Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Motala, the Elephant

This is a true story about a real, live elephant who lives in Thailand, and her name is Motala.  And what happened to her was that back in 1999, when she was 38 years old, she was working in a logging camp in Myanmar, and she stepped on a land mine, which is a kind of bomb that is hidden under the ground, and you don't even know it is there until you step on it and get blown up.  So anyway, Motala was doing a little browsing during break time, and she stepped on this land mine and it blew off her left front foot.

Lots of people and elephants and other animals get hurt by land mines, and usually when an elephant gets hurt by one, the owner of the elephant has to shoot it because there is nothing else they can do.  But Motala's owner decided to try to save her by taking her to a hospital called Friends of the Asian Elephant that he had heard about in northern Thailand.  So he and Motala walked through the jungle for 3 days until they were able to hire a truck to take them the rest of the way to the hospital.

So by the time they got there, Motala's foot was really infected, and she was in a lot of pain, and people said they even saw tears coming from her eyes.  The story about Motala was in all the news in Thailand, and everyone wanted to help her because elephants are a special national symbol in Thailand, and people really care about them.  So lots of Thais donated money, and they raised $110,000 to pay for an operation on Motala's leg.  And a bunch of veterinarians and surgeons said they would help.

But it was hard to operate on an elephant because an elephant is very big, so they had to rig up a sling and use a crane to move Motala.  And the amount of anesthesia they had to use was enough for 70 people.  But after 3 hours, the operation was over, and it was a success.  They took off 12 inches of Motala's foot and leg, and after a couple of days, they used the crane and a sling to help her stand up.

The plan after that was to try to make a new leg for Motala, but her wound was really slow about healing, and 2 years later, part of it still hadn't healed up.  So she had to have more surgery.  But then some people got jealous because Motala was so famous, and they made death threats against her.  Then they put 3 king cobras on one of the paths that Motala walked on a lot.  King cobras are very, very poisonous, and no one had ever seen any of them in that area before.  Also sometimes at night people would drive by the house of the woman who started the elephant hospital and yell threats at her.

But anyway, Motala had her second surgery, and finally her leg got healed, and she got her first prosthetic, which is a long word for "fake leg."  This first leg was mostly like a bag full of sand and wood chips.  And it had to be very strong because Motala weighed 4 tons.

Then in 2009, Motala got a different prosthesis, but it broke when she lay down on it.  But it got fixed again, so she could use it for a while.

And then earlier this year, Motala got a really pretty leg that looks like a real elephant's leg, with toes and everything.  I think she looks very happy wearing it.

Anyway, the story of Motala has made people more aware of what is happening with elephants in Thailand.  Back in 1900, there were about 100,000 domesticated elephants there, but now there are only about 2,500.  And the elephants that are left have trouble finding jobs, since it is now illegal to do logging in Thailand, which is what the elephants were mostly used for.  So that is why some people take their elephants to Myanmar to do illegal logging there.  And then when they go there, they might step on land mines, like Motala did, because there are all these ethnic groups and soldiers fighting each other in that country.  And besides that, people feed drugs called amphetamines to their elephants to make them work harder, and that's not very good for the elephants.

So the only other thing elephants can do to help their people earn a living is they can give rides to tourists and take them on treks in the jungle.  And sometimes elephants are out doing this on the roads at night, where they are hard to see, and they get hit by cars.

But the good news is that now more injured elephants can be helped by Friends of the Asian Elephant, which was founded by a woman named Soraida Salwala in 1993.  She has been interested in helping elephants ever since she was a child, and had helped a whole bunch of them, which I think is a very good thing.  And if you want to see more pictures of Motala, you can go here:


  1. Dear Piper,
    My mom wanted to thank you for writing such a nice blog today. Elephants have always been a favorite animal of my mom's. When she was a child she always dreamed of having an elephant and just yesterday she said maybe in her next life she'd like to be a mahout. She also suggests your mom should read a book called Modoc

    which is a true story about an elephant.

    Your friend,
    Zest, superstar in training

  2. Dear Zest,
    I can't believe that your mom really wanted an elephant of her very own, but it's kind of cool that she did. My mom has never had any desire to be a mahout, but she might like to read that book about Modoc. I will tell her to look it up on The problem with my mom is that she can never seem to find time to read!
    Your friend, Piper

  3. yes, well, we sometimes wonder about mom's sanity. Secretly I think she still wants that elephant


  4. Thank you for writing about Motala's journey! I began producing "The Eyes of Thailand", a documentary film about Motala, Mosha (the other elephant landmine survivor), and Soraida Salwal (the founder of FAE's Elephant Hospital) after a chance encounter in 2007. I've traveled back twice since then to film the elephants receive their prostheses and to check up on them this fall.

    If you'd like to follow our progress, please visit

    Thank you!

    -Windy Borman
    Director/Producer, "The Eyes of Thailand"

  5. Dear Windy,
    My mom and I watched the video on your website, and we thought it was very interesting. We hope you will get plenty of donations so that you can finish the film, and then lots of people can learn about Motala and Mosha.

    Your friend, Piper