Muthu Raja, 29, also known in his hometown as Sak Surin, was extradited to Sri Lanka by Thai authorities in 2001.
However, they demanded the elephant’s return last year after allegations that it was tortured and neglected while being held in a Buddhist temple.
The 4,000-kilogram (8,800-pound) mammal arrived in Thailand just after 2 p.m. (0800 GMT), after being transported inside a giant, custom-built steel crate on an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane.
“He arrived in Chiang Mai perfectly,” Thai Environment Minister Pharaut Silpa-archa said at the airport.
“He traveled five hours and it’s okay, his condition is normal.”
“If all goes well, we will move him,” he added, referring to plans to isolate the elephant in a nearby nature reserve.
Pharaoht helped give the elephant a drink after the ornate Muthu Raja cage was removed from the plane, and the thirsty animal eagerly reached for its trunk through a hole to take the water.
The elephant could be seen when officials briefly opened the back doors of the crate and it was sprayed.
Muthu Raja was taken from his temporary home at a zoo in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, before dawn, accompanied by four Thai trainers and a Sri Lankan guard, with two security cameras monitoring her health during transit.
It left Colombo at 7:40 am (0210 GMT) on a commercial flight to compensate, which Thai officials said cost $700,000.
Muthu Raja was in pain and covered in abscesses when he was rescued from the Buddhist temple last year, Madhusha Perera, the zoo’s chief veterinarian, told AFP.
Animal welfare groups said the elephant was forced to work with a logging crew and that its wounds, some of which were allegedly inflicted by its handler, were neglected.
Pereira said the elephant will undergo hydrotherapy in Thailand to treat remaining damage to its left front leg.
Opposition to return
Elephants are considered sacred in Sri Lanka and are protected by law.
The Rally for Animal Rights and the Environment (RARE), which spearheaded the campaign to save Muthu Raja from the temple, expressed dismay at the animal’s departure.
RARE organized a Buddhist blessing for the elephant on the Friday before her trip and has petitioned authorities to prosecute those it says are responsible for the animal’s neglect.
Sri Lankan Wildlife Minister Pavithra Wanyarachi said Thailand was “adamant” in its demands for the elephants’ return.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told Parliament in June that he had personally conveyed Sri Lanka’s remorse to the King of Thailand over the elephant’s condition.
Thailand has stopped sending elephants abroad, said Thai Environment Minister Pharaot, adding that diplomatic missions in Bangkok are checking the conditions of elephants already sent abroad.
“Alcohol geek. Certified web scholar. Travel aficionado. Subtly charming twitter fanatic.”