Storytellers – A Scotsman Held for Ransom & The Flight of the Elephants

For the last meeting of the year we were fortunate enough to have two excellent presenters. Regular Storyteller Jon Attwater told the story of his Scottish Great Grandfather A.C. Mackay who left home at the age of 10, went to sea and finished up being held for ransom in Manchuria. Jon was followed by Guy Cooper, who has had a 25-year association with Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoo, presenting the “Flight of the Elephants” – the journey to Australia of eight Asian Elephants covering events both chronicled and unrecorded.
Jon knew from a young age a little about his Great Grandfather Alexander Clarke Mackay but there was limited detail. However, through a conversation with member Chris Barrie who said he had some photos of Jon’s Grandfather (turned out to be his Great Grandfather), he was prompted to roll his sleeves up, get out the old trunk in the garage and conduct some serious research. The connection with Chris was that Toni (Chris’s wife) and Jon’s mother are cousins.

A C Mackay was born 1857 in Golspie – a fishing village on the North Sea Coast of Scotland. Alexander left home at the age of 10 and went to sea. Family history doesn’t record what ships he sailed on though he eventually landed in Melbourne in 1880. After a seafaring life, a desk job was not on and he took to the timber industry in Victoria and worked in the Otway Ranges and Gippsland areas, becoming mill manager for the Comet Mill in Clonbinane (the largest in Australia, 55km north of Melbourne) and had a financial interest in the Longwarry Saw Mill, 85km south east of Melbourne. He married his partner’s daughter Annie.

Jon’s research discovered a letter that Alexander wrote to the Department of Education offering to build a school if they would provide a teacher. The nearest school was 5 miles away and the road almost impassable in winter, so he built a school hall. The hall was only 30’ x 14’ and was jointly used for local meetings and dances. As Jon commented “It must have been real cosy”.

The building industry came to a standstill during the depression of the 90’s, the company became insolvent and Alexander was declared bankrupt.

In 1898 he gave evidence at a Parliamentary enquiry into the feasibility of a rail line, from Warburton to Lillydale, to bring timber to the main line from the forests of Gippsland. It was given the green light and has endured as a 40km trail for walkers and cyclists.

The British & Australian Timber Co. (Dalgety) hired him as Mill Manager in Coff’s Harbour.
Here things were still rather primitive compared to the industry in Victoria. Here he designed and managed the building of a railway to transport the timber replacing the bullocks. Later he built rail lines in Stroud, Boambee, Bonville and Woolgoolga. By this time Mackay was a recognized expert on Australian timbers and became a Director of Forests in NSW and Queensland.

He did several surveys on behalf of the Australian British Timber Co. in Borneo, New Caledonia, Sumatra and New Guinea, setting up several sawmills. He also obtained options over 6000 square miles of forests for the China Import & Export Co. of Shanghai.

Along the way he became involved with The Austral Guano Company in New Caledonia, and the mining of guano (usually refers to the desiccated droppings of seabirds) on Walpole Island.

Jon referred to various extract from The Australian Museum magazine, March 1922 where Alexander is mentioned and congratulated for his findings and reports.

Alexander’s varied and illustrious life took another turn when he was asked, by the Australian British Timber Co. to go to Manchuria and report on large forest concessions.

Manchuria which was dominated by China until the Qing court, in 1896, granted Russia the right to build a railway from Dalian, a port at the head of the Yellow Sea, through Harbin to Vladivostok.
(The eastern end of what is known as The Trans-Siberian Railway.)

By 1898, the city had become a Russian concession, with its own police force, as the Tsar continued to enforce his colonial plans for Manchuria, plans that were strengthened by the completion of the rail link in 1904. Alexander travelled to Harbin, on one occasion by train from Shanghai and on another by ship from Shanghai to Dalian, and from there by train to Harbin.

He put together an expeditionary force of some 70 men, most of whom were armed soldiers, as the area was frequented by bandits. Bandits in this area extorted money from the farmers who worked the concessions in winter for timber companies. The more money the farmer/timber workers made the better for the bandits. As a result, the bandits were friendly towards Alexander, and anyone else seeking timber concessions.

He made several expeditions but on his last trip things did not go so well. He did obtain a visa to enter the area, but it was stamped with the message:
“The holder of this visa should temporarily avoid travelling in districts disturbed by bandits”.
His party was raided one night and marched into the mountains. A ransom note demanded $60,000 and warned “If not paid they will be shot”. At some point he was shot in the leg and had his arm broken, perhaps in an attempt to escape. He wrote a letter asking to be saved but suggesting the authorities not to send troops as he feared he would be killed. The troops were sent in and the bandits carried out their promise. His three colleagues were shot and killed. In the darkness the bullet aimed at Alexander just grazed his head and he survived. Later he was asked to identify one of the bandits. Two bandits were captured and beheaded.

Alexander’s last job was as a copra plantation manager in New Guinea.

He died in 1940 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Subsequent to the meeting Jon advised that the Royal Geographical Society in London provided documentation on Alexander’s nomination and acceptance as a member of the Society, dated 1905.

Not your ordinary Great-Grandfather by any stretch!!!

Our next storyteller then took to the floor. Guy Cooper has had a 25-year association with Taronga and Taronga Western Plans Zoos. Initially Guy became involved with the zoo from being linked to a major sponsorship. Soon after he was invited to become a Board member and later Deputy Chairman. He chaired the Finance and Marketing Committees prior to occupying the role of Director from 1999 to 2009. His connection continues in the role of an Executive Patron of the Taronga Foundation.

Guy said that at that time they were a ‘zoo with a great view’ rather than a ‘great zoo with a great view’. They needed lots of capital funding to replace 80 years of wear and tear. They formed the Taronga Foundation and met with the Treasurer Michael Egan to see what funding they could persuade him to allocate.

We heard about ‘supplementation’ and how the Foundation sought Treasury funding for significant improvements to the Condor Display happily resulting in Connie the condor laying an egg, her first ever at the zoo. Naming rights fell to Guy and whilst ‘Michael’ was proposed, on hatching the baby turned out to be female, so rather than the logical ‘Michelle’, the condor was named ‘Megan’ … which saviour M Egan was quickly informed!

The Foundation developed a 12-year Master Plan which all things being equal would provide improvement at a cost of $300m and were told early in the negotiations that there would be less questions if costs were reduced to $250m. Plenty of negotiations resulted in having the ear of Michael Egan who came to the party much to the dismay of many of his minions.

Now to the elephants’ story. The Master Plan had included provision for a major Elephant and Rain Forest exhibit and Guy and team soon came to the challenge of shepherding 8 Asian elephants through customs to Taronga Zoo. Elephants as Guy explained are one of only half a dozen species that have formed meaningful relationship with humans. They emerged 58 million years ago, beginning on land, retired to the sea then changed its mind and returned to land. It has a sense of smell greater than a dog and hearing better than a human and with a built in snorkel it has swimming capabilities better than any other mammal. It can weep it can mourn. It can memorise. It can laugh. Its heart can pump 50 gallons of blood.

The Team

The following is rather like a mix of “Yes. Prime Minister” and “James Bond” as the number of obstacles that were contrived to be placed in opposition to what was a seemingly sensible and community-based initiative and the political manoeuvrings behind the scenes was just unbelievable.

Together with Melbourne Zoo & Auckland Zoo a consortium was established to import appropriate elephants into Australia and New Zealand with Taronga taking very much the lead role. Taronga was to receive four elephants, Melbourne three and Auckland just the one.

The first step was to obtain a permit for the importation of endangered animals. The second step was to sign an MOU with Thailand for the provision of elephants. Then as Guy said his first mistake was to have met with amongst others the Greens spokesperson Lee Rhiannon to advise them that they were creating a consortium to bring in 8 Thai elephants. To say this was met with outrage and objection was an understatement! However, it should be mentioned that the RSPCA were magnificent in their support of the importation plan.

Objection claims were that that we were taking elephants from the wild and as no elephant had been born in Australia, we would never be able to do it. Australian import regulations were also quite extraordinary. There was a requirement for the elephants to be quarantined in Thailand for 90 days and then a further 90 days of isolation in a location between Thailand and Australia. Singapore kindly agreed to cater for the second lot. The team started to select the animals and built a quarantine centre in western Thailand. So far so good.

Then the fun began. A group of NGOs in Australia sought to have the import permit nullified and to do so they took the Federal Government to the Court of Appeal. As so often happens the Federal Government advised the NGOs that Zoo would do the fighting and wear the defence costs and so they found themselves in court for 7 days in front of at least 3 judges. There were 17 key witnesses, many expensively brought from overseas and 6000 pages of legalise, plus the Greens demanded that all papers relating to the acquisition of the elephants and Zoo’s finances and the Master Plan be delivered to a room in Parliament House Macquarie Street, so they could be pored over. Ultimately their case was squashed but it was an expensive exercise. Guy advised us that the average time to grant a permit was 6 to 7 weeks but this one took 58 weeks. At this juncture NZ had had enough and pulled out. Singapore then rescinded their agreement for the 90-day isolation period and they had to look elsewhere and managed to find an old isolation station on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which is closer to India than Australia.

Guy then detailed all the logistical considerations: the need for renovation of the facilities on the Cocos, housing & whitegoods etc to come from Perth, the necessary bales of hay & foodstuff all needed on this remote coral atoll. Then there was the problem of considerable elephant waste, then to source a plane big enough to transport the 8 elephants but not large enough to rip up the Cocos landing strip. So, some heavy OH&S requirements.

In June 2006 the elephants were ready for travel to Bangkok airport for travel to the Cocos, however, as they started their journey 2 women from an NGO group simply sat down in front of the convoy. School children who were there as thought to wave goodbye also joined the protesters. The official reason was that they had been taken from the wild and the NGOs wanted DNA samples taken. Then the local police and University (where the elephants had been in quarantine) security would not take responsibility for moving the protester. Frantic phone calls followed at the same time trying to keep the elephants cool with hoses and tree foliage. Ultimately for the elephants’ sake they returned to the quarantine station late afternoon, licking their wounds and fielding media coverage whilst the Ukrainian plane & crew flew off with half a million dollars deposit.

Two months later they were ready to go again but in a more volatile and challenging media presence. There was extreme political turmoil in Thailand, a caretaker government was in place and the person responsible for 1st MOU had gone on to other things. Some key high ranking officials then became involved to support the cause; the Australian Governor General made contact with the Thai Crown Prince who was a friend of his, there were phone calls from PM John Howard to the Thai PM and involvement by Alexander Downer, Senator Vanstone and Tony Abbott. There were letters from Victorian and NSW Premiers and heavy involvement from the Australian Ambassador in Thailand.

Guy explained that having called on these favours it was critical that they created no waves or backlash to these people. He knew also that it was important to get things happening at the grass roots level not just being satisfied that they had a framework.

Guy contacted an army officer he knew who had been based in Thailand to see if he could recommend someone who could assist. He was quick to recommend a Duntroon ex-graduate who spoke fluent Thai and lived there with his Thai wife and ran their own business. Let’s call him Dan (this is the James Bond part). There was a question of which agencies to work with to get the elephants to the airport and which government officials to work with as some had positions with the NGOs who were fighting us. They had 23 days before the next plane was due in. Security needed to be maintained so they introduced code names. Apparently, Guy’s was “Le grand fromage”. The night before a meeting with a range of government officials and embassy staff Guy agreed that “Dan” should attend and at his request to bring along a Thai contact. Dan said he’ll be bringing along a man we’ll call “Pornchai”. Guy asked Dan how he should introduce him. Dan – “You just don’t”. Guy – “Yes, but really, how should I introduce you?” Dan – “They’ll know why we are there”. They seemed to as when they entered the meeting room, they took one look at Pornchai and everyone just froze. Anyway, the introduction of Dan and Pornchai helped ease things along especially with the local mafia. Threats had been made to a crane driver who was going to load the elephant crates on the trucks. His house was to be burnt down. The mafia responded that if that should happen then there would be reprisals with 6 houses being burnt down immediately. The time came for a night time secret get away from the quarantine location to a designated airport 330 kms away. An army & police presence suddenly appeared to support the 20-vehicle convoy. At the many toll stops they were bustled through with the boom gates stopping any other vehicles access to the road for another 30 minutes. They drove through Bangkok without a single stop. When any red lights occurred police cars suddenly appeared to usher them through. A forecast 9 hour journey took 7 hours!
Not all plain sailing still as after the first flight left for Melbourne they had to wait for its return and a magnificent typhoon decided to join in the fun. There was a complete loss of electricity and lighting, a major fire at the airbase, the base was locked down and the Russian aircrew who had taken some R&R could not get in. Then to cap it all Cambodia refused them to fly over their territory.

The good part was that eventually the elephants arrived at Taronga Zoo and since then there have been 11 elephants born in Australia.

Now that’s a story you just couldn’t make up!!!

Many thanks again to Jon and Guy for making another memorable Storytelling evening.

The next meeting of the Storytellers will be on Tuesday 19th February 2019, commencing at 7:30 pm.

If the weather is good then come for a drink, feed and chat beforehand, usually starting at 6pm.
All members and friends are welcome.