As you may know, since we volunteered at Elephant Nature Park in May 2012, the foundation that runs it (Save Elephant Foundation), its people and especially the animals it cares for have become very dear to our hearts.
In late 2010, two Australians similarly volunteered and their lives immediately changed as well. During their week at ENP, Matt and Chantelle were lucky enough to participate in the rescue of Dani – yes, the very same Dani that has become my favorite in the herd – and they knew immediately that they had to raise the money to rescue their own elephant.
This is the story of their journey, told through my eyes, and the lives they touched along the way.
I met Matt and Chantelle in November on my trip to the Surin Elephant Roundup, when their fundraising efforts had already reached their goal and finally had enough money to save an elephant. In total, they raised approximately $20,000. Of course, we were all interested how they accomplished such a feat in just under 2 years. Their main campaign, Ride Bikes Not Elephants, was Matt’s 4000 km cycling adventure from Melbourne all the way up the eastern coast of Australia to Cannes, raising awareness about the perils of riding elephants at each pitstop.
Rescuing an elephant is a careful balancing act. If the purchase price is too high, the seller will simply walk away from the deal and buy another elephant. If the offer price is too low, the elephant owner won’t sell. With the help and guidance of Lek Chailert (founder of the Save Elephant Foundation), a suitable candidate was found in Surin province: a female elephant in her mid-30s, street-begging and forced to walk 8 hours per day, all the while limping severely with a broken hind leg. Sai Rung, meaning Rainbow in Thai, has an unknown past. Her physical injuries may be a result of a forced breeding program or perhaps a logging accident.
We first met her in an open field, chained up near a big tree. Her mahout walked out to bring her closer, as we all excitedly waited on the rural dirt road, cameras perpetually at the ready. When Sai Rung began her 50 meter trek from that big tree in the field, we could see how greatly her leg injury impedes her mobility. To see an elephant limp, contradicting the graceful strides the animal is known for, broke my heart. But, at the same time, my heart filled with joy and my eyes with tears, as I realized that she would never again be forced to hobble 8 hours a day to and from town to beg tourists for measly treats of bamboo the size of carrot sticks.
As with all the elephants now enjoying a peaceful retirement at Elephant Nature Park, Sai Rung needed a new name. Renaming her in no way is meant to discredit her past, but rather accentuate the fact that a new chapter in her life has begun. Matt and Chantelle took this responsibility seriously, and decided upon the Thai equivalent of Golden Star: Dao Tong.
Only one major hurdle stood between Dao Tong’s respite at Elephant Nature Park… a 20-hour grueling truck journey. She would have constant company for the entire trip, with Matt, Chantelle, and any other volunteer who wanted to ride in the back of an open-air, elephant-rescue truck. Unfortunately, that did not include me. The van ride south to Surin, just a few days earlier severely tested my car-sickness. I combatted the urge to lose my pad thai with heavy doses of Gravol, which knocked me out. I selflessly decided that Dao Tong, nor any of my fellow travel mates, needed to deal with a motion-sick patient. Instead, I stayed in the comfort of the van, sleeping uncontrollably from the drowse-inducing anti-nauseants.
Dao Tong arrived at ENP to an impromptu welcoming ceremony, attended by day visitors, volunteers, and staff. The documentary film crew that had been with us on the entire trip captured her hesitant first steps at the most freedom she had ever felt. Once she had some time to settle in to her new surroundings, and take in the vastly different smells of her new retirement home, Lek brought over ENP’s resident social butterfly, Mintra. There isn’t an elephant Mintra doesn’t like, and she’s a welcoming friend to everyone. It wasn’t long before they were chatting up a storm and sharing a meal together.
Witness the entire rescue, from that first meeting in the rural field to her arrival at Elephant Nature Park, from the lens of the film crew:
Today, almost 6 weeks into her retirement, Dao Tong is finding her new routine. She still remains relatively solitary, but her neighbors have come by to say hello.
It’s not every day that there are good news stories when discussing the endangered Asian elephant. Luckily, I can say I was a part of this one.
Stay tuned for more adventures!