I fell in love with a baby elephant (and packed my trunk to live in the jungle)
Recently I found a photograph of a young woman I once knew. Her hair was professionally straightened and styled, her make-up immaculate and her body clad in the latest designer clothes.It took me a few minutes to realise that the girl staring out of the photograph was me.
Seven years ago, when the snapshot was taken, I was a career girl who spent every penny on clothes and going out. I was the sort of girl who spent hours making sure my face and body looked perfect before I would consider leaving the house.
Today, I live in a pair of cheap plastic flip-flops. Instead of cleansing my face with Clarins, my beauty regime consists of standing underneath a hosepipe of freezing cold water, then tying my hair back to dry.
My face is free of make-up, and my wardrobe consists of a tatty pair of jeans and several threadbare T-shirts. And yet I couldn’t be happier.
Because here – sleeping on the floor of a wooden hut in the Thai jungle that has become my home – is where I have found true peace, happiness and love.
When I think back to the days when this photograph was taken, it seems like a different world.
I was a merchandising manager for Gap, and my life revolved around my career – and clothes. Our store was based in a fashionable area of London and I couldn’t wait to walk up and down gazing in the windows of all the top designer clothes shops during my lunch breaks.
I had never even met an elephant before – but suddenly, every instinct in my body was telling me I had to care for this one
Every penny I earned was spent on must-have outfits and accessories. Handbags were another obsession.
Meanwhile, my bathroom was crammed with make-up and creams. My family joked that I couldn’t leave the house without spending two hours getting ready. I would wash my hair, straighten it, paint my nails and apply my make-up like a professional.
Life seemed perfect. I worked hard at my job and played hard with a bunch of like-minded, fun career girls.
But then, in April 2002, when I was 21, I decided to take a break. My plan was to fly to Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and Australia, before returning home and working my way up in retail management.
It all seemed so simple, a relaxing holiday before returning to give my all to my career.
I sold my house and used some of the money to buy a round-the-world ticket. At first all went to plan. It was a dream holiday, and by the time I arrived in Thailand, I was in good spirits.
Then one day I decided to join some other tourists I’d met on a visit to an elephant conservation centre in northern Thailand.
I had always loved seeing pictures of elephants as a child, but this was my first chance to actually see elephants up close. I watched some of the elephants perform in a show, and then took an elephant ride.
It was a lovely day and I was on my way out when I saw a sign for a baby elephant. It pointed up a hill to a steep track. I had never seen a baby elephant before and suddenly I felt excited and curious.
I walked up and found myself in a clearing. Then, standing behind a fence, I saw a small grey baby elephant. He saw me straight away and ran to the fence.
As I stood, mesmerised, he raised his trunk and blew warm air softly into my face. And in that instant my life changed.
As the baby elephant began to tug at my shoelaces, tears rolled down my cheeks. I had never even met an elephant before – but suddenly, every instinct in my body was telling me I had to care for this one.
I had never experienced love at first sight – until now. I’m not sure what the other tourists thought of me as I stood there weeping, but I didn’t care.
I loved the elephant’s little grey body covered in soft downy hair, and his twinkling eyes. I loved the powerful mother who stood watchful by his side.
That evening, I didn’t leave with the rest of the tourists. Instead, I went to find the owner of the sanctuary – and begged him to allow me to stay for a few weeks to work, unpaid, with the elephants.
He was astounded. They had never had a volunteer from outside Thailand – let alone a young girl who knew nothing about elephants. But to my delight, he agreed.
That night, I went for dinner with my mother, who had flown to spend a week with me before my trip to Australia.
When I told her I wanted to stay and work with the elephants, she was stunned. But, like my friends, she assumed it was a whim and I would continue my journey after a few weeks.
Perhaps I might have moved on eventually, but then fate took a hand. I had been helping out at the sanctuary for a few weeks when the owner of the baby elephant, Boon Lott, announced he was going to be sold to a tourist animal show in Thailand, where he would have been forced to wear outfits and beaten mercilessly to perform in sick acts like standing on his head, walking a tightrope and riding a bicycle.
After pocketing the money for the baby elephant, Boon Lott’s owner could put his mother straight back to work logging in the jungle, because she would be no longer breast-feeding.
For Boon Lott – who had been born three months prematurely and was weak and undersized – apart from the brutality he would suffer, separation from his mother when he was still suckling could have killed him.
It may sound strange, but I felt I had no choice but to buy the baby elephant who had turned my life around.
I caught a bus from the small hut in the jungle which I had made my home, and travelled for miles to find a town with a telephone and an internet café.
There, I contacted my parents, friends and colleagues back home, begging them all for money to help me buy Boon Lott.
Within a week, I had raised the asking price of £3,500. I had gone from no responsibilities to being the owner of a helpless baby elephant.
I paid for Boon Lott to stay at the sanctuary with his mother Pang Tong, and played with him every day.
When I washed him down, he would try to grab the hose and give me a soaking. We played hide and seek – and when I hid, he would squeal and wander around looking for me.
I bonded with these gentle, intelligent animals and for the first time in my working life, I was learning something new everyday
He learned to play football – kicking the ball back to me with his huge feet.
And when I lay on the ground exhausted, he would flop down beside and place his trunk around my shoulders. It was like being caught in a holiday romance.
I missed my family and friends, but I didn’t mind existing on my savings.
My diet was two bowls of rice a day, and I quickly lost a stone in weight. But I realised that caring for the elephants gave me more job satisfaction than my career in retail had ever done.
I bonded with these gentle, intelligent animals and for the first time in my working life, I was learning something new everyday.
Then one morning, I arrived at the sanctuary to find an appalling scene. As I heard Pang Tong’s cries of horror, I knew something had happened to Boon Lott and I started to run.
I arrived to find him lying helplessly at the bottom of a hill, his back legs flailing. He had somehow stumbled and fallen down the hill, hurting his leg on the way, and now could not stand.
A group of elephant keepers stood shaking their heads, saying he would die. I started to scream: ‘You can’t hurt him. He’s my elephant. He needs a proper X-ray.’
We loaded him on to a truck and took him to the animal hospital within the sanctuary.
There, I comforted him for hours while we waited for a vet. He was terrified and shaking, and kept leaning his body into mine for support. No bones were broken, but he couldn’t stand.
I will never forget the look on his face – it was harrowing. He had damaged all the nerves in his legs in his fall and, while his legs were paralysed, he was in agony.
That night, I made a bed of hay and laid beside him, stroking his face. I promised I would never leave him. With his mother nearby, Boon Lott began to take painful and slow steps back to recovery over the next six months.
I was not alone in the stables. Another elephant was brought in with severe burns from a forest fire. Her mahout – or elephant boy, a carer who will find food for an elephant, look after it and work with it – slept in the hay beside her.
He introduced himself as Anon, and as we nursed our sick elephants together, we began to learn about our vastly different lives.
Anon had never left his small Thai village, buried deep in the jungle, before. His father had died when he was 16, leaving him the precious family elephant – one of the few sources of income for those in the rural villages, because elephants and mahouts could earn a good wage in the jungle.
Forced to leave school and earn a living, Anon had worked hard each day, moving logs with his elephant. He had never watched a film, used a mobile phone or dated a girl.
He lived in a small wooden Thai hut with his mother, grandparents and younger brother. He was the same age as me, but possessed none of the worldy-wise confidence of the boys I knew back home.
He was shy, sweet and quickly became a good friend. We were both missing our families, and that drew us together. I knew I would miss him when he left for his old life in the jungle, but I didn’t realise my own life was about to come crashing down around me.
Just as he was recovering, Boon Lott broke his back leg during an attempt to X-ray him.
I slept on the wooden floor of the hut Anon shared with his family, I survived on £70 a month – I found myself happier than ever before.
I had gone to take a shower, and when I returned to the animal hospital after an hour away, I found him lying in agony, his trunk dangling along the floor. When I saw what had happened – the jagged broken bone sticking out from the skin – I was sick.
In his agony, he kept reaching with his trunk to try to pull me close. But I knew he was too weak to survive such an injury.
He died days later in my arms, aged two years and seven months old, from the stress and pain of the injury.
It was June 2004 and I was bereft. Anon left the sanctuary for his village the following day – and overnight, I had nothing left for me in Thailand.
I went back to the hut where I had stayed, and longed to go home. What had started out as a wonderful adventure had turned into the biggest tragedy of my life.
I flew home and my parents – shocked at my skeletal appearance – welcomed me back to their London home.
My friends called around, eager to take me to the clubs and restaurants I had always enjoyed, and I quickly found a job as a senior manager with Marks and Spencer.
My old life should have taken off. But nothing seemed genuine any more. A few weeks later, I found the piece of paper with a telephone number which Anon had given me and I knew I had to get in touch. It was for the only telephone in his village.
By now, I spoke fluent Thai. But the local dialect in Anon’s village was so strong that no one could understand me.
I repeated Anon’s name over and over again, and finally, Anon came to the phone. It felt wonderful to hear his voice. I told him how miserable I was and he told me to return, saying: ‘You dreamed of opening an elephant sanctuary. You raise the money and I will find land. We will open one together.’
He gave my life a purpose once more. I threw myself into fundraising. Every penny I owned went into my elephant fund.
I decided to sell all my designer clothes. I gathered my shoes and handbags, which had cost me thousands of pounds. And I sold the entire lot at a car boot sale for less than £100.
When Anon rang to say he had found some land in April 2006, I flew back to Thailand.
There, after travelling for hours through thick jungle, I found myself in his village.
Nobody had seen an English girl before. I was greeted by the village elder, who asked me: ‘Do you want to marry Anon?’ I insisted we were just friends, but I felt an overwhelming happiness to be with him.
With the money I had raised, Anon and I bought the land to build our sanctuary for sick and mistreated elephants.
At night, I slept on the wooden floor of the hut he shared with his family. I survived on £70 a month. I found myself happier than ever before.
A poacher can receive up to £924 per kilogram of elephant tusk
Within a month of our sanctuary opening we had four elephants, Sumai, Pang Tong and two others who had been abused by their owners which we had managed to buy.
My days were filled with caring for them. I washed them and tended old wounds. It was then – one night over an open fire – that Anon told me he loved me.
I was madly in love with this gentle, caring man, but I had been too scared to risk our friendship and our sanctuary by making the first move. Now my life seemed complete.
A year later, we were married by monks in a simple ceremony. I’d always dreamed of a huge white wedding with a designer dress. Instead, I wore a simple white dress with a jasmine flower in my hair.
My bridesmaids were our six elephants, who stood running their trunks up and down my dress until I was covered in mud.
My parents had met Anon and although they missed me terribly, they could see I was far happier living in the jungle with nothing, than I had been when I had money and a career and boyfriends back in England.
Our daughter Hope was born in October 2007, and has been raised among the elephants.
As soon as she learned to walk, she would toddle towards them and they would guide her gently with their trunks.
I sometimes lie awake at night and think what life might have brought me. I once dreamed of financial security, of owning a home with all the latest mod cons, with a husband who had a career and a child surrounded with the latest toys.
Instead, I have a husband who has only once left his village. He goes fishing during the day and we cook whatever he catches at night.
Our daughter plays with elephants and makes toys out of empty water bottles. She is happy and unspoilt.
At 28, I am giddy in love. Our son Noah was born a month ago. Here, with elephants roaming free around him, he will learn the true meaning of love.