The year is 1958. Kaew Ta, 5, has been separated from her mother. We know very little about Kaew Ta’s mum, other than the fact that she was used in the logging industry, and that she gave birth to Kaew Ta in Northern Thailand. Five-year-old Kaew Ta would endure two days of travel from her former home in the North of Thailand to a province in the South, where a difficult life of constant labour awaited her.
From 1958 until 1989, Kaew Ta would spend her days working for local logging companies, withstanding arduous, long hours hauling heavy logs under the scorching sun. Logging involves the cutting down and transport of large trees, often from remote locations and in inhospitable conditions. In Thailand, elephants have traditionally been used to haul logs after they have been cut down. Elephants sold into the logging trade are subjected to difficult and dangerous work, rarely allowed breaks, and often beaten into submission. Injuries, whether inflicted by humans or nature, are a commonplace occurrence among elephants in the logging industry. In writing this, we do not wish to imply that the elephant handlers who work for logging companies are unkind people, or that they act in a malicious or intentionally torturous way towards the animals they work alongside. A combination of extremely demanding workplace conditions and a lack of education about elephant welfare has, unfortunately, led to a grim set of circumstances for elephants working in the logging industry.
The widespread destruction of forests in Thailand due to logging activities led to a series of flash floods in 1988, affecting many provinces in Southern Thailand. This resulted in a nationwide ban on logging in Thailand, enacted in 1989. This ban left more than 3000 elephants, and their mahouts, unemployed and without a viable means of income. For Kaew Ta, this development meant a radical change in the lifestyle she had known for almost thirty years. During the following three decades, Kaew Ta would travel widely throughout Thailand, forced to participate in a variety of tasks, ranging from street begging to illegal logging. Soon after her 60th birthday, Kaew Ta moved with her new owner from Surin to Phuket, where she began work as a riding elephant in Rawai. It is there that she would spend hours daily carrying misinformed tourists seeking an “authentic elephant experience.”
In 2016, when Elephant Jungle Sanctuary first found Kaew Ta, she was undernourished and frail. While our younger rescued elephants went about their daily routine, Kaew Ta would spend hours resting against trees. Fully-grown adult elephants typically weigh 3000-5000 kilograms, and generally consume approximately 10% of their body weight in food per day. It took months of rehabilitation for us to nurse Kaew Ta back to health, and to a weight that our veterinary team considered satisfactory. At the Sanctuary, we offer two different types of rescue programs to elephant owners. A Full Rescue involves the purchasing by EJS of a particular elephant, and the transfer of full ownership of that elephant to the Sanctuary. In this case, owners receive a one-time payment. In some circumstances, elephant owners may instead opt for our Foster Program, also known as a Partial Rescue. This means that the rescued elephant will join our herd on a contractual basis and will be looked after by the Sanctuary. Owners retain legal ownership of their elephant and receive a fixed amount of compensation every month. At first, Kaew Ta’s owner refused our offer of a Full Rescue, instead viewing our Foster program as a more profitable opportunity.
It was only recently, when Kaew Ta began to exhibit symptoms of terminal illness, that they finally decided to transfer ownership to us. Upon learning about her condition, Kaew Ta’s owner initially approached another elephant care facility and offered to sell her to them under false pretences, in an attempt to induce a bidding contest for the right to care for her. This kind of situation is, unfortunately, a harsh reality of the work we do. The process of buying and selling elephants, even when engaged in with the best of intentions, is similar throughout the industry in Thailand. Ultimately, from a human perspective, rescuing an elephant means that the contract for that elephant is being purchased for a sum of money, and sometimes the prospect of financial gain has the potential to cloud judgement.
Kaew Ta first started exhibiting symptoms of illness in late June, when her bi-yearly blood work report showed early signs of liver and kidney failure. Despite our efforts to relieve her symptoms, on the evening of July 22, Kaew Ta collapsed, unable to support her weight. This occurred once again on July 31, and a third time a month later, on August 30. Immediately after her first collapse, our teams of vets from the Elephant Clinic and Hospice Project were mobilised to recommend the best course of action to treat Kaew Ta. While to some, providing a high level of ongoing veterinary care to an elephant in Kaew Ta’s condition may seem futile, at the Care Project we believe in an ‘every step of the way’ mentality and will continue to care for each of our elephants, regardless of the circumstances. We believe that Kaew Ta’s story serves as a reminder that the work we do with our rescues really does not ever end. But that is not to say that it is for nothing. The mentality of providing a ‘forever home’ is not nearly enough.
If you would like to assist with Kaew Ta’s ongoing medical expenses, you can visit here. Any excess resources from this campaign will be used to pay for the medical expenses of other elephants in the Clinic and Hospice Project.