The recent birth of the male elephant calf at Taronga Zoo in Sydney on Wednesday, March 10 has created a series of national headlines. It’s not simply because he is the third baby elephant born in Australia but mainly because he was pronounced dead a few days earlier after almost a week of labour, based on both scientific examinations as well as the natural indicator.  

The calf was believed to be dead because of his difficult position in the birth canal of his mom “Porntip”, with all other checks showed no signs of life whatsoever. The lost of interest in Porntip by other elephants also suggested that they too thought the calf wouldn’t make it. The entire Taronga’s staff was immediately saddened by this news. Miraculously, however, the zoo keepers found him lying alive next to his mom in the morning of Wednesday. He was then rushed to intensive care and has been recovered quickly ever since.

The calf was initially nicknamed “Mr. Shuffles” based on his wobbly moves caused by his bunged legs, as a result of his birth ordeal. On last Thursday (March 25), Mr. Shuffles was officially dubbed “Pathi Harn”, which in Thai, no doubt, means “miracle”.

Having Pathi Harn as a new family member means the other Taronga’s elephant calf “Luk Chai” will now have a friend to play with. Luk Chai himself also made a national headline in July last year as the first Asian elephant born in Australia. His name means “a son” in Thai, with the connotation also means “the pillar of victory”. His mom “Thong Dee” was a lucky street elephant brought from Thailand to Australia, together with four other elephants including Porntip, as part of the Australasian Conservation Breeding Program for the endangered species. Pathi Harn is the third Asian elephant to be born in Australia, following “Mali” (meaning Jasmine in Thai) a baby female elephant born earlier this year at Melbourne Zoo.

While these little elephant stars have caused an excitement among the group of Australian animal lovers, they don’t seem to interest very much those people in their mother’s country of origin. Similar to the Aussies, Thais have been euphoric over a new member at Chiang Mai Zoo, except for that here it’s not a baby elephant – it’s a baby panda named “Lin Ping”. 

Lin Ping was born in May last year to her mother “Lin Hui”. Somewhat similar to Pathi Harn, Lin Ping’s birth was a surprise to the staff at Chiang Mai Zoo. This is because Lin Hui had shown no sign of pregnancy since she was artificially inseminated (AI) earlier in February, following the first futile attempt in 2007. The sperm used in the AI process was from Lin Hui’s partner “Chuang Chuang”, a male panda who failed to perform in the natural mating.

The panda couple was brought from China on a loan agreement in 2003, as part of a panda research program.  Since then, they have become a major attraction, drawing massive number of visitors to Chiang Mai Zoo each year. The arrival of Lin Ping last year has even fueled the country’s craze of pandas further to the ceiling. To put this in perspective, there’s a cable TV channel dedicated to Lin Ping – The Panda Channel. When I went back to Bangkok to visit my family in December last year, I had a chance to watch the channel. It basically broadcasted 24-hr (yes, all day and everyday) live actions of Lin Ping and her mom via a series of CCTVs fitted throughout the pandas’ mansion. Admittedly, there were a few occasions I found myself watching Ling Ping sleep! I was also surprised to see that even the cub falling from the tree made the front page of the newspapers in early January.

Of course, it’s not surprising that rare animals will boost the number of visitors to the zoo. In the case of Luk Chai, his arrival helped doubling the number of Taronga Zoo’s daily visitors. This number would have perhaps quadrupled with the appearance of Pathi Harn. If you visited Chiang Mai Zoo, you might need to queue up for an hour or more during peak season before being able to catch a glimpse of the adorable Ling Ping.

Although most of the Thai people love the pandas, some have raised a concern that too much attention and money are being drawn to these non-native animals. A couple of ten million bahts have already been spent on the pandas’ facilities, with more money to be thrown into the development of a permanent Chinese-Thai panda research centre. Currently, documents are being prepared for the negotiation process between the two governments. And because the current loan agreement will see the two pandas return to China after 10 years and any cub returned after two years of its birth, the negotiation will also aim at keeping the pandas in Thailand for longer, and perhaps permanently.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with the idea of building the research center, as long as this hasn’t been done unfairly at the expense of the provisions for the welfare of other native animals, particularly Thai elephants. Pandas are China’s national symbol. The Chinese government treasures them and treats them with great care. Remember that those pandas at Chiang Mai Zoo are on loan; the Chinese will want them back eventually as they are considered national treasure. So why don’t the Thai government start to take a very good care of their own elephants as much as they do with the pandas, and as much as the Aussies do with their elephants?