April 25, 2023
BANGKOK – Reporters who were covering Prayut’s election campaign rallies said they overheard the outgoing prime minister give the instruction to Varawut when the two met by chance at Don Mueang International Airport on Sunday morning.
Prayut was heard telling Varawut: “Please coordinate with the Foreign Ministry as to how it can be done. The elephant must be brought back.”
Varawut later told reporters on Sunday that his ministry was not ignoring the case of “Sak Surin” or “Muthu Raja”, one of three elephants that the Thai government had given as gifts to the Sri Lanka government in 2001.
Varawut said his ministry had been monitoring the case since late last year but bringing Sak Surin back is complicated due to its large size and advanced age.
Initially, the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry planned to transport Sak Surin on a C130 plane but the plan had to be aborted because the elephant’s cage is too large to be accommodated in the aircraft.
Varawut said it would take up to two weeks to transport Sak Surin by ship but in that time its already ailing health could worsen.
“So, we have to ponder transporting by a commercial plane that is capable of loading a large cage. There are not many commercial planes which are that large,” Varawut said.
The minister added that currently documents were being prepared to bring Sak Surin back.
He added that his ministry would like to thank the prime minister for his concern about the elephant. The prime minister has instructed the Natural Resources and Foreign ministries to work closely together to help the elephant.
“The two ministries have been coordinating closely on the issue. We have sent experienced elephant handlers and a team of veterinarians and medicines to take care of the elephant in Sri Lanka,” Varawut added.
Sak Surin’s plight became known in May last year when the Rally for Animal Rights & Environment (Rare), a non-governmental organisation for the protection of animal rights in Sri Lanka, alerted the Thai Natural Resources and Environment Ministry of alleged abuse of Sak Surin in Sri Lanka. The environment ministry in turn sought help from the Thai Foreign Ministry to investigate.
On October 7 last year Rare posted on its Rare Sri Lanka Facebook page: “Muthu Raja is a Thai elephant in Sri Lanka, being beaten, bull-hooked and abused. When he is wounded and injured, no treatment is given, and his nutrition and hygiene are neglected.”
Rare organised a public petition on Change.org asking the president of Sri Lanka to let Muthu Raja have a peaceful retirement. The petition has been signed by 2,637 people so far.
In November last year, the Thai Foreign Ministry announced that the ministry had asked the Thai embassy in Sri Lanka to conduct an investigation.
The Foreign Ministry said the Sri Lankan government had transferred ownership of Sak Surin to Kande Vihara Temple to perform its duty as the carrier of the holy relics during the annual Buddhist parades.
“On August 24, 2022, the Royal Thai Embassy, Colombo, conducted a primary investigation and found that Sak Surin was not in good health and was in poor living conditions. Consequently, the Royal Thai Embassy, with a team of Thai experts from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand, and the Forest Industry Organization went to examine Sak Surin,” the Thai Foreign Ministry said in November.
“The experts concluded that Sak Surin must cease to participate in the parades immediately, and that the elephant must be brought back to Thailand for proper medical treatment. Since November 9, 2022, Sak Surin has been transferred to Dehiwala Zoo for preliminary treatment and rehabilitation under the care of both Thai and Sri Lanka experts. To repatriate Sak Surin to Thailand for further medical treatment approval from the Sri Lankan side is required.”
The ministry added that the repatriation process must be in accordance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.