By Tibor Krausz
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, a 540-acre reserve in Thailand, is home to elephants saved from a life of misery in the logging and tourism trades.
Sukhothai, Thailand — On a recent afternoon Katherine Connor was kneeling down in the dust before Wassana, a three-ton Asian elephant that still bears the scars of her former life.
For the British-born animal activist, getting down and dirty is part of her daily routine, and she was on her knees to tend to the older female elephant’s foot.
Wassana was once a work elephant forced to haul heavy logs deep in the jungle near Thailand’s northern border with war-torn Myanmar (formerly Burma). One day more than a decade ago she stepped on a land mine, which damaged part of one of her front feet. She still walks with a limp.
Every day Ms. Connor, who runs an elephant sanctuary she set up near the historical northern Thai town of Sukhothai, cleans and dresses the animal’s foot. She also tends to the ailments and infirmities of the 10 other rescued jumbos, many of them older, in her care.
“She’s a beautiful animal,” notes Connor as she applies some salve to Wassana. “You see their scars and injuries, but you still can’t fathom what they’ve been through.”
Wassana, whose name means “Fortune” in Thai, endures the treatment with stoic resilience, at one point balling up the tip of her trunk and placing it in her mouth the way some people bite on a forefinger when they’re in pain.
“This is hurting her, and she could easily flick me aside, but she doesn’t,” Connor observes. “I really do think she knows we’re trying to help her.”
‘I knew I had to help’Connor spotted Wassana walking by the side of the road four years ago near a logging camp. Her forehead was dripping with blood from the stab wounds that her mahout, or handler, had inflicted on her with a pointy hook that mahouts use for controlling their animals.
“As she walked by, she looked me straight in the eye,” Connor recalls. “I knew I had to help her.”
So she did. She launched a fundraising campaign on social media and bought the elephant from her owner.
Now Wassana lives at Connor’s Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), a 540-acre animal reserve in an idyllic rural setting with rolling hills, lush forests, and scenic ponds. All the elephant residents here have been rescued by Connor from a life of misery in Thailand’s logging and tourism trades, which employ elephants as beasts of burden or as tourist attractions.
Lom (Umbrella), a boisterous young female, once had to tramp the streets of the city of Chiang Mai to beg from tourists, who could feed her sugar cane and plantains for the equivalent of a dollar or two. Bwua Ngam (Beautiful Lotus) used to be chained up in a graveyard at night and at a busy roadside by day to beg for handouts from passing motorists. Pang Dow (Lucky Star) was forced to carry tourists on her back in chunky, poorly fitted howdahs (seats), which injured her spine. Despite a deformed ankle, she was also forced to haul heavy loads.
At one time all these elephants did was to spend their days doing their masters’ bidding and their nights in chains. Now, thanks to Connor, they can roam freely and explore the sprawling sanctuary, nibbling from its fruit trees and frolicking to their heart’s content with minimal interference.
“This place is as close to freedom as it is possible for captive elephants in Thailand,” says Thean Yonyan, a local mahout, one of seven whom Connor employs to look after the elephants.
A century ago the Southeast Asian nation boasted some 100,000 elephants; today only a few thousand remain, with barely a handful left in the wild.
“We just want to let these abused animals be elephants at last,” explains Connor, a petite woman with an impish smile. “Each one is an individual and has special needs.
“Boon Thong there,” she says, indicating a bony female with a torn ear that is blind in one eye, “loves to be at the back and is fussy about her food. She was sickly when we brought her here, but she’s come around.”
Bonding with Baby Babar
The elephants have come far, but so has Connor.
Growing up in a sleepy suburb of London, the closest she got to elephants was during visits to the local zoo. As a child she loved Dumbo, the Disney cartoon elephant, but that was the extent of her familiarity with the animals.
Then in 2002, during a backpacking tour of Asia, Connor ended up volunteering at an elephant hospital in northern Thailand where she met Boon Lott, a prematurely born calf with various ailments. More....