A Thai elephant that was gifted to Sri Lanka in 2001 has been flown back to Thailand on Sunday after a diplomatic row over its alleged abuse at a Buddhist temple. The 29-year-old elephant, known as Muthu Raja in Sri Lanka and Sak Surin in Thailand, was airlifted to Chiang Mai in a specially-built steel cage, accompanied by four Thai handlers and a Sri Lankan zookeeper.
The elephant was one of three that Thailand’s royal family had given to Sri Lanka’s government for training as carriers of religious relics. However, animal rights activists claimed that Muthu Raja was tortured and neglected while working with a logging crew at the temple, and suffered from a long-neglected injury on its front left leg.
Sri Lanka’s prime minister Dinesh Gunawardena said he had formally apologized to the Thai king Maha Vajiralongkorn over the elephant’s alleged abuse and was able to “re-establish trust between the two countries”. Thailand’s environment minister Varawut Silpa-Archa said Thailand spent at least $540,000 for the elephant’s repatriation.
Muthu Raja will undergo hydrotherapy to treat its injury at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang province, where it will stay for rehabilitation. Both Sri Lanka and Thailand consider elephants to be sacred animals.