For taxi elephant Sontaya, this day seemed like any other; she would repeat the same monotonous and backbreaking job of carrying tourists on her back. She had absolutely no idea of who she was going to meet today.
Elephant rides are a popular tourist activity in south-east Asia, especially among Western travelers. What most don’t realize, however, is the horrible abuse and conditions the elephants often have to endure.
It all starts when the elephants are still young. In a practice called “Phajaan” or “the crush,” elephant calves are tied with ropes and dragged away from their mothers into a special cage.
Next, the captors quite literally torture the defenseless young animal in a variety of ways in a bid to break – or crush – its spirit. These techniques often involve physical abuse such as beatings as well as deprivation of food, water and sleep.
This abuse can last for weeks, with most elephants aged just three to six years old when they undergo the cruel training. Once the handler thinks the elephant is ready and its spirit is well and truly broken, it is released from the cage and given food so that the desperate animal views that person as its liberator.
Elephant handlers justify this cruel practice as being an effective way to make captive elephants completely submissive. It’s likely that Sontaya underwent the same training while she was still young, leaving her psychologically damaged.
Indeed, even decades later, in her 50s, Sontaya still displays behavior – such as swaying her head back and forth – that suggests she has been mentally and physically tormented. And although “the crush” is long behind her, elephants such as Sontaya still have to endure long days of tiresome labor, and they may still be punished if their owners deem them to have “misbehaved.”
Sontaya had worked as a taxi elephant for the past two years in Pattaya, a popular resort city on Thailand’s south coast. When she wasn’t carrying a chair with tourists strapped to her back, she spent her precious moments of peace resting in a cramped, makeshift stable.
It was here, on Saturday May 1, 2016, that Sontaya’s life would change forever. The weary elephant had no idea of the amazing surprise her owners had planned.
Katherine Connor, a woman that Sontaya had never seen before, walked up and introduced herself by gently petting the elephant’s trunk. Connor was here to take Sontaya away to an elephant sanctuary.
Sontaya’s owners had contacted Connor when they realized that the elephant was too old to continue her difficult job. Connor’s organization, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, (BLES) would take the aging elephant to a new home in Baan Tuek, a remote village in northern Thailand.
Connor founded BLES back in 2007, naming her organization after a young elephant calf she was unable to save. The sanctuary provides more than 400 acres of forested land for retired and rescued elephants to enjoy the rest of their lives as nature intended.
As Connor looked over Sontaya’s weathered features, it was clear that life had not been not easy for the animal. The wounds on her face were characteristic of an elephant that had been abused in its youth, while her skin was dry and cracked.
As Sontaya’s owners said their goodbyes to the gentle giant, it seemed like they truly cared for the animal. They even performed a special blessing ritual to wish her a happy future at the sanctuary.
BLES workers carefully guided the weary elephant into a truck. After Sontaya had a special frame put around her for the trip, her owner gave her one last goodbye. It was time to go.
Given that the trip north would take more than a day, the rescuers made frequent stops to give the old elephant time to rest and eat. They also gave her a jacket to keep her warm during the night.
With the tropical sun lighting up the sky the next day, the graceful elephant was finally at the end of her trek. She was welcomed by a group of curious dogs which, along with many other animals, are also cared for at the sanctuary.
To make Sontaya’s retirement official, Phi Sot, the sanctuary’s experienced elephant handler, finally removed the chains that bound her feet. It was an emotional moment for Connor and her mom, who is also involved in the project.
Safe at last, Sontaya joined her new family of elephants on the sanctuary’s grounds, which features banana trees, grasslands, rivers and even a special pool for the animals to bathe in. She already seems to be making friends with the other elephants.
BLES has helped many elephants over the years. Although it is unable to bring all of them to the sanctuary, it does its best to provide medical help for the animals and to educate elephant owners. The organization’s ultimate goal is to safeguard and increase the numbers of the Asian elephant, which is currently classed as an endangered species.