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Bua Ngun the City Elephant – Retirement after 65 years

Elephants are originally wild animals; most of us know this I think. But in Thailand over 2,000 individuals are actually captive animals, most of them were born in the wild living with a herd of their own in lush forests, green grass areas and lakes and river to bath in. These wild animals normally live up to 80 years in herds in the wild and have a reasonable happy live as long as they can stay away from their own enemy and predator, humans. This story is about one of the unfortunate elephants from Thailand, for who the tide has turned this week.

I want to introduce to every one “Bua Ngun” or “Silver Lotus” a 65 years old female elephant that has spend only two years with her mother in the wild and was then taken from her mother to end up as a working tool for humans. Bua Ngun was trained to destroy her own home; she became a logging elephant on the Thai-Cambodian border. We do not know much more than this about her first years with humans but we can still see the scars of many years of hard work on her body. She never grew to a full size elephant and her legs and back is bend due to the hard work she performed. We do know that she ended up after the logging ban in Thailand at several elephant camps in Bangkok, Ayuthaya and Pattaya where she had to take foreign and Thai tourists on her back for many more years to make a living for her owner and in the last two years ended up as a begging elephant on the streets of provincial cities, again to provide an income for her owner. Knowing that she is now 65 years old and that she was taken for the wild in her second year we can say that she has done more than that would have been good for her, over 60 years of forced hard labor, which has left scars on her, both physical and mental you would think.

Physically she did suffer and still is, we can still see many wounds; new and old ones some healed a long time ago and some are recent ones. Some abscesses are in urgent need of treatment and she walks with a lot of pain. We decided that we needed to help her, and fast! Keeping her with her owner in Burirum province and treat her there was one option. Taking her to the nearby Elephant Hospital in Surin a second option, but she had spend already several weeks there and she did not get any better. The last option was to take her to our rescue center. But our rescue center is 700 kilometers away, a trip of at least 12 hours on top of a ten-wheel truck. Would she be strong enough to get on to the truck and stand there for 12 hours?

Sometimes you need to take some risk for the better and in this case we quickly contacted the Livestock Department who oversee the licenses for moving elephants from province to province and explained the need for treatment. Luckily the officials at Livestock were able to quickly issue all documents within two hours, which time we used to prepare for the moving of Bua Ngun, getting her to bathe, find food and find a large enough truck. By noon on Friday the 13th of November 2009, she was ready to go, but would she get up on the truck? Would she be strong enough for the long journey? And last but not least how could we compensate the owner for the loss of his elephant (when treatment goes well we would not like to see her go back to work) and find funds for the transportation and treatment? I remembered that Geert Drieman and Elleke van Renesse from Holland, some long time friends of the WFFT and myself, said to me a year ago that they would love to help an elephant one day as they felt so bad about the faith of these elephants. It was worth a try and after talking to them they said they were more than happy to provide the funds for the rescue and retirement of this beautiful old lady “Bua Ngun”…. Friday the thirteenth was going to be the best day of her life; she was going to retire for once and forever.

At a little past 12 we were going to start with the first attempt to get her on to the big truck, and something happened that I would not have believed if I didn’t see this for myself. Bua Ngun went to the backside of the truck and without any hesitation she put her first leg on the truck and lifted herself in to the truck as if she knew this would be the last time she would have to. Within 5 minutes they were ready to go on a twelve hour trip.

The trip went well; Bua Ngun hardly moved on the truck and ate all the food that was put up there for her. She must have had trouble standing up there so long but she didn’t complain even once, and when she arrived at our center a bit after midnight she stepped down from the truck, being a bit wobbly, and walked slowly down to the elephant corral where volunteers had prepared about 100 kilos of food for her, fresh foods, pineapple plants and more, which she had all finished by the morning!

Later that day Lucy and Tao started together with a vet volunteer Mina Connor to treat her wounds and she was easy to handle. The treatment will take some time and she also needs to gain weight, but we are sure eventually she will get a lot better as she is in good spirits. It is so strange to see an animal that has been so much abused to still love people. Whether this is forgiveness or not, we can learn so much from these majestic animals about so many things.

Young elephants are still taken out of the wild every day to end up as exploitation tools for people and in particular tourists. Somehow we need to find a way to stop this. Bua Ngun will still have some quality time to spend and will never have to get on a truck again, will never have to make a ride with tourists on her back or perform tricks for people, thanks to Geert Drieman and Elleke van Renesse.

Geert and Elleke, Bua Ngun is waiting here to meet and thank you…
For now on her behalf, we at WFFT thank you both!

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