Why Did Uncle Elephant Have to Die?
In 1993, Soraida Salwala founded Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) and the world's first elephant hospital in 1994. Almost 4,000 elephants have been treated since the facility opened its doors. And incredibly, the first elephant prosthetic (artificial) limbs have enabled elephants, critically injured by landmines, a chance to roam freely once again.
Soraida's concern for elephants began as a child. During a family car trip when she was 8 years old, she saw a man weeping beside an elephant lying at the side of the road. She yelled to her father, "What happened to Uncle Elephant?"
Her father investigatgeneralising on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Genericed, returned to the car, and told Soraida, "Uncle Elephant has been hit by a truck."
Soraida could see that the elephant was still breathing and exclaimed, "What! We should rush him to the doctor, Papa!"
"How can we take him, my dear," he gently replied, "He is very big. There is no place to take him to. There's no one who can cure him."
While they were pulling away, Soraida heard a gunshot.
Softly her father tried to reassure her, "Uncle Elephant is in heaven now, my dear."
Poachers Killing Elephants
Kosala Bandara (kBandara on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericTraditionally, elephants in Thailand were often used in the logging industry.
When the government banned logging in 1989 (to save Thai rain forests), some elephant handlers (aka mahouts) began to exploit elephants. Poachers continued to kill elephants as well.
Over the next few years, Soraida became aware of ten elephant casualties when poachers viciously ran them off a cliff.
One of those elephants languished at the bottom of the cliff. Soraida pleaded with authorities to send a helicopter to save it - but to no avail. Sadly, the elephant died.
Inspired by news of a Russian-American group saving whales trapped in ice, Soraida began the FAE with plans to open an elephant hospital. This was no easy feat; being a woman made it more difficult to enter the elephant world and there was no precedent for a such a hospital.
Risking Her Life to Save Elephants
SorHectonichus (Wikipedia) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Genericaida made an impassioned plea to Dr. Preecha Phuangkum, Thailand's leading elephant veterinarian.
She recounts, "I told him if he didn't help me, I couldn't help the elephants. But I have managed, and today we are great friends."
None of this came to fruition without Soraida and her supporters taking huge risks.
During her efforts to save elephants, Soraida received death threats and had her car tampered with. There have been attempts to kill her and she's almost been run off the road.
Today she uses a cane and is in constant pain.
When Motala, FAE's most famous patient, made headlines and donations began to pour in, someone tried to kill her by planting three King cobras near her pen. If one had bitten her, she wouldn't have survived. Fortunately a staff member spotted the snakes and managed to shoot one - the other snakes escaped.
Julia Ferdinand / Used with PermissionIn 1999, Motala's front left leg was blown off by a landmine when she was foraging for food during a lunch break. She was being used to move trees.
It took Motala and her mahout 3 days struggling through the jungle to find the roadway to the FAE hospital.
Veterinarians had to remove 11 inches from Motala's foreleg and she went through an arduous 10-year long rehabilitation. Prior to Motala, the most veterinarians had to remove was 4 inches from an elephant's leg.
So Motala was indeed a challenging case, yet she (and Soraida) never gave up. Nor did the incredible team at the FAE hospital.
In 2009, Motala received her first permanent prosthetic limb. News coverage of Motala helped Soraida and her team garner donations. When Motala arrived, Soraida was still struggling to keep the hospital going - she needed around 1 million baht a month (about $30,800 US) for medications (elephant-dose amounts), food, and to pay staff in both Lampang and Bangkok.
Photo credit (above right and below): Julia Ferdinand / Used with Permission via The Eyes of Thailand
Soraida Salwala with Motala
Celebrities are Calling for Bans on Ivory
Soraida risked life and jail time to block convoy of elephants
Neon Tommy - File:Meryl Streep At The 2014 SAG Awards (Wikipedia) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0Surprising to me was that Soraida Salwala isn't mentioned in Wikipedia; however, in 2003 the Discovery Channel aired her biography. And in 2004, the Brigitte Bardot Foundation began to donate 70,000 euros (about $95,000 US) every year to FAE.
More recently, big name Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep have been speaking up against elephant poaching and ivory trafficking. Hopefully with press coverage, public awareness and tougher laws, Soraida's facility (and others like it) will benefit.
Soraida states, "I'd rather have an elephant hospital without any patients."
Christopher William Adach from London, UK (Wikipedia) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0We need to crush any consumer demand for products made from elephants (or other animals).
In 2006, Soraida made headlines around the world when she blocked a convoy of trucks carrying elephants bound for Australian zoos. TV footage showed the first truck stopped just inches in front of her. Numerous supporters also rallied around her.
The standoff continued for 25 hours (Soraida risked being jailed) and finally the elephants were unloaded.
"Elephants are a Thai national symbol. I don't see why we have to send our animals to other countries." ~ Soraida Salwala
Baby Mosha 2006
The Eyes of Thailand Press Room Photo Page / Used with PermissionWhile walking with her mother through the jungle, a young elephant named Mosha stepped on a landmine. It destroyed her right front leg and threatened her very survival. She was only 7 months old.
Today, Mosha is nine years old and is a permanent resident of FAE (along with Motala and three others, Auan, Ekhe, and Tanthong).
Soraida was overwhelmed when she saw Motala and Mosha walk again - she shed tears of joy. When mahouts refer to Soraida as "mother" the elephants know it is Soraida they are talking about.
And when it comes to Dr. Preecha Phuangkum, DVM and Co-Founder of FAE/Director of Medical Service to FAE's Elephant Hospital, I found it hilarious to read a Facebook post by Soraida which states:
"Every time Dr. Preecha approaches any elephant with his hands behind his back, the syringe is there ready to give a shot. Some of them just run away or hide behind a tree, thinking the doctor cannot see her now but no, her body is bigger than that small tree. I almost laughed aloud."
Soraida added, "Without Dr. Preecha's help, FAE could not have saved the elephants."
Photo Credit: FAE via The Eyes of Thailand Press Room Photo Page / Used with Permission
Shown below is Windy Borman with Motala and Soraida
Ms. Borman Directed & Produced "The Eyes of Thailand"
The Eyes of Thailand, narrated by Ashley Judd, has won the following awards:
- 2012 Humanitarian Award - Newport Beach Film Festival
- 2012 Green Planet Award - Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival
- 2012 Audience Choice Award Best Documentary - Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival
- 2012 Best of Festival Award - 35th International Wildlife Film Festival
- 2012 Best Documentary - Big Bear Lake International Film Festival
- 2012 Golden Ace Award - Las Vegas International Film Festival
- 2012 Merit Award Animation - 35th International Wildlife Film Festival
- 2012 Merit Award Animal Advocacy - 35th International Wildlife Film Festival
- 2012 Rising Star Award - Naples International Film Festival
I wish to extend my heartfelt gratitude and thanks to Windy Borman for granting me permission to use photos for this article. Up next is the 2013 Official HD Trailer of her incredible documentary The Eyes of Thailand.
The Eyes of Thailand (Documentary)
2013 Official HD Trailer
How to Help Friends of the Asian Elephant
Rose WebsterIf you wish to help Friends of the Asian Elephant please visit FAE's webpage: How to Donate
Author's note: I'd like to personally and publicly thank Miss Soraida Salwala and Windy Borman for taking the time to respond to my queries.
Asian Elephants Today | Advocacy for Captive Elephants in Asia Soraida Salwala – FAE – World’s First Elephant Hospital
Soraida Salwala Friends of the Asian Elephant/FAE The World's First Elephant Hospital
The Washington Post Thai Activists Block Elephant Transport by Grant Peck June 5th, 2006
The Eyes of Thailand, Directed & Produced by Windy Borman, FilmWorks Entertainment presented The Eyes of Thailand on DVD and download February 26th, 2013