SAVING THE ELEPHANTS

Institute in Lampang protects pachyderms through variety of projects

Story by LAMPHAI INTATHEP



Saksit Tridech, permanent secretary at the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, feeds Khun Plai, the first elephant born through artificial insemination in Asia.


Robed in dark blue fabric, the three elephants walked calmly in line to the commemoration ground and slowly crouched in front of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana's photo to pay tribute to the late Princess.


The jumbos_Phang Phra Thida Juthanant, 14, Phang Wanalee, 10, and the four-year-old Phang Aleena, who shares the Princess' birthday, May 6 _ were adopted and named by the Princess years ago.

The Princess' adoption of the elephants and her support for Thai elephant conservation by accepting the Lampang-based National Elephant Institute (NEI) under her patronage in 2002 has sparked public awareness of protection of the animals in the country.


In remembrance of the Princess' dedication to elephant conservation, the NEI last week held a commemoration ceremony attended by officials and the three adopted elephants.


With the Princess' support, the NEI _ run by the Forestry Industry Organisation (FIO) under the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry _ came up with various projects including the establishment of the country's first elephant hospital, which provides free medical treatment for sick and injured jumbos, and an artificial breeding programme.

The latest initiative is so-called ''elephant therapy'' for children with autism, which was launched in April last year. Supporters believe that close encounters with gentle animals like elephants will help improve the mental and physical condition of children with autism.


The project is jointly operated by the NEI, the Occupational Therapy Department and Chiang Mai University's faculty of associated medical sciences.

''We've found that elephants can reduce autistic kids' stress and help them to have better concentration. Their relationships with other people also improved after doing activities with the elephants,'' said Prasop Tipprasert, the FIO's elephant specialist who heads the research on elephant therapy for autistic children.


Before joining the programme, the participating children have to undergo a test to evaluate their condition. Then they are sent to the NEI with their parents for the three-week ''elephant treatment''.

''Of course, the kids are afraid to touch or even stand close to the elephants because most of them have never seen a jumbo in the flesh before,'' said Mr Prasop. ''Therefore, several activities have been arranged to make the autistic kids more familiar with the animal.''

These include drawing and painting pictures of elephants, and riding a giant elephant doll.


When they feel more relaxed and are no longer afraid of the elephants, the children are taught to feed and bathe them. The final lessons are in elephant riding, Mr Prasop said.

After the treatment sessions, the participating children were found to have more stable emotions and be calmer than before. The therapy also improves their physical strength.

''The elephant therapy is not only for autistic children, but also for Thai elephant conservation,'' he said. ''The more people know that elephants can help, the more they will want to protect them.''


Saksit Tridech, permanent secretary for the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, said the love the Princess had for elephants had been transformed into several projects that have resulted in a sharp decrease in cruelty against the pachyderms, particularly those forced to entertain tourists.


One of the NEI's flagship projects is the Elephant Hospital, which is the first of its kind in the world.

In the past, many elephants were abandoned and left uncared for when they got sick or sustained serious injuries from working for humans, said Sittidet Mahasawangkul, head of the hospital's veterinary section.

With the establishment of the hospital, Thai elephants will get better medical treatment, he said, adding that 90% of threats the elephants are confronted with come from humans.


The welfare of elephants is now on the international agenda after the tragedy of Motala, a jumbo who stepped on a landmine near the Thai-Burmese border opposite Tak province nine years ago.

Vets amputated her wounded left front leg and replaced it with an artificial leg, in the hope that she would be able to walk again. Unfortunately, this attempt failed because of her weight, and she has had to hobble on three legs since.


The hospital also runs an artificial breeding programme to increase the Asian elephant population and reduce weak characteristics caused by inbreeding. It recently had a new arrival. Khun Plai is the first baby elephant in Asia born to a mother who was artificially inseminated.

He is healthy and has been waiting for a new name to be given to him by His Majesty the King.

Bangkok Post

(The institute offers both homestays and elephant driving courses for foreign visitors as well as several other activities-KD)