Weighing in against land mines

SUN JOURNAL

Thailand: Motala, an elephant who lost a foot in an explosion, has become a symbol in efforts to clear the nation of the deadly devices.

November 16, 1999|By Justin Pritchard | Justin Pritchard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LAMPANG, Thailand -- Not so long ago, Motala eked out the hardscrabble, unassuming life that hundreds of other elephants here do -- haul logs, forage for food, go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again.

Nowadays, her name elicits from any Thai a solemn nod. That's what a land mine, two surgeries and the media horde will do.

People here know Motala as the beast that lost one foot, and her innocence, with one misstep in the jungle. Soon, they may know her as the symbol for Thailand's effort to cleanse its soil of land mines.

The government-run Thailand Mine Action Center wants to use Motala as its mascot in a public education campaign. Her caretakers say they will happily oblige.

Motala's misfortune could bode well for the country's anti-land mine corps, which has been hobbled recently. Although Thailand must dig up hundreds of thousands of mines laid in the war-weary 1960s and 1970s, the financial crisis here hinders the endeavor. Worse-off countries such as one of Thailand's neighbors, Cambodia, receive most of the international aid.

With the cash-strapped agency at wit's end, the Mine Action Center wants to hop on Motala's broad back and go along for the ride.

"We would like to use Motala for propaganda," says Col. Talerngpan Chiewvej, a mine-removal specialist at the Bangkok-based agency.

As the country's national animal, elephants hold a singular place in the Thai psyche. And among elephants, Motala has no equal -- she has star power, staying power and even a bit of a mystique.

A rough road to fame

It began Aug. 15 when Motala was on a lunch break from hauling logs in Myanmar, Thailand's western neighbor. For three days after the explosion, the elephant slogged through underbrush, driven by her mahout over the border and onto a truck bound for the elephant hospital here, about 300 miles north of Bangkok.

Since that accident, land mines have injured three other elephants in the Myanmar border area, where insurgents continue to fight the military government. But it is Motala, the first victim, who weighs in with sympathy and donations befitting her girth.

Local residents hold vigils at the elephant-care facility. Far-flung fans have donated $131,000 for Motala's care to the Friends of the Asian Elephant foundation, which runs the facility. The organization has spent about $10,000 on food, lodging and surgery.

Under fire

In a country with a per-capita income of $6,100, that disparity generates some cynicism. Motala the cash cow draws attention that Motala the stricken gentle giant did not.

The Nation, one of Thailand's two major English-language newspapers, went so far as to write that the humane solution is to put Motala to sleep.

"Being compassionate toward all living things may be one of the most important Buddhist virtues," an editorial in the paper said last month. "But being foolishly sentimental out of naivete and ignorance, or trying to prolong the suffering of a helpless animal for selfish reasons, is evidently wrong."

The foundation has also come under fire from other elephant-preservation groups, who argue that limited funding should help conserve habitat rather than mend one beast.

"It happened that Motala has caught so much attention. She has been very courageous and sweet to everyone," says the foundation's leader, Soraida Salwala. "So I really do not understand why there should be some bad remarks against us."

There's even been a little cloak and dagger. Someone recently faxed a hoax announcement of Motala's death to a newspaper near the hospital, sending her doctors into a temporary frenzy.

Surgery

But Motala is alive, if not kicking. And at 38 years old, she is too young to limp into the sunset once her artificial foot is fitted.

She took a symbolic step toward recovery Nov. 5 after a second operation on her maimed front left leg.

A team of eight doctors and nurses in green scrubs first stabilized Motala using a canvas harness coupled to a crane in an open-air operating theater. After injecting her with painkillers, they whittled away a pineapple-sized nub of flesh for two hours and then sewed the remaining flap of skin onto the smoothed surface using metal wire.

"In humans, this is a small thing," says head surgeon Therdchai Jivacate, a doctor from nearby Chang Mai and the head of Thailand's Prostheses Foundation. "But because the area is so big, it is a big operation."

The pink stump will heal for about two months before doctors fit a false foot, says Therdchai, who had operated only on humans before Motala.

Spokes-elephant

Here again, Motala presents a public-relations prospect. The owners of an Evansville, Ind., company, Riecken's Orthodic Laboratory, have offered to provide an elephant foot, or materials and expertise -- an offer Therdchai expects to accept.

"We don't know if she will use it or not," Therdchai says of the fitted foot. "I hope she will."

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