Blockade of trucks at Kanchanaburi stops controversial export of elephants
Eight elephants walk onto trucks to transport them from Mahidol University’s animal hospital in Kanchanaburi to Bangkok airport.
Standing in front of eight large trucks was a line of environmentalists, on the trucks were eight young elephants and at the back were staff from Thailand Zoological Park Organisation (ZPO) and Australian Taronga Zoo.
The stand-off was still going late last night at Mahidol University's animal hospital in Sai Yok district, where the eight elephants had been quarantined for about 18 months.
Without the blockade, the eight elephants would have been on their way to Bangkok International Airport where an Australian cargo plane waited to take them to Sydney.
"We want the elephants to be unloaded," said Soraida Salwala, secretary-general of Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation, who has led the campaign against the mammals' overseas trip.
An anonymous ZPO veterinarian said: "We have to load them on the cargo tonight otherwise the Australian zoo might sue us, as the transport costs are high. The cargo plane they rented probably costs at least Bt50 million."
He claimed that he could ask hospital staff to force the activists away, "but we don't want to do that".
A minor war of words broke out.
Soraida said a senior Taronga official insulted her by offering cash and funding for a trip to Australia.
The environmentalists reported the matter to the police yesterday afternoon, accusing the ZPO of illegally exporting the elephants.
The eight young elephants, under the exchange scheme called the "Joint Cooperation in Captive Animal Management Programmes between Australia and Thailand", were supposed to move to Sydney late last night.
However, when The Nation went to press, the situation was still in deadlock. The Thai government and the ZPO signed an agreement with the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria in July 2004 to send the elephants, which were recently named the Thai national animal, for breeding.
Taronga Zoo has spent around 40 million Australian dollars (Bt1.1 billion) on a new enclosure complete with hot and cold bathing areas, elephant exercise equipment, waterfalls and ponds and specially designed "sleeping mounds".
But the measures did not satisfy Thai and Australian animal rights groups who argued the beasts should remain in the wild.
The elephants have been kept for around 18 months in quarantine in Thailand during the dispute.
"I'm opposed to this export and sad with what the Thai authorities are doing," said Soraida.
In Australia, the activists brought the case to court claiming the export of the animals violated the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (Cites). But last December the court cleared the way for their export to Sydney and Melbourne as long as the zoos met certain conditions.
The Thai campaigners have questioned the origins of the elephants. Soraida feared they were wild elephants, contrary to what the ZPO claimed.
Environmentalists requested DNA testing of the animals to make sure they were born in captivity.
"We don't have the DNA of their parents so how can we compare the results?" said Thanong Nateepitak, deputy director of the ZPO.
"All the elephants have official documents [issued by the Interior Ministry] to guarantee they were born in captivity. Do you want me to believe the official documents or a claim from one person?" he asked.
However, Soraida said the documents were a "tool to export elephants" and last year she noticed one of the documents recorded an incorrect gender.
The Nation, AP