Dramatic rescue of elephant and calf: Thai vet’s bravery highlights tough task of wildlife guardians

BANGKOK, Sept. 17 (The Straits Times/ANN): On a wet July morning, an elephant calf strayed from the forest in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park onto the grounds of a golf resort in Nakhon Nayok province. It fell so deep into a gully that his mother couldn’t help it.

But the adult elephant attacked people who tried to get close to her baby.

A rescue team that included officials from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) calmed the mother elephant, but with her last effort she stepped toward the pit and slumped over the hole where her calf was trapped.

Rescuers then had to use an outrigger lift to hoist the sedated adult elephant aside. Shortly after, it stopped breathing.

It could have ended in tragedy. But a petite woman in a blue smock pounced on the pachyderm. She called out to the other rescuers around her to help revive the unconscious elephant and they jumped up and down on his chest. When it finally woke up, she called for rescuers to get to safety.

The calf eventually climbed out of the hole through a path that rescuers had dug. Together with its mother, it came back unharmed to the forest. Wildlife veterinarian Chananya Kanchanasaka, meanwhile, drew national attention for her leadership of the entire operation.

It was a complex process involving about 30 men, including a group who sent them into the forest to stop other elephants from coming to the aid of the desperate duo – and potentially endangering human rescuers.

After the approximately hour-long mission ended, images of the rain-soaked 35-year-old vet crying with relief were shared across Thai media.

“I cried with you, Dr. Bow!” wrote a Facebook user, referring to the vet by her nickname.

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Last month, she received the Kaset Kla award from her alma mater, Kasetsart University, for her courage and dedication. Previous recipients include former Chiang Rai provincial governor Narongsak Osothanakorn, who led the rescue of 12 footballers and their coach from a flooded cave in 2018.

Asked about her newfound fame, she tells The Straits Times: “It’s not just about me. There are many other wildlife doctors dedicated to this work but never recognized. You work in regions that are only accessible to a few people.

“I happen to work near Khao Yai National Park, which attracts people from all over the country and therefore gets a lot of attention. So this is an opportunity for me to help people understand my work.”

Part of a forest complex designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), Khao Yai is three times the size of Singapore.

The park, about a three-hour drive from Bangkok, is lined with luxury resorts, vacation homes and farms, some of which offer rich prey to roaming elephants in search of sweet fruit.

Chananya is the only DNP vet monitoring Khao Yai as well as areas stretching to Sa Kaeo province on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Contrasting with her broader responsibilities, her desk at Regional Office 1 for Conservation Areas in Prachin Buri Province is in a corner of a small room housing the Wildlife Conservation Division.

There she sits next to a cupboard full of veterinary medicine, on which stands a pair of snake tongs. When asked about the clinic where she treats injured wildlife — which can range from electrocuted elephants to monkeys hit by cars — she says she cares for all the animals she can, from the back of the pick-up truck up trucks from their agency.

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Chananya is fascinated by tigers, but it’s elephants that take up her time.

In October 2019, 11 of them died at a 150m high waterfall in Khao Yai called Haew Narok or Hell’s Abyss. One calf in the herd was believed to have slipped trying to cross a swollen stream and the other 10 died trying to save it.

Park officials made efforts to remove the elephant carcasses to avoid contaminating the water downstream. Some of them had to be hospitalized after being overwhelmed by the ammonia emitted by the rotting flesh, Chananya says.

The vet helped the remaining two elephants in the herd survive. By strategically placing high-calorie glucose-injected banana stalks in the forest, she fed the exhausted elephants enough to continue their journey safely.

Your job is not without risk. In the past week alone, two park rangers have been killed in encounters with wild elephants.

One was killed in Chanthaburi province on Tuesday after being sent to deal with a herd of six elephants eating crops at a longan plantation. On Sunday, another ranger died trying to chase off an elephant that had been raiding a village in Prachin Buri every night in search of food.

Such human-elephant encounters are increasing due to rapid development in Thailand, which has resulted in both loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat and is pushing wild elephants towards human settlements, says Mr Bhichet Noonto, a researcher with the Human Elephant Voices network trying to mitigate the human-elephant conflict.

Ms. Chananya is well equipped for this, as she nurtured her love for wildlife from an early age by following her aunt, a wildlife researcher, on field trips.

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However, she emphasizes that it is very much about love from afar. Jungle animals aren’t “cute” and can’t be tamed, she says, and thinking otherwise would fuel demand for the wildlife trade. “We should be prouder to see the animal in the forest than to have it as a pet.”

At the DNP, Chananya is technically on duty during office hours, but in reality is almost always on call. “Public holidays? Yes, I do when people aren’t calling for help,” she says.

For example, on a holiday in July, the elephant calf fell down the manhole. She was at home in Pathum Thani province – over an hour’s drive from Nakhon Nayok – when she was alerted at 5am. Within an hour she had sped to Nakhon Nayok, gathering rescuers and strategizing along the way.

Before joining the DNP six years ago, Ms. Chananya worked for a company that sells veterinary medicines. During her vacation at the time, she backpacked through 18 countries, including Singapore.

“Now I’m not going anywhere. The furthest I’ll go is Pattaya,” she laughs, referring to the coastal city, which is about a 2 1/2 hour drive from Prachin Buri.

“I’m afraid if something happens I won’t be able to get it back in time. We don’t have enough vets. If we use vets who are stationed elsewhere, they may be too far away.”

For them, that’s hardly a sacrifice.

“I love this job. It’s exhausting and maybe I’m discouraged and I can complain. But even if I try to run away, I know that if they need help, I’ll come right back,” she says. – The Straits Times/ANN

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