[9 August 2010] Mosha was walking alongside her mother through the jungles that cover the Thailand-Myanmar border when she stepped on a landmine that would leave her forever maimed.
At seven-months old Mosha, an Asian Elephant, had her right front leg destroyed by a buried explosive. Now at five-years old, with the aid of a prosthetic limb, she is walking on all four legs once again.
Mosha resides at the Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) hospital along with Motala, a 49-year old elephant and landmine survivor who also received a prosthetic limb ten years after an ill-fated step in 1999 that deprived her of a front limb as well. Founded in 1993 as the world’s first Asian Elephant hospital by Soraida Salwala, FAE has helped these two elephants walk again with the use of prostheses.
To watch Mosha and Motala walk again overwhelmed Salwala. “I was more than happy and tears filled my eyes,” she said. The tears she shed were from joy, “I was speechless and my heart beamed.”
The story of Mosha and Motala has inspired San Francisco, California documentary filmmaker Windy Borman to direct and film “The Eyes of Thailand,” a film she hopes will educate people and cause them to take action to protect the Asian Elephant. There were 40,000 Asian Elephants in 1993 and now there are less than 2,600, said Borman. She is trying to help Salwala in her quest to save the animal that she loves.
“I consider myself a pretty worldly person, but I had no idea elephants were stepping on landmines, especially an endangered species,” explained Borman. “I knew I had to tell other people about it.”
Located south of Chiang Mai, the hospital is near Lampang, Thailand. Salwala started FAE after urging a wildlife group to save one wild baby elephant that fell down a cliff in Khaoyai National Park. She was terrified by the answer she received at her request to save the elephant from the wildlife group.
Salwala reiterated what the group told her, “Elephants die every day, why bother!” Those words of defeatism led Salwala to change her life’s focus. “I stopped whatever I [was doing] in life and started FAE,” she said.
“Soraida is a very passionate, powerful, and determined woman,” said Borman.
The Asian Elephant is Thailand’s national symbol and an essential part of the country’s identity, explained Borman. She believes that Salwala’s vision for the future of elephants is important for Thailand to consider.
“In places like South-East Asia where there are endangered species and landmines there’s a problem.” Borman is hoping to unite two different communities, the animal welfare community and the landmine removal community, with her film. She expressed that these two groups need to work together to prevent harm from striking humans and animals.
Tracking the number of elephants affected is not done as well as tracking the toll landmines inflict on human lives. “The only thing that can be reported is [elephant] casualties,” said Borman.
The dangerous maze of landmines that litter the Thailand-Myanmar border are mostly placed there by the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Army, according to Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan, researcher for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. “Mines are primarily found on the [Myanmar] side of the border, where conflict is taking place between the Tatmadaw and several ethnic based insurgencies.”
Eastern Myanmar has very few all weather roads and travel is predominately on thinly cleared tracks through the jungle. The Tatmadaw and rival militias make it treacherous for civilians and animals that traverse the paths by frequently hiding mines on these tracks. “Large numbers of mines have been scattered along paths in forested areas,” said Puangsuwan.
Mosha and Motala were wounded on these same trails that injure and kill many people and animals. Puangsuwan explained, “Elephants are used for heavy forest agricultural work, and elephants may fall victims to mines while pulling logs out of areas controlled by an ethnic militia, or while grazing.”
Stopping the use of elephants for labor is one of the ways to prevent further harm being done, but that is not an easy message for those who’s income depends on elephants to grasp. Salwala understands this predicament. “It is difficult to tell people who work with elephants [to stop], some just do not listen at all.” Closed ears will not cease Salwala from persuading them to stop and from her helping every elephant she can.
Salwala thinks of the many lives FAE could not save and the many elephants the hospital cannot reach and that suffer in vain. “That is tearing my heart,” she said.
Thailand was the first South-East Asian country to join the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, but Myanmar has failed to become a party of the same treaty. With an active mine clearance program, Thailand is constantly removing mines from transit routes across remote areas of the border.
The number of landmines buried cannot be calculated though. “To our knowledge, no combatant keeps records of this type of mine use,” said Puangsuwan.
Borman has a more sardonic response to the number of mines there might be. “The [Myanmar] army is not going to say how many landmines it has planted.” She says the only things that can be counted are the casualties.
Surviving the landmine blast forced Mosha and Motala to forego their lives as free elephants. At FAE they would have to heal their wounds and lead a different life. “A full size elephant weights about three tons and two-thirds of their body weight is on the front of their bodies,” explained Borman. “An elephant has to be able to hold two tons on its first step.”
Motala, as a fully-grown elephant, was left with the burden of two tons on a single leg. This caused her spine to warp, and her leg to rotate and her elbow to over bend. The hospital realized they needed to build something for Motala to rest her stump on. A rudimentary brace was constructed, which Borman described as resembling a punching bag full of wood chips. However, this was only a temporary solution.
Along with Thailand’s The Prostheses Foundation, FAE gambled on an unfamiliar process to construct a prosthetic limb for both Mosha and Motala.
Dr. Therdchai Jivacate, the secretary-general of The Prostheses Foundation, adapted a form of casting developed by Dr. Yeongchi Wu at the Center for International Rehabilitation (CIR). By replacing traditional plaster-of-Paris bandages, the CIR system uses a unique fabric-casting bag filled with polystyrene beads. The casting bag is placed around the residual limb and a negative mold is formed with vacuum suction. Jivacate applied a modify version of this to create the prosthetic molds for the elephants.
“In case of Mosha and Motala, to use plaster of Paris bandage was impossible because we have to use about 20 to 24 rolls of eight inches plaster of Paris bandage which will dry before we can mold into the shape of the elephant stump,” explained Jivacate.
“It took about 3 hours before we could get the proper alignment which Mosha could put her full weight on and walk like normal,” said Jivacate.
“Mosha was three-years old so she accepted [the prosthetic] right away and it was easy for her to adapt to it,” said Borman
Marc Spits, founder of Elephant Parade, which displays life-size model baby elephants in major cities around the world that are painted by local and international artists to raise money that is donated to FAE, also witnessed Mosha walk on her new leg. “It felt absolutely amazing [to see Mosha walk],” said Spits. He could see Mosha was excited, too. “When Mosha received [her prosthetic leg], she was so happy.” Watching Mosha become acclimated with her new limb was emotional for Spits. “It brought a lump to my throat,” he said.
Borman explained that everyone was choked-up with emotion to watch Motala take her first steps. “It was a 10 year process to get Motala to walk again,” she said. “They had no idea if she would accept the prostheses.” She noted all the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the success of Motala’s prosthetic limb, but it worked. “To watch her take her first step was a dream come true.”
Mosha and Motala’s prostheses are always being modified and improved and received new life-like prosthetic legs on July 2. The elephants are enjoying a new freedom. Borman and Salwala were excited to see Mosha walking around and exploring the grounds of the hospital and making friends with other elephants.
Neither Mosha nor Motala will ever leave the hospital. Borman calls the hospital a very peaceful place, that is not a tourist destination that appears on maps nor is it a sanctuary. It is a working hospital.
Salwala is proud that FAE has led others to take action to save the Asian Elephant. “FAE has fought for new laws, raises awareness, and proposes ways to solve problems related to elephants in Thailand.” She proclaimed, “I am glad that as the pioneer in proposing possible projects, there are now many groups in Thailand based on what FAE has publicly proposed.”
The final scene in the trailer for Borman’s documentary shows Salwala crying and telling her ultimate wish, “I don’t want any elephant to be hurt. I’d rather have an elephant hospital without any patients.” Salwala hopes that day will come.
First published by The Animals Voice Magazine July/August 2010 and Asian Geographic Magazine No.76 Issue 7