Australian Zoos Halt Bid to Move Thai Elephants
KANCHANABURI, Thailand Activists forced the temporary abandonment of an attempt to ship eight Thai elephants to Australia on Tuesday by blocking off their quarantine site in a last bid to stop a controversial animal-exchange programme.
Australian zoo officials decided to unload the elephants from 10-wheeler trucks and put them back in stables in the western province of Kanchanaburi as they were afraid the animals could hurt protesters.
"The decision to bring the elephants back to the quarantine was made by the Australian Zoos because the elephants looked anxious," spokeswoman Lisa Keen said.
They were worried about the animals and concerned about people's safety after several protesters got close to the trucks and made the elephants anxious, she said.
It was up to the two governments to decide what to do next after the Australian government lost a $500,000 deposit on a cargo plane which would have to leave Bangkok empty, Keen said.
Dozens of people had sat in front of the site's gate as the elephants, in quarantine for 20 months, stood confined in 10-wheeler trucks for almost 24 hours, fed with grass and coconuts, and sprinkled with water to cool them down.
The elephants were due to take a 130-km (80-mile) ride to board a cargo plane from Bangkok late on Monday, but activists blocked the convoy from leaving and the animals were kept in the trucks overnight and well into Tuesday.
Animal rights activists charged that several of the elephants destined for Australia were caught illegally in the wild and want DNA tests carried out to prove that.
"We are now waiting for the prime minister to decide what to do next," said Soraida Salwala, secretary-general of the Asian Elephant Foundation, who led the blockade.
Last July, the Australian government approved the import of eight Asian elephants from Thailand, with five destined for a new A$37 million ($28 million) enclosure at Sydney's Taronga Park zoo and three for the southern city of Melbourne's zoo.
The animals would take part in a conservation breeding programme, but a coalition of Australian animal welfare advocates challenged the move, saying zoo life put elephants at risk.
Taronga Park zoo has built a spectacular 1 hectare (2.5 acre) rainforest -- complete with a waterfall, pools and hot and cold showers.
The Thai elephants are to share it with 200 other animals, including Malayan tapirs, silvery gibbons, Philippine spotted deer and 40 Asian bird species.
"The zoo we built in Sydney is like the Four Seasons Hotel for elephants," said Guy Cooper, head of the New South Wales Zoological Parks Board, referring to a posh international hotel chain.
But animal welfare groups disagreed.
"Keeping elephants in zoos is simply cruel," said Hugh Wirth, president of Australia's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).
Asian elephants have suffered an 80 percent decline in population over the past century and fewer than 34,000 now remain across 13 countries.
Thai officials said all legal requirements domestically and internationally had been met and they might seek a court order to allow the animals to be shipped and to make the protesters pay the costs of the delay.
In return for the elephants, Thailand asked for more than 100 marsupials from Australia, most of them destined for the controversial night safari zoo in Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's northern home town of Chiang Mai, officials said.
Thaksin opened the park in February, but the venture, dubbed a 1.1 billion baht ($28 million) white elephant, remains short of animals.
Thaksin lobbied the Kenyan government in November for a shipment of more than 100 animals in return for unspecified technical assistance.
After an uproar from conservationists, Kenya said it would export only "animals that we have in plenty, such as flamingos, wildebeest and the African buffalo"