In line with records from Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation dated March 9 of this year, the Thai elephant population spanned between 4,013 to 4,422. These elephants occupied 91 distinct national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and non-hunting territories across the country.
Despite these seemingly positive numbers, the threat of habitat destruction and scarce food sources has led to pressing consequences on the elephants’ health and population figures. This escalating concern subsequently prompted the initiation of a groundbreaking project in 2002. This project aimed to conserve these majestic beasts by freezing elephant semen to be used for artificial insemination proceedings.
This innovative endeavour was made possible due to the collaborative efforts of the Zoological Park Organisation, Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, and the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. The venture yielded successful results with the births of two elephants through artificial insemination – Plai Prathom Somphop and Saen Rak.
Plai Prathom Somphop, the male calf, made his entrance into the world on March 7, 2007. This was approximately two years following the artificial insemination administered on his mother, Phang Chord, from 8-10 June 2005. Bearing the nickname “AI”, in acknowledgment of his origins through artificial insemination, the male elephant also enjoys the honour of a royal name bestowed by His Majesty King Bhumibol the Great on October 6, 2009.
Plai Prathom Somphop’s claim to fame occurred when he led a troupe of 29 elephants in a ceremony mourning the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol the Great on October 31, 2016. Currently aged 16, he resides at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang.
The female calf, Saen Rak, stepped into existence on October 8, 2018. Like Plai Prathom Somphop, she was born nearly two years following the artificial insemination performed on her mother, Pang Chim, from 26-28 December 2016.
Chonburi’s Khao Kheow Open Zoo recently celebrated Saen Rak’s 5th milestone with a markably large cake concocted from an assortment of fruits and vegetables including banana, sugarcane, corn, watermelon, guava, dragon fruit, carrot, pumpkin, and napier grass. The zoo provided an opportunity for visitors, predominantly children, to make birthday wishes for Saen Rak. The moniker ‘Saen Rak’ translates to ‘beloved’ in Thai, further emphasizing her endearing nature.
Beyond elephants, the conservation project is extending its reach to protect other endangered species such as the eastern sarus crane, white rhinoceros, the tapir, Fea’s muntjac, the serow, the clouded leopard, the marbled cat, the fishing cat, the Asian golden cat, and the goral.
The overarching mission is to curb the imminent extinction threat that looms over Thailand’s wildlife. The country has already bade farewell to species like Schomburgk’s deer, the Javan rhinoceros, the Sumatran rhinoceros and the kouprey, increasing the urgency of these protective measures.