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Wednesday, December 30, 1998 Published at 17:48 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Thailand's elephants sick and abandoned

This elephant was injured while logging

The world's only elephant hospital is threatened with closure because of Asia's economic crisis.

Over the last few months the hospital at Lampang in northern Thailand has suffered a slump in donations, upon which it relies to survive.

The Asian elephant population is already dwindling, and vets believe the hospital's closure could hasten the animal's extinction.

Once the symbol of the country, the number of wild elephants has fallen to under 3,000 since Thailand's forests have been depleted in development plans.

When logging became mechanised many elephants with their keepers, or mahouts, turned to begging in the streets.

The elephants often get injured or fall sick.

The BBC's South East Asia correspondent, David Willis, has visited the hospital which is in danger of being closed:

[ image: Once the symbol of Thailand, elephants used to be the mounts of warriors]
Once the symbol of Thailand, elephants used to be the mounts of warriors
The elephant once brought warriors onto the battlefields of Siam and Indochina. Yet although those battles are frequently reenacted, the elephant's status has continued to wane.

Set to work tugging logs on the Burmese border, many were forced to pack their trunk when logging was made illegal.

They spent their days wandering the back streets, where people would pay their owners to pass beneath the elephant's belly, a ritual still seen as lucky.

[ image: Reduced to wandering the streets]
Reduced to wandering the streets
The head vet at the hospital, Dr Preecha Phongkum, fears elephants have simply outlived their usefulness.

Now banished from the city, the elephants treated at the elephant hospital have been either mistreated or malnourished.

But feeding the biggest animal in the world is not cheap: they eat a wheel-barrow of bananas for lunch. Now faced with financial crisis, the founder of the hospital, Soraida Salwala, is afraid that the hospital will have to close.

This, she says, would hasten the elephant's demise.

"Thirty years ago we had 30-50,000 elephants into this country. Now it's only 2,000 or 3,000. This rate of decline is greater than we could have ever thought. Within 20 years the elephant will become extinct in Thailand."

Discarded by the loggers, pursued by the hunters, shunned by the authorities, even the elephants' staunchest allies wonder if they have a place in the modern world. Elephants have been likened to latter-day dinosaurs, destined for extinction.

As the number of abandoned elephants multiplies, the need for the hospital grows.

Its staff will help to determine whether these giants of the jungle fade into obsolescence with dignity, or in hunger and pain.

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