Muthu Raja, a 29-year-old elephant from Thailand, returned to Chiang Mai on Sunday after allegations of neglect and abuse led to calls for his return from Sri Lanka. Also known as Sak Surin in Thailand, the elephant was offered as a gift to Sri Lanka nearly 20 years ago and put into service at a Buddhist temple.
“He arrived in Chiang Mai perfectly. He travelled five hours and nothing is wrong, his condition is normal.” said Thailand’s environment minister, Varawut Silpa-archa. “If everything goes well, we will move him,” referring to plans to move Muthu Raja to a nearby nature reserve. (VOA)
The elephant had spent the day traveling from Colombo in a specially built cage, accompanied by four Thai handlers and a Sri Lankan zookeeper. The flight is estimated to have cost US$700,000. Along with the dedicated staff for the journey, officials created a special container to safely hold the 2.7-meter-tall, 3,600-kilogram animal.
The elephant was sent to Sri Lanka in 2001, at around the age of 10, as a gift from Thailand’s royal family. He and two other elephants were given and expected to be trained as Buddhist relic carriers for religious ceremonies. During his time in Sri Lanka, Muthu Raja lived under the care of a Buddhist temple in the south of the country.
Allegations arose that the elephant was being forced to work with logging crews inside the temple grounds and that a leg-injury had gone untreated. The Sri Lankan group Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE) began lobbying last year for the Thai government to step in after attempts to encourage help from the Sri Lankan government failed.
RARE’s founder, Panchali Panapitiya, said that Sri Lanka’s failure to intervene had brought “disrepute” to the country. (BBC)
RARE officials also organized a Buddhist blessing for Muthu Raja on Friday ahead of his travels.
Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, said in June that he had conveyed his regret to the Thai king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, and that he was able to “re-establish trust between the two countries.” (BBC)
Thailand stopped sending elephants overseas after 2009, and a move to restart the practice in 2019 was abandoned after protests from environmental groups. Thai environment minister Varawut Silpa-archa said that diplomatic missions would check on the conditions of all Thai elephants that had been sent abroad.
Currently, there are 10 elephants from Thailand living abroad. The two other elephants living in Sri Lanka are believed to be in good health. There are no plans to repatriate them or any of the other elephants at this time.
Elephants are considered a symbol of wealth and prestige in both countries. In Thailand, they are seen as protectors of the Buddha and the Earth. Sri Lanka fell into an economic crisis in 2019, which was worsened by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Sri Lanka’s state religion is Buddhism, with 70.2 per cent of the population of some 20 million people identifying as Theravada Buddhists, according to census data for 2012. Sri Lanka’s second-largest religion is Hinduism, with 12.6 per cent of the populous, followed by Islam, accounting for 9.7 per cent of Sri Lankans, Christianity with 7.4 per cent, and others 0.05 per cent.
Ailing Thai elephant returns home for medical care after allegations of abuse in Sri Lanka (NBC News)
Neglected Elephant Touches Down in Thai Homeland After Flight (VOA News)
Thai elephant flown home after alleged abuse in Sri Lanka (BBC)
Thailand gets elephant home after allegations of torture at Buddhist temple (Scandasia)
10 more Thai elephants abroad are unlikely to be repatriated (Thai PBS World)
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