Nameste Nepal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trunks of love and thanks for your compassion and support xx

‘Dhanybhad’ to my Nepali friends

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Beautiful and Strong, Boon Thong

My tears are falling fast and heavy tonight…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Welcome Sappraiwan – Jewel of the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Sweetest Elephant Ever – ‘Granny’ Thong Dee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We will always love you.

 

 

Plai Tong Jai – Forever Loved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Our Little iMac…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is where YOU come in!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Sleep deep Permpoon, our pretty, pink lady…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ngor: Our friend and brother…

It is with very mixed emotions that I write this entry… I am so sad, but I am also incredibly proud and grateful for being able to share the last 10 months with the stately Seedor Ngor.

Ngor was in his seventies and in a very delicate state when we welcomed him in to our family here at BLES, back in December 2015. We all knew his time with us would be short lived and knew that each day spent with him was a gift. Ngor astounded us all with his determination to live every day fully. Up until his very last breath, he lived in the forest, surrounded by friends, free to be a bull again… Yesterday morning, at approximately 5am, Ngor lay his old and frail body down on the ground, closed his eyes and passed peacefully away, in to his next life.

We had all noticed that Ngor had started to lose weight in the last two weeks and he was looking weaker than ever. This however did not stop him from going on our daily walks and splashing in the river. The day before he died, he impressed us all by digging up a huge bamboo shoot. He spent almost an hour devouring it, ripping it in to shreds and throwing them around before eating them. He swished his tail and flapped his ears and it was clear to see how content he was. He didnt have a care in the world. He was happy and so was his devoted friend, his owner and mahout of 27 years, Phi Dam.

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Phi Dam knew Ngor’s time was coming to an end. He tended to Ngor’s every single need and I am confident that Ngor passed away, knowing how loved and admired he was.

I have shed many tears for Ngor and Phi Dam. Their relationship was remarkable. Watching them together in the forest was so inspiring and I will miss that so much. Phi Dam would whisper to Ngor, guiding him to the softest leaves and thickest bushes and Ngor responded instinctively. Once Phi Dam knew that Ngor was comfortable, he would climb in to a tree and watch his friend graze. Phi Dam would gaze at Ngor, never taking his eyes off of him, smiling sweetly as Ngor would slowly disappear in to the dense foliage. The two of them truly understood each other and shared a mutual respect. The fact that we were able to share just a snippet of this unique bond is something I will always feel deeply thankful for.

After Ngor’s funeral, Phi Dam and I spent some time reminiscing. We smiled when we spoke of Ngor’s love to lie on his side in the river and close his eyes… We laughed when we remembered the day Pang Noi and Pang Suai accosted him and decided he would be their new friend… Then, we both wiped away tears when we talked about Ngor walking through the long grass in Heaven and finding his old friend, Somai… Phi Dam placed his hand on his heart and smiled. He thanked me for taking Ngor in and giving him the best days of his long life. He told me how proud he was that Ngor, who he calls his brother, got to be a real elephant again and said he knew Ngor would have died months ago, if it hadnt been for his time at BLES.

Although we will never see Ngor’s striking and individual face or be in his humbling presence again, I am reluctant to say he has died. Ngor lives on in our hearts and we will always celebrate the strength and dignity he graced us with until the very end. He was a friend to us all and every day shared with him was a blessing.

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Walk tall and proud Ngor… Now and forever, you will always live on in us. Thank you for allowing us in to your world. You were such a lovely old boy xx

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Bringing Nwon Back to BLES

“Home is a place where your feet might leave, but your heart will always be”….

Nwon is a sixty year old bull, who is blind in one eye. On the 1st December 2015, he was one of four bulls from our local village of Baan Tuek, to come to BLES, as part of a retirement plan. You can read all about how the four bulls, Nwon, Ngor, Mr Moo and Sompord, came to be at BLES here – https://blesele.wordpress.com/2015/11/16/the-bulls-of-baan-tuek/

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When the owners of the four bulls approached BLES and asked for our help, we knew we had to act quickly. There was no time to launch a fundraiser to buy the bulls, as their combined worth would have been a substantial amount to raise. It would have been unrealistic to raise such an ambitious amount and risky to expect the owners to wait for the funds to be raised, before bringing their bulls to BLES.

So, BLES came to an agreement with the owners, that the bulls would be leased on a permanent basis. The agreement was verbal and as I have stated before, this is how we have always and will always handle negotiations – based on trust and the belief that we are all working together for the good of the animals. I know there will be many people out there who will find this approach laughable and I understand why in your world, this management style would not be acceptable. However, the fact is, in our rural community, this is how business has always been conducted.

This method has never failed me, until very recently…

I was shocked and appalled to my core, when the owner of Nwon came to me on the morning of the 28th September 2016, to tell me that people were coming to collect Nwon and take him to Surin. I had to ask her to repeat herself three times, as I just couldnt comprehend what she was saying. After almost 12 months of BLES caring and providing for Nwon, she was going back on her word and even worse – she went behind our backs and sold Nwon.

I was confused, furious and devastated – how could she be so deceitful and not give a single thought to Nwon’s welfare? I see now, that she was only thinking about money. We will never know why she acted the way she did, but in a way, to me, none of that matters anymore, because after our most powerful fundraising campaign to date, Nwon is back at BLES – he is home.

I left BLES with my amazing team of mahouts at 4am. We were all in the one truck and it was such a bumpy ride! We laughed and chatted as the night sky faded away and the sun started to rise and I knew we were all feeling the same emotions – pride and excitement. I kept looking over at Phi Nit, who beamed back at me every time he caught my eye. He was so animated and I couldnt wait for him to be reunited with Nwon again.

It took us 16 hours to get to Surin. We were achey and exhausted, but eager to see our boy. We walked out, through the small village, towards a grassy area. Nwon was there, secured beside a lake and he looked well. I had been so nervous as we neared Surin, wondering what kind of state Nwon would be in. Worrying that he would be wounded… I was so relieved to see Nwon look strong, calm and content. His owners had taken good care of him and there was not a single injury or scar on him.

Phi Nit walked straight up to Nwon and wrapped his arms around Nwon’s front leg. He held on to him for several minutes and as I watched him with tears in my eyes, I realised he was crying too. Phi Nit then rubbed Nwon down and kept reaching up to Nwon’s face, talking to him the entire time. Nwon, who had been happily eating, froze and then started smelling Phi Nit and purring. He shook his head and roared and it was one of the most spectacular sights. Nwon remembered his old friend, Phi Nit and was clearly very happy to see him. Phi Nit walked towards me, wiping big tears from his eyes and thanked me for bringing Nwon home. He told me he loved him very much and would never leave his side… I hadnt realised until that moment, that the Bring Nwon Back to BLES campaign, wasnt just about bringing Nwon back home, it was about bringing back two friends, who had been cruelly separated… The love that Phi Nit has for Nwon is beautiful.

It took us all day to get the paperwork sorted out. Once everything was in place, the owners prepared a big dinner for us to celebrate Nwon’s journey back home.

Nwon walked on to the truck easily and he remained calm and patient throughout the 14 hour drive back to BLES.

As we were driving up the road to BLES, I opened the window, to smell the morning air. The sun was rising and I looked up at Nwon behind me and he was also smelling the air. I could feel his deep purrs and a rush of excitement shot through my body – he knew he was home!!

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We were greeted by lots of trumpets from the other elephants and as soon as Nwon was unloaded from the truck, he started grazing and dusting himself down. Phi Nit then led him to the hose, so he could have a cooling drink. Nwon’s trunk was high in the air again and I knew exactly what he was thinking – “Where are my girls?”

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We had prepared a huge welcome home buffet for Nwon and as soon as he started to enjoy it, Pang Suai and Pang Noi came hurriedly down the hill and greeted their old friend with lots of gentle touches and purrs. The three of them stood, shoulder to shoulder, eating all the different fruits that had been laid out in a heart shape for them.

I sat on the grass watching them and once again found myself wiping away tears. Tears of pride, relief, joy and exhaustion. This was an epic and emotional journey. From the moment I announced Nwon’s departure from BLES, to launching the fundraiser, to driving through the night to Surin, to seeing Phi Nit and Nwon being reunited, to being in the grass, at BLES watching Nwon live like a real elephant again… Every sleepless night, every critical comment, every stress filled minute – it was ALL worth it. I love what I do and will never stop fighting for a compassionate world.

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I can not thank everyone who played a part in bringing Nwon home to BLES enough. We would never have been able to liberate Nwon without you and your incredible support. Once again, the BLES family has proved what can be accomplished when a community of kind hearted and like minded people, come together. I am so proud of you all. I am so proud of Phi Nit, but most of all, I am so, so, so, proud of our beautiful old boy, Nwon.

Welcome home darling boy… We are your forever home now, your sanctuary and you are so loved xx

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