A thousand elephants in Thailand risk starvation due to the pandemic

A thousand elephants could die of starvation in Thailand as the camps where the animals are exploited for tourism have had to close due to Covid-19.

Over a thousand elephants in Thailand could die of starvation during the pandemic. As Thailand closed its borders due to Covid-19, the camps where elephants are kept as tourist attractions have also been forced to shut. Normally, visitors pay to ride the elephants, bathe with them, feed them, see them take part in circus-like performances, paint pictures or play musical instruments with their trunks.

The long journey home

However, due to the missing income from tourists, some camp owners are struggling to feed and care for the elephants. These animals can eat up to 200 kilogrammes of food a day. Furthermore, many camps can no longer afford to pay elephant handlers (known as mahouts), who had to leave their workplaces as coronavirus closures became more widespread.

Elephants in Thai camps
Tourists in an elephant camp in Thailand © Taylor Weidman/Getty Images

And so the migration began. Hundreds of “jobless” elephants started heading home. Processions of pachyderms, with chains still around their legs and necks, led by mahouts were seen on long journeys through the forests of northern Thailand. Some of the elephants were just cubs, barely two months old. The caravans headed to the border with Myanmar, where the elephants’ native villages are located. These remote regions are inhabited by the Karen, an ethnic group with a long tradition of elephant domestication.

Thai elephant migration
An elephant cub led by its mahout walking through an urban area in Thailand © Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Nobody yet knows when the camps will reopen. Will the elephants “go back to work”? Will camps survive the closure? According to Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation, the plan to “take unemployed elephants back home” was started in response to many appeals from camp owners. These structures have existed for decades, widely popular among tourists even though they often ring alarm bells with regards animal rights concerns. Within the camps, animals are regularly exploited and often mistreated.

Elephants’ fate after coronavirus

To help the animals, the Save Elephant Foundation has launched a project to support mahouts in growing food, asking landowners in several provinces across Thailand to rent out parcels of land at a low price. At the same time, it is also working with Karen communities to rebuild elephants’ natural environment and reclaim deforested areas.

The organisation’s hope is that this will allow animals raised in captivity to live in their natural habitat, giving them a chance for a more dignified future after the crisis.

Elephants exploited for tourists
Elephants in Thailand are exploited as tourist attractions © Brent Lewin/Getty Images

In fact, some especially harsh methods are used to train elephants in the camps. One technique known as “crushing” involves beating the animals, forcing them to suffer pain and fear so that they obey mahouts’ commands.

However, the coronavirus crisis has also brought some good news. Some owners have already decided to remove saddle chairs from elephants’ backs once and for all. This means that, once camps reopen, the animals will no longer have to endure being ridden.

More elephants in captivity than in the wild

It is estimated that there are approximately 45,000 elephants spread across Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India (which is home to about half of them), Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. Thailand is the only one of these countries to have more elephants in captivity than there are in the wild.

Elephant cub
An elephant cub in a camp © Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Up to 1989, elephants in captivity were used to transport wood in the jungle. After the Thai government banned commercial logging, this exploitation became illegal so most elephants became tourist attractions. Over the last thirty years, many camps have opened across the country, many of which (about 90) are in Chiang Mai, the north’s tourist hub. At least 900 elephants are concentrated here and there are about 4,000 elephants in captivity in the entire country, many of which are used to entertain tourists.

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