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Amanda French: I quit my job to save a baby elephant

Amanda French, a 26-year-old Australian, was so moved when she heard about an orphaned baby elephant that was on the verge of death in Bali, that she gave up everything to fly to its rescue

Amanda French
Image Credit: Bruce Levick
Amanda French with the baby elephant Bona

Listening on the phone to my friend Murray Munro talking about his upcoming trip to Bali, it was hard not to feel a twinge of jealousy. We'd met working at Australia Zoo where I'd been the events manager and he'd been in charge of the Wildlife Warriors programme, a conservation project. Now I was working as an office temp at Paddle Out 4 Whales, a whaling awareness campaign in Hervey Bay, Queensland.

I really wanted to stop whaling, but it was all behind the scenes. Murray was off to work as a wildlife volunteer and I envied that. All I wanted was to work closely with animals.

It was sometime in March this year that Murray, 41, called and told me about a friend of his who'd visited the Seblat Elephant Conservation Centre on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

"A baby elephant there is wasting away. Its mum was killed by poachers and it could die if it doesn't get help," he sighed.

Sumatran elephants are a critically endangered species because of poachers and, more recently, because their habitat is being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

Murray explained the 16-month-old baby, called Bona, was malnourished, lethargic, and suffering calcium and protein deficiencies.

"They've kept her alive for a year but she's not thriving and they don't have the resources to help," he said. The conversation centre didn't have enough money to take care of her.

"What can we do?" I asked Murray.

"I knew you'd say that," he laughed, and he was right. I couldn't ignore Bona's plight. So as soon as I hung up I contacted experts to see what we could do. Through Amber Gillet, a vet at Australia Zoo, a German vet working for an elephant conservation programme in Indonesia, and the vet at the Seblat centre, we learned Bona needed about 25kg of protein powder a month, 4kg of calcium, and 28 big tubs of soy baby formula milk. She also needed lots of coconut milk and watermelons.

Friends from far and wide offered help

We decided to air freight protein and calcium supplements to the centre. We'd fundraise to get the money and call the airlines to see if we could get help sending the stuff out there.

I set up a Save Bona Facebook page to raise awareness, and cash for the supplements. Friends ‘liked' the link and within hours the pledges started coming in. By the end of the week we had A$500 (Dh1,869).

"That will buy protein powder for a month," I told Murray, excitedly.

Next, I contacted Bob Irwin, father of the late famed conservationist Steve Irwin who died after he was barbed through the chest by a sting ray. He agreed to put out an appeal for Bona on his website.

By mid-April we'd raised A$2,000 (Dh7,477) and bought more supplements. QantasLink waived fright charges. Then we hit a problem.

Sumatran contacts warned corruption could prevent the supplements getting to Bona.

"We need to be there," Murray said.

It made sense. We had skills that could help the centre anyway, like wildlife management, planning, fundraising and tourism marketing, so I started making plans.

A designer, Bruce Levick, who we'd worked with at the zoo, came forward after seeing the Facebook page. "I'll help organise and do photos and video," Bruce, 38, offered.

Together, we packaged up 75kg of supplements and sent them to Sumatra.

Murray flew from Bali to collect them, but he needed help. This was too big a rescue to do alone. Instantly I knew what I had to do.

I resigned from my job. "You're leaving to save a baby elephant?" my boss said, raising her eyebrows. I nodded. "That's right," I grinned.

I could have taken a holiday but I didn't know how long I'd need to be in Bali for. I was hoping we'd be able to help immediately, but was realistic and knew it might stretch into months if Bona was that bad. I knew it sounded crazy to quit but I had to help Bona.

The elephants could become extinct, and I didn't want to sit down with my grandchildren one day in the future and point to pictures of elephants in books knowing they'd disappeared forever and I could have done something to help one. So I began packing, determined to do my best for Bona.

And then, a week later my mum Debra, 56, suddenly became very sick, being admitted to Hervey Bay Hospital and put on life support with a twisted bowel. In turmoil, I decided to postpone my trip. "Go!" Mum croaked. "I know you. You have to do this."

Fortunately, after surgery, Mum recovered in a week, and knowing she was on the mend, I packed my bag. A little anxious about what I'd see when I got to Sumatra, I flew out of Brisbane, Queensland, on April 30 with Bruce.

Driving into the rainforest

We were tired, hot, but happy to arrive at the Sumatran city of Bengkulu where Murray was waiting for us. "Glad to see you guys," he said, leading us to a jeep. It was a four-hour drive bumping along a dirt track to the centre. I was exhausted but couldn't sleep. So I stared out of the window, watching the palm oil plantations, until we were in virgin rainforest.

On the way Murray told us all about the centre, that there were 19 rescued elephants each cared for by a keeper or mahout.

"They do what they can, but Bona's in poor condition," he warned.

It was dark when we finally arrived at the centre, which was a small clearing housing eight huts on the edge of a 6,865-hectare jungle.

I peered through the gloom and gasped.

Out of the darkness a tiny elephant, no taller than my hip, emerged.

Her spine, deformed because of calcium deficiency, stuck out, her skin was dry and her eyes were dull and weepy. She was clearly malnourished. But to me she was beautiful.

"You're amazing," I cried, overcome. She stroked my shoulders and face with her trunk. I cuddled her back. Bona's mum had been killed by poachers. Elephants are also killed by palm oil farmers who regard them as pests. "Bed time," I told her finally.

I slept in a simple cabin with squat toilets and mattresses on the floor and rose early the next day to mix Bona's vital feeds.

Greedily, she gulped four litres of milk and supplements from bottles.

After the feed, we played with Bona. Baby elephants, like puppies, love to play. Sadly, 40kg underweight at about 160kg, she had little energy and after 45 minutes she was worn out.

There was just enough energy though to mischievously butt me with her head, sending me flying! "Cheeky" I chastised her.
Bona loved being stroked and cuddled.

Every day I spent hours with her, stroking her rough skin, going for walks with her and swimming with her in a river that bordered the conservation camp.

By the end of our first week, on four feeds a day, Bona had perked up. She had more energy and was more playful.

We taught the mahouts to mix the supplements and the importance of recording feeds to track Bona's progress. They hadn't kept records before and because they'd run out of money Bona hadn't even been getting milk. Some days all she'd had to eat was two watermelons.

Bonding with the big elephant

Luckily, she was improving by the end of the first week. I learnt she'd been found in a palm oil plantation, alone, which is not normal for a baby elephant. In the same area some dead adult elephants had been found. They'd been killed by poachers for ivory and meat.

Watching her we noticed she was very close to Aswita, an adult female at the centre, even unsuccessfully trying to suckle from her.

Aswita was very protective of Bona, standing over her as she slept. One morning we heard a horrible bellowing coming from a 150 metre-wide river bordering the centre. On the bank we found Bona, pacing, distressed and screaming. Aswita was on the other side.

"It's separation anxiety," I said.

Nothing could comfort Bona. I cuddled her and gave her milk but she didn't calm down until Aswita came back 45 minutes later. As soon as she saw the big elephant, she ran up to her side and immediately calmed down.

Our bond with Bona grew stronger though each day. By the second week she was coming to our cabin and trumpeting outside until we fed her! Sometimes, off in the jungle with Aswita, she missed feeds. Starving, she'd wake us at 4.30am the next morning.

"She's so attached to Aswita she won't leave her," Murray said. But she couldn't afford to miss feeds because of her jaunts to the jungle. She could end up starving again.

"Then we'll go to her," Bruce suggested.

We began making up feeds and trekking to her favourite spot, two kilometres away. As we walked along, I realised we needed to educate the locals to Bona's plight. So we visited local schools and spoke to village head men to push the conservation message. "If people know elephants attract tourists which mean jobs they'll protect them," I said.

We even drew up an eco-tourism plan, which involved turning the huts at the conservation centre into tourist accommodation and setting up guided tours of the jungle. At a local high school, where the kids understood English, we told them how rare elephants are.

"Do you have elephants in Australia?" one boy asked. I shook my head. "No," I smiled. The kids were amazed. To them elephants were just part of the local scenery, like kangaroos to us.

After a couple of weeks Bona put on weight, and was happy and active. Her spine still stuck out - it would never get better, it was permanently deformed - but she had lots more energy, her eyes looked lively and bright and she'd filled out.

We'd set up a structured feeding plan and educated people about the value of elephants, achieving our goals. Then it was time to say goodbye. She was going to make it, and needed us to raise funds for her.

Bidding a traumatic farewell

We went to say goodbye, and found the local vet trying to take a blood sample to check on Bona. Aswita was chained to a nearby tree, grazing.

As the vet tried to inject her, Bona got distressed, bellowing, screaming, trumpeting and even frothing at the mouth. Aswita went crazy, straining against her chains to get to Bona. Falling to her knees, Aswita, a fully grown elephant, slammed her forehead on the ground, frustrated, and roared.

"If she got free she'd kill us," I cried sadly.

Aswita stretched out her trunk, reaching to touch Bona's outstretched trunk, desperate to give comfort. "Enough," Bruce snapped angrily at the vet. "You have to stop now." She did.

Caring and compassionate, the local vet loved Bona. But, in a developing country like Indonesia, the psychological welfare of animals isn't as important as it would be elsewhere. Sometimes, lack of money means the job just has to get done.

Miserably, we trooped back to our cabin.

Later, we returned to the jungle to say a proper goodbye. "She'll probably hide," I choked.

Incredibly, Bona ran to us. Playfully, she scooped dirt, sprayed us with it then embraced us with her trunk. "I promise I'll be back," I sobbed, hugging her. Murray put his arm around me. "We've just got to hope the centre carries on our work," he said.

Efforts to help continue

Back in Australia now Murray, Bruce and I are raising the A$24,000 (Dh 89,726) needed to keep Bona in supplements for the next 12 months. We've raised A$16,000 (Dh59,817) so far.

Reports are she's continuing to thrive and is still putting on weight.

Now her stomach is used to the baby formulae again we'll soon be upping the quantity. We think we're going to need even more money than we initially budgeted for to feed her.

"I miss Bona terribly. I feel like her mum," I joked to Murray recently.

Bruce flew out again on June 10. Murray and I are heading out in August for another two weeks at least. And I'm going to keep going back. Right now, I need to find some work so I can buy a flight back to see Bona. I'm broke and spent A$3,000 (Dh11,215) of my own money last time.

But it's worth it. I couldn't turn my back on a starving baby elephant knowing there was something I could do. My dream is Bona will survive to be a mum and a grandmother. Then, one day, as an old lady, I'll visit with my own grandchildren, point her out and say, "That's the elephant I helped save."