A Thai elephant gifted to Sri Lanka two decades ago was returned to its native home on Sunday after a diplomatic row over the animal’s alleged mistreatment.
29-year-old Muthu Raja – also known in his hometown as Sak Surin – was handed over to Sri Lanka by Thai authorities in 2001.
But they demanded his return last year after allegations that he was tortured and neglected while staying at a Buddhist temple in the south of the island country.
The 4,000-kilogram (8,800-pound) mammal was flown out of Colombo airport on Sunday morning on a commercial round-trip flight for its repatriation, which Thai officials said cost $700,000.
The airport manager said the Ilyushin L-76 cargo plane carrying Muthu Raja took off around 7:40 am (0210 GMT).
After landing in Chiang Mai, the elephant will be quarantined in a nearby nature reserve.
She was taken from her temporary home at a zoo in Colombo before dawn in a special steel cage the size of a shipping container.
The elephant is accompanied on the journey by four Thai staff along with a Sri Lankan ranger, and two CCTV cameras will monitor its health during the crossing.
Dehiwala Zoo’s chief veterinarian, Madhusha Perera, told AFP that Muthu Raja was in pain and covering cysts when he was rescued from his former residence last year.
Animal welfare groups said the elephant was forced to work with a logging crew and that its wounds – allegedly inflicted by its handler – were neglected.
Pereira said the elephant will undergo hydrotherapy to treat remaining damage to its left front leg when it returns to Thailand.
– Opposition to return –
Elephants are considered sacred in Sri Lanka and are protected by law.
The Rally for Animal Rights and the Environment (RARE), which spearheaded the campaign to save Muthu Raja from the temple, expressed dismay at the animal’s departure.
RARE organized a Buddhist blessing for the elephant on the Friday before the trip and the group is now petitioning the authorities to prosecute those it says are responsible for neglecting the animal.
A nationalist group held a demonstration outside the Thai Embassy in Colombo on Thursday to demand that the animal remain in Sri Lanka for another six months.
“We didn’t know about the elephant’s plight,” group leader Dan Brisad told AFP.
“We can get him back to health in six months, and if we fail, they can get the animal back.”
Wildlife Minister Pavithra Wanyarachi said Thailand had been “firm” in its demands for the elephant’s return.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told Parliament in June that he had personally conveyed Sri Lanka’s remorse to the King of Thailand over the elephant’s condition.
Thailand’s environment minister, Pharaut Silpa Archa, was less likely to argue last month about whether Muthu Raja had been mistreated but noted that the Thai government had stopped sending elephants abroad.
He said diplomatic missions in Bangkok are now checking the status of those who have already been sent abroad.