Thursday, February 17, 2011

Who is Soraida Salwala? Part 4

If you're new to this story, please begin with Part 1

by Sean Whyte

There were three adults and one baby elephant in the hospital that day. Looking into their eyes, it was difficult not to imagine the fear, pain and suffering they had gone through. Soraida walked up to each one offering reassuring words in a tone of voice that the elephants appeared to recognize as coming from someone who does not intend to hurt them. Even so, a mahout was ever watchful to ensure my presence, as a stranger, did not worry his charge. Treating elephants can be difficult at the best of times and, a frightened elephant in pain takes a good deal more skill and courage than most people could muster.

Dr. Preecha, a seasoned elephant vet works closely with Soraida. Together they have faced up to angry elephants, suspicious mahouts, illegal loggers, intimidation, and jealousy from the most unsuspecting quarters. Soraida has also been on the receiving end of death threats.

In her forties (now fifties), Soraida needs a stick (now two walking sticks and a walker) to help her stand and walk. She is not a well person, yet she has an enormous inner strength and outer calmness which belies her poor health.  Various internal problems have resulted in Soraida spending time in hospital for operations and yet, this too is pounced upon by her critics who claim her illnesses as nothing more than a publicity stunt to draw attention to herself.

“We try to work with people who own elephants, it’s the only way. If we didn’t they would not let us treat their animals.  Sometimes though, to protect elephants we have to make strong statements to the public. Attitudes need to change or else there will be no elephants left in Thailand,” Soraida said.

One such time, which brought forth considerable personal abuse upon Soraida, is the use of elephants for begging in the streets of Bangkok.

Visitors to Bangkok are likely to see one or more of the estimated 80 elephants paraded through the hot, dirty noisy streets. These gentle giants, the symbol of Thailand, have been reduced to begging for their food. Two mahouts, one walking alongside clutching a bag full of vegetables, parade their elephant in and out of the traffic plying their trade -- selling vegetables to passers-by to feed the elephant. 

With depressing regularity newspapers carry reports of elephants being struck by vehicles.

Soraida and her organization were successful in getting this practice outlawed, but enforcement has proved next to impossible. It did, however, make her a lot of new enemies.

In August 1999, a Thai elephant from across the border in Burma had stepped on a landmine, and one foot had been blown apart. Soraida recalls the fateful night when the news first reached her, “The fact is “Motala came without notice. She came on a truck at 9.30 p.m., the night of 18th August. Dr. Preecha was away in the south and I was in Bangkok when a member of staff called me, pouring out words I could not understand. I asked to talk to the mahout, but he too, was in a state of shock. I asked him to calm down, take a deep breath and slowly tell me what the wounds are like, is she bleeding profusely, and so on? I was shocked but beyond that, Motala had to be given antibiotics, painkillers, etc. I asked him to call the nearest livestock research centre and sent another staff to drive the car and pick up the vet. The vet came and talked to Dr. Preecha on the phone. He had never treated an elephant before in his life, but his kindness was beyond any fear, he did everything Dr. Preecha instructed him to do for the next 3 days before Dr. Preecha could finally get back to FAE Elephant Hospital. When Dr. Preecha first saw Motala, he called me and told me this, “Khun So, please come, you’ve got to be here”. 

I grabbed my handbag, my personal medicine bag and took a taxi to the airport. When I arrived at FAE in Lampang, we began to hurriedly plan and make arrangements for Motala’s treatment.

News of Motala’s plight quickly spread. Without prompt veterinary help she was destined to die an excruciatingly painful death. Soon the hospital was swamped with media crews and well wishers. The story of Motala was beamed around the world but its great impact was in Thailand. Funds flowed in to pay for the operation Motala needed, nearly 100,000 pounds was raised-in Thailand; a remarkable change of heart since the death of Honey. Even more remarkable was the sight of some 30 doctors, vets and nurses, working as a team to restore Motala’s shattered front left foot. Evidence, if ever it was needed, of the effectiveness of  Soraida Salwala. Without her dream of the hospital, this could never have happened and Motala would most likely have been shot or euthanized.

Motala with the new prosthetic leg today on Twitpic Motala has been fitted with a prosthetic leg, a new one is being made. She was donated to FAE a few days after her arrival at FAE. Former owner of Motala and his neighbors keep telling their friends and those who own elephants, “There’s a hospital for elephants, I’ve been there. My elephant was saved.”

Kammee had been since been bought from her owner, but not without some tough negotiating on both sides. She was at FAE for over 5 years and had to be put down in 2002 when she collapsed, blind and could no longer stand.

As more forests are cut down there is less and less habitat for wild elephants.  With fewer logs to sell, the loggers no longer need as many elephants. In a very short space of time there will be an enormous surplus of these giants. Unable, or unwilling to look after their elephants, mahouts will then need to find new homes for them. The prospects for these elephants look very bleak.

Soraida wants to buy land to provide a safe home where retired, crippled, injured bulls (always more difficult to handle) can live out their lives in peace. It’s the LAST HOME PROJECT, Soraida calls it, where unwanted elephants will have a decent life until the last day of their lives.

Until now (2011), with few resources and work load, her dream has not come true but she is pleased to learn that many sanctuaries in other countries and in Thailand have been opened, clearly based on what Soraida and her foundation have wished for since 1993.

“There is no one single, simple answer to Thailand’s elephant problems. We do our best and things have certainly gotten better for elephants, but we know we are up against a tremendous problem. God willing, I will devote my every waking hour to helping our elephants,” said Soraida.

“I have received many anonymous phone calls, death threats, king cobras found at the hospital, and many accidents on the roads causing injuries, but despite everything, I shall not waver. Honey, who died in agony, is waiting for me. I am sure she knows I shall keep the promise I made to her before she died “Mother will help your friends, close your eyes and sleep well, my baby, no one can harm you now!”

An Immense thank you to Mr. Sean Whyte   
Soraida Salwala
29 January, 2011

Friends of the Asian Elephant relies on generous donors like you to fund their crucial work. Donations can be made at the PayPal button on their website. You do not need to have a PayPal account.
More information on FAE is available in English at  Jody's Jungle

Follow Soraida Salwala on Twitter: @SoraidaSalwala

Story and photos graciously provided by Soraida Salwala and Jody's Jungle. All rights reserved. Ms. Salwala is the founder of the Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital in Lampang, Thailand.

1 comment:

  1. THANK YOU for writing this Sean..its wonderful and inspiring..amazing story..


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