking her to trust in us. It is always so frightening when elephants collapse, particularly when it just days after their arrival, because we havent had time to build up their faith in us. Somehow, this is never an issue and they always know we are helping them…

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Sao Noi lay on the ground, motionless. Her breathing was laboured and her eyes were rolling. I squeezed her trunk and kept calling her name, ignoring my tears as they splashed on to her gaunt face. I was so impressed by her ability to remain calm, despite all the panicked voices and kept on telling her to be strong.

Once the mahouts had everything in place, we stood around her and started telling her to stand. As we did, some of the mahouts pulled on the hoist and Sao Noi, understanding what she needed to do, heaved her body up as much as she physically could manage. She was sitting on her belly, but kept falling down again. If the mahouts had not been there to keep her upright and support the weight of her head, I dont think she would of made it. We waited a couple of minutes for Sao Noi to regain her strength and tried again. More pulling on the hoist, lots of encouragement from us and an unbelievable inner strength from Sao Noi, got her back on her feet!

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The mahouts cheered and clapped. I cried big tears of relief and kept telling her how proud we were of her. She looked dazed, but had a good appetite and we decided to keep the harnesses on her for a couple of hours, until she had fully recovered.

That same day, Sao Noi took herself for a walk through the grass and splashed herself down with fresh, cool water. None of us could believe she had bounced back so quickly. Clearly, there is a lot of life left in that old body yet!

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Thank you, to each individual who helped get Sao Noi to BLES. You have given a gift that will never stop giving to this little elephant. Your involvement has ensured the rest of her days are filled with friendship, freedom, forest, peace, love, respect and true sanctuary.

I cant wait to write my next blog, detailing the shenanigans that Sao Noi and Sontaya get up to – I have a sneaky feeling the two of them are going to be quite the pair!

On behalf of all of us here at BLES, thank you for your everlasting and unconditional support.

Thank you for saving Sao Noi xx

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Sontaya is Home!

One week ago, we launched a campaign to raise the funds to ‘Save Sontaya’, a beautiful, old elephant, working in the taxing tourism trade. Sontaya was exhausted from giving back-breaking rides to tourists in a camp in Pattaya.

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We reached out to you and asked you to share Sontaya’s story and the response was phenomenal! Sontaya’s plight was shared over 2000 times and was read by over 100,000 people. The funds for her rescue were raised in just 72 hours – I have said it before and I will say it again – BLES has the BEST supporters!

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The last couple of days have been tiring and very long, but we are beyond ecstatic to share with you that Sontaya has now arrived, safe, sound and very happy at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary – BLES!!!

We were on the road for a total of 34 hours. Fourteen of those hours, Anon spent in the truck, beside Sontaya, soothing and reassuring her, as we drove past the high storey buildings and along the heavy traffic of Pattaya, Bangkok and then Sukhothai.

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Sontaya was amazing. She remained calm throughout the journey and it was touching to see her turn towards Anon every now and then, almost as if she was asking him where we were taking her. Anon would smile up at her, stroke her face and whisper back words of comfort.

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The camp were Sontaya had spent the last two years of her life enslaved to tourism, was hectic. At least 30 coaches pulled in, in the time we spent there. Excited people poured out and ran towards the elephants who were lined up, heavy chairs strapped to their backs, swaying back and forth, hot, hungry, exhausted and stressed.

After speaking with some of the mahouts at the camp, we learnt that the mahouts earn a pathetic 20 Baht per ride. In a typical day, they can give 50 rides. This means that in one working day, which is normally 12 hours, the mahout earns an average of 1000 Baht. The reason I am sharing this information, is to help raise awareness for the mahouts that live in these camps. I honestly feel that the mahouts are just as exploited as the elephants and they are often wrongly accused of abusing the elephants in their care. A lot of these men are unable to provide for their families. They are stuck in a rut and treated appallingly by the wealthy camp owners. The mahouts are given nothing. They are not even provided with homes and so they live, with their wives and children, in squalor. Their shacks are built with old bits of scaffold that they find on building sites. There are no toilet facilities, there is no drainage system in place. Often, the mahouts are not even paid a salary. Their only source of income is the commission they earn from working their elephants into the ground.

It is unacceptable to treat any living being in such a heartless way.

So many people are quick to judge the mahouts and say they are evil for working their elephants so hard… When the mahouts are being forced to live in such impoverishment, unable to provide proper housing for their families, being treated unfairly and inhumanely – how can we expect them to be capable of compassionate care?

 The mahouts that we have dealt with over the years have usually shown a genuine love for their elephants. The owners of Sontaya were so sad to let her go. It was obvious they had fallen very deeply in love with her and I think we all shed a few tears as they blessed her, hugged her and helped us load Sontaya on to the truck.

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Sontaya is a special lady. She has such a wise and calm energy. I can not wait to watch her tired old body recover and slowly bulk up. To see her dry and flaky skin heal. To know her wounds are getting better and to observe her in the forest, as she rediscovers how to be an elephant again…

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Sontaya is safe. She will now spend the rest of her life free, in the company of our other rescued elephants and under the loving watch of our skilled and experienced mahouts. Sontaya’s life has been changed forever and we could not have saved her without you. Thank you so much, to every single person who shared Sontaya’s story and who made a donation towards her rescue. You have been a part of something incredible and as I sit here, feeling very sleepy after our epic road trip, I am full of energy and gratitude, because now is when the real journey begins – Sontaya’s journey of discovery and recovery. I am so proud to share her journey with you.

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Thank you for saving Sontaya xx

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SONTAYA NEEDS SAVING

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Look in to the eyes of this old and exhausted elephant. See the wounds on her face. Watch her as she sways from side to side, chained up next to a busy road. High storey hotels and mountains of trash surrounding her…

Her injuries, aches and pains are ignored by the hundreds of tourists clambering on to the metal chair painfully and precariously balanced on her protruding spine. Every day, this shattered old lady, stands, bracing herself as people climb all over her, as if she was some kind of scaffold. She carries them around in a circle, dragging her sore feet. The route is boring and she is depressed, but nobody sees the tears as they fill her empty eyes and roll down her hollow cheeks…

Sontaya (meaning ‘Twilight’ in Thai) is in her late fifties and this is her reality.

She is one of an estimated 4000 captive elephants in Thailand, forced to endure 12 hour days of ferrying around tourists. Food sources are limited. The heat is intense. Life is hard, but it doesn’t have to be this way….

Two weeks ago, BLES was contacted by the owners of Sontaya. They explained how tough life was for them and their elephant in the camp and asked for help. Tired of living in a constant hand to mouth existence, the owners want to retire from camp life.

BLES has an impeccable reputation within the elephant world and the fact that we are constantly contacted by the owners, wishing for a better life for their old elephants, is testimony to that.

The BLES team recently travelled down to Pattaya, to meet with the owners and examine Sontaya. Everyone agreed that Sontaya’s situation was desperate and she needed immediate retirement.

Elephants constantly collapse from exhaustion. The extreme heat, combined with lack of water, poor diet and gruelling work regimes, can and do kill elephants. Just last week it was reported that a young and relatively healthy elephant collapsed in Cambodia.

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 http://m.phnompenhpost.com/national/tourist-elephant-dies-after-collapse-angkor

We, as a global community, have the power to save Sontaya from such a shocking fate. She has served and suffered enough. Her miserable existence must end.

It is time to SAVE SONTAYA!!

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We can change the world for this elephant and her human family – will you help us?

BLES needs to secure a total of 12200 GBP – 17800 USD – 15700 Euro – 625000 Thai Baht and we need to raise the funds ASAP. Every day that passes, is another day in hell for Sontaya.

You can donate via Justgiving – https://www.justgiving.com/elephant-rescue

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via our Paypal page – https://www.facebook.com/BLESelephants/app/208195102528120/

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BLES can not save Sontaya without you. Please do not roll your eyes and turn away from this. Please do not shrug your shoulders and shake your head – you have the power to make a positive difference. So please, join us today and help raise awareness for Sontaya and all the other overworked captive elephants in Thailand. Please share Sontaya’s sad story far and wide and help us raise the funds needed. Two minutes out of your day, could change her life – now isn’t that something to feel great about?

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Trunks of love and thanks, now and forever – Katherine xx

 

 

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Ten years ago, I had a dream…

As I sit here and type this blog entry, I shake my head in disbelief. Has it really been TEN whole years?!?!

On the 7th April 2006, I moved to the small, rural village of Baan Tuek. I came here with a suitcase and a dream – to create a true sanctuary for the elephants of Thailand.

I was young and determined. I had spent the previous 18 months in the UK, founding our charity, raising funds, working a full time job and doing everything I could to prepare for my big move to build Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary – BLES.

These past ten years have been epic. BLES has gone from strength to strength and when I try and remember all that we have achieved, I feel a mixture of wonder, amazement, pride and gratefulness.

We started off with 10 acres of land and a tent – Anon, me and our four rescued dogs! Everyday we would walk the land and brainstorm ideas. We had a small team of local volunteers who helped dig, build and plant and most of those volunteers are still working with us today!

Slowly, BLES started to take shape. Everyday, I would look around me, embrace the randomness of my new, unknown life and give thanks to the Universe. We worked long, hot days, seven days a week. We were all exhausted, yet energised and excited to be a part of something so very special. Twelve months later, we officially opened BLES to the public and we havent looked back since!

Today, we provide sanctuary to sixteen rescued elephants. We have saved and secured over 750 acres of forested land and established strong, positive relationships with our local communities. BLES is a small drop in the ocean, making huge ripples. It was never my intention to be the biggest or the best. We have never been in competition with anyone and we have never cared for the politics. We avoid the dramas and trouble and instead focus our energies on empowering our mahouts, which in turn, empowers the elephants. BLES does not preach. We do not claim to be better than anyone else. We simply keep our heads down, work hard and stay true to what we believe is right. We lead by example and hope that others will want to join us in our mission to maintain a compassionate world for all the animals.

Ten years of tears, sweat, smiles, worry, work and sacrifice. Ten years of growing, learning, teaching and giving. Ten years of keeping the dream alive and always striving to improve ourselves. BLES is a work in progress and we have many more dreams to realise.

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Thank you to all our friends, old and new, for playing a part in this journey – Here’s to the next ten years and all the incredible things we will achieve together!

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Every End is A New Beginning

Life is a never ending circle of highs and lows, good and bad, sweet and sour, hot and cold… Life presents us with challenges. Life thrusts us out of our comfort zones, forcing us to face things that frighten us, but that in turn, strengthens us.

Last year, BLES went through many heartbreaking experiences. The death of our darling Naamfon, then just two weeks later, the unexpected death of our founding patriarch, Somai, paired with the agony of losing three of our dogs – all on the same sad day.

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I am not afraid to share with you that BLES hit an all time low following these tragic events. The sanctuary felt so empty and the air was filled with grief and sorrow. It felt like we would never move on from our shared mourning…

I am a firm believer in that old saying, ‘When one door closes, another will open”, but sometimes walking through a new and unknown door can be daunting.

The day after Somai passed, I was presented with a new door. Four bull elephants from our village needed saving. Ngor (70s), Nwon (60s), Moo (50s) and Sompord (30s).

FOUR BULL ELEPHANTS???

FOUR BULL ELEPHANTS!!!!!

Managing bulls in captivity is tough. They are harder to handle due to the frequent change in their hormone levels, commonly known as ‘musth’. Bulls are dangerous and finding skilled, experienced and open minded mahouts to care for bulls humanely is hard. I knew the world of ‘elephant experts’ would think we were crazy for taking in four adult bulls and a few people tried to talk us out of taking them in. But, there was no way I was going to let those boys and their owners down. We talked endlessly with the owners of the bulls and they each agreed to permanently retire the bulls and bring them to BLES.

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The bulls have been with us just over three months now and life at BLES is full again. We now provide sanctuary for 16 elephants and as challenging as that can be, it is also such a joy. It is an incredible honour to be in the presence of these magnificent bulls and their retirement is the ultimate tribute to our old boy Somai.

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It has been captivating watching Ngor and Sompord learn how to interact with the females of BLES. Ngor is particularly endearing. He takes his time, smelling and gently touching the girls. He is just as curious about them, as they are about him. This is the first time Ngor has ever been around female elephants. He allows Pang Suai and Pang Noi to lead the interactions and recently, Thong Dee has also expressed a keen interest in our old gent! Every new day, presents more surprises as our rescued elephants rediscover themselves and each other.

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Moo is a bit more laid back. He likes to watch the older females, in particular, Boon Thong and Permpoon. He always moves to wherever they happen to be grazing and keeps an eye on them. If they move, he follows and it is heartwarming to see our old ladies growing in confidence too.

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Nwon has been in musth since he arrived. He has watched the other elephants from a distance, but really his only interest right now is food – sugarcane to be exact! Nwon is the biggest of the four bulls and comes to us with a history of known aggression. We are managing his integration very slowly, always ensuring the safety of all our other elephants.

BLES is a home for ALL. We firmly believe that all life matters and strive on a daily basis to enrich the lives of all the animals in our care. We have an ever growing multi species family here at BLES, including dogs, cats, cows, tortoises, boars and now, a monkey too!

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Abu is thought to be around seven years old. She has spent her entire life trapped in a small cage that was welded shut. She arrived in the empty cage, hanging on to the sides, possibly not wanting to touch the carpet of trash that lined the bottom of it. She paced continuously and displayed signs of frustration and understandable aggression. Abu had been a pet, kept in the dark and taunted by people non stop. Her owners realised they could not meet Abu’s welfare needs and so turned to BLES for help.
Abu has now been freed of her small cage and is enjoying her huge new enclosure which is full of enrichment. The enclosure is half an acre and boasts a private pool, a high room, trees, logs, tunnels, swings, hammocks and even baby car seats!!

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The day we released Abu in to her new enclosure was life changing for us, every bit as it was for her. Again, people told us we were mad keeping a monkey, but the whole reason BLES is here is to provide and protect all beings in need. Watching Abu run her toes through the dirt for the first time in seven years reaffirmed in us that we make a pure and positive change for all the animals who find their way to us.

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Abu is now thriving and loves to sit as high as she possibly can and watch the world go by. She no longer paces or plucks out her own hair. She has ceased over grooming herself and is so busy exploring her new home, she sometimes misses the elephants as they wander by…

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As the months of 2016 roll by, I am left feeling a deep sense of pride and gratitude. Sometimes, when we are forced to face tough times, it can be hard to ever imagine feeling whole again. Well, the bulls and now Abu, have taught me that new beginnings are often disguised as painful endings. Life is a hoop of ups and downs, of heartache and happiness….

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Walk Where Your Heart Leads You…

A true friend is someone who gives you the freedom to be yourself…

The captive elephants of Nepal have always been kept in harsh conditions. The way they have been housed and managed has often been the cause of upset for many visitors and animal activists throughout the years.

I first visited the enchanting kingdom of Nepal twelve years ago and witnessed first hand the awful living conditions of their captive elephants. Front feet were constantly hobbled together and their back legs were often tethered by a short chain to a stump in the ground. Barbed wire would be wrapped around every post to prevent the elephants from scratching and possibly pushing over the stable they spent their lives in…. It was pretty horrific.

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Last week I had the absolute honour of traveling back to Nepal, to visit our dear friend Carol Buckley, Founder of Elephant Aid International (EAI). Carol has been working with the Nepali people, including government officials, elephant owners, mahouts and local animal lovers for several years now and the impact she has made to the lives of the elephants and their mahouts is astonishing.

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Having lived in Thailand for thirteen years now, I fully appreciate how challenging it can be to be to influence change within Asia. Conflicting cultures, language barriers and different work ethics can cause serious frustration and lead to a lack of patience on both sides. Carol, has found a way to overcome these obstacles and as a result, she shines.

The people of Sauraha adore Carol. They affectionately call her their ‘Sister’ and it is clear to see the pride they have for her. Carol has to date, freed over seventy captive elephants from heavy, short chains and by freeing the elephants, she has gained the trust and respect of the Nepali people.

During our time in Nepal, we were able to visit several facilities and see the benefits of Carol’s Chain Free Corrals. The elephants were free – free from pain, free from their shackles and free to simply and beautifully, be.

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It was all very impressive and incredibly inspiring. But, there was one elephant in particular who stole my heart and restored my hope for the captive elephants of Asia. Her name was Mal Kali and after almost seventy years in chains, she was retired and released in to 932 km2 of protected land – The Chitwan National Park.

Last year, Mal Kali collapsed. Her mahouts assumed she was dying, but Carol, with four decades of elephant management under her belt, knew Mal Kali just needed some support and compassionate care. Carol worked hand in hand with the vets and mahouts to help Mal Kali regain her strength and stand. It was decided there and then, that Mal Kali would be retired from her duties of patrolling the parks, as she was too thin and weak to cope with the stress.

Carol established a rehabilitation program and Mal Kali quickly began to thrive. She gained weight and reclaimed what should have always been hers – her freedom.

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Mal Kali now spends every day, all day, roaming through the long grass and forested land of Chitwan. At approximately 4.30pm, she makes her way back, walking through the streams and river, towards the facility she has always known as home. The mahouts wait there for her to arrive and prepare a huge pot of cooked rice, mixed with salt and molasses to supplement her diet, which she hoovers up in record time! This adorable old elephant is blind in one eye and has worn her teeth down to nothing. But thanks to the combined efforts of Carol and the caring mahouts, Mal Kali is strong and possibly the happiest elephant I have ever met.

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We watched her walk slowly, at her own comfortable pace, through the tall grass. She paused at the edge of the river to enjoy a refreshing drink and then continued to make her way towards her old friends – the mahouts. She looked magnificent as the setting sun illuminated her round body and it was unbelievable to see her, independently chose to spend the night with her old work buddies, as they rested in the chain free corrals, constructed by Carol.

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Carol has lead by example and worked with the mahouts to give Mal Kali the best of both worlds. By day, she is wild – roaming and grazing, enjoying her freedom of choice. By night, she is captive, appreciative of having a safe place to rest her achey bones and the company of her human and elephant companions alike.

Standing in the almighty presence of Mal Kali, watching her and her attentive mahouts, has in turn given me a gift – Hope.

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It is my greatest hope that all captive elephants can be retired and released just like Mal Kali. This is what we strive for at BLES and this is why we work tirelessly to secure acres of forested land for our rescued elephants here in Thailand.

From the depths of my awakened soul, I salute Carol and all she has achieved for the elephants of Nepal. I thank the Nepali people for their grace and gentleness and am grateful to them for opening their hearts and welcoming us in to their homes. But most of all, I am thankful to Mal Kali for teaching and trusting us. For embracing her freedom and sharing it with us…

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As this year comes to an end, there is only one thing left to say – Nameste

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The Circle of Life…

Life is a circle of happiness, sadness, hard times and good times: It is the circle of life that moves us through despair and hope, through faith and love, until we find our place in this crazy world of ours…

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To say it has been an eventful couple of months would be an understatement! It feels like it has been a non stop whirlwind of emotions lately. We have had highs and we have had a lot of lows, but throughout it all, we have had each other and that is the one constant thing that keeps us united, strong and undeterred – we are family – you are a part of our family and when you hold hands with us, you become a part of our never ending circle of strength – every crisis faced together, makes our circle stronger.

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All of us here at BLES are still haunted by our most recent losses – Naamfon, Hugh, Peanut Butter, Marmite and Somai… I firmly believe that losing a loved one, no matter how long they have touched your lives, no matter what life form they take on, is one the toughest things to come to terms with. My grief comes in waves. I have had moments of feeling ok, feeling like I have put the pain well and truly behind me, but then a certain sound or smell will reignite a memory and I will turn, believing I will see one of those beautiful faces beside me again, that they haven’t really left us…. And then it starts all over again – the tears fall, my heart hurts and I’m left feeling empty and confused…

The past hurts. You can run from it or learn from it…. Whichever path you chose, you have to keep going. There are beings depending on you, looking up to you and turning to you for strength and guidance. You can not let them down. Right?? Wrong!! I saw a very simple quote just days after losing our boys and it has really helped me move on from the angst. “You have to feel it, to heal it” – YES, you really do.

Many of you have been asking after Pang Tong, Lom and Mee Chok since the sudden passing of our patriarch here at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary – BLES, three weeks ago.The truth is, these three elephants, Somai’s family, are heartbroken and showing signs of sadness and grief…

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Lom has broken away from Pang Tong, seeking friendship and comfort from Thong Dee and Boon Thong, as well as spending an increased amount of time on her own.

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Pang Tong, has lost some weight and shows little interest in grazing out in the forest. She seeks out Phi Lor, her trusty mahout of nine years and stays close to him during our daily walks… It is very upsetting to see Pang Tong, who has always been so strong, powerful and protective, showing signs of unhappiness and we hope that time will help ease her heartache.

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Mee Chok has become highly aggressive and has been attacking both Pang Tong and Lom, stabbing them with his one long tusk. Neither of the girls will push back on him and again, it is so sad to see this disruptive behaviour from our youngest elephant.
Somai was a stable role model in Mee Chok’s life and always kept him in his place. Now, Mee Chok has lost that fatherly figure and it is obvious to us all, he is not sure how to behave now… Mee Chok has been spending an increased amount of time with Tong Jai, but Tong Jai does not have the same level of patience that Somai did.

Needless to say, we are taking each day as it comes and helping each other move through the grief that still consumes us all.

Somai was such an almighty and awesome bull and his presence is still hugely missed. The loss of Somai feels raw and very real for us all here and we want to thank you all for sending messages of condolences and support. They really do help ease the pain.

The day that Somai passed, there was a dragonfly that hovered around his body, until he was buried. Since Somai’s burial, many of us have noticed and commented on the increased population of dragonflies around BLES.
In the photo below, you can see a dark red dragonfly resting on the wire of the day enclosure… Pang Tong and Lom appear to be looking at the dragonfly…. Make of that what you will, but we are sure the girls could feel Somai’s energy from the dragonfly. He is with us, he surrounds us and Somai’s legacy will live on through our newest project – The Friend’s of Somai Initiative (Save the Bulls of Baan Tuek). You can read all about it here – https://blesele.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/the-bulls-of-baan-tuek/

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We are so thankful to all of you who believe in the Friend’s of Somai initiative just as much as we do and helped us reach our fundraising goal in record time. Together, you have enabled us to offer a forever home to four elderly bulls who’s futures were bleak, until BLES reached out to them.

We have been busy preparing for the arrival of Nwon, Ngor, Moo and Sompord and are ready to walk with them through the forest between the village of Baan Tuek and BLES on the 1st December!

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Our most recent rescue, Pretty Permpoon, has literally gone from strength to strength these past few weeks. Permpoon arrived on the 21st October a broken old lady. Unwilling to trust, she would shove us away and refuse to accept our offerings of love and understanding.  With ten years of experience under our belt, we all knew exactly what Permpoon needed. She was in need of time, emotional support, unconditional respect and freedom and that is precisely what she got.

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Yesterday, I sat on the bank by the river and watched some of our elephants play in the water. They grazed on the thorny bushes sprouting all around and took great pleasure in throwing large amounts of wet and sloppy mud all over their heads and backs. The sun was beaming down and the sky was once again alive with dragonflies. As I sat, smiling and watching, one elephant in particular caught my eye. She walked slowly, but confidently from one side of the bank to the other, passing several of our other rescued elephants as she did. She stopped briefly to exchange trunk touches with Boon Thong and then stood with her feet in the river. She remained motionless for a few minutes, as if she was breathing in the stillness. She then reached in to the water and sucked up a trunk full of glorious mud and threw it over her back, lifting her trunk high in to the air and smiling as she did. The minutes melted in to hours and Permpoon continued to cover her old bones with the river water. Thong Dee joined in and stood beside Permpoon echoing her movements and immersing herself in the joy of freedom. Boon Thong watched on from the shade of the huge bamboo bushes and Pang Suai and Pang Noi gazed over occasionally  from across the river as they grazed on long fresh blades of grass.  Wassana, Lotus and Pang Dow interrupted the quiet chorus of the birds with their squeaks and grumbles of joy from around the corner, as they splashed and thrashed around in the river and for a minute, I put down the camera, closed my eyes and welcomed the tears that fell. For the first time, in what has felt like the longest time, they were not tears of grief or sadness. They were tears of delight, tears of peace. They were tears full of love, pride and the realisation that life, despite it’s tragedies, does in deed, go on….

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The Bulls of Baan Tuek

I would like to take you on a journey through our local village, to meet some of the residents here. Baan Tuek was founded over 200 years ago and elephants have always been a rich and pivotal part of the traditional culture of this humble, rural village. Typically, the people of Baan Tuek are farmers, growing crops of rice, corn, pineapples, papayas and other traditional Thai fruits. The second major trade in this small village was always logging, using elephants to harvest timber, until the government installed a nationwide ban in January 1989.

In Baan Tuek, we still have a small community of retirees and four of them have turned to BLES for help. Four bull elephants, one in his seventies, one is in his sixties, one is in his fifties and one in his thirties, are all living in desperate conditions.  The owners, all of them good, kind men, have now got to the point where they can no longer afford to keep their bulls and their options are limited: They could sell the bulls to either tourism camps or logging facilities, but none of the owners want their bulls to be worked. They want them to be able to live like elephants again, to walk freely through acres of protected forested land, to swim in rivers and ponds… In a nutshell – the owners want their bulls to enjoy their retirement at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES).

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Two weeks ago, we lost our patriarch at BLES, Somai, at the impressive age of 68 years old. Somai was elderly and nobody expected him to live as long as he did. On the day of his burial, I asked Phi Sot, who had faithfully cared for Somai until his dying day, why he thought Somai had lived so long. Phi Sot’s answer was touching and inspiring – “Because he was able to live like a real elephant again…”

Phi Sot’s poignant words have been stirring in my soul ever since and it feels like Somai’s passing has opened a large door for BLES, to unite with the bulls of Baan Tuek and provide them with protection and peace during the last chapters of their captive lives.

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Seedor Ngor is seventy and has always been a logging elephant. His fragile body shows  scars typical of a young strong bull, possibly overworked in the ludicrous logging industry, many years ago. When I first moved to Baan Tuek, over 10 years ago, I remember meeting Ngor and being impressed by his bulk. Anon was helping the owner, Phi Daam, treat a badly infected leg wound, caused by another bull in the village. As I watch Anon and Phi Daam flush the leg wound, I found myself being in awe of the closeness between the three of them. Ngor placed complete trust in his owner and the owner clearly had faith in Anon. There was a unique energy embracing us then and that has remained embedded in my heart all these years on.

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Phi Daam lives alone, as his wife died of cancer several years ago. He is hard of hearing and has never had a proper job.  All Phi Daam has ever known is elephants and logging and having owned Ngor for over twenty years, he is extremely reluctant to sell him on to a tourism camp. Phi Daam loves Ngor very much and wants the best for him. He knows that BLES is the BEST and has long been a fan of our approach to elephant care. Phi Daam has asked us to take in Ngor, so we can give him back what should have always have been his – his freedom.

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Seedor Nwon is in his sixties and is blind in one eye. He has lived in the village for nearly thirty years and like Ngor, has been worked hard in the trade of timber. Nwon’s owner was electrocuted in a powerful storm four years ago. The owner’s family was determined to keep hold of Nwon, who was considered a member of their family and a close family friend, who also had his own elephant, agreed to take on Nwon and take care of him on a day to day basis. That family friend was Phi Nit and his promise to the family has enabled an unlikely friendship to arise between Nwon and his elephant, Seedor Sompord.

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Sompord is in his thirties and Phi Nit bought him from the northern province of Lampang as an energetic fifteen year old elephant. For the past fifteen years, Phi Nit and Sompord have participated in any work they could find – parades, illegal logging and they even did a stint of time in a local tourist camp.

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Sompord has one leg shorter than the others and was born this way, so any physical labour involving carrying heavy loads, such as tourists for example, would have been detrimental to his health and wellbeing.

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Two years ago, Sompord suddenly became very ill. BLES contacted the elephant hospital in Lampang and paid for the transportation of Sompord to the hospital, so that he could receive life saving treatment. We have maintained a very strong relationship with Phi Nit ever since and are delighted that he has once again, felt able to turn to us for our help.

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Seedor Moo is in his fifties and is a gentle giant!! His owner, Phi Jud is a lovely man and talks non stop about his ‘brother’ Moo and all his funny habits and quirks. These two have been together for the last fourteen years and when Phi Jud first came to us to tell us he was having to sell Moo to a logging camp, he literally broke down in tears and begged us to help him.

We have been having meetings with all the owners in the village for several months now, discussing how we could best help support them and take care of their elephants. Now, two weeks after the great loss of our beloved Somai, we are excited to announce the launch of our new venture to further help our community, in his everlasting memory – The Friends of Somai Initiative!

BLES has agreed to take in and fully care for these four needy bulls – Ngor, Nwon, Sompord and Moo and employ their owners to be mahouts at BLES. By leasing these bulls, we are ensuring a livelihood for the owners and reducing the amount of stress involved when an elephant has to deal with a brand new mahout. Their transition to BLES life will flow with ease and we will also be able to offer them a high standard of health care, experienced husbandry skills and a loving approach to their welfare needs. BLES  will walk with the bulls through the village, to BLES, which is a distance of 8km. We are eager to welcome the bulls and their owners, but this is going to be a huge financial undertaking and we really do need your help to accomplish this.

BLES has promised to pay 20 000 Baht a month (365 GBP or 555 USD) per elephant. This is 80 000 Baht (1458 GBP or 2217 USD) a month for them collectively and we are aiming to raise the first three months of funds needed as soon as we possibly can.

We have set up a very easy to use Justgiving page for you to make your donations and hope you will share the link far and wide and help us help the last few remaining bulls of Baan Tuek – https://www.justgiving.com/bulls4bles/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=fundraisingpage&utm_content=bulls4bles&utm_campaign=pfp-share

 You can also send a donation via our website -blesele.org and add the comment ‘BULLS’.

The day Somai passed, I was desperately looking everywhere for ‘his’ butterfly. (Those of you who have followed BLES through the years, will know that I firmly believe all our elephants have a butterfly that symbolises their souls). These butterflies stay on the bodies of the elephants when they have passed and normally only fly away, once the burial begins. Well, Somai did not have a butterfly. There was a dark red dragonfly that hovered around Somai’s body and as I watched it dance around him, I smiled and understood his presence: The dragonfly, in almost every part of the world symbolises change and self realisation. The dragonfly can also represent the understanding of the deeper meaning of life. Thais believe that dragonflies are messengers from the spirit world, to the human world and that they carry their messages on their wings. In those moments of angst, sat next to Somai’s lifeless body, I did not understand the message, but I do now…

On a recent trip in to the village to follow up with the four bulls and their owners, I took a moment to look up in to the sky. The sun was just beginning to set and the warm, rusty coloured sky was alive with dragonflies! They soared through the air above us and all around us and for a few minutes, I stood hypnotised by them all. Call me crazy, but I just know those dragonflies were Somai’s way of letting us know we had his blessing…

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We can not thank you enough for your constant support and on behalf of the Bulls of Baan Tuek, we wish to express our deepest gratitude for your kind contributions towards The Friends of Somai Initiative.