Sick Thai elephant returns home for medical treatment after years of neglect in Sri Lanka

BANGKOK (AP) — A sick elephant that Thailand introduced to Sri Lanka more than two decades ago returned to its homeland for medical treatment on Sunday following allegations that the animal was mistreated while he lived in a Buddhist temple.

The male elephant, known in Sri Lanka as Muthu Raja, or Pearly King, and as Sak Surin, or Mighty Surin, in Thailand, was transported directly from the capital of the South Asian island South to Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand on a Russian Ilyushin IL. -76 cargo plane.

A team of six people, including two veterinarians and four mahouts, or professional elephant trainers, accompanied the elephant during the flight, which lasted about six hours.

A special container was built to hold the 275 centimeters (9 feet) high and 4 ton pachyderm. Several mahouts went to Sri Lanka in advance to accustom the animal to being caged so that it would not panic during the trip to Thailand.

Video footage of its arrival in Chiang Mai showed the elephant conscious and apparently calm.

Thailand’s Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa was at the airport and said the elephant landed in perfect condition. He said earlier that Thailand had spent at least 19 million baht ($540,000) to repatriate the animal.

The pachyderm could be heard ringing from inside the container which was loaded onto a truck’s flatbed trailer to be transported to the government’s Thai Elephant Conservation Center in neighboring Lampang province, where it will be quarantined for at least 30 days and will remain in rehabilitation.

The elephant was sent to Sri Lanka in 2001 when he was around 10 years old as a gift from the Thai royal family. He was one of three elephants Thailand donated to the Sri Lankan government for training as a bearer of religious relics. Mathu Raja was entrusted to a Buddhist temple.

A Sri Lanka-based animal rights group, the Rally for Animal Rights and Environment Group, alleged in 2020 that the animal was in poor health due to years of hard work and abuse, and needed urgent medical care. The group started a petition calling for him to be rescued and later called for the elephant to be returned to Thailand after the Sri Lankan government allegedly ignored activists’ complaints.

The Thai Foreign Ministry issued a statement in November 2022 saying that a preliminary investigation by the Thai Embassy in Sri Lanka had concluded that the elephant “was not in good health and was in poor condition. of life”. The statement said Thailand will seek Sri Lanka’s approval to bring the elephant back for treatment.

The elephant is said to be underweight, rough skin and abscesses on both hips, thin pads and a stiff left front leg, which makes it difficult to walk and stand.

He was transferred from the Buddhist temple to the National Zoological Garden of Sri Lanka for preliminary treatment and appeared to be in better health ahead of his flight to Thailand.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told members of parliament last month that when he visited Thailand in May, he expressed regret to his Thai counterpart for what had happened to the elephant.

Thai officials said the main purpose of the animal’s return was for medical care and its return to Sri Lanka remains a matter for discussion with the government in Colombo.

At a news conference in Bangkok last month, Thailand’s Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said authorities would start investigating the health status of other Thai elephants in foreign countries. He said the export of Thai elephants was already banned for conservation reasons.

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