BANGKOK, Thailand – Talk about excess baggage.
Each in their separate cages, the pachyderms will be loaded onto a cargo plane late Monday and fly to their temporary home in Australia's Cocos islands where they will be quarantined for three months.
The transfer has been held up for more than a year as animal rights groups in both countries fought to have the move scuttled over concerns for the elephants' welfare. They claim the animals — who will be part of a captive breeding program — will suffer in the confines of the zoos and that the program won't help conserve the species.
"They're definitely coming and they're coming very soon," said Mark Williams, a spokesman for Sydney's Taronga Zoo, which will be receiving some of the elephants. "The requirement for importation is three months quarantine on Australian soil before they reach Sydney and Melbourne."
An Australian court in December cleared the way for the move to Sydney in New South Wales and Melbourne Zoo in the southern state of Victoria as long as the zoos met certain conditions guaranteeing the elephants' welfare.
Taronga Zoo has spent 40 million Australian dollars (US$30 million; euro25 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.
But the measures didn't go far enough for Thai and Australian animal rights groups who argued that the animals should be allowed to remain in the wild. The elephants have been kept for a year and a half in quarantine in Thailand while the dispute played out.
"I'm opposed to this export and feel very sad with what the Thai authorities are doing," said Soraida Salwala, founder of the Friends of the Asian Elephant in Lampang, northern Thailand.
"Elephants are a Thai national symbol," she said. "I don't see why we have to send our animals to other countries. It's not in their behavior to be away from their herd. I don't want them to be in an enclosure like in prison."
An official with Thailand's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, who refused to give his name, confirmed the animals were to be brought Monday afternoon to the capital, Bangkok, from Kanchanaburi province, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) to the northwest, and put on a plane bound for Australia in the evening.
Australian Environment Minister Ian Campbell 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 remaining in the wild, "every attempt must be made to ensure the survival of the species, including through captive breeding programs."
The dispute over the elephants was the latest involving Thai efforts to either export or import wildlife.
A proposal to bring in 175 animals from Kenya to Thailand's Chiang Mai Night Safari Zoo also drew the ire of conservationists in both countries, and was suspended in December by a Kenyan court order.