Who is Soraida Salwala?

Soraida Salwala, founder of FAE's Elephant Hospital, soothes Baby Honey in 1993.

Below is Part 1 of a two-part article originally written by Sean Whyte in 1993 detailing how Soraida’s bond with an injured baby elephant led her to found FAE’s Elephant Hospital:

Thailand’s elephants, both wild and domesticated, are struggling for their survival.  The wild elephant population is declining rapidly due to destruction of their natural habitats (forests), poaching for ivory and the slaughter of female elephants for their calves to sell into circuses and as tourist attractions.

Increasingly, owners are mistreating and neglecting domesticated elephants that can no longer help generate income from logging.  They are a burden to their owners who, in many cases, underfeed or simply sell them to the highest bidder. Some suffer from abuse or accidental injuries and maltreatment.  Some are neglected and left to die of their injuries or in a few cases, starvation.

It was a typical day in Bangkok, oppressively hot and humid. I was looking forward to some rest before returning to England after yet arduous trip to save dolphins in Thailand. Before me, lying on her side was “Honey”, her eyes full of fear and pain. I had come to the Dusit Zoo in central Bangkok having heard from an English friend that an injured baby elephant was there, being left to die without medical attention. “Do you know of anyone back in England, Sean, who would be prepared to help Honey? I should mention though, even if you do there is no guarantee the thai authorities will accept outside assistance. They are very proud people and wold prefer to leave the elephant to die of its injuries, rather than accept help from a foreigner,” said my expatriate friend.

When I arrived at the makeshift shelter in the zoo a small crowd was standing around Honey staring and talking amongst themselves. Easing my way through the onlookers I saw someone kneeling beside this heartbreakingly sad looking baby elephant, which was lying on her side. I was immediately struck by this young woman’s obvious distress. It was just her and the elephant, in a makeshift enclosure. She was talking quietly and reassuringly to Honey. Trying occasionally to tempt her to take in some liquid through eating slices of watermelon. For a few minutes I just listened and observed, wanting to say something but lost for words. Her words on the other hand, appeared soothing and reassuring to an otherwise terrified animal in extreme pain.

I had never been close to a baby elephant before, much less a severely injured one. Thoughts such as “well, what can I do now I am here?” flashed through my mind. Still not really knowing what to say, much less do, I knelt down and introduced myself to both the woman and the baby elephant. Her name was Soraida Salwala and as far as I could determine at the time she, like me, had come to see what could be done to help Honey.

Soraida, my friend had told me, had reputedly developed a bond with the baby elephant, and I could now see this for myself – the love and concern in her eyes was very apparent. I made up my mind, there and then, that I would try to help them both. Together we goaded the zoo officials into action. The first thing needed was a cover to protect Honey from the relentlessly fierce sun, which had been beating down on her un-sheltered back.

Veterinary help was, I had been told, out of the question. The owner had forbidden it and besides, the elephant was a symbol of Thailand and it had to be left to die of its own accord.  We offered to buy the elephant and therefore take responsibility for its treatment but this was flatly rejected.

No one other than Soraida and I appeared the least bit concern that Honey was in extreme pain from a broken pelvis, unable to stand and with sores where she had been left lying in one place so long. She was a pitiful sight, seemingly with just the two of us to help her.

The hours went by, we took it in turns to sit beside Honey, gently stroking her, and offering watermelon as the only way of getting liquid into her. All the while touching Honey, Soraida began to explain how this baby elephant came to so terribly injured.

“Honey was being walked alongside a busy road having earlier “performed” at an elephant football match, when she was struck by a passing lorry,” Soraida said. This was the first I had heard of elephants trained to play football, but apparently it’s a popular spectator event in some parts of Thailand.

We agreed that should contact British vets to see if anyone could advise us what we could do to ease Honey’s suffering. Leaving Soraida to continue comforting Honey, I quickly returned to the hotel and began calling everyone I knew back in England who might be able to help.

Every British zoo vet I spoke to was shocked at the extent of the elephant’s injuries. They advised us as best they could: some were even willing to come out to Bangkok, providing the Thai zoo authorities formally invited them. The zoo dismissed this offer of help and Honey’s fate looked ever more desperate. Each time I returned to Honey at the zoo, there was Soraida, providing tender loving care to her, day and night.

One last ditch effort was called for to persuade the zoo to help Honey.

(the fact unfolded later that  it was Soraida who actually brought Honey to the zoo and the owner gave her the ownership of Honey but some people refused to listen even when she wanted to take Honey back to Lampang )

I contacted the Daily Star newspaper with the story and asked for their urgent help with running a feature on how this beautiful baby elephant was being left to die in terrible pain. To their credit they not only did this, they also offered to fly Honey to England where specialist help was available. The Thai authorities were not in the least bit interested and were adamant that leaving the elephant to die was the right thing to do.

By now, though, word of Honey’s plight had begun to spread. We sensed a growing concern from the authorities. After one long and especially harrowing day Soraida said, “Mr. Whyte, may I show you my plans for an elephant hospital? I never want to see another elephant suffer like this again.”

Unrolling a set of architect drawings Soraida proceeded to explain her dream of building the world’s only elephant hospital. It became apparent that helping elephants was something she had been planning for some time. “An elephant hospital, Soraida? Will there be enough serious accidents like this to justify the expense?” I was more than a little curious to find out.

“Let me explain to you why this hospital is so desperately needed,” said Soraida. It was a grim story – one of drug abuse, law-breaking, corruption, deliberate injuries being inflicted on these magnificent animals by greedy owners, accidental injuries pulling logs from deep in the forests, the list went on. Although I’d been involved in wildlife conservation all my life and I had been to Thailand before, this news came as a shock to me.

“I don’t know how I will build the hospital, I just know it wil be built if it’s the will of God,” Soraida said. Given what I had just seen and heard, and the general attitude towards strong-willed women in Thailand, I confess I had my doubts.  Deep down, though, something was telling me Soraida would achieve her dream. We both knew she was likely to face fierce opposition, personal attacks on her integrity and a government bureaucracy that can stop all but the corrupt in their tracks.

To be continued…

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