Soraida Salwala

Soraida is both a Founder and the Secretary General of Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation. A crusader in a time where women were scarce in the conservation world, she looked adversity straight in the eye and built the Foundation in 1993.

She is a pioneer for elephant welfare as this project is the first of its kind. Soraida’s passion for the elephants and overall courage helped her succeed in building her dream. Throughout the years she has been instrumental in the hospitals growth, fostering strong relationships with supporters, donors and media outlets. But most importantly, she has created a wonderfully close relationship with each elephant that passes through the hospital. Without Soraida’s vision and determination, the Foundation would simply not exist.

Read an exclusive interview with her below.

Who Is Soraida Salwala?

By Sean Whyte

Thailand’s elephants, both wild and domesticated, are struggling for their survival. The wild elephant population is declining rapidly due to destruction of their natural habitats (forests), poaching for ivory and the slaughter of female elephants for their calves to sell into circuses and as tourist attractions.

Increasingly, owners are mistreating and neglecting domesticated elephants that can no longer help generate income from logging. They are a burden to their owners who, in many cases, underfeed or simply sell them to the highest bidder. Some suffer from abuse or accidental injuries and maltreatment. Some are neglected and left to die of their injuries or in a few cases, starvation.

It was a typical day in Bangkok, oppressively hot and humid. I was looking forward to some rest before returning to England after yet arduous trip to save dolphins in Thailand. Before me, lying on her side was “Honey”, her eyes full of fear and pain. I had come to the Dusit Zoo in central Bangkok having heard from an English friend that an injured baby elephant was there, being left to die without medical attention. “Do you know of anyone back in England, Sean, who would be prepared to help Honey? I should mention though, even if you do there is no guarantee the thai authorities will accept outside assistance. They are very proud people and wold prefer to leave the elephant to die of its injuries, rather than accept help from a foreigner,” said my expatriate friend.

When I arrived at the makeshift shelter in te zoo a small crowd was standing around Honey staring and talking amongst themselves. Easing my way through the onlookders I saw someone kneeling beside this heartbreakingly sad looking baby elephant, which was lying on her side. I was immediately sruck by this young woman’s obvious distress. It was just her and the elephant, in a makeshift enclosure. She was talking quietly and reassuringly to Honey. Trying occasionally to tempt her to take in some liquid through eating slices of watermelon. For a few minutes I just listened and observed, wanting to say something but lost for words. Her words on the other hand, appeared soothing and reassuring to an otherwise terrified animal in extreme pain.

I had never been close to a baby elephant before, much less a severely injured one. Thoughts such as “well, what can I do now I am here?” flashed through my mind. Still not really knowing what to say, much less do, I knelt down and introduced myself to both the woman and the baby elephant. Her name was Soraida Salwala and as far as I could determine at the time she, like me, had come to see what could be done to help Honey>

Soraida, my friend had told me, had reputedly developed a bond with the baby elephant, and I could now see this for myself – the love and concern in her eyes was very apparent. I made up my mind, there and then, that I would try to help them both. Together we goaded the zoo officials into action. The first thing needed was a cover to protect Honey from the relentlessly fierce sun, which had been beating down on her unsheltered back.

Veterinary help was, I had been told, out of the question. The owner had forbidden it and besides, the elephant was a symbol of Thailand and it had to be left to die of its own accord. We offered to buy the elephant and therefore take responsibility for its treatment but this was flatly rejected.

No one other than Soraida and I appeared the least bit concern that Honey was in extreme pain from a broken pelvis, unable to stand and with sores where she had been left lying in one place so long. She was a pitiful sight, seemingly with just the two of us to help her.

The hours went by, we took it in turns to sit beside Honey, gently stroking her, and offering watermelon as the only way of getting liquid into her. All the while touching Honey, Soraida began to explain how this baby elephant came to so terribly injured.

“Honey was being walked alongside a busy road having earlier “performed” at an elephant football match, when she was struck by a passing lorry,” Soraida said. This was the first I had heard of elephants trained to play football, but apparently it’s a popular spectatior event in some parts of Thailand.

We agreed that should contact British vets to see if anyone could advise us what we could do to ease Honey’s suffering. Leaving Soraida to continue comforting Honey, I quickly returned to the hotel and began calling everyone I knew back in England who might be able to help.

Every British zoo vet I spoke to was shocked at the extent of the elephant’s injuries. They advised us as best they could: some were even willing to come out to Bangkok, providing the Thai zoo authorities formally invited them. The zoo dismissed this offer of help and Honey’s fate looked ever more desperate. Each time I returned to Honey at the zoo, there was Soraida, providing tender loving care to her, day and night.

One last ditch effort was called for to persuade the zoo to help Honey.

(the fact unfolded later that it was Soraida who actally brought Honey to the zoo and the owner gave her the ownership of Honey but some people refused to listen even when she wanted to take Honey back to Lampang )

I contacted the Daily Star newspaper with the story and asked for their urgent help with running a feature on how this beautiful baby elephant was being left to die in terrible pain. To their credit they not only did this, they also offered to fly Honey to England where specialist help was available. The Thai authorities were not in the least bit interested and were adamant that leaving the elephant to die was the right thing to do.

By now, though, word of Honey’s plight had begun to spread. We sensed a growing concern from the authorities. After one long and especially harrowing day Soraida said, “Mr. Whyte, may I show you my plans for an elephant hospital? I never want to see another elephant suffer like this again.”

Unrolling a set of architect drawings Soraida proceeded to explain her dream of building the world’s only elephant hospital. It became apparent that helping elephants was something she had been planning for some time. “An elephant hospital, Soraida? Will there be enough serious accidents like this to justify the expense?” I was more than a little curious to find out.

“Let me explain to you why this hospital is so desperately needed,” said Soraida. It was a grim story – one of drug abuse, law-breaking, corruption, deliberate injuries being inflicted on these magnificent animals by greedy owners, accidental injuries pulling logs from deep in the forests, the list went on. Although I’d been involved in wildlife conservation all my life and I had been to Thailand before, this news came as a shock to me.

“I don’t know how I will build the hospital, I just know it wil be built if it’s the will of God,” Soraida said. Given what I had just seen and heard, and the general attitude towards strong-willed women in Thailand, I confess I had my doubts. Deep down, though, something was telling me Soraida would achieve her dream. We both knew she was likely to face fierce opposition, personal attacks on her integrity and a government bureaucracy that can stop all but the corrupt in their tracks.

This was in 1993…………………….Who is Soraida Salwala?

“Soraida, I think it’s a wonderful idea. We both know it won’t be easy but if anyone can get this hospital built, I’m certain you are that person. Please keep me informed of your progress and let me know how I might be able to help you,” I said. Soon after this I had to return to England but not before making one last visit to Honey.

This time there was clearly some action being taken at last. Zoo vets were now on the scene and beginning to try and ease this gentle baby’s suffering. There was even a barrier erected to keep back the growing numbers of onlookers and sympathizers. Easing my way through the crowd I told the officials, now busying themselves around Honey, that I had come to say goodbye to the baby elephant. Lying down beside Honey one last time, I kissed her trunk and whispered to her a few words of comfort. On the long flight back to England that night I could not sleep. All I could do was think of Honey and bring the image of her vividly to mind. I vowed then I would do all that I could to help both SORAIDA and HONEY.

The days passed and soon turned into weeks. Reports from Thailand told of a great increased effort to help Honey. She was now being cared for day and night by zoo vets and officials. (Learned later that all wages and expenses were paid by FAE & Soraida herself).

A harness had even been made and secured to raise her off the ground without inflicting further strain on her fractured pelvis. This enabled the vets to treat her worsening bedsores.

Then one day came the dreaded message from a distressed Soraida, “HONEY has died.” After three months Honey could hold out no longer, her weakened body simply unable to cope with the massive injury she had sustained.

That was 1993, a life chainging for SORAIDA. If she was strong and determined before HONEY’s death, she was UNSTOPPABLE now. Leaving her family jewellery business, with the help of Dr. Preecha Phuangkum, a vet with government sector Soraida established the FRIENDS OF THE ASIAN ELEPHANT foundation just a few months before Honey’s accident.

Her love of elephants had begun more than thirty years earlier. Traveling with her family, as a child of eight years in the northeast of the country, they happened upon an elephant lying beside the road. They discovered that a lorry had struck this enormous pachyderm. Getting back into the car, her father explained that nothing could be done to help this poor animal. “We should take him to the doctor Papa”, Soraida cried out. “How can we take him, my dear, he is very big?” As they drove by a gunshot was heard and her father explained, “Uncle elephant is in heaven now, my dear.”

A century ago up to 100,000 elephants worked in the logging and transport business. Poaching, deforestation and loss of habitat have reduced the domesticated population to less than 4,000, while the wild population has dropped to below 2,000.

The pace at which the forests are being cut down, mostly illegally, is such that their greedy owners treat many of the elephants very harshly. One particularly serious problem is that elephants are habitually fed bananas laced with drugs, to give them greater strength to haul giant logs way beyond the capability of any normal elephant.

Five years after first meeting Soraida I found myself standing in a fully-fledged elephant hospital on a hillside some 20 miles north of Lampang, Northern Thailand. I had known for a longtime that Soraida had fulfilled her dream of building the world’s first Elephant Hospital, but nothing quite prepared me for its impressive scale.

On the way from the airport to the hospital, Dr. Preecha Phuangkum, the hospital’s Chief Vet, began to explain the scale of the challenge facing them. To illustrade a point he stopped the car on a roadside. As far as the eye could see there was only green undergrowth and spindl looking trees “This was once virgin forest. I can remember well the great trees that once grew here. Everything you now see is secondary-growth bushes and trees,” said Dr. Preecha.

“Steop out of the car for a moment. Listen, can ou hear a single bird singing?” Dr. Preecha invited me. I could not, the silence being broken only by large trucks roling by, heading south in a cloud of dust, laden with logs and bamboo.

“Local people just don’t understand. No trees mean no wild fruits, which in turn results in no insects or birds-there is nothing for anything or anyone to survive on. All the wild animals have been hunted out, and besides there is nothing for them to eat. This place is now virtually dead, useless to everyone. This is what illegal logging does to our country.” Dr. Preecha went on. The story is much the same elsewhere in Asian with wildlife being crammed into ever smaller and fewer wild spaces.

SORAIDA met us at the hospital and, as I gazed around, I could barely believe my eyes. There, around me, were elephants being attended by their mahouts (men who care for and control the elephants). Solid looking, open sided structures provided shade for the recuperating elephants. We went to look at the veterinary clinic building, one I’m sure any western vet would be proud to work in. What was a dream five years ealier was now a fully functional hospital for elephants, a world first.

“We have so far treated over 400 cases (over 3,000 cases now from 1993-2011) free of charge-poor animals which otherwise would have gone on in pain, many to an early death,” Soraida explained.

“This makes me happy but there is so much more we need to do, the situation is desperate. Take Kamme there, a female elephant in her early fifties, she came to us with terrible injuries caused by the cruel treatment meted out by loggers; on top of this she had been regularly fed amphetamines to make her work longer hours, and now she is addicted to them.” Soraida told me.

There were three adults and one baby elephant in the hospital that day. Looking into their eyes, it was difficult not to imagine the fear, pain and suffering they had gone through. SORAIDA walked up to each one offering reassuring words in a tone of voice that the elephants appeared torecognize as coming from someone who does not intend to hurt them. Even so, a mahout was ever watchful to ensure my presence, as a stranger, did not worry his charge. Treating elephants can be difficult at the best of times and, a frightened elephant in pain takes a good deal more skill and courage than most people could muster.

Dr. Preecha, a seansoned elephant vet works closely with Soraida. Together they have faced up to angry elephants, suspicious mahouts, illegal loggers, intimidation, and jealousy from the most unsuspecting quarters. Soraida has also been on the receiving end of death threats.

In her forties, (now fifties), Soraida needs a stick (now two walking sticks and a walker) to help her stand and walk. She is not a well person, yet she has an enormous inner strength and outer calmness which belies her poor health. Various internal problems have resulted in Soraida spending time in hospital for operations and yet, this too, is pounced upon by her critics who claim her illnesseses as nothing more than a publicity stunt to draw attention to herself.

“We try to work with people who own elephants, it’s the only way. If we didn’t they would not let us treat their animals. Sometimes though, to protect elephants we have to make strong statements to the public. Attitudes need to change or else there will be no elephants left in Thailand,” Soraida said.

One such time, which brought forth considerable personal abuse upon Soraida, is the use of elephants for begging in the streets of Bangkok.

Visitors to Bangkok are likely to see one or more of the estimated 80 elephants paraded through the hot, dirty, noisy streets. These gentle giants, the symbol of Thailand, have been reduced to begging for their food. Two mahouts, one walking alongside clutching a bag full of vegetables, parade their elephant in and out of the traffic plying their trade-selling vegetables to pasers by to feed the elephant.

With depressing regularity newspaper carry reports of elephants being struck by vehicles.

SORAIDA and her organization were successful in getting this practice outlawed, but enforcement has proved next to impossible. It did, however, make her a lot of new enemies.

In August 1999, a Thai elephant from across the border in Burma had stempped on a landmine, and one foot had been blown apart. Soraida recalls the fateful night when the news first reached her, “The fact is “Motala came without notice. She came on a truck at 9.30 p.m., the night of 18th August. Dr. Preecha was away in the south and I was in Bangkok when a member of staff called me, pouring out words I could not understand. I asked to talk to the mahout, but he too, was in a state of shock. I asked him to calm down, take a deep breath and slowly tell me what the wounds are like, is she bleeding profusely, and so on? I was shocked but beyond that, Motala had to be given antibiotics, painkillers, etc. I asked him to call the nearest livestock research centre and sent another staff to drive the car and pick up the vet. The vet came and talked to Dr. Preecha on the phone. He had never treated elephant before in his life, but his kindness was beyond any fear, he did everything Dr. Preecha instructed him to do for the next 3 days before Dr. Preecha could finally get back to FAE Elephant Hospital. When Dr. Preecha first saw Motala, he called me and told me this, “Khun So, please come, you’ve got to be here”.

I grabbed my handbag, my personal medicine bag and took a taxi to the airport. When I arrived at FAE in Lampang, we began to hurriedly plan and make arrangements for Motala’s treatment.

News of Motala’s plight quickly spread. Without prompt veterinary help she was destined to die an excruciatingly painful death. Soon the hospital was swamped with media crews and well wishers. The story of MOTALA was beamed around the world but its great impact was in Thailand. Funds flowed in to pay for the operation Motala needed, nearly 100,000 pounds was raised-in Thailand; a remarkable change of heart since the death of HONEY. Even more remarkable was the sight of some 30 doctors, vets and nurses, working as a team to restore Motala’s shattered front left foot. Evidence, if ever it was needed, of the effectiveness of SORAIDA SALWALA. Without her dream of the hospital, this could never have happened and Motala would most likely have been shot or euthanized.

Motala has been fitted with the prosthetic leg, new one is being made. She was donated to FAE a few days after her arrival at FAE. Former owner of Motala and his neighbors keep telling their friends and those who own elephants “There’s a hospital for elephants, I’ve been there. My elephant was saved.”

Kammee had been since been bought from her owner, but not without some tough negotiating on both sides. She was at FAE for over 5 years and had to be put down in 2002 when she collapsed, blind and could no longer stand.

As more forests are cut down there is less and less habitat for wild elephants. With fewer logs to sell, the loggers no longer need as many elephants. In a very short space of time there will be an enormous surplus of these giants. Unable, or unwilling to look after their elephants, mahouts will then need to find new homes for them. The prospects for these elephants look very bleak.

SORAIDA wants to buy land to provide a safe home where retired, crippled, injured bulls (always more difficult to handle) can live out their lives in peace. It’s the LAST HOME PROJECT , Soraida calls it, where unwanted elephants will have a decent life until the last day of their lives.

Until now (2011) with few resources and work load, her dream has not come true but she is pleased to learn that many sanctuaries in other countries and in Thailand have been opened, clearly based on what SORAIDA and her foundation have wished for since 1993.

“There is no one single, simple answer to Thailand’s elephant problems. We do our best and things have certainly got better for elephants, but we know we are up against a tremendous problem. God willing, I will devote my every waking hour to helping our elephants,” said Soraida.

“I have received many anonymous phone calls, death threats, king cobras found at the hospital, and many accidents on the roads causing injuries, but despite everything, I shall not waver.

HONEY , who died in agony, is waiting for me. I am sure she knows I shall keep the promise I made to her before she died “Mother will help your friends, close your eyes and sleep well, my baby, no one can harm you now!”