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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