A brief history of Thailand’s ‘elephant diplomacy’

In the last royal letter to President Lincoln, HM Rama IV proposed to gift an elephant upon learning that the US was testing the usage of camels.

The Nation

The Nation



July 10, 2023

BANGKOK – Silpa-Mag and Siammanussati websites stated that HM King Rama IV contacted the former president on multiple occasions. In 1856, a royal letter and gifts were sent to President Franklin Pierce and then to James Buchanan in 1859.

In the last royal letter to President Lincoln, HM Rama IV proposed to gift an elephant to him upon learning that the US was testing the usage of camels. However, Lincoln declined, saying that the climate of the US was not suitable for elephant breeding.

Upon receiving this response, he sent the elephants to France instead. Two Siamese elephants lived in a Parisian zoo for over a decade. This would not last, however, since the French capital found itself barricaded during the siege of Paris in 1870. Due to food shortages, officials decided to butcher the zoo animals and partition the meat as this was the last source of quality meat. The elephants were not spared.

Hanako, the Thai elephant in Japan

In 1935, the Thai government sent an elephant to Japan on a diplomatic mission. The Ueno Zoo in Tokyo named it Hanako, meaning “golden flower.”

When Hanako died after the end of the Second World War, a two-year-old elephant was sent to the same zoo on September 2, 1949, by Captain Somwang Sarasas, a relative of former Commerce Minister Lt-Colonel Phra Sarasas Phonkhan, who had deep ties to Japan.

This move aimed to brighten the spirits of Japanese children who had to face the horrors of war.

The zoo named it Hanako, like the previous elephant. It was then relocated to the Inokashira Zoo, Musashino permanently. It was well-loved by the Japanese but in 1960, Hanako killed a zoo staff and had to be chained off separately in a concrete stable. Hanako died in May 2016 at the age of 69. It died alone, chained in a narrow concrete enclosure. At the time of its death, it was the oldest elephant in Japan.

A brief history of Thailand’s ‘elephant diplomacy’

Picture from Page Israel in Thailand

The Thai Elephants in Israel

AFP reported that Varawut Silpa-archaminister of natural resources and environment said earlier last month that after the incident with Plai Sak Surin (Muthu Raja) in Sri Lanka, the Thai government has stopped sending elephants abroad. The Thai embassy is investigating the conditions of all Thai elephants overseas.

Despite these dark trends, the Facebook page, “Israel in Thailand” run by the Embassy of Israel in Thailand posted a photo of two elephants named Teddy and Michaela from the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. The zoo was established by a zoology professor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem originally as a centre for studying zoology and preserving biblical animals. The animals are allowed to roam freely, and caretakers interact directly with them.

Officials from the Israeli embassy said that Thailand sent two four-year-old female elephants as a gift. The staff taking care of the elephants included two Thai professional elephant handlers and professionally trained Israeli staff.

The Thai elephants received Hebrew names – one was named Aviva and staff admitted they could not remember the name of the other one. They are under good care and are not allowed to work or to do shows while visitors are only allowed to watch them. The Israeli zoo also prefers female elephants as males have to be chained when they enter the musth and become aggressive. Visitors may mistake this for animal abuse.

Reuters reported on May 5, 2015, that Shay Doron, CEO of the Biblical Zoo, said that former president Yitzhak Rabin requested Thai elephants. He stated that the utmost effort will be used to conserve and breed these animals.

In 2015, these elephants returned the favour to their friends back in Thailand through a donation of US$1,500 from the Biblical Zoo to the elephant hospital in Lampang. The funds were donated by visitors over three years.

Aviva ended up causing a headache after giving birth to a male baby named Chapati. She was unable to care for it and zoo staff had to separate the baby from her, making it impossible for the mother to nurse it.

Fortunately, a large milk power company was able to create a special formula for Chapati. As he matured, Chapati developed the characteristic behaviour of male elephants.

As the zoo did not want to chain him, the staff sent him to an elephant conservation centre in Lampang to care for it. Once in Thailand, his name was changed to Plai Kaeo. On a visit to the conservation centre, the staff of the Israeli embassy in Thailand found him to be in great condition.

As for the fate of the elephants, Aviva died many years ago in Israel, while Plai Kaeo only died a few years ago. Another female elephant which was sent to Israel together with Aviva is still alive and her original Thai elephant handler is still caring for her in Israel.

This is the story of Thai elephants sent away from their homeland to foreign lands. Some had a happy ending, others not so much. Plai Sak Surin is perhaps the first elephant sent abroad to return to its home country.

However, its wounds, both physical and emotional, will serve as a lesson in “elephant diplomacy”. Whether this should continue is questionable since animal welfare concerns are characteristic in developed countries.

A brief history of Thailand’s ‘elephant diplomacy’

scroll to top