Soraida’s Story (Video)
But, the woman I met seemed anything but unwell or inflicted with a painful disease. She greeted me with the cheeriest ‘hello’! Her eyes were bright and she seemed genuinely glad to meet me.
A tragic childhood incident triggered her life long concern and dedication for these gorgeous animals. Soraida Salwala was traveling with her father and happened to cross a large Elephant breathing its last after being hit by a truck. She asked her father, what had happened to the ‘Uncle Elephant’ and why couldn’t they take it to the hospital- a place Soraida knew well, as a sickly child.
Starting and running the Hospital hasn’t been easy. Soraida says, that “I’m the only Thai citizen who has to carry her passport with her every time I travel, even if it’s just to Bangkok!” Though Soraida was born in Thailand and is a citizen, she’s actually of Philippine origin. Add to that the suspicion she arouses when she tells people that both her grandfathers are of Arabic origin. People don’t miss an opportunity to discredit her. If it’s not her ethnicity, it’s her gender that’s a problem. But, she’s been through enough to see the humour in the banality of all the accusations and attempts at defamation. She prioritises her hospital and its over-sized patients over everything else. It helps her find her balance I imagine.
Whether it’s people questioning her motives or her ability, Soraida powers on. Her hospital has saved the lives of thousands of Elephants that would have otherwise been euthanized.
When I arrived at the FAE center, I felt a sense of calm. It was lush green, clean and very quite… apart from the odd happy resident tooting it’s horn. Even the staff seemed genteel and eager to show me around. The place has a culture that has Soraida’s stamp all over it.
I met many of the residents. My favourites (I’m sorry, but some were just cuter than the others!) were Motala, Baby Mosha and Tantong. In the early 90s, Motala made headlines when Soraida and FAE, rescued her after she stepped on a landmine and lost her left foot. The good folks from Prosthesis Foundation stepped in and built the world’s first prosthetic leg for an Elephant. Motala is still around and looking mighty fine, even though she’s a foot short!
Seven month old baby Mosha has a similar story; she lost her right foot and had emergency surgery to amputate the devastated leg. She’s almost five now and even has a custom built stand in her enclosure where she rests her amputated stump for balance. This excitable and affectionate girl is completely unaware of her handicap and is incredibly agile.
But, my absolute favourite has to be Tantong. The 80 year old is the senior most resident of the hospital. She’s completely blind in one eye and has slight blurry vision in the other. She’s such a heartbreaker- all wrinkly, slow and utterly adorable. She’s the only one I really wanted a picture next to. Aren’t we quite a pair? I’m the one in blue if you’re wondering. I swear it’s the Thai food. A week ago I was skinny and then BOOM! (Not really, but the Thai food isn’t helping!)
It’s love at first sight with this lot. And to imagine that if it wasn’t for Soraida and FAE, none of them would be alive today. Elephants are such a crucial part of Thai culture and history. You see them everywhere. In the fountains, on the walls of government building, tattooed on people’s bodies. It’s also a working animal in Thailand. They’re used for logging, paraded around as festival sideshows and of course as key tourist attractions (day long training to be a Mahut is a very popular activity among western tourists). But, the owners are usually poor peasants and when one gets sick or injured, this primary income source turns into a massive burden.
Fortunately, now there is an Elephant hospital that’s willing to rescue these sick or injured gentle giants. And that makes me really happy.
Soraida lives at the Elephant Hospital in Lampang, about 80 Kilometers from Chiang Mai. I spent a day at the hospital and some quality time with Soraida and the residents. Here is a short video. It’s my first, I know the audio is kinda crappy… but I was in the middle of a forest and no matter how many times I shouted ‘Action’ or ‘Rolling’ the freaking crickets wouldn’t shut up!
UPDATE: Trying to upload a higher quality version.