Animals are not objects to be used as diplomatic gifts

Kudos to Thai Govt for its jumbo effort to get its ailing elephant back. More countries should do what the Thai Government has done and bring back the animals that they have gifted if they are being treated badly.

As a journalist who goes through thousands of news items on a daily basis, I can safely say that it’s not often that I come across positive, heart-warming stories. So imagine my delight when I read this particular news item that stated that an “elephant that Thailand had presented to Sri Lanka more than two decades ago returned to his native land for medical treatment on June 2 following allegations that the animal was badly abused while living at a Buddhist temple.”

So, the story goes that the male elephant called Muthu Raja in Sri Lanka and Sak Surin in Thailand, was sent to Sri Lanka in 2001 when he was around 10 years old as a diplomatic gift from the Thai royal family. Muthu Raja was one of three elephants that Thailand gave to the Sri Lankan Government for training as a carrier of religious relics and he was placed in the care of the aforementioned Buddhist temple.
Then in 2020, a Sri Lanka-based animal rights group, ‘Rally for Animal Rights and Environment’ (RARE) revealed that Muthu Raja was in poor health due to years of hard labour and abuse, and needed urgent medical care.

RARE reported that the pachyderm was underweight, had rough skin and abscesses all over, thinning foot pads, and a stiff left foreleg, making it difficult for him to walk and stand. He was urgently in need of medical attention and some tender, loving care.

When the Sri Lankan Government allegedly ignored the activists’ complaints and calls for help for Muthu Raja, RARE began a petition calling for the pachyderm to be rescued. When all cries for help for the animal went unheard, they upped the ante and called for the elephant’s return to Thailand, its home country.

Fortunately for the poor, tortured soul, the Thai Government heard about his travails and in November 2022, Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry released a statement saying a preliminary investigation was conducted into Muthu Raja’s state by the Thai Embassy in Sri Lanka and they came to the conclusion that the pachyderm “was not in good health and was enduring poor living conditions.”
They also declared that Thailand would seek Sri Lanka’s approval to take the elephant back home for treatment. But before he could be moved to Thailand for treatment they had to ensure that Muthu Raja was fit enough to undertake a plane journey. So, he was moved from the Buddhist temple to Sri Lanka’s National Zoological Garden for preliminary treatment where he was given care to help him revive.

After it was decided that Muthu Raja would be flown directly to northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai province from Colombo, the Thai Government began the jumbo task of getting him ready for the journey that would last roughly six hours.

Several mahouts were sent to Sri Lanka by Thailand to get the elephant accustomed to being caged so he wouldn’t panic during the long trip back to his home country.

A special container was built to hold the nine-foot-tall, four-ton pachyderm and a six-person team that included two veterinarians and four mahouts, on the flight back to Thailand on a Russian Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane.

Consequently, when Muthu Raja arrived in Chiang Mai he was conscious and calm and was received by Thai Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa at the airport.

According to media reports, the pachyderm could be heard trumpeting from inside the container that was loaded onto a truck’s flatbed trailer to transport him to the Government’s Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang province, where he will be quarantined for at least 30 days and stay for rehabilitation.
Thai officials have said the main purpose of bringing Muthu Raja back to the country was for medical care and whether he returns to Sri Lanka remains a subject to be discussed with the Government in Colombo.
One cannot help but commend the action taken by a small country like Thailand for standing up for the rights of one of its own, even if it was a four-legged citizen. They had to spend a whopping million baht (USD 540,000) for the elephant’s repatriation but they showed the largeness of heart and did it.

In fact, so gravely did Thailand take the ill-treatment of the poor elephant that had been given away as a gift to a friendly country that Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had to express regret to his Thai counterpart over what had happened to the elephant, during his visit to Thailand in May. And it was only right that Gunawardena apologised because Muthu Raja was in pain and covered in abscesses when he was rescued from the Buddhist temple last year. Animal welfare groups said the elephant had been forced to work with a logging crew and that its wounds, some allegedly inflicted by its handler, had been neglected. Now, Muthu Raja will undergo hydrotherapy in Thailand to treat an injury on its left front leg and hopefully have many years of rest and a good life till the end of his days.

Thankfully, export of Thai elephants is already banned for conservation reasons and now, according to Thai Environment Minister Varawut Silpa, -archa authorities would start surveying the health condition of other Thai elephants in foreign countries which had been given away as diplomatic gifts.

I wish more countries would do what the Thai Government has done and bring back the animals that they have given to other nations if they are being treated badly. Sri Lanka’s Wildlife Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said Thailand was “adamant” in its demands for the elephant’s return, which is remarkable and shows the humane nature of the Thai King and Government that they did not ignore the plight of the poor animal just because of the fear of souring diplomatic ties.

It takes a  lot of spine, conviction and gumption to stand up for animal rights especially where government-to-government relations are concerned. Thailand made their displeasure known to another Buddhist nation instead of brushing the issue under the carpet for fear of causing a diplomatic row.

Sadly, not many Governments are willing to do that. Once an animal has been “gifted” and the photo ops are over, everyone forgets about that hapless soul left behind to suffer the consequences of this unfortunate exchange.

While I’m not saying that all animals that are given away as “diplomatic gifts” suffer the same fate as Muthu Raja, there are too many examples in India and around the world for this issue to be ignored. There are too many instances where hapless animals exchanged between two nations are forced to lead a life of imprisonment and loneliness in small enclosures, far away from verdant jungles and families.

Take for example the case of Shankar the elephant who is leading a lonely life in Delhi Zoo ever since his mate Bombai died. Poor Shankar and Bombai were also victims of this animal gifting culture and at a tender age of 26 months he and Bombai were presented as a diplomatic gift to the Indian President Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1998. Life was OK till Shankar had his partner but after Bombai died in 2005 he has been alone. All efforts by animal rights activists to send the lonely and distressed elephant back to his home country or to a bio-reserve to live with his own kind have been thwarted by courts who consider a live, feeling being “our property.” Sadly, the search for a wife for Shankar, too, has been full of hurdles, legal as well as diplomatic. The result is that Shankar continues to live out his days in solitary confinement as does Richie, an African bull elephant in its 20s that has been living alone at the Mysuru zoo since 2016 after its father Timbo died.

Then, who in the world doesn’t know the fate of that unfortunate, young soul Noor Jehan who died of torture and neglect at the young age of 17 after spending almost all her life in the living hell that is Karachi Zoo. Sadly, Noor Jehan was not the only animal brought from around the world to that house of horrors, there are still many others like lions, jackals, zebras and other species who are waiting for the mercy of death in that torture chamber. Incidentally, Noor Jehan and her sole companion Madhubala had been brought from Tanzania as wee babies slightly over one year of age, under a controversial agreement with Pakistan.

Then, there is Lucy, who was captured at the age of two from the tropical forests of Sri Lanka in 1977 and has been forced to live behind bars at the Edmonton Valley Zoo in Canada ever since in an enclosure that is absolutely inappropriate for any animal, let alone for one from a warm place like Sri Lanka. There has been no effort by Edmonton Valley Zoo to create an enclosure that is closer to Lucy’s habitat. There has been no effort by them to make her feel welcome or at home or provide any stimulation or comfort. She is literally a prisoner in a cold, unwelcome, concrete prison cell which has resulted in 40 years of mental and physical trauma to the poor elephant.

These are just a few well-known examples of animals suffering from animal gifting diplomacy. There would be thousands upon thousands of animals all around the world who have been presented as diplomatic gifts and then conveniently forgotten by the Government that presented them.

But it’s time that this reprehensible practice is stopped. Just like dog owners ensure that puppies born in their homes to their pets are given to loving homes, it is incumbent upon Governments to see the track record of the nation they are sending the animal to and to keep checking to see how they are being treated.

Also, it’s time this horrible form of “diplomacy” is stopped because it is cruel to snatch an animal from its natural environment, family and condemn it to a life of cruelty, deprivation, loneliness and in most cases lifelong solitary confinement for the sake of diplomacy and fleeting photo ops.

Because animals are not objects to be gifted! They are cognisant beings that feel pain, fear, hunger, love and loneliness. They need attention and care. They miss their families, and suffer when they are confined to small, cramped spaces. Just because they are voiceless doesn’t mean they don’t suffer and feel as we do. How can anyone sleep easy after condemning an animal to a life as horrible as Muthu Raja, Shankar, Lucy, Noor Jehan or Madhubala. Kudos to the Government of Thailand that it has stuck its neck out and has brought Muthu Raja home and also for the fact that it has decided to check in on the welfare of other animals gifted by it to other nations. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Thailand can stand tall after this decision.