6 June 2024

The return of ailing Thai elephant “Sak Surin”, after 22 years in Sri Lanka, not only brought joy and relief to Thais, but also raised awareness of animal welfare.

Many people have demanded that the government search for other Thai elephants sent to various countries. They also demanded that the Thai government repatriate all of them and not send any more elephants as goodwill ambassadors to other countries.

Thai elephants as “goodwill ambassadors”

Like giant pandas from China, sending elephants as “goodwill ambassadors” was a widespread practice in Thai history, especially during the King Rama IV era, to strengthen Thailand’s bilateral relationships with other countries. This is because elephants are deeply connected with Thai people’s livelihoods and were even used during wars, which became symbolic of the country.

In modern history, a Thai elephant, named Pratupha, was sent to Sri Lanka in 1979 by Thailand’s Royal Forest Department, to be used during Esala Perahera processions, an annual religious festival in Sri Lanka to pay homage to a sacred Buddha relic.

The Royal Forest Department sent two more elephants, Sak Surin and Sri Narong, to Sri Lanka, in 2001, in response to Sri Lanka’s request to use these Thai elephants for processions of Buddhist relics. The same department also sent three Thai elephants to Denmark in the same year. One of them gave birth to a calf, so Denmark now has a total of four elephants, namely Kan-kera, Surin, Plai-sak and Chang.

In 2002, Thailand sent two elephants to Japan, named Arthit and Uthai, to signify bilateral “friendship” between the two countries. They were also presented as a gift to Japan on the auspicious occasion of Princess Aiko’s birth, the only child of Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako. Sadly, elephant Arthit died in August 2020 from tuberculosis.

Meanwhile, His Majesty King Bhumibol gave two Thai elephants to the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, in 2004, to strengthen the bilateral relationship. The two elephants were named Bua and Sao-noi. His Majesty King Bhumibol also gave an elephant named Ton-sak to Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, as a present during her official visit to Thailand. Ton-sak relocated from Denmark to Sweden, bred with elephant Bua and gave birth to a calf named Nam-sai in 2013. Nam-sai has been relocated to a zoo in Heidelberg, Germany since 2021.

Thailand’s Zoological Park Organisation also sent eight elephants to Australia in 2006, based on an exchange agreement under which Australia will also send their animals to Chiang Mai. The eight elephants were named Goong, Thong-dee, Nam-aoy, Dok-khoon, Pon-tip, Pak-boong and Tangmo, while the last elephant’s name was not disclosed.

Animal cruelty?

Edwin Wiek, Director and Founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), believes, however, that such practices should no longer be in place, as many animals, particularly elephants, have been exploited.

“I think it’s something of the past and should be stopped for the future,” said Edwin, who’s also a parliamentary advisor to the Animal Welfare Committee, in which he recalled some politicians were discussing “exporting” elephants as “Thailand’s ambassadors” for other countries to appreciate the “beauty” of Thai wildlife.

“I don’t agree with that,” he stated. “The example of Sri Lanka is a very good one, where elephants that were given away to Sri Lanka have been neglected and maltreated for a very long time. Can you guarantee that these animals will not be exploited and neglected? Obviously not.”

The founder of Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation, Soraida Salwala, also said that what we saw happen to Sak Surin and Pratupha, another Thai elephant in Sri Lanka, is not how any kind of “ambassador” should be treated. Therefore, all she hopes for is for all elephants to be repatriated.

“This is an ambassador? Is that how an ambassador should live? If we use them in sacred ceremonies, it should not be like this,” she said. “Times have changed. We don’t need to grow the relationship with living creatures. We can exchange traditions and cultures.”

In fact, Soraida has been working with elephants in Thailand for decades and founded the first elephant hospital in the country.

Soraida also helped design the “Elephant Master Plan” that was supposed to be sent to the cabinet in 2018, and which would be put into action over 20 years. She explains that the plan was comprehensive and was discussed by all stakeholders in Thailand – the mahouts, elephant owners, business owners and NGOs. The status of the masterplan, however, remains “pending”. 

“With no known reason, the plan has not been sent to the cabinet… It’s a pity, because in that plan, I have requested a “National Elephant Fund”. That means, if there’s any trouble, that fund could be ready to help.”

Hopes for better welfare

Currently, the Thai government has no plans to send any more Thai elephants abroad, like it did in the past, according to Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Varawut Silpa-archa. If, however, a country wishes to “exchange” animals with Thailand, they will consider the detail and set guidelines, to make sure that such animals would not be at risk of animal cruelty or abuse.

Although the awareness of animal welfare in Thailand has increased over the past 20-30 years, the WFFT founder believes that the problem that needs to be fixed is the clarity of the animal welfare laws and, most importantly, the reinforcement of them. Among the biggest problems is that Thailand’s animal welfare law is way too open to interpretation.

“Well, I think the animal welfare laws in Thailand are not very good law. It’s only a few pages, stipulations of what is animal torture, what is pain, what is misery, what is neglect. It’s all written in a way that is very difficult for enforcement officers, such as the Livestock Department or the police, to enforce these laws. The interpretation of the laws could be very subjective, as they are written.”

At the same time, Soraida put her hopes in the new to taking a leading role in animal welfare. She believes that both the public and private sectors will be cooperative, to ensure the wellbeing of the elephants and all stakeholders in the country.

“I am confident that we will work together to make sure that all the elephants in Thailand can live well and that we can take care of the elephants, which are national symbols, as long as possible,” Soraida said.

“The way we treat our animals is also the way people measure the prosperity of our society,” Edwin concluded.

By Nad Bunnag and Tulip Naksompop Blauw, Thai PBS World