Baby elephant at heart of viral social media rescue campaign dies under care of Thailand zoo

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Jumbo, a.k.a. "Dumbo," performing at the Phuket Zoo in Thailand. (Courtesy of Moving Animals)

A baby elephant at the Phuket Zoo in Thailand who went viral after animal rights activists posted footage of his skeletal frame on social media has died in zoo custody after a months-long petition to get him into a sanctuary, according to local media.

The emaciated elephant was so weak that he broke both of his back legs trying to free his front legs from mud in his enclosure. The breaks went undetected by zoo staff for three days, and were only discovered after the elephant was transported to an associated National Elephant Institute Elephant Hospital in Lampang due to his deteriorating state.

The baby elephant died just three days after being transported to the hospital, a staffer at the elephant hospital confirmed to The Phuket News.

The 3-year-old elephant, known as Jumbo at the Phuket Zoo, but nicknamed "Dumbo" by activists due to his plight, was performing tricks for tourists at the Phuket Zoo up to three times a day leading up to his death. Jumbo was expected to “rave” to loud music, play musical instruments and perform tricks.

When Moving Animals, an animal rights advocacy duo who document practices within animal industries globally, encountered the baby elephant, they immediately noticed he was emaciated and frail.

They took photos and videos of the performances at Phuket Zoo and created an online petition with the hashtag #SaveDumbo on April 2, pleading with the Phuket Zoo to release Jumbo to the care of a nearby sanctuary where he would no longer have to perform.

The social media campaign went viral, and the petition earned 20,000 signatures in the first four days.

Mana Thepparuk, Chief of the Phuket Provincial Office of the Department of Livestock Development, which is the regulatory office responsible for overseeing animals used for any form or work, was alerted to the issue and the associated online campaign on April 9, when a reporter from The Phuket News contacted him.

“This baby elephant is fine, but it is thin. My officials will go check the baby elephant’s health today to make sure it is not suffering any infection or digestive problems,” Thepparuk told the reporter after watching the video of Jumbo which was circulating online, “By what I can see in the video clip, the baby elephant is working, but I am sure that is (sic) animal is not being harmed.”

The next day, April 10, the DLD found upon inspection that the baby elephant was indeed underweight and might have been suffering from an infection, and ordered the Phuket Zoo to stop making him perform until he was fully recovered.

Three days later, Jumbo experienced a horrific accident in his enclosure, which zoo manager Pichai Sakunsorn told The Phuket News was specially created for the elephant's recovery.

Jumbo was so weak that he was unable to free his front legs from mud, and broke both of his back legs trying to free himself. The zoo recognized swelling in Dumbo's legs and tried to treat it onsite, not realizing that both legs were fully broken for three whole days.

A vet at the elephant hospital where Jumbo was taken for further treatment gave her opinion that Dumbo did not die of abuse or neglect.

“He had an infection in his digestive tract that resulted in Jumbo suffering constant diarrhea, which caused other health complications, including the fact that his body was not absorbing nutrients as it should, which made him very weak,” the vet said, “I believe that the cause of Jumbo’s condition may have resulted from him being born premature. Also, Jumbo liked bananas and other sweet foods. He refused to eat enough fibre-rich food to remain healthy.”

Following Jumbo's death, Thepparuk told The Phuket News that his officers would be investigating and will take any legal action deemed necessary.

He went on to explain that there is nothing stopping the Phuket Zoo from acquiring another baby elephant to take over the performance duties of Jumbo.

Moving Animals updated its “Save Dumbo” page to note the elephant's passing, and to further call for an end to the exploitation of animals as tourist attractions.