Who is Soraida Salwala? (Part 2)

Soraida Salwala visits Baby Mosha, an elephant landmine survivor, at FAE's Elephant Hospital.

Below is Part 2 of  the two-part article, originally written in 1993 by Sean Whyte. (Read Part 1 here):

“Soraida, I think it’s a wonderful idea. We both know it won’t be easy but if anyone can get this hospital built, I’m certain you are that person. Please keep me informed of your progress and let me know how I might be able to help you,” I said. Soon after this I had to return to England but not before making one last visit to Honey.

This time there was clearly some action being taken at last. Zoo vets were now on the scene and beginning to try and ease this gentle baby’s suffering. There was even a barrier erected to keep back the growing numbers of onlookers and sympathizers. Easing my way through the crowd I told the officials, now busying themselves around Honey, that I had come to say goodbye to the baby elephant. Lying down beside Honey one last time, I kissed her trunk and whispered to her a few words of comfort. On the long flight back to England that night I could not sleep. All I could do was think of Honey and bring the image of her vividly to mind. I vowed then I would do all that I could to help both Soraida and Honey.

The days passed and soon turned into weeks. Reports from Thailand told of a great increased effort to help Honey. She was now being cared for day and night by zoo vets and officials. (Learned later that all wages and expenses were paid by FAE & Soraida herself).

A harness had even been made and secured to raise her off the ground without inflicting further strain on her fractured pelvis. This enabled the vets to treat her worsening bedsores.

Then one day came the dreaded message from a distressed Soraida, “Honey has died.” After three months Honey could hold out no longer, her weakened body simply unable to cope with the massive injury she had sustained.

That was 1993, a life changing [year] for Soraida.  If she was strong and determined before Honey’s death, she was UNSTOPPABLE now. Leaving her family jewelry business, with the help of Dr. Preecha Phuangkum, a vet with government sector Soraida established the FRIENDS OF THE ASIAN ELEPHANT foundation just a few months before Honey’s accident.

Her love of elephants had begun more than thirty years earlier. Traveling with her family, as a child of eight years in the northeast of the country, they happened upon an elephant lying beside the road. They discovered that a lorry had struck this enormous pachyderm. Getting back into the car, her father explained that nothing could be done to help this poor animal. “We should take him to the doctor Papa”, Soraida cried out. “How can we take him, my dear, he is very big?” As they drove by a gunshot was heard and her father explained, “Uncle elephant is in heaven now, my dear.”

A century ago up to 100,000 elephants worked in the logging and transport business. Poaching, deforestation and loss of habitat have reduced the domesticated population to less than 4,000,  while the wild population has dropped to below 2,000.

The pace at which the forests are being cut down, mostly illegally, is such that their greedy owners treat many of the elephants very harshly. One particularly serious problem is that elephants are habitually fed bananas laced with drugs, to give them greater strength to haul giant logs way beyond the capability of any normal elephant.

Five  years after first meeting Soraida I found myself standing in a fully-fledged elephant hospital on a hillside some 20 miles north of Lampang, Northern Thailand. I had known for a longtime that Soraida had fulfilled her dream of building the world’s first Elephant Hospital, but nothing quite prepared me for its impressive scale.

On the way from the airport to the hospital, Dr. Preecha Phuangkum, the hospital’s Chief Vet, began to explain the scale of the challenge facing them. To illustrate a point he stopped the car on a roadside. As far as  the eye could see there was only green undergrowth and spindle looking trees “This was once virgin forest. I can remember well the great trees that once grew here. Everything you now see is secondary-growth bushes and trees,” said Dr. Preecha.

“Step out of the car for a moment. Listen, can ou hear a single bird singing?” Dr. Preecha invited me. I could not, the silence being broken only by large trucks rolling by, heading south in a cloud of dust, laden with logs and bamboo.

“Local people just don’t understand. No trees mean no wild fruits, which in turn results in no insects or birds-there is nothing for anything or anyone to survive on. All the wild animals have been hunted out, and besides there is nothing for them to eat.  This place is now virtually dead, useless to everyone. This is what illegal logging does to our country.” Dr. Preecha went on. The story is much the same elsewhere in Asian with wildlife being crammed into ever smaller and fewer wild spaces.

Soraida met us at the hospital and, as I gazed around, I could barely believe my eyes. There, around me, were elephants being attended by their mahouts (men who care for and control the elephants). Solid looking, open sided structures provided shade for the recuperating elephants. We went to look at the veterinary clinic building, one I’m sure any western vet would be proud to work in. What was a dream five years earlier was now a fully functional hospital for elephants, a world first.

“We have so far treated over 400 cases [over 3,000 cases now from 1993-2011] free of charge-poor animals which otherwise would have gone on in pain, many to an early death,” Soraida explained.

“This makes me happy but there is so much more we need to do, the situation is desperate. Take Kammee there, a female elephant in her early fifties, she came to us with terrible injuries caused by the cruel treatment meted out by loggers; on top of this she had  been regularly fed amphetamines to make her work longer hours, and now she is addicted to them.” Soraida told me.

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 newspaper 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 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 has been fitted with the prosthetic leg, 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 got 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 waiver”.

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

www.elephant-soraida.com

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