Elephant flown home after alleged abuse in Sri Lankan Buddhist temple

A Thai elephant given to Sri Lanka in 2001 has returned to its birthplace after a diplomatic row over its alleged abuse.

The 29-year old Muthu Raja arrived in Thailand on Sunday on a 19 million baht (£425,000; $540,000) commercial reparation flight.

Bangkok had demanded the return of the animal after claims it was tortured while kept at a Buddhist temple.

Sri Lanka’s prime minister said he had formally apologised to the Thai king.

The 4,000kg (8,800 pounds) elephant was airlifted to Chiang Mai in a specially-built steel cage, accompanied by four Thai handlers and a Sri Lankan zookeeper.

It will undergo hydrotherapy to treat an injury on its front left leg.

Both Sri Lanka and Thailand consider elephants to be sacred animals.

In 2001, the Thai royal family gifted three elephants, including Muthu Raja, to Sri Lanka’s government to be trained as carriers of religious relics.

Muthu Raja was placed in the care of a temple in the south of the country.

Animal rights groups allege it was made to work with a logging crew in the temple, adding that it developed a stiff leg from a long-neglected injury.

Sri Lanka-based activist group Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE) lobbied last year for Thai officials to intervene after months of unsuccessful attempts to get Sri Lanka’s government to act, the group’s founder Panchali Panapitiya said.

Ms Panapitiya said the failure of Sri Lankan wildlife officials to act had brought “disrepute” to the country, The Independent reported. RARE has also petitioned for authorities to prosecute those responsible for the elephant’s neglect.

Sri Lankan wildlife minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi told local media Thailand had been “adamant” in demanding that Muthu Raja be returned after its ambassador in Sri Lanka found it to be in poor health during a visit last year.

Muthu Raja was in pain and covered in abscesses when removed from the temple last November, AFP reported. Activists claim its handler inflicted some of those wounds.

It was temporarily transferred to Sri Lanka’s National Zoological Garden and most of its wounds have healed in recent months.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told his parliament in June that he had conveyed his regret to the Thai king Maha Vajiralongkorn over Muthu Raja’s alleged abuse and was able to “re-establish trust between the two countries”.

The Thai government stopped sending elephants overseas about three years ago following protests from activists, Thai environment minister Varawut Silpa-archa said in June.

Bangkok’s wildlife department said it is monitoring the condition of Thai elephants already sent overseas.


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