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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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…
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!
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!
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