25 October 2014
A BIG surprise for you all! Every ounce of my body is buzzing as I put pen to paper and get ready to announce some very big and majorly exciting news…… BLES HAS SAVED ANOTHER ELEPHANT!!!!!!
Last month, BLES was contacted by the owners of an elderly elephant, who was giving rides in a tourist camp in Pattaya. The owners knew of us as we had saved an elephant from the same camp three years previously, her name was Somsri, she was 70, exhausted and incredibly ill. You can read her story here.
The elephant we had been contacted about was a 63 year old female called Naamfon (rain water). Her owners knew she was too old and too tired to continue working in the camp and so wanted to retire her. They had found her ten years earlier, being abused and overworked by an illegal logger in the south of Thailand and had fallen deeply in love with her. They wanted to help her, but didn’t have the funds to buy her, so they took out a loan and have spent the last ten years trying to pay it off….
The last ten years of Naamfon’s life have been spent working in the tourism trade. This means standing in a tiny stable, which didn’t even give her enough room to turn around, chained by both her front feet, with a heavy metal chair strapped to her boney back. She stood there, often in her own filth, gently swaying side to side, while her owner waited for their names to be called over the loud speaker, indicating it was their turn to give a ride to the crowds of waiting tourists. ‘Giving a ride’ might sound like nothing, but the weight of the chairs alone can be 50kg, plus the bodyweight of two, sometimes three tourists in that chair and the weight of a mahout on her neck . You are looking at an average weight of 250kg, on the back of an animal that might look big and strong, but elephants were not designed to carry huge loads on their backs. This type of intense and heavy work, for 8 to 10 hours every single day, for years on end, can and does break an elephant’s back. It cripples them and kills them. It might seem like 20 minutes of innocent fun for unknowing travellers, but by riding an elephant around the camps, you are contributing to a life time of pain, cruelty and misery….
Once we had met with Naamfon’s owners and discussed the situation, we agreed to help them. They were still struggling to pay back the money they had borrowed to buy her in the first place and they knew they couldn’t continue to work her on at the pace they needed to to earn enough money to survive. Selling her and using the funds to clear their debt once and for all was the only option. They were heartbroken to see her go and cried when they watched the truck leave, but they thanked us repeatedly and told us they knew we would take the best care of her. They also told us, they did not want Naamfon to go anywhere else. The word seems to be getting around in the elephant community in Thailand that BLES is the best place for elderly elephants to be retired. We are now being approached by more and more owners, asking us to help them and their elephants. This is such an exciting achievement for BLES, as Anon and I have worked for many years now, sticking true to our morals, keeping our heads down and always putting the welfare of the elephants first. Working with the elephant owners, helping them as well as the elephants, has always been the focus of what we do and it means a lot to us, that the elephant community are now confident to turn to us and ask for our help.
The BLES team arrived in Pattaya just before sunrise on the 23rd October. We met with Naamfon, fed her and spent time watching her. We had brought one tonne of bananas in our truck to donate to all the elephants in the camp – they didn’t last long!!
Whenever we travel to elephant camps, I always sort through my children’s clothes and toys and bring as much as I can to give out to the mahout communities. The mahouts are often poorly paid, live in terrible conditions and are treated unfairly by the owners/managers of the camps. Motivation is low and despite being some of the kindest people I have been fortunate to meet, they are some of the most misunderstood and wrongly represented. This time, I was able to bring a huge sack full of children’s clothes, some of my clothes and I also gave the children in the camp lots of cartons of milk. The women were touched and thankful and we spent a lot of time discussing the trials and tribulations of motherhood!
Once we had handed over the funds to the owner and the drivers had rested, we loaded Naamfon on to the truck. She was resistant at first and panicked by all the shouts from the camp mahouts. Anon, walked over and said he would handle her. He stroked her face for a few minutes, telling her to stay calm and asked if he could mount her. She happily lifted her foot for him to mount and then responded beautifully to his every request. Anon spoke in low, soothing tones to her. At one point, one of the mahouts handed Anon a bullhook, but Anon shook his head and told the mahout he didn’t need it. The mahouts from the camp watched Anon in amazement as he singlehandedly worked with Naamfon to gain her trust and get her safely on to the truck.
Once Naamfon was on the truck, we wrapped her up in our elephant coat. This coat was especially made for BLES by some kind hearted supporters. It is waterproof, quilted and perfect for protecting an elephant from the harsh winds when travelling in a truck. We had laid out bananas for her and wrapped soft blankets around her support frame, so that she didn’t scuff her head and cause herself injuries.
We said our goodbyes to everyone in the camp, exchanged hugs and extended invitations to them all to come and visit Naamfon and then we were on our way!
Naamfon remained calm throughout her journey. She would occasionally lift her trunk to smell the air and we all wondered what she was thinking as she breathed in all the new and different smells. 12 hours later, we arrived at BLES, just as the sun was rising on a brand new day.
Naamfon walked off of the truck easily and straight on to our newly built loading bay and then turned to enter our brand new quarantine area where there was the most spectacular Welcome Home buffet waiting for her!
Naamfon seemed bewildered as she explored every corner of the quarantine area. She saw the fruit feast laid out and waiting for her, but wouldn’t go and eat it until Phi Sot lead her over and told her she could. She slowly picked up a bunch of perfectly yellow bananas, paused, and when nobody tried to stop her, she put them all in her mouth, closed her eyes and savoured each and every bit. She took another and another bunch and then we handed her a pineapple. She stared at it and blinked a couple of times and then slowly reached out for it. Again she paused, as if waiting for a scolding, but when that didn’t come, she put the whole pineapple in her mouth, closed her eyes and popped it with her powerful jaw!
We stood back and watched her. There was myself, Anon my husband, Hope and Noah, two of my children, Evelyn, my mum, Sarah Blaine, my good friend and the founder of Mahouts Foundation and Peter Yuen, world renowned wildlife photographer. As we stood in silence, smiles on our faces, we all simultaneously drew our breath and said, ‘Did you see that’?? A large tear had rolled down Naamfon’s face and down her trunk. And then there was another and another…. Then, Naamfon gently selected a sweet banana, wrapped her trunk around it, closed her eyes and lowered her head. She stood there, still as a statue for almost a minute, holding on to this one banana…. We stood, wide eyed, almost in disbelief – was she praying? Was she giving thanks? Who knows. But one thing was very clear, she was sharing an emotional moment with us.
Naamfon has lived a hard life. She has had every move dictated to her and has probably never been given the freedom to make a decision for herself. She is nervous and when the Gossip Girls came up to say hello, she moved away and stood in the distance, peering at them from around a tree. It will take Naamfon time to adjust to her new life. There is a lot for her to get used to here, but luckily for Naamfon, we are experienced in helping elephants recuperate from their previous lives. We will not push her to make friends. We will take things at her pace and let her show us when she is ready to start interacting with our other elephants. We will, as we always do, work on elephant time.
I will end now, but not before I have told you all how very proud we are to have had your support, both financially and emotionally. Your donations are what made it possible for us to respond to Naamfon’s owner’s cries for help and all of us here at BLES want to extend the biggest and loudest trumpet of thanks to each and everyone of you for enabling us to succeed in this rescue. Special thanks to Louise Rogerson, founder of EARS for her continued support, friendship and for funding the travel of Peter Yuen, so that he could capture the realities of an elephant rescue.
Naamfon, you beautiful girl, welcome to our family. We love you and will do everything in our power to protect you, respect, love, and cherish you. To listen to you and tend to your individual needs and offer you the understanding that has been lacking from your life until now. We are your friends and will not hurt you. Naamfon, you are now and forever safe in our arms.
Trunks of thanks for your support,
Katherine and the elephants xx