Saving the Elephants
- Written by Scott Murray
The Asian elephant is almost extinct. In Thailand, for example — where a century ago 100,000 chang roamed the forests — only about 4,500 of these magnificent creatures are left. But Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) is doing everything it can to help preserve those that remain.
A remarkable and courageous woman named Soraida Salwala started the FAE in 1993. A year later, she opened the world’s first elephant hospital, called FAE's Elephant Hospital, adjacent to the Elephant Conservation Centre, just north of Lampang. To date the hospital has treated over 1,700 elephants. Why would one describe Soraida as “courageous”? For one thing, she has survived numerous death threats and even attempts to kill her, including having her car tampered with and almost being run off the road. This is evidence both of the stakes and of her real dedication to this cause.(She’s of Saudi-Afghani descent, which may help to explain her warrior spirit.)
How did Soraida’s desire to help elephants arise? When she was eight years old, during a trip to Udorn Thani Province with her family, she came upon a man weeping beside a large elephant with two long tusks lying at the side of the road. Soraida remembers yelling, "What's happened to Uncle Elephant?" Her father pulled over and got out to investigate, refusing to let her leave the car. But she could see that Uncle Elephant was alive and still breathing.
Her father came back to the car and said, “Uncle Elephant has been hit by a truck.”
"What! We should rush him to the doctor, Papa!"
"How can we take him, my dear,” he replied. “He is very big. There is no place to take him to. There's no one who can cure him."
He started the engine and, while they were pulling away and Soraida was winding up the side window, she heard a gunshot. Her father said to her softly, "Uncle Elephant is in heaven now, my dear." She understood, but still questioned why he had to walk on the road.
As Soraida grew up, her father’s love for nature and animals was to have a great effect on her, as did the work of Dr Boonsong Lekakul, her physician, who just happened to be the founder of the Thai conservation movement and the Wildlife Fund Foundation.
In 1989, the Thai government banned logging. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because, although it helped preserve the Thai rainforests, the action also deprived the mahouts and elephants of a traditional livelihood. As a result, the elephants soon began wandering the streets of Thai cities to earn money for their handlers. They quickly discovered that baby elephants were a big hit with tourists; before long, protective mother elephants were sometimes being killed just to get to their babies.
Around the same time, two of these young elephants fell of a cliff in Khao Yai National Park while being chased by poachers. One of them died almost immediately, but the other languished at the bottom of the cliff in great pain. Soraida was astonished that, although Thais professed to love their elephants, no one would to do anything to raise the necessary equipment and transport to save the elephant. Soraida pleaded with authorities to send a helicopter to save the elephant, but to no avail. Eventually it died.
In 1992, eight other elephants plunged to their death from the same cliff. This further angered Soraida and, spurred on by news of a joint Russian-American team to save whales trapped in the ice, she founded the FAE with the aim of starting an elephant hospital to help protect the chang.
As she was not a veterinarian, Soraida enlisted the help of Thailand’s leading elephant veterinarian, Dr Preecha Phuangkum, who worked for the Thai Forestry Department. " went to see him in the forest and told him I wanted to start a foundation to help the elephants," she says. "He must have thought I was crazy; I’m sure he said to himself, ‘Give her three months, and she will disappear.’ It was very difficult for a woman to enter the elephant world. And there was no precedent for an elephant hospital. I told him if he didn’t help me, I couldn’t help the elephants. But I have managed, and today we are great friends.”
Despite all Soraida’s good work, she often gets death threats from people either jealous of her success or more concerned with the money that can be earned from elephants than for their welfare. These are ridiculous acts by silly, petty people but nonetheless it makes Soraida’s job a lot tougher. As a result, Soraida’s health has deteriorated; she now suffers from high blood pressure and heart and spinal problems related to the constant stress and acts of violence perpetrated against her. She’s in constant pain.
Not only has Soraida been threatened, so has Motala, her most famous elephant. Five years ago, Motala stepped on a landmine and had her left forefoot blown off while foraging in a jungle across the border from Tak Province, in Myanmar. Her mahout brought her through the jungle for three days and three nights before finding an access road to get to the Elephant Hospital. She arrived at a fortuitous time for the FAE. Before she appeared, Soraida was struggling trying to keep the hospital afloat, but she needed about a million baht a month to properly care for the elephants, feed them, pay for their medicine and also pay the mahouts and her staff in Bangkok and Lampang. She was saving the elephants day by day. But Motala’s plight captivated the nation, and donations started to pour in. “Motala is the first elephant we know of who has a bank bond, set up by the National Bank of Thailand,” says Soraida, with a smile.
But the same people, perhaps, who have tried to intimidate Soraida also threatened Motala a few years ago, when three king cobra snakes were released near her pen. If one of the snakes had bitten her, she would have died. Luckily, a mahout, working at the hospital, spotted the snakes, shooting one (it was 3.8 metres long), and chasing the others off
Motala was one of the first landmine victims the hospital treated. Her whole foot was shredded, there was no foot pad left, and the bones were damaged and infected. The vets had to remove 11 inches from Motala’s foreleg to treat the wound properly. The hospital staff learned much from the procedure, and since has treated many victims. But, the most they’ve had to take off a leg to treat the injury is four inches. The wounds of the landmine victims are cleaned and disinfected daily and the injured foot is wrapped in plastic.
Including Motala, the hospital has six permanent residents including Ekhe, who suffers from a broken hind leg; Auan, who still mourns the death of her baby; Tahnee, who suffers from a false pregnancy; Tanthong, who’s blind; and Mosha, who came to the hospital when she was seven months after stepping on a landmine.
Luckily, the plight of Soraida has not gone unnoticed. The Discovery Channel did a special biography on her, which aired 23 March 2003, and since 2004 the Brigitte Bardot Foundation has donated 70,000 euros annually to the FAE (about 20% of its operating budget). In recognition of this and to honor the famous animal activist, the FAE named a baby female elephant born at the hospital “Bee-Bee”. Ms Bardot, also wrote Prime Minister Thaksin Shiniwatra urging him to protect the elephants. Soraida asked Brigitte to visit the hospital, but she’s 73 now, and no longer travels abroad.
These days, Soraida divides her time between Lampang and Bangkok An elephant in her care could be suffering from dehydration, overwork, drug abuse or skin disease; it doesn’t matter, she regards them all as her children. And when elephants hear their mahouts whisper 'mother', they know they are referring to Soraida.
Editor’s note: Almost 30 years after the tragic accident involving Uncle Elephant, Soraida was invited to be the lecturer at a national seminar entitled The Elephants' Project: Natural and Cultural Heritage in Thailand. During the seminar she met Associate Professor Chuen Srisawasdi, who told her, "The owner of your Uncle Elephant will be meeting you here today.” He was 72 years old at that time. He had been injured in the tragic incident, and could no longer walk with a straight back. His name was Uncle Tao Sala-ngam, and the elephant that was hit was named Bua Joom (“Lotus”).
Check out an amazing new film on Soraida, narrated by Ashley Judd at: http://www.eyesofthailand.com/