Monday, 27 May 2013


Now that former President Joseph Estrada is now the Mayor of Manila, 
I hope he will fulfill his promise of sending Mali to the sanctuary in Thailand.
Below is my latest article on Mali.

            A better life for Mali.

            That’s the claim that has fueled the tug war between Manila officials and the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

            PETA wants Mali transferred to the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Thailand where she will have hundreds of acres of land to roam, other elephants to play and bond with, and lots of natural stimulation for her mental, physical and emotional health.

            Public support for the PETA proposal is increasing. Frequent media coverage has made the Filipino public aware of Mali’s plight. The list of legislators, politicians, church leaders, prominent personalities and even international experts and famous animal activists all demanding Mali’s transfer to BLES has grown in the last few months. 

Manila zoo officials, on the other hand, want Mali to remain in the zoo, alone and miserable, sans the expert care and proper conditions she needs for her physical health and sans the company of other elephants that she needs to lead a normal life.

            Zoo officials, with the obstinate and misguided support of Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim, claim Mali will have a better life if she remains in Manila because she grew up here and this is the only life she knows.

            They also claim that Mali will be sedated during her flight to BLES and this could kill her.

  But according to CITES regulations, elephants cannot be sedated during trips except in extreme circumstances to prevent injury to the animal or to the  people around her. Sedation is not advised because animals in a lethargic state may be more vulnerable to injury during the trip.

           In March 2011, US Association of Zoos and Aquariums set up standards for elephant management and care . By 2016, all zoos with elephants must keep a minimum of three female elephants. Zoos which do not follow this must transfer their elephants to other zoos.

          For elephants, their herd is everything. Females stay with their families for lifei and males stay until their early teens. They need to be in the company of elephants.

          In the Upper House, at least four legislators – Senators Miriam Defensor Santiago, Chiz Escudero, Manny Villar and Lito Lapid – have each filed resolutions to facilitate Mali’s transfer to BLES and assess the situation of animals in zoos and sanctuaries all over the country. Some of the resolutions are also asking for an assessment of animal welfare enforcement in the country.


           For centuries, elephants have been flown from Africa and Asia to zoos all over the world. Circus elephants have travelled by train and truck from city to city. Long-distance travel for this giant creatures is never easy, specially if the destination is a place that is so different from their home environment. But through the years, elephant experts have developed a protocol to facilitate the transfer of elephants to faraway destinations and minimize their stress during the trip.

          According to PETA’s proposal for Mali’s transfer, several steps have to be taken to prepare her for the trip.
     Travel Training

         Mali must learn to allow veterinarians to take blood samples and care for her feet. This is important because early diagnosis of diseases can save an elephant’s life. The blood chemistry results are needed for the travel permits.

            A method called “protected contact” will allow a vet to get the samples
            Without using ropes, chains and bullhooks. These were used to train and
punish stubborn elephants before but are now unacceptable by today’s
standards. Only metal screens, bars and restraint chutes separate the animals from their handlers. Positive reinforcement has replaced punishment in elephant management.

To allow the application of “protected contact”, Mali’s enclosure at the Manila zoo will have to be modified. The daily training for Mali’s foot care  will take one to three weeks while training for blood work will need a few more months. Everything will depend on Mali’s cooperation.

2.     Travel Permits

Mali will also need a travel permits from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The export permit will come from the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) which is the CITES authority in the Philippines. The CITES authority from Thailand will also have to issue an import permit and determine the appropriate quarantine procedures.

3.     Transport Crates

Elephants always travel in specially designed crates that have to be
Approved by and the International Air Transport Association. The crate will measure 7.5 ft x 12 ft x 18 ft on the outside and 6.5 ft x 10 ft x 17 ft on the inside. The team that will accompany Mali will have three feet of space from where they can monitor her during the flight. PETA will either borrow a crate from a cargo company or have one built for Mali. Training to enter the crate will take more or less a month.

A crane will lift the crate onto a flatbed truck for the trip to the airport.

4.     Travel Companions

PETA has arranged for an elephant expert to accompany Mali to BLES. This person will come months before the trip to help train Mali and bond with her. An expert in transporting elephants and one person from the Manila zoo will also be on Mali’s travel team.

An air logistics expert will be consulted to make minimize the stress for Mali.

5.     The Trip

From Manila Zoo, the trip to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport
will take about 30 minutes. Loading her onto the cargo plane via conveyor belt will take another hour. PETA will commission the truck and plane. Only a C-17 or a front-loading Boeing 747 can fly an elephant.

The trip to Sukhothai airport in Thailand will last four hours and the trip to BLES may take one to two hours. All in all, Mali will be traveling a total of 9.5 hours.


            BLES is a 400-acre land in Sukhothai, northern Thailand that is home to 14 elephants rescued from abusive owners and retired from heavy work like carrying logs.  It was set up in April 2006 by Katherine Connor, a former London-based retail manager who traveled to several countries in Asia and ended up falling in love with a baby elephant named Boon Lott. The baby elephant was prone to accidents and eventually died. But Katherine was marked for life. She raised money to buy land and set up a sanctuary, eventually marrying Anon, a mahout she had befriended while she was caring for Boon Lott at an elephant hospital.

            The sanctuary has banana plantations, grasslands, open fields, rivers and all types of fruit trees. The elephants there are not used for profit and never forced to perform. All they do everyday is play, roam, forage, swim and bond.

            Captive elephants often suffer from foot infections and arthritis due to the hard concrete surface of their living quarters in zoos. Their tails often get infected after repetitively hitting concrete walls and metal barriers.They need natural substrates and large areas so they can exercise and roam and bond. Elephants roam up to 50 kms a day.

            The BLES caretakers are confident that Mali will integrate well with the other resident Asian elephants. For the first six months, Mali will have 5 acres to herself while acclimatizing to her new home. She will have a huge bathing pond. Although the area will be fenced, she can already interact with the other elephants. They will wait till Mali is ready to join the herd. A webcam will be set up so Filipinos can watch Mali’s progress.

Filipinos can learn much more about elephants by observing Mali in her new home than watching her Mali in the artificial zoo environment.
Wildlife experts agree that elephants are extremely intelligent and curious animals with complex social lives. They think, decide and act, very much like people.

After spending 36 years of her life in Manila zoo, Mali may experience confusion and stress for the first few months. But the excitement of a new life, stimulation from her natural surroundings, the company of members of her kind as well the care she will getting from her caretakers will see her through this period.


Securing Mali in the crate and loading onto truck –             1 hr
Ground transport from zoo to Manila airport –                   0.5 hr
Loading crate onto aircraft –                                             1 hr
Flight time from Manila to Sukhothai airport –                    4 hrs
Unloading from aircraft and customs clearance –               1.5 hrs
Transport to sanctuary –                                                   1 hr
Unloading from truck to sanctuary –                                  0.5 hr

Total –                                                                             9.5 hrs


Zoos that have closed or are closing their elephant exhibits

All zoos in India
Alaska Zoo, US
Bristol Zoo, UK
Bronx Zoo, US
Chehaw Wild Animal Park, US
Detroit Zoo, US
Dudley Zoo, UK
Edinburgh Zoo, UK
Frank Buck Zoo, US
Gladys Porter Zoo, US
Greater Vancouver Zoo, Canada
Henry Vilas Zoo, US
Lincoln Park Zoo, US
Lion Country Safari, US
London Zoo, UK
Longleat Safari Park, UK
Louisiana Purchase Gardens and Zoo, US
Mesker Park Zoo, US
Philadelphia Zoo, US
Sacramento Zoo, US
San Francisco Zoo, US
Santa Barbara Zoo, US

Published in ANIMALSCENE magazine April 2013

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