Injured Thai elephants find loving care at pachyderm clinic

Lampang, Thailand - "Hey, little one, come to mama," chirps Soraida Salwala.

The "little one" is a female elephant calf named Mosha, and she knows that Soraida never visits her empty-handed. She approaches Soraida to find a treat of bananas.

Soraida has cared for the calf for the past 18 months after Mosha tripped on a landmine in the jungle near Thailand's border with Myanmar. The explosion almost severed her right foreleg, and she was brought to Soraida's elephant clinic when she was 7 months old.

Soraida, 52, has earned herself the nickname "elephant mum of the nation" since she started the country's first clinic dedicated to pachyderms in 1993 in Lampang in northern Thailand. She founded the Friends of the Asian Elephant foundation, which runs the clinic on donations.

When she began her work, the glorious past of the highly revered elephants was already over after they were used by the Thais for centuries in warfare or as work animals, primarily in the forestry industry.

But a logging ban introduced in the late 1980s made hundreds of elephants and their owners jobless. Some of the elephants simply were abandoned in the wild after having served humans for decades. Others migrated with their owners to the cities to beg.

Mock elephant camps were set up as tourist attractions, but during the off-season, the animals were often neglected and fell sick. That's when Soraida decided to set up her clinic.

Her patient Mosha was in great pain after her accident, but she has made a recovery.

Soraida's team of helpers constructed a prosthetic leg from a thick-walled, blue plastic sack tightly packed with sawdust at the bottom and a cushion on top.

The device is slipped over Mosha's stump and fastened with leather belts around her belly.

The elephant has learned to walk with her new leg almost like it was her own and is only cautious when she has to negotiate a small step on the way to her favourite playground, a meadow.

The clinic has the capacity for 25 animals, and everything is oversized: syringes, ointment jars - just as the patients themselves.

Some of the elephants have "retired" here, like 77-year-old Tanthong, a female with digestive problems who can only eat crushed leaves.

A nearby pen holds 32-year-old Kampai and her third calf. Her owner had brought her to the clinic to give birth because she had almost trampled to death her other two babies.

"That's no surprise," veterinarian Preecha Puangkam says. "Most of them were separated from their own mothers much too early and raised in isolation as work animals. Therefore, they have never learned how to care for their own offspring."

When these animals experience labour, the pain triggers the instinct to destroy the cause of the pain, Preecha explains.

Another resident, Kathia, 25, arrived at the clinic from a tourist park a few weeks ago with open wounds on her head, the result of beatings with a stick, Preecha says.

She also is malnourished and one of her legs is inflamed after she probably walked into a thorny branch and no one treated the injury, the veterinarian says.

"All diseases we treat here are manmade: overworking, malnutrition and mistreatment," Preecha says.

People today lack the knowledge to properly care for elephants, but it was once different, he says.

"An elephant was practically a member of the family, and its handlers were intuitive and sensitive," Preecha says. "A well-reared, healthy elephant was the pride of the whole family."

Elephants traditionally are revered in Thailand. When the kingdom was known as Siam, its national flag displayed the image of a white elephant, and kings measured their power and how much divine providence they had earned on the number of white elephants discovered during their reigns.

But today, elephant owners are merely entrepreneurs who regard the animals as investments, Preecha says.

"They may own hundreds, don't know their names and treat them like a commodity," he says.

"They are intelligent, some of them even genial, but like humans, they also have individual character traits and must be raised with love, but some discipline, too," he adds.

In the 1950s, Thailand was home to more than 13,000 elephants, according to official records.

But Preecha estimates that the number has shrunk today to about 3,500 domesticated animals, more than half of which are kept in tourist camps. Others are deployed on rubber plantations or even used by illegal loggers while an estimated 800 to 1,000 elephants still live in the wild.

One of the most famous patients at Soraida's clinic is Motala, 47. She stepped on a mine seven years ago and lost much of her left front leg. Veterinarians pioneered the pachyderm amputation on her.

Motala's severed leg still needs attention every day, and unlike Mosha, she never has gotten used to wearing her prosthetic leg.

"Motala and Mosha will, of course, never be able to return to the wild again, but we try to make our elephants' lives as comfortable as we can," Soraida says. (dpa)