Elephant Santas spread coronavirus awareness among Thai children

The elephants used their trunks to carry baskets of face masks to the youngsters and motorists outside the school. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Christmas and Thailand's love of elephants combined Wednesday (Dec 23) when four of the giant creatures dressed as Santa turned up at a school just outside Bangkok, complete with huge coronavirus masks.

Excited children from Jirasat Wittaya School in Ayutthaya, an hour's drive from the capital, sang Christmas carols and lined up to have their photos taken with the animals in the annual tradition.

The elephants, Sri Mongkon, 14, Sri Raya, six, Peter, 15, and King Kaew, 18, used their trunks to carry baskets of face masks to the youngsters and motorists outside the school.

English and science teacher Brett Baxter said the event brought a special kind of Christmas spirit coupled with a flavour of Thailand.

"It's fantastic for the children. It mixes two cultures together. It's not just about Santa Claus... the culture of Thailand is based around elephants," he said.

Ayutthaya, the former capital of Siam, the country now known as Thailand, is considered the birthplace of the kingdom's Catholic community.

European Catholic missionaries built a church on the banks of the Chao Phraya River three centuries ago.

Mr Ittipan Paolamai, the manager of Ayutthaya's elephant palace, where the animals are cared for, said the school visit has been held for 17 years.

"This year, due to the pandemic as well as the recent outbreak, we used this opportunity to raise public awareness about the spread of Covid-19," he told AFP.

Thailand, a country of 70 million people, has registered more than 5,700 coronavirus infections, and in the past week, there has been a spike of more than 1,000 cases linked to an outbreak at a Thai seafood market.

But not everyone feels the Christmas school visit is a healthy tradition.

Dr Jan Schmidt-Burbach, a wildlife veterinarian and adviser for World Animal Protection, said bringing elephants to a school "for these kinds of public stunts is quite questionable and not acceptable".

"Children will perceive elephants as entertainers and clowns rather than the wild animals they biologically are," he told AFP.

The experience can be stressful for the animals, he added, and there was always the potential for accidents.

"The elephant handler has to make sure he can control the elephant... Elephants can get out of control and hurt and sometimes even kill people."

But manager Mr Ittipan told AFP that the creatures were well trained and looked after.

"I don't see this as exploitation or torture. We have had elephants in our province for tourism and social awareness for a really long time. So it's really not a big deal doing activities with them like this morning," Mr Ittipan said.

"Elephants have always been integral to the Thai way of life."

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