Today, Gluay Hom, a young, suffering elephant in Thailand, starts a new life.
When I first saw him in June 2018, he’d been living for years under a performance stadium at Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo outside Bangkok. His feet were tightly chained, and he had a bent, swollen leg and a wound at his temple.
National Geographic documented his plight, which caused an outcry from readers, in our June 2019 feature on wildlife tourism. Over 70,000 people signed a Change.org petition calling for help for the elephant. But the prospect of rescue was complicated—under Thai law, he is property, and his owner, Uthen Youngprapakorn, would have to agree to sell or relinquish him.
But after a period of negotiation, Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation, a nonprofit rehabilitation and rescue organization located in Chiang Mai, secured his purchase. The handoff occurred Tuesday evening, and after a 14-hour truck ride, Gluay Hom is now getting used to his new surroundings at Elephant Nature Park, the foundation’s elephant habitat, where he’s discovering dirt piles and grass after having spent years standing on a concrete floor.
“When he saw the mud bath—and normally all elephants love the mud bath—he looked at everyone like he was asking the question: May I go now?” Chailert says. “He was still traumatized. He walks slow. He needs a lot of treatment. He’s still sad in his eyes.”
How it happened
“After Gluay Hom was exposed in your story,” Chailert says, “people contacted me. So I asked [the owner] how much for the elephant.”
Youngprapakorn originally quoted a price that was much too high, she says, adding that she refused to pay anything close to market value—about $80,000—because she didn’t want him to buy a new elephant with the money. Chailert declined to disclose the final purchase price but says it was significantly under market value.
Youngprapakorn did not respond before publication to National Geographic’s request for comment.
Although some rescue groups refuse to buy animals—opting instead to lease them to avoid giving owners large sums of money—those like Chailert say purchasing animals outright ensures that owners can’t simply take them back at any time. And, they note, paying below market value for an animal makes it more difficult for an owner to turn around and buy a replacement.
Chailert’s husband, Darrick Thomson, was present for the handoff. Elephant Nature Park rigged up a truck to transport Gluay Hom, with wooden side rails covered with anti-slip foam padding, a cover to serve as sun shelter, a food barrel, and a water barrel. He was a patient passenger, Thomson says, and he wore a jacket during a rainstorm.
Chailert says she thinks diplomatic conversations with Youngprapakorn were key to the successful transaction. When she works on animal rescues, she says, it’s very important to develop a good relationship with original owners, keeping the lines of communication open. “Because there are lives in there,” she says, referring to animals who remain behind.
Gluay Hom and the transport team arrived safely at Elephant Nature Park at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning. Chailert says he’s been slowly exploring dirt and leaves, walking without a chain in a secluded spot on the property. She says the team will let him relax for a couple of days and adjust to his new environment. Then they’ll assess his health, starting with an X-ray on his leg.
Edwin Wiek, the founder of the nonprofit Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, worked with Thai authorities to do welfare checks on Gluay Hom during the past year. Gluay Hom’s injuries improved somewhat following medical treatment, but his living conditions went largely unchanged. Wiek says he’s thrilled that Gluay Hom “has another chance at life.”
He thinks the elephant’s main challenge is the muscle atrophy caused by his previous living conditions. “He has no muscle tissue from standing on chains. As soon as he can move around, [his strength] should increase rapidly.”
The transaction has revealed new details about Gluay Hom’s background. Although facility employees had told National Geographic that he’s around five years old, his paperwork reveals that despite his small stature he’s actually 10, Chailert says, and that he was born in Samutprakarn in 2009. His mother, Moon Mi, arrived from Pattaya while pregnant. She gave birth to Gluay Hom there. Moon Mi is still at Samutprakarn.
Elephant Nature Park’s goal is eventually to introduce Gluay Hom to other elephants.
Wiek says it will be important to introduce him to other males, rather than females, for his own safety and the safety of other elephants. Starting in adulthood, male elephants periodically undergo a hormonal cycle called musth, during which their testosterone skyrockets and they become aggressive toward humans. The onset of musth typically occurs when males are between 20 and 40 years old. Gluay Hom has sizable tusks, which Wiek says could make him even more dangerous than a male without tusks.
Because of this, tourist attractions generally feature females, and males are frequently neglected, kept isolated with their legs hobbled together and sometimes starved.
“I hope Gluay Hom can be an ambassador for male elephants in Thailand,” Wiek says, noting that even at sanctuaries like his own, caring for males is very difficult—no one’s quite come up with a perfect solution. “I have one male, and he destroys everything. He doesn’t know his own strength,” Wiek says.
It’s clear that males do better in spacious enclosures, where they have room to roam, either alone or with other males, possibly an older bull who can guide and lead them. Ideally, they should have no contact with people, Wiek says.
Elephant Nature Park aims to come close to that ideal. “We want him to be with the other elephants. We don’t want him to connect too much with people,” says Chailert, who is hopeful that her organization can give Gluay Hom a proper home at last. “We want to make him happy again. We want to make him be an elephant again.”