Controversial Thai Elephants Ready for Australia
BANGKOK Eight elephants, whose shipment to Australia was blocked by protesters last month, were due to leave Thailand on Sunday after their convoy managed to get away from a rally to stop them from leaving the quarantine centre.
The elephants travelled in a motorcade of trucks guarded by police motorcycles on a six-hour journey late on Saturday to the eastern naval airport of U-Tapao, as activists were racing their cars on highways trying to stop the trip, but blocked by police.
The animals, loaded onto the Russian-made Antonov cargo plane on Sunday, were destined for another three months of quarantine on the Australian territory's Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, Thai and Australian officials said.
"They can go now because both countries have followed all the international and domestic requirements on the exchanges of animals," Environment Minister Yongyut Tiyapairat told Reuters.
Animal rights activists have charged that several of the elephants destined for Australia were caught illegally in the wild and want DNA tests carried out to prove that, but the Thai government denied the charges.
They forced the temporary abandonment of a bid to ship the elephants to Australia last month by blocking off the quarantine site, prompting zoo officials to unload the elephants from trucks and put them back in the western province of Kanchanaburi.
"They have lied to us as they've promised to conduct DNA tests to prove whether or not these elephants were wild or domesticated," said conservationist Pinan Chotrossaeranee, who said her rally to stop the shipment failed last night.
A Thai official involved in the animal exchange programme but declined to be identified denied the charge saying DNA tests on elephants were not proven scientifically reliable.
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.
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.
New South Wales Zoological Parks Board chief Guy Cooper called it "the Four Seasons Hotel for elephants," referring to a posh international hotel chain, but animal welfare groups disagreed. ($1=1.304 Australian Dollar)