Katherine’s Journal

13 September 2014

Permpoon update

It is difficult to know where to start this entry. I am still trying to make sense of recent events in my own head…

On the 26th August 2014, I posted about a beautiful elephant that BLES was preparing to welcome in to our loving and protective arms. Her name was Permpoon, she was 52 years old and was very weak. Permpoon started off her working life as a timber elephant here in our village of Baan Tuek and was then sold in to the tourism trade in the early 90’s. Permpoon had been trucked around the country, from one trekking camp, to another, where she was forced to carry tourists on her back and walk on her sore feet until the sun had set. The owners of Permpoon had gone to a lot of effort to contact us directly. They wanted to retire their elephant and had heard wonderful things about the work that BLES does.

On the 30th July 2014, Our local government vet approached us, saying that there was an elderly elephant in Phuket and the owner really wanted us to go and see her. Due to commitments at BLES, we were unable to travel down immediately. However, after a three day conference on elephant health in Lampang, organised by the Thai government, Anon and I flew down to Phuket to follow up on the call. We arrived in Phuket on the 16th August and went, with a cameraman and some good friends of ours, straight to the camp to see Permpoon. We spent most of the day at the camp, talking with the owners. They were hospitable and grateful to us for buying a truck load of treats for Permpoon and the other elephants at the camp. Anon and I checked over the paperwork and called the government vets in Lampang, with her microchip number, so they could double check her information. A reasonable price was agreed and the owners told us they were going to put the funds we would give them, in exchange for Permpoon, in to saving accounts for their adult children and grandchildren.

BLES, as I am sure you all know, is a very small organisation and we work and live on a shoestring. We did not have funds to hand to put down a deposit, but the owners assured us this was not a problem and we had a sure deal. We all left the camp feeling elated and excited about the imminent rescue. Anon remained in regular touch with the owners. He phoned them several times a week, asking if they wanted us to transfer a down payment to them and every time they said no. I needed to raise the funds to cover the transportation costs and launched a fundraiser on Facebook. Everyone had taken Permpoon in to their hearts and dug deep to make sure we had all the funds we needed to transport Permpoon safely. A film crew from the UK were eager to fly over and film Permpoon’s journey. My mum booked her flights as well as the founders of two elephant welfare organisations that BLES works very closely with. Everyone was overjoyed and wanted to be involved with Permpoon’s rescue. We had organised for a professional photographer to come and document the entire rescue and I booked and pre paid for the truck that would carry Permpoon throughout her journey. I had found a lovely, kind and compassionate mahout and had even found a supporter to sponsor his first three month salary. We had mapped out the entire journey and had arranged to stop off at the Kps Kampangsan hospital to give Permpoon a rest and a medical examination. With everything finalized, the date for Permpoon’s rescue was set — 18th September.

On the 6th September, another organisation visited Permpoon and despite the owners telling the organisation that Permpoon was not for sale, they made the owners an attractive offer. The owners caved in and accepted the offer.

On the 7th September, a mutual supporter of both organisations, contacted me and asked if there had been a change of plan for Permpoon, as she had seen pictures of her, posted on a Facebook profile, not affiliated with BLES. They were pictures of Permpoon, but her name had been changed to Tubtim. I immediately contacted the founder of the organisation to explain the situation. She said she did not not know that BLES was involved. On the 8th September, Anon and I flew down to Phuket, as we had been told about a sudden decline in Permpoon’s health. We spent hours with her everyday, buying her truck loads of nutritious foods, which she really enjoyed. The other organisation had sent down a team to administer hydration fluids and with our combined efforts, Permpoon was quickly improving.

On the 11th September, the founder of the other organisation arrived and announced she would be moving Permpoon from the camp and starting her on her journey home. It was obvious, there was no consideration for us and the deal we had made prior to this organisations involvement, stood for nothing. It seemed, amongst many things, strange to Anon and I, that this organisation would truck her all the way to Chiang Mai, when a home had already been promised in Sukhothai, which is 300km south of Chiang Mai and would therefore reduce her time in the truck by several hours. Feeling very down hearted and confused, Anon and I spent some time alone with Permpoon. We wished her well and I told her to stay strong.

As disappointed as we all are to not be giving Permpoon a forever home and as upsetting as it is that all our hard work and dedicated efforts were disregarded with such a lack of respect, we are relieved to know that Permpoon will be cared for. I guess at the end of the day, it is not important, which facility was able to home Permpoon. The most important thing is that she has been retired and will be very much loved. There are thousands of needy elephants throughout Thailand and we have no intention of giving up on our mission to work with the Thais and offer sanctuary to as many elephants as we can.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for always standing by us and for taking Permpoon in to your hearts. Please join me in sending Permpoon lots of white light and well wishes, for a safe and happy future.

Trunks of thanks for your support,

Katherine and the elephants xxx

5 September 2014

Prostitutes and Puppets —

I recently spent five days in Bangkok, on a research trip. I was with the founders of two well known and respected elephant welfare organizations and a world renowned wildlife photographer. The intention of our trip was not to judge, cause trouble or upset. We genuinely wanted to educate ourselves about the phenomenon known as elephant polo. I think it is fair to say we all arrived at the event open minded. Having read the information on http://www.anantaraelephantpolo.com I believed, like most members of the public, that all the working elephants and mahouts were in for a treat — good food, medical care, some TLC…

As soon as we arrived, we witnessed an elephant training for the polo. Nails and hooks were being used on a clearly distressed and confused young female elephant and blood was dripping down her temples. The mahout was not sure what the player on his back wanted and in his uncertainty and frustration, began simultaneously tugging at her inner ear with his hook and stabbing her in the forehead with a nail. The elephant started to move backwards, throwing her head side to side, until the mahout eventually lead her off the field and the player dismounted. I have to admit, we were immediately baffled. Having read the website and media available where it clearly stated that, “The elephants receive no specific training to play polo” and “The health and welfare of the elephants used in the TEPA tournaments is of prime concern. Abuse of an elephant is considered to be the most serious offense.” We began to question if the information provided was in fact true.

We wanted to see the “Surrounding natural forest” were the elephants were being kept over night and so took a walk down the road opposite the polo field entrance. Approximately 20 meters along the straight road, we found elephants tied up on chains less than 2meters long. A few of them had their feet tied together and were standing in their own filth. All they had to eat were small piles of dried up pineapple heads, despite it clearly stating on the website, “ Each elephant participating in the tournament is fed 20 stems of bananas, 50 sticks of sugarcane and 10 pineapple plants a day”. They had no water and were kept at a distance where they were unable to touch each other. All 32 elephants were kept in a barren field or on the pavement, right next to the road. We asked the mahouts about the, “natural forest”. They laughed and pointed to the field… Another far cry from what the general public had been led to believe through press releases promoting elephant polo.

We sat down and started to chat with the mahouts. All of them confirmed they were retired elephants, that did not work. They told us they had travelled from Surin the previous night and were staying in Bangkok for a total of five days. As soon as the polo tournament was over, they would load their elephants in the trucks and drive them straight back home. Five days. How could this be possible, when on the info boards displayed around the field, it clearly stated that the elephants were taken “off the busy streets and tourist areas and allowed to be elephants for at least two weeks of the year”. It became apparent that none of these elephants had been taken from an abusive situation. They had actually, been placed in one.The mahouts were sleeping along side their elephants, on the pavement, in tents. For two consecutive nights, Bangkok was hit with torrential storms, which flooded parts of Bangkok, including the mahout’s ‘living’ quarters. When this was brought to the attention of one of the event organizers, there did not seem to be any concern for the mahouts at all.

Another fact we quickly realized was fiction, was the origin of the elephants. On most of the material related to elephant polo, it was stated that the elephants selected to participate in the polo were used to “working ten hours a night on the streets or five hours a day in a trekking camps”. Having lived in Thailand for almost 13 years now, I am fluent in Thai. Every single mahout we spoke with, confirmed they were non working elephants from a village in Surin. When we asked if their elephants worked, they repeatedly said no. We did not speak with all 32 mahouts, but we did speak with a number of them, who all spoke to us openly.When talking with the event organizers, we were told the elephants were all from trekking camps in Pattaya. We were confused. Everything we were being told was conflicting. So, all of the elephants selected to play elephant polo, had been removed from their homes and families and put in to an intensely un natural and highly stressful environment.To put it another way, these 32 elephants were being prostituted and all in the name of sport.The more we looked around, the more we realised all the particulars relating to the elephant’s welfare and wellbeing, were made up and misleading.

In the booklet handed out in the VIP tent, it is clearly written in black and white that, “Sugar cane and rice balls packed with vitamins are given to the elephants at the end of each match, and a cold beer or soft drink to the elephants’ drivers” There was no evidence of this. In fact, the elephants had no water or food by the pitch. There was no shade provided for the elephants or mahouts. At the end of the fourth day, when the elephants had played well after dark, we hired a car and purchased 12 trays of beer for the mahouts. We brought hot dogs and snacks for the staff, who had worked relentlessly to accommodate guests and visitors, to the point they couldn’t even stop for lunch.The mahouts were speechless and touched that we, a small group of individuals, had taken the time to buy something for them. It was so important to us that these men and their families, didn’t feel they were unnoticed or unappreciated.

Members of the public often misunderstand the mahouts. They see them stabbing violently at the heads of the elephants with nails and then jabbing them with hooks. It is true, we saw a high number of elephants with bloody head wounds and deep scratches on their foreheads and necks. We witnessed elephants with blood dripping out of their ears and yes, it is true, the mahouts are the ones that inflict these painful injuries. BUT, we have to look deeper. We should be asking ourselves, why are the mahouts treating their elephants so appallingly? The fact is, playing polo is not natural for elephants and I would go as far as to say, that despite what we are lead to believe, the elephants and their mahouts, do not enjoy it.

Foreigners sit on the spine of the elephant and of course, they all want to win. It is a serious competition to them and they grab and pull at the mahouts, shouting at them to, ‘Go Go Go!’. The mahouts get stressed and confused and take out their frustration on the elephant. To put it in simple terms: If foreigners did not put pressure on the mahouts and make unreasonable demands of the elephants, the mahouts would not need to punish the elephants.To word it differently, If these elephants were really allowed to just be elephants, the mahouts would not be forced to hide nails in their hands. If we take away the demand — we take away the abuse. We got chatting with a few of the elephant polo players. A lot of them, very wealthy and successful, intelligent people. It shocked me that these high flying business people, thought it totally acceptable to force elephants to run, stop, run, stop — which is not natural activity for elephants, have nails rammed in their heads and go for at least eight hours a day without food and water. When we pushed back on some of them, we were fed the same old spin of, ‘the elephants love to play polo and the event raises lots of funds for elephants all over Thailand. These poor working elephants… It became evident, we were surrounded by puppets who just regurgitated everything they had been told by elephant polo fans, without ever thinking to question it. Disappointing to say the least.

I honestly could go on and on about the negative things we saw at the elephant polo, but I wont. I have documented the event truthfully and have taken all quotes from official sources, provided by the elephant polo organizers. I do want to thank the organizers for their hospitality. It was gratefully noted that individuals were going above and beyond to make us feel welcome and appreciated. It is just a shame that the same thoughtfulness was not extended to any of the elephants or their mahouts.

I also want to apologize. To the elephants and mahouts. I am just so sorry you have been repeatedly exploited in this distasteful way for the past 13 years. The glitz and the glamour of VIP tents etc, have done a good job until now, of masking the truth. I, and others who respect and value you, will do all we can to ensure you are not taken advantage of or abused in this shocking way again.

I welcome anyone who wishes to dispute what I have said. This blog has been sent to the elephant polo organizers and I am happy to talk through the points I have raised.

Trunks of thanks for your support,
Katherine and the elephants xx

(Photography: Peter Yuen)