Photos and text by Lesley Junlakan
Two days before his death, men and machine heave Plai Tong Pa Poom into a standing position.

On the early morning of Saturday 24th May, Thailand’s fast-dwindling elephant population was depleted by yet one more member, as Plai Tong Pa Poom died in his sleep in Ayutthaya, about 70 kilometers north of Bangkok. The loss of this particular elephant—a once handsome bull aged about 20 years old—was especially tragic as he was the victim of mans’ cruelty.

Plai Tong Pa Poom had been found on the Thai-Burmese border in November last year with a hunter’s trap deeply embedded in the bone of his right foreleg. Since then, he had been receiving the best possible treatment at the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace & Royal Kraal, run by Mr. Sompast Meepan. Elephants may look very strong and sturdy but, in fact, they have very delicate physiques and once seriously injured, they have a difficult time recovering. The constant medical treatment Plai Tong Pa Poom received, including 40 bottles of intravenous fluid a day towards the end of his life, ended up destroyed his gastro-intestinal system. By May, emaciated, unable to stand up by himself, covered with septic sores from laying down so much and with the original leg wound still not healed, Plai Tong Pa Poom was critically ill, unable even to relish the bananas and sugarcane offered to him.

In death, Plai Tong Pa Poom was afforded the dignity of which he had been robbed in life: covered with a white cloth, shaded by parasols and with flowers laid on his face, four Buddhist monks came to chant a blessing for his spirit. Later, in a Brahman ceremony, flower garlands were hung on his tusks and gold leaf pressed on his eyes and upon his tusks. Mankind’s quest for the ivory of his tusks ended up being the source of his death. Perhaps the most moving moment of Plai’s funeral was when his body, suspended by the legs, was raised by a caterpillar crane and swung into a waiting lorry, which acted as the hearse to take him back to be buried in the jungle where he had originally been found.

How tragic then, that, at the end, and contrary to the wishes of all those most closely concerned, the Thai Forestry Department insisted on strictly following the letter of the law and removing Plai Tong Pa Poom’s tusks before his grave was filled in. It would seem that, in spite of the elephant crisis in Thailand, those who claim to be protecting the species’ best interests are still in conflict with each other….

Plai Tong Pa Poom finally at peace

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