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  Channel NewsAsia 31 Jul 06
Thai elephants begin controversial journey to Australia

BANGKOK : Eight endangered Asian elephants have left their home in northwest Thailand and begun a controversial journey to two Australian zoos, conservation groups said on Sunday.

Animal rights organisations, who last month prevented the removal of the pachyderms by forming a human chain around their enclosure, argued that the animals should not leave Thailand until tests proved they had not come from the wild.

Surapon Duangkhae, secretary general of the Wildlife Fund Thailand, said about 400 police prevented campaigners from blocking the roads at Kanchanaburi, 128 kilometres from the capital Bangkok, on Saturday night.

"They put the elephants in a cage and carried them to a truck," he told AFP. "There were about 400 policemen blocking the conservation groups. In the end they brought the truck through and it arrived in Bangkok at around midnight."

Soraida Salwala, secretary general for Friends of the Asian Elephant, said the elephants were then taken to U-Tapao, a military airport southeast of the capital.

"Three elephants have left for Melbourne Zoo today and five elephants will leave for Taronga tomorrow," she said.

Sydney's Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo bought the eight elephants from private Thais as part of a breeding programme for endangered species. The Thai government later approved the purchase. Australia approved the elephants' importation in July 2005 but their arrival was postponed due to a legal case lodged by animal rights activists.

In February an Australian tribunal approved the importation of the eight elephants on condition that the host zoos meet a list of conditions. Animal rights groups said they plan to gather outside the Australian embassy on Monday morning to protest the move.

"The Australians stole the animals from Thailand," Surapon said. "We asked them for a year to prove they are not wild elephants. They have not proved it."

Thai authorities were not reachable on Sunday to confirm if the elephants had left Thai soil, or when they were due to arrive in Australia.

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/de

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

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