So, it seems, is much of Thailand. Although hundreds of villagers living near the country's embattled borders with Cambodia and Myanmar have lost legs to land mines, the plight of this mighty beast—traditionally the icon of Thai royalty—has galvanized the country. Donations of more than $126,000 have poured in to Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation, the group that operates the elephant hospital in northwestern Thailand where Motala is convalescing. And hundreds of visitors, from busloads of schoolchildren to senior citizens, come daily to see the three-ton pachyderm and cheer her on. "Our kings rode on the backs of elephants," says Princess Bhansawali, 66, a relative of Thailand's ruler, who recently flew in "to see how we could help" Motala. "We owe them something."
Indeed, on the day of the accident, Motala, 38, had traveled about 37 miles from her home village in western Thailand to haul logs in Myanmar. Released by her mahout, or handler, Somwang Waroonviriya, to forage for her breakfast of bamboo leaves and grass, she triggered a land mine with her left front foot. "I ran to her and panicked," recalls Somwang, 21, of seeing the animal his family had bought four years ago shrieking piteously.
Somwang decided her best hope would be the elephant hospital in Lamphang, some 300 miles away. "At times I felt like she wouldn't make it," says Somwang. "But she could walk, she obviously wanted to live." Four grueling days later the pair finally arrived. Somwang was crying. Motala's wound was badly infected. "Her trunk was in her mouth, as if she were in great pain," says Soraida Salwala, 42, cofounder of FAE with veterinarian Preecha Puangkum.
During the following week, as the staff administered antibiotics, Motala's options were weighed by an unusual team of volunteers—11 veterinarians who knew nothing about amputations and five surgeons who knew human medicine but nothing about elephants. The group finally decided to try amputating only the damaged parts of the foot.
The 2-hour 45-minute procedure on Aug. 28 was an extraordinary effort. The Petroleum Authority of Thailand sent enough fire hose to weave a trampoline-like bed for the elephant, who was knocked out with anesthetic sufficient for 70 humans. Of the 30 volunteers on the medical team, none had ever operated on an elephant. Carefully the surgeons removed all four toenails and a triangular section of Motala's foot that was five inches thick.
Last month, Motala was reported in very good condition. "We're satisfied," says Preecha Puangkum, chief veterinarian of the elephant hospital, of Motala's progress. She is eating well and her pre-accident playfulness has returned. A team of Thai doctors is attempting to construct an artificial foot for her, but if that doesn't work, the vets believe she will teach herself to walk on the stump.
In either case, Motala can look forward to a life of leisure at FAE's thickly forested Conservation Center, where six other sick and abandoned elephants currently reside. She'll have another friend as well: Somwang was offered a position as a mahout there. "I'm happy I'll be able to stay with Motala," says Somwang, grinning. "Motala's like most elephants, but she's my elephant. So she's special to me."
Karen Emmons in Lamphang and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles