Thai Activists Block Elephant Transport

The Associated Press
Monday, June 5, 2006; 4:23 PM

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Animal rights activists Monday blocked trucks from transporting eight elephants bound for Australian zoos, saying the animals would suffer.

The elephants were in separate trucks at a quarantine station in the western Thai province of Kanchanaburi, waiting to be driven to Bangkok airport for a flight to Australia late Monday night.

But Soraida Salwala, founder of the Thai group Friends of the Asian Elephant, and a local environmentalist stepped in front of the lead truck, blocking its way. Television footage showed the truck stopping barely a foot in front of them.

The standoff continued into the night, Soraida said by phone. She and her colleague remained inside the university compound that houses the quarantine station, while a fence had been erected to keep others out. About 100 supporters were outside the fence, she said.

Soraida said police had told her she would have to leave because she was on government property, but that she planned to remain at least overnight despite the possibility of arrest.

She and other opponents of the move said they were concerned about the elephants' welfare, claiming the animals _ who will be part of a captive breeding program _ would suffer in the confines of Australian zoos, which she compared to prisons.

Soraida said she would step aside if the elephants were put back in the stables and the Thai government opened discussions with the activists.

"I don't want to see elephants in distress," she told The Associated Press.

The elephants were to be flown to a temporary home in Australia's Cocos islands for three months of quarantine before moving to two national zoos.

The elephants have been kept in quarantine in Thailand for more than a year as groups in both countries fought to prevent the transfer.

In December, an Australian court cleared the way for the move to Sydney's Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo in the southern state of Victoria as long as the zoos met certain conditions guaranteeing the elephants' welfare.

Taronga Zoo has spent $30 million on a new enclosure, complete with hot and cold bathing areas, an elephant exercise area, waterfalls and ponds, and specially designed "sleeping mounds" for the pachyderms.

But the measures didn't go far enough for Thai and Australian animal rights groups, who argued that the animals should be allowed to remain in the wild.

"Elephants are a Thai national symbol," Soraida said. "I don't see why we have to send our animals to other countries."

Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell has said the breeding program would help ensure the survival of the species and protect the elephants from conflicts with Thai farmers and a shrinking natural habitat.

Campbell has said that with fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants in the wild, "every attempt must be made to ensure the survival of the species, including through captive breeding programs."

© 2006 The Associated Press