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In Thailand, elephants raise funds for Haiti earthquake relief

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Tibor Krausz

(Read caption) Thai elephants seek donations for Haiti earthquake relief.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Like most 7-year-olds, Plai “Peter” Noppakhao loves playing “chase” and squeals with delight at the sight of treats. He’s never heard of Haiti earthquake relief, yet recently Peter spent an afternoon with 24-year-old Plai Kacha and 14-year-old Plai Yodyeam soliciting donations for the Caribbean country’s earthquake victims.

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Mingling good-naturedly among delighted camera-toting tourists in Bangkok’s backpacker district, they carried around white baskets painted with red crosses. The threesome raised 700,000 baht (more than US$21,000) for the Thai Red Cross Society’s Haiti Relief Fund, surpassing the Thai government’s donation.

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And here’s the thing: Peter and his friends are elephants.

They live with more than 150 other pachyderms on an elephant sanctuary in Ayutthaya, 50 miles north of Bangkok.

That this revered yet endangered species can be recruited for help during emergencies and humanitarian crises comes as no surprise in Thailand. Elephants have helped to move toppled trees after monsoon floods, pulled cars from rivers, and cleared weed-clogged waterways. Five years ago when a massive tsunami devastated shores around the Indian Ocean, tuskers were used to remove debris and recover bodies in Thailand’s south.

“Elephants not only lend practical help but their presence boosts morale,” notes Ewa Narkiewicz, an Australian volunteer at the Royal Elephant Kraal and Village. “They’re an important and visible part of Thai life, both culturally and spiritually.”

According to Buddhist belief, elephants are the last incarnation of sentient beings before becoming human; Buddha himself is believed to have been a white elephant in a previous life.

“We need to learn to live in harmony with animals and work together with them to make this world a better place,” says Laithongrien Meepan, the kraal’s founder.

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During the fundraiser for Haiti, Peter clearly relished the attention. He trumpeted happily on being pampered with sugar cane as the basket he held with his trunk filled with donations.

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