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 THAILAND : Elephant hospital 

Elephant Hospital


Text and Photography by Eric Pasquier 

In the very heart of the Golden Triangle, in northern Thailand, a determined woman vet is working to improve the troubled situation of the elephants of Asia.


Created in 1993, her elephant hospital is financed entirely by private donations. The hospital is the only hope for the scores of sick or injured elephants, all too often victims of drugging, overwork and sickening cruelty. ​

The moving story of Suphan is just one example.

The 40-year old elephant was discovered in a pitiable state in Lampang, in Chiang Rai province, some 353 kilometres north of Bangkok.

Illegal lumberjacks had been using the enormous beast as a machine to haul huge tree trunks.
The animal had been mistreated and after being worked to near total exhaustion was abandoned and left for dead. Luckily a team of volunteer workers brought the elephant to a very special hospital for elephants.

Amidst a number of simple huts, the unfortunate elephant was reunited with a few others and cared for by the devoted team of workers who take in, care for and often literally bring back to life sick or injured elephants. Thanks to the intervention of these volunteers Suphan was able to live to a ripe old age.

Soraida Salwala, a vet and elephant specialist, is the woman to thank. Of Afghan and Saudi-Arabian origins, she has passionately devoted herself to the noble cause of rescuing elephants in dire need of care. Through sheer determination and perseverance, she created a hospital for elephants in 1993, a sanctuary for the ill and injured beasts that are not cared for anywhere else. 
Soraida’s great love for elephants dates from childhood. When she was just eight years old, Salwala and her father came across an injured elephant suffering terribly by the side of the road. It had been struck down by a truck. They alerted the local vet, but his equipment was completely insufficient to save the giant beast. There was no way to move the elephant and nowhere to take him to even if they had been able to move it. The sound of the gunshot that put the injured animal out of its misery has remained with her ever since; it inspired the incredible determination with which she decided to create her own hospital for elephants. 

In 1987, two young elephants fell from a cliff in Khao Yai National Park. “One died, while the other, despite its broken leg, desperately tried to rejoin its fatally injured companion. I was informed of the incident by a member of the local environmental protection agency, and I followed the story as it unfolded on television. I immediately called the organisation in question to implore them to save the injured young elephant, asking them to find the necessary equipment – cables, a helicopter and everything required to transport the giant beast – to ensure its treatment and survival. I was told no-one wanted to lend the necessary equipment. “Did you insist that this equipment be lent to you?” I asked.

“No,” I was told. I then asked, “So how can you be certain that you won’t get it?” The answer to that question left me stupefied: “Soraida, there are elephants dying every day, why worry about it?” Tears began to stream down my face. The person I was talking to added: “If you concentrate all your efforts on elephants, you’ll be stuck doing nothing but that…” I later remembered this incident in perfect detail when the Americans and the Russians joined efforts to save the whales that had become trapped in the ice. There’s always hope. I thought to myself.”

In 1991, Salwala asked various environmental protection agencies around the world to declare 1992 the year of world protection for the elephants. She also went to the wildlife protection agency in Thailand. She was laughed at. In 1992, eight other young elephants plunged from the same cliff. “I called upon everyone I knew and brought together a sufficient number of members to create the ‘Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation’ (FAE) in 1993. In April 1994, the Foundation was officially recognized as an official non-governmental organisation, with a modest capital of 500,000 baht.”

The Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation’s main goal was to stabilise the size of the region’s elephant population. In addition to the routine checks of the conditions in which ailing or injured animals are treated, the project’s main purpose was to focus local and international attention on the problem. 

The intervention of the Thai government and the pressure of international organisations were, in fact, essential for the protection of the elephant’s natural habitat, as well as their primary source of nourishment. For several decades, the rapid growth of their population went hand in hand with the increase in the surface area of farmable land. As the forest lost several hundred hectares of woodlands per year – a natural phenomenon with grave consequences for the animal populations living in the Golden Triangle – the luxurious vegetation of the high plateau in the north which had for centuries been a paradise for elephants, suddenly became their doom. Men reduced the role of elephants to that of a machine, an oversized slave labourer for the task of helping to depopulate the forests.

Towards the beginning of the century, some 100,000 elephants lived and thrived in Thailand. Today, there remain a scant 2,500.  “For hundreds of years, men treated elephants as friends,” says Preecha Phuangkam, co-founder of the FAE. “Today, the situation has changed altogether. People treat them like simple vehicles, like cars. If one of the elephants happens to fall ill, they simply trade it in and get another.” In this way, hundreds of elephants die each year. Many are drugged with amphetamines or opium given to increase their productivity. They often contract life-threatening diseases such as tetanus or Trypanosome (similar to malaria). Cases of bone fractures or deformations are also extremely common, as are falls, infections resulting from injuries sustained in the hard work forced upon them in the forest and the brutality of the men they are so sadly subjected to.

In setting up the hospital Soraida worked with a local vet, Dr Preecha Phuangkam, whose professional reputation she had known of for several years: “I knew that practising in a Bangkok clinic just wasn’t for me. I wanted to work in direct contact with nature, but I had no idea of precisely how to. So it was totally by luck that I came around to taking care of elephants,” he says. 

Preecha spends his days and nights caring for ailing or injured elephants, redoing their bandages, taking their temperature, cleaning their wounds. He’s always on the lookout for new cases of accidents or ill-treatment of elephants in the Golden Triangle. Now, he is the hospital’s director and Dr Watcharin is the only other full-time veterinarian. He is helped by a veterinary nurse and seven other staff. The need is always greater than can be served and more staff members are needed. 

As elephant doctors are rare, Dr Preecha has a hard time dealing with the workload. For him, the installation of an analytical laboratory in the hospital is essential, as are a sterilising machine, a water filter and additional equipment for the operating room, as well as additional heavy-duty medical equipment specifically designed for such voluminous patients as elephants. Dr Preecha is hoping to have a fully equipped operating room in the near future. In the first five years, the hospital’s facilities were limited to dealing with the most rudimentary first-aid situations.

In addition to first-aid care and constant attention, the elephants – particularly the youngest – demand a great deal of affection. Their emotional sensitivity is enormous, and the rehabilitation of these often-traumatized animals requires much time spent caressing and reassuring them. “It’s as though only their inability to speak distinguishes them from man,” says the doctor. And although elephants are famous for their memories, their extraordinary fidelity is equally impressive: they recognise only one master, and it is not rare to see elephants crying, out of pain or sadness. 

Inspired as much by these touching characteristics as by the feelings of attachment that are inevitably quickly established between them and their patients, the hospital staff dubs each elephant with an appropriate nickname: “Wild Sun-flower” (“Bua-Tong”); “Black Earth” (“Din-Dam”); or “”Sand Mountain” (“Kho-Sai”), always preceded by a respectful “Mister” or “Miss”.

The hospital takes in an average of 60-70 elephants per year. An elephant costs the hospital an average of 300 bahts per day; this does not include treatment and medical care. Vaccinations against hepatitis, malaria, worms or other common elephant illnesses are especially costly. For example, to vaccinate a three-ton elephant against tetanus – the disease most lethal among pachyderms – requires a 200 cubic centimetre injection, whereas the same treatment for a human only requires 1cc. 
“We still need more than 10 million baht a year,” says Salwala. “This is the minimum necessary for properly equipping an operating room, installing emergency treatments facilities, an X-ray machine, a heavy-duty elevator and other machinery specifically designed to accommodate elephants, as well as the creation of a complete team of veterinarians mobile in all-terrain vehicles.”

The donations that the hospital receives every month are just enough for treating one sick elephant for the duration of one month, and must, therefore, be supplemented by additional funds. The hospital’s budget is 5-6 million baht per year. These funds are derived entirely from private donations. Although the plight of the elephants is a cause recognized worldwide, the authorities have done little more than provide the land for the hospital and grant a building permit. For financing its construction and operation, as well as the purchase of medical supplies, the hospital must rely solely on private donations, which come essentially from Thailand and Australia, but also from the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland.

So far, the Thai authorities have not demonstrated a great willingness to come to the rescue of the country’s irreplaceable population of elephants. Some foreign conservation groups advise the government to release them into the forests. Though they have long been called upon for help, the WWF has yet to make the slightest contribution towards the cause of saving the elephants of the Golden Triangle and of the Southern regions of Thailand.

So funds are limited and unpredictable. Nevertheless, Soraida Salwala, far from allowing herself to be discouraged, continues to ask for help from the Thai government and international organisations. Individual contributions from the public have been very helpful. 

Copyright © Eric Pasquier
All rights reserved.

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