SAI YOK, Thailand – Thai animal rights activists on Tuesday blocked eight Asian elephants from being shipped to Australia, arguing the animals would suffer in zoos that spent millions to create special bathing, exercise and sleeping areas for them.
Two rights activists stepped in front of trucks as they tried to leave a quarantine station in the western Thai province of Kanchanaburi late Monday, bound for Bangkok's airport. The standoff continued into Tuesday, when about 15 villagers gathered outside the station to protest the move, and officials eventually removed the animals from the trucks and took them back to their quarters.
A sign hanging outside the station read "Stop Exploiting Thai Elephants."
"We want to teach our children that our natural resources are important and we have to take care of them," said Rajani Dhongchai, a school principal at the protest. "Elephants are part of the forest's life. If anything is missing from this circle, the forest will not be rich."
Thai authorities had purchased the animals from various owners, but it was unclear whether they were born in captivity or the wild.
Soraida Salwala, founder of the Thai group Friends of the Asian Elephant, said the protesters were also concerned about the elephants' welfare. They claimed the animals — which were to be part of a captive breeding program in Australia — would suffer in the confines of the zoos and that the program wouldn't help conserve the species.
"Elephants are a Thai national symbol," Soraida said. "I don't see why we have to send our animals to other countries."
Australian officials said they were perplexed and surprised by the actions of the protesters.
"We have at all times acted with deference and respect for Thai laws, culture and heritage," Guy Cooper, head of the Consortium of Australasian Zoos, said in a statement. "We have been most conscientious in ensuring that the entire project has met with all of the requirements of Thai and international authorities."
Authorities had planned to fly the elephants Monday night to a temporary home in Australia's Cocos islands where they were to have been quarantined for three months.
Lisa Keen, spokeswoman for Sydney's Taronga Zoo, did not say what would happen to the animals now. Earlier Tuesday, Thai Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Yongyut Tiyapairat said Thailand was committed to a memorandum of understanding it had signed with Australia in 2004 agreeing to export the elephants.
The elephants have been kept in quarantine in Thailand for more than a year as groups in both Thailand and Australia fought to prevent the transfer.
In December, an Australian court cleared the way for the move to Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo in Victoria state as long as they met certain conditions guaranteeing the elephants' welfare.
Taronga Zoo has spent $30 million on a new enclosure, complete with hot and cold bathing areas, an elephant exercise area, waterfalls and ponds, and specially designed "sleeping mounds" for the pachyderms.
Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell has said the breeding program would help ensure the survival of the species and protect the elephants from conflicts with Thai farmers and a shrinking natural habitat.
Campbell has said that with fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants in the wild, "every attempt must be made to ensure the survival of the species, including through captive breeding programs."