‘World’s saddest elephant’ dies in Manila Zoo

Gentle giant: A file photo showing Mali reaching out from her enclosure to touch a visitor’s hand at Manila Zoo. — Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN

Mali, the elephant that had lived alone in a zoo in Manila in the Philippines for more than 40 years, and which animal rights activists had described as “one of the world’s saddest elephants” died.

Manila Mayor Honey Lacuna said in a video message on Facebook that Vishwa Ma’ali – the elephant’s full name – died at 3.45pm on Tuesday.

There is no record of exactly how old she was, but she was believed to be 48 to 49 years old.

Dr Lacuna said the zoo had yet to ascertain the cause of her death.

Mali had been the Manila Zoo’s star attraction.

Nearly all Filipinos who had been on field trips when they were in primary school most likely saw her and were awed by her.

Mali was sent as a gift by Sri Lanka in 1977 to then Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos.

Found orphaned in the wild, she was about three years old when she arrived in Manila.

Mali was put in a pen with an older female elephant, Shiba, who had been rescued from a circus.

Shiba was territorial and aggressive, and bullied the much younger and smaller Mali.

The older pachyderm died just six years later.

Since then, Mali had been the sole elephant at the Manila zoo.

The zoo, which had always struggled with funding, could not afford to purchase a new elephant.

Back then, buying an elephant already cost millions of pesos, and having to take care of two elephants would have cost millions more.

In 2012, animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) started a campaign to have Mali moved to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, calling her “perhaps one of the world’s saddest elephants”.

The group claimed that the elephant had, for more than 40 years, been confined alone to a “barren, concrete enclosure”.

It also said Mali had been “denied proper veterinary care”.

Peta flew in a veterinary expert who concluded that Mali suffered from “potentially fatal cracked nails and foot pads... and overgrown cuticles”.

But the city government disputed the group’s findings.

It pointed out that Peta, in a petition it circulated, misleadingly used the photo of an emaciated elephant at a zoo in Russia.

Animal welfare advocate Isa Garchitorena also argued against moving Mali to Thailand, saying that could only lead to stress and anxiety for an elephant that was no longer in her prime and had never been part of a pack to learn the social skills natural to elephants in the wild.

She also took issue with Mali being called “one of the world’s saddest elephants”.

“Mali may not be housed with other elephants here, but she is not without family.

“Her family is her keepers, her vets, her beloved volunteers and the millions of Filipino children that have watched her grow into the Mali that she is today,” she said.

Zoo officials said Mali was fed 150kg of grass, vegetables and fruits every day, and that she was monitored 24 hours a day.

They said blood tests done on her showed she was in the pink of health.

A veterinarian from Thailand specialising in caring for elephants said Mali’s feet and cuticles needed extra care, but that was just because she was already old and a bit overweight.

The resulting public interest in Mali’s welfare – with celebrities like Paul McCartney and actress Pamela Anderson chiming in – did compel the Manila city government to earmark more funds to refurbish its zoo.

In 2022, just as the world was again opening up following the Covid-19 pandemic, the zoo reopened with, among others, a new sewage treatment plant, elevated viewing decks and lofts, and bigger animal enclosures.

Mali’s pen was enlarged, and the concrete floor was replaced with hard earth.

Sadly, though, that enclosure now stands empty. — The Straits Times/ANN

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