Thanks to my patrons and EARS Asia, I was able to join Katherine Connor, founder of Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) and Sarah Blaine, founder of Mahouts, on their mission to bring a new member into the BLES family: a 63 year-old female elephant named Naamfon ('rainwater').
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The Trekking Camp
We walk through the trekking camp in Pattaya, a typical tourist hotspot the same as many others in Pattaya and many more around Thailand.
The elephants are chained in their huts with mostly grass and pineapple plants to eat. The only baths the elephants get are sadly the same as the mahouts and their families: the occasional bucket of water. Indeed, while often vilified, many of these mahout families are here out of necessity and treat their elephants as best they can, but they cannot afford much.
Regardless, it is not a place I feel comfortable, and I am surprised tourists would enjoy the environment. Barbed wire is wrapped around the supporting posts of the huts, and elephant dung is strung up to stop the elephants from touching the posts.
We soon find Naamfon and spend the morning with her while the paperwork is finished. She is chained in her hut by her legs and her head is constantly swaying from side to side, common in stressed animals.
Naamfon has spent decades carrying tourists on her back, and working in logging before that. But before we load Naamfon onto the truck to begin her final journey home, we all want to say goodbye to one elephant that has been in our thoughts since we arrived in the early morning. A two- month old male chained to his mother, and already starting work for the tourists. This baby will not hold tourists until he is bigger and has gone through the the cruel 'breaking of the spirit' ceremony when he is around a year old. In the meantime he stays shackled to his mother as she ferries tourist around the nearby fields, commanding a higher price than lone elephants.
As babies are so valuable for their tourist draw and for the lifetime of work ahead of them, there is nothing we can do for this little one today, but there is one elephant we can take away from this life, and she is waiting for us nearby.
The hardest and most stressful part of this journey for Naamfon is getting her on the truck. This is always difficult, especially for an elephant who has been sold in to work many times over the past 63 years; to her, this means another truck to another life of chains and labour.
Naamfon does not want to climb up the dirt mound made for her, and onto the back of the truck. Three or four camp workers come to help and begin to push her in the right direction and shout commands at her, but she refuses. If she doesn't get on this truck she can't retire to BLES, a 12-hour drive across the country, but she refuses and keeps pushing through them and back towards the camp. The situation becomes tense.
More shouting, pushing and Naamfon tries to break for the camp again. As one of the men brings out a hook to try and force Naamfon to turn around, Katherine's husband (and an experienced mahout) Anon speaks to the man in Thai. "No hooks," he says, "this is our elephant now."
Anon touches the back of Naamfon's leg and she offers her foot for him to climb onto her back. As soon as he is up, he pats her head and she calms down instantly. Everyone now quiet and watching, he turns her around and she simply walks up the mud mound towards the truck.
Even with Anon's incredible connection with elephants, it was with great difficulty that she took that final step on. In what I felt was a heartbreaking admission of defeat, she let out an almighty roar as she gave up trying to turn around, and walked onto the truck. More gut wrenching still were the replies from elephants in the camp 100m away, calling back to her. Although we know she must be scared, we also know what tomorrow holds in store, so we take a deep breath and secure the truck.
The Journey Home
Naamfon sets off in her truck, and we follow closely behind. At first she is slightly stressed, swaying from side to side again, but soon enough we can see she settles down and occasionally peers over the sides of the truck. She takes an interest in a few overtaking cars. Needless to say they tended to change lanes as she waved at them with her trunk, and they certainly didn't get any tailgaters...
We drove through the night, stopping occasionally to switch drivers and for toilet breaks, with Naamfon getting food and water where possible. Eventually the highways gave way to smaller roads as dawn started to break, and the smaller roads gave way to villages. Naamfon was still doing well and so we pushed on to BLES.
Naamfon's First Day
After what seems like days but has been around 13 hours, Naamfon arrives home. Wasting no time as they don't want her to be on the truck for a second longer than is needed, The truck backs up to their brand new quarantine facility. Naamfon won't need quarantine isolation, but it gives the perfect area for her to settle down safely for a few hours without the stress of people or elephants around her.
In typical BLES style, what else could be waiting for Naamfon than a huge fruit and vegetable buffet in the shape of a heart. After a minute or two exploring the area, Naamfon waded ankle deep into the feast and chomped her way through it, slowly but surely. Pineapples, corn and bananas were her focus, loudly chomping and shuffling around for 15 minutes as we looked on.
At this point something happened that I can't quite explain. Naamfon stopped eating, rested her trunk on a bunch of bananas and let out a huge sigh. She stopped moving or chewing and we all exchanged glances, wondering what was happening. Two tears rolled down each of Naamfon's cheeks, and we left her alone.
We have all read reports of elephants crying, although I tend to avoid reading such stories. My background is in science, and I have no desire to sensationalise events like this rescue, because I believe the work of these charities is important enough to stand on its own without gimmicks. Elephants certainly can cry, but whether it is because of emotion the same as humans, we may never know for sure.
That said, all of us present felt something extremely powerful at that moment. As someone who was previously sceptical, I can tell you that my firm belief (and it is a belief) is that Naamfon's response was emotional and that she understood her situation. As she came out and explored BLES, I don't think anyone, including myself and Naamfon, had dry eyes that day.
After an eventful 24 hours, Naamfon settled down under the stars to rest by the fire. This wasn't the first time she has been sold on from a camp into a long and tiring journey across Thailand, but it will be the last.
Who really knows what she is thinking, or how much she understood about her new surroundings and this latest part of her journey through life. After 63 years, would she dare to imagine that tomorrow she will be taken into the forests of Thailand and allowed to enjoy whatever she pleases?
All we really know is that Naamfon is safe and cared for, now and for the rest of her life.
And that is enough for me.
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