Please remember Plai Petch

Human beings don't have an elephant's memory and most of you have forgotten me.

My name was Plai Petch and I was shot dead by police one year ago - on Sunday, Dec 29, 1996 to be exact - shortly after breaking loose from a chain which kept me tied to a tree for 20 years at Wat Puet Udon, Pathum Thani.

The metal ring was biting into my leg and the pain was excruciating, yet I always let men take me back to my tree and never hurt anyone or caused any damage during the few times when I released myself in the past.

I was 25 years old - quite young for an elephant - when I was at last able to wander for a short distance before the police came. It was not easy: try not to trip and lose your balance after being chained to a tree for 20 years. But the grass was soft and green along the klong and I felt happy and carefree.

Then the cars appeared with their sirens. They closed in on all sides. Elephants aren't used to blaring sirens.

The first shots hit me in the legs. It was so painful - even worse than my chains. More than 10 policemen from Klong 2 police station were firing continually from the roof-tops as I desperately tried to get back to the safety of my tree.

The bullets pierced my ears and my body. It was unbearable, like fire eating into my flesh. I was trying to escape.

Then they aimed at my eyes and I stumbled towards a klong. Everything turned bright red, even the grass and the trees. It suddenly seemed like sunset. Then there was darkness. I could feel that my only friend, Po Lerksri, who had taken care of me since I was young, was nearby. But he could do nothing to help my suffering.

Elephants love to wallow in the forest streams and I had not been able to do so for 20 years. This was my last chance.

Although I was blind by now, I lay down in the klong and felt the coolness of the water against my skin as life finally ebbed away. I had found peace at least.

Perhaps the world is no longer fit for elephants. They are, of course, far less important than the police nowadays.

I was hoping things would change when my suffering made the headlines two years ago. People learnt that I was being mistreated by a monk at Wat Puet Udom. But my hopes were short-lived. The outcry faded, the press lost interest and I remained in chains, a source of amusement for those who visited the temple.

My brothers and sisters are out of work and hungry. Some elephants are even compelled to beg on the streets of Bangkok. Their lungs are being slowly poisoned by exhaust fumes and pollution. The noise drives them crazy. I learnt that men lit fires in neighbouring countries and that our blue sky had become hazy. What has happened to our world?

Does no one remember that it was the elephant that bore the kings and princes during royal processions? People loved us and we were the highlight of every festive occasion, covered in gold and silver, towering proudly above the crowds. We moved the heaviest loads and walked carefully through the thickest forests to help our masters log the precious trees and build roads long before the bulldozers destroyed our natural environment. We contributed to their wealth, which they have lost today through their greed and mismanagement.

Our herds roamed free, but once caught and trained, we spent the best years of our long lives toiling for the benefit of this Kingdom.

Is it too late to provide the surviving elephants of Thailand with a sanctuary?

All they need is an area where they can live and die in peace, where there is food, water and shade, a place where local people and visitors can watch them work and play.

There must be some kind souls left in this country and abroad. They have created so many organisations to save nature and animals. Why don't they help us?

I, Plai Petch, would be resting truly in peace if my death had not been in vain.

The policemen from Klong 2 police station did not care. They walked away with smoking guns without so much as glancing back at the elephant they had gunned down. And no one cared about my being shackled to a tree for 20 years.

Indifference is a terrible disease. If men don't care about the plight of elephants, no wonder they fail to help each other.

Please remember Plai Petch. It may make a difference to our future - and yours.

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
Geneva, Switzerland
Bangkok Post 29 december 1997