The ailing tusker ‘Muthu Raja’ was airlifted to Thailand by a special flight which left the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) this morning.
The tusker is expected to receive treatment from Thai veterinary surgeons after reaching Chiang Mai.
The 4,000-kilogram mammal flew out from Colombo airport on Sunday morning on a one-way commercial flight for a repatriation that Thai officials said had cost $700,000.
The Ilyushin IL-76 cargo plane carrying Muthu Raja took off around 7:40 am, the airport manager said.
After touching down in Chiang Mai the elephant will be quarantined at a nearby nature reserve.
Veterinarians had prepared to airlift the Asian elephant from Sri Lanka back to its home country of Thailand this weekend after it spent more than two decades at a Buddhist temple.
The Thai royal family gave the elephant as a gift in 2001 to Sri Lanka’s government, which in turn gifted it to the temple where it was named Muthu Raja and given honored roles in religious processions.
However, the activist group Rally for Animal Rights and Environment, or RARE, raised allegations it was being mistreated, including that it had a stiff leg from a long-neglected injury.
It lobbied last year for the intervention of Thai officials, who asked Kande Viharaya temple officials to allow the animal’s return to Thailand for medical treatment.
The temple agreed to transfer the elephant last November to Sri Lanka’s National Zoological Garden, where it has been receiving treatment and preparation for the airlift to Thailand planned for Sunday.
According to reports, two big abscesses the elephant was suffering from when it arrived have mostly healed. However, the zoo has not been able to fully treat the animal’s leg because of a lack of facilities.
Visit Arsaithamkul, a visiting Thai veterinarian, said the treatment in Thailand could include hydrotherapy, laser treatment and acupuncture.
At the zoo, Muthu Raja’s morning routine had included veterinarian check-ups, bathing in a small pond and practice getting into the container that will carry him on the nearly six-hour flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The container is cushioned and has windows for feeding — which will include bananas, pumpkin and sugar cane. Zoo officials have hoisted the 9-foot-tall, 4-ton creature in trial lifts to test the container’s strength.
Muthu Raja — also known back in its birthplace as Sak Surin — will be sedated if needed, and two vets will monitor him during the journey. Three Thai and one Sri Lanka elephant tenders also will be on the plane.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told Parliament earlier this month that he expressed his regret to the Thai prime minister over the treatment of the elephant during trip to Thailand in May.
–With agencies inputs