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    Posted December 15, 2013 by
    Lampang, Province, Thailand
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Impact Your World

    A Journey of Life of a Thai Orphaned Baby Elephant named Tangmo

    While over million Thais were marching as part of the historical democratic movement, the beloved baby elephant Tangmo, also known as Watermelon, was peacefully laid to rest at the elephant’s graveyard in the forest. She did not know how much of an impact she made on those who love and care for her.

    On Thai TV channel 3, the self-claimed owner of the tiny elephant still talked about his loss. He unjustly accused the Thai Elephant Conservation Center of causing the accident that led to baby Tangmo ’s death. The veterinary team, her Thai mahout, and the Japanese volunteer mahout, were surrounded by her for the treatment and healing program at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), Lampang province, Thailand. They were all deeply mourning in those final days.

    As an elephant lover, I would like to reflect on what really happened with this beloved Thai orphaned baby elephant to help offer some closure. Her story is one that can reach deep into the hearts and minds of the audience because of the unnecessary hardships she endured. Baby Tangmo represents many orphaned baby elephants who are challenged with the same circumstances … the fortunate ones have managed to survive, and many others, like Tangmo, gracefully left this world at tender young ages.

    A Thai Orphaned Baby Elephant named “Tangmo” or “Watermelon” was taken away from her mother, probably less than three months of age, from the forest in the northeast of Thailand. From birth to the age of four months, baby elephants should eat only mother’s milk. Usually the Asian baby elephants need to be kept with their mothers for three years before undergoing training. That is very evident by baby Tangmo’s malnourishment with calcium deficiency, making her bow legged, so she could not walk properly. With the added weight as she grew, she was unable to hold herself up correctly, thus causing her to have a bone fracture and spinal cord injury later in her life when the accident occurred.

    I met baby Tangmo when I came to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), Lampang province, in the North of Thailand, during shooting a feature documentary called “Elephants in Motion: Through the Eyes of Thai Orphaned Baby Rascals.” The film tells a story of a deep transformation of the orphaned baby elephants who return to the ecological life with their mahouts. The department of National Parks of Thailand seized baby Tangmo in 2012 from an elephant village in Surin province, in the Northeast of Thailand. The self-claimed owner who produced an ownership certificate for baby Tangmo failed to demonstrate how he obtained the baby elephant, which took this case to the court.

    Meanwhile, baby Tangmo was transferred to the Thai Conservation Center (TECC) where their humanitarian operation for healing elephants and their environments could better support her. The veterinary team at TECC was strongly grounded in the medical treatment for the orphaned baby elephants who had been captured and dislocated from the forest to the villages much too soon, damaging the bonding relationship between mother elephants and their babies, and causing the long-termed trauma of both physical health and emotions to an individual orphaned baby elephant. The humanitarian operation for healing elephants and their environments began during May-June, 2012, the conservationists and the veterinary team from TECC brought baby Tangmo to their nursery home, under the care of the senior mahout, Khru (teacher) Boonyung Boontiam, a leader of the mahout’s training program. At first, the veterinary team introduced a mahout to baby Tangmo, just like her surrogate mother. At the time, baby Tangmo was only 2 years old, skinny, yet fat in the belly area, with the left front bowed leg. Any time her mahout was not in her presence, she would use her vocalization to cry out to him.

    Baby Tangmo found a nurturing new life at the nursery home, walking with her mahout in the early morning for exercise, learning the secret language of communication with love and compassion for each other; nourishing her with ground-up rice, ripe bananas, corn, water melon, milk formula fortified with human infant’s calcium, and fresh clean water. By late morning, there would be times when the senior mahout would introduce another wild orphaned baby elephant who stayed near by for play time with baby Tangmo. Unfortunately, baby Tangmo lost her own culture of wild elephants where she would have significantly learned the crucial skills of communication and cognitive abilities. This caused a profound disturbance in her natural development caused by a series of human disruptions. Baby Tangmo seemed to be gentle and passive, yet, her behavior had drastically been changed when she lost a sense of trust. She constantly showed her fear when she entered a new natural surrounding, including her first bathing in the water. In the case of baby Tangmo, the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), brings about flashbacks and phobias which can happen repetitively, and relates to her deep fear.

    Mr. Prasop Tipprasert, a former key member of the conservationist team who founded the TECC, and head of mahout of traditional training program during early 1990s, believed in the traditional training of love and compassion in the Thai Buddhist ecological life. He talked with me about the breaking spirits from the mother elephant and the forest, and how important it is to not let this happen with the wild baby elephants at the tender age. In the Thai traditional rite of separation, the skillful and seasoned mahouts had to perform the rite with tender loving care before the proper training began. It was most likely that the late hunter who captured baby Tangmo and trained her for illegal trading initiated the trauma and emotional fear. Whatever happened to her that brought on the life crisis, nature taught her not to forget what happened to her consciously and subconsciously. It was marked with fear, creating a defensive formation of self. Baby Tangmo suffered a great loss of social knowledge to make informed decisions when threats—imagined or real-- had come close to her.

    At 3:30 pm, on June 21, 2013, baby Tangmo was having her afternoon daily bathing ritual, with the routine of physical therapy, emphasizing the strength of muscles. Moments later, she encountered a large working elephant that was on taxi service duty coming toward her. Baby Tangmo panicked and tried to avoid the elephant by making a sharp turn, heading as fast as she could into the deep water. She laid still in the water for almost an hour, not able to use either of her hind legs to swim back to the edge of the big pond. The ongoing intensive medical treatment to help her was even more involved with electrical stimulation, acupuncture, and prevention of skin infection. The passing of baby Tangmo on December 5, 2013, raised an awareness of baby elephants who have been through trauma of separation and displacement with lasting psychological impacts. The self-claimed owner wanted baby Tangmo back so he could put her down after the case was dismissed. After the accident, Baby Tangmo’s spirit was broken once again when her body was no longer useful. In this sense, her death was more of a mental-spiritual death, one that would enable her to rise out of her pain and reunite eternally with the spirits of the forest.

    A link of a daily life of baby Tangmo at Thai Conservation Center (TECC), Lampang province, the north of Thailand


    About writer:

    Narumol Sriyanond, Ph.D. is a performance theorist, documentary filmmaker, movement ethnographer. She is currently shooting the production of Elephants in Motion: A Journey Toward Life Through the Eyes of Thai Orphaned Baby Rascals. Produced by Building for Life,Inc.

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