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  Channel NewsAsia 7 Jun 06
Elephants' journey to Australia in limbo after protests in Thailand

BANGKOK : The future of eight endangered Asian elephants destined for Australia remains in limbo after some 100 Thai animal rights activists formed a human chain to prevent them from leaving.

"I demand the Thai government answer to us as to why they allowed this deal," said Soraida Salwala, founder of the group Friends of the Asian Elephant, in Kanchanaburi, northwest of Bangkok.

Sydney's Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo have bought the eight elephants from private Thais, as part of a breeding programme for endangered species. The Thai government later approved the purchase. The elephants were supposed to travel in cages to Bangkok and late Monday and then fly on a special cargo to Australia. But after protesters blocked the transport, the elephants were released from the cages and brought to a shelter inside the Kanchanaburi campus of Mahidol University, which has a veterinary department.

"They are fine. They should stay in Thailand. They are our national symbol. The government should not give away elephants like commodities," said Surapong Duangkhae, head of Wildlife Fund Thailand, a nonprofit group.

Surapong said protesters demanded talks with Thai authorities but so far received no reply from officials.

Australia approved the elephants' importation in July, but their arrival was postponed due to a legal case lodged by animal rights activists. But in February, an Australian tribunal approved the importation of the eight elephants on condition that the host zoos meet a list of conditions, paving the way for the animals' journey to Australia. The conditions included providing appropriate flooring and installing closed-circuit television.

The eight elephants, which worked in logging camps, have been held in quarantine in Thailand for nearly two years. They were about three years old and mostly female.

Fewer than 50,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild and habitat loss and poaching threaten the existence of the species, particularly in Southeast Asia. - AFP /ct

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