Blockade by anti-zoo activists holds up export of Thai elephants to Australia

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The controversial shipment of eight young elephants from Thailand to Australia was temporarily abandoned yesterday after animal rights activists blockaded the roads in Kanchanaburi, forming a human chain around the animals' quarantine site.

The elephants had been due to be loaded on to cargo planes at Bangkok airport last night. It was to have been the first stage of a swap between Thailand and two zoos in Australia. In exchange, more than 100 kangaroos and other marsupials were to be shipped to the Chiang Mai night zoo in northern Thailand.

The activists, mostly women and children, camped on the road overnight. Zoo officials finally agreed to unload the cages and lead the animals back to Mahidol University's wildlife hospital , where they have been kept for the past 20 months.

"The protesters surged up through the convoy and the elephants got a fright, so we decided to unload them. The elephants looked anxious," Lisa Keen, a zoo spokeswoman, told reporters. Confined inside container trucks for almost 24 hours in the torrid heat, the elephants were hosed down and fed coconuts and grass during the standoff.

Soraida Salwala, founder of the conservation group, Friends of the Asian Elephant, was one of the 100 activists standing directly in front of eight lorries in order to disrupt the elephants' transferral through Kanchanaburi province, 80 miles west of Bangkok. "I heard somebody shout to go ahead and 'run her over', but I would not move and they finally braked," she said. "Later, many more animal lovers came out to join us. We are opposed to the export of any elephants from Thailand and suspect that some of these elephant babies were captured in the forest."

A temporary delay, allowing time for officials to determine through DNA testing whether the elephants were domesticated and not illegally poached from the wild, has cost the Australians £200,000 in plane charter deposits and set back their elephant breeding programme.

Thai officials said the bilateral government deal was legal and threatened court action, saying the protesters would have to bear the extra costs of postponing the flight.

Five of the elephants are earmarked for a new enclosure at Sydney's Taronga Park zoo and the remaining three for Melbourne's city zoo. Taronga plans to establish the largest elephant breeding centre in the world. But the deal sparked protests in both countries from activists who believe zoos are cruel.

The number of Asian elephants has fallen by 80 per cent over the past century. Australia's Environment Minister, Ian Campbell, advocates their protection. "Every attempt must be made to ensure the survival of the species, including through captive breeding programmes," he said.