Underfed and chained up for endless hours, many elephants working in Thailand’s tourism sector could starve, be sold to zoos or be shifted into the illegal logging trade, campaigners warned, as the COVID-19 pandemic leads to a slump in the number of visitors.
Before the coronavirus, life for the kingdom’s estimated 2,000 elephants working in tourism was already stressful, with abusive methods often used to “break them” into giving rides and performing tricks at money-spinning animal shows.
With global travel paralyzed the animals are unable to pay their way, including the 300kg of food a day a captive elephant needs to survive.
Elephant camps and conservationists warned that hunger and the threat of renewed exploitation lie ahead, without an urgent bailout.
“My boss is doing what he can, but we have no money,” Kosin, a mahout — or elephant handler — said of the Chiang Mai camp where his elephant, Ekkasit, is living on a restricted diet.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern tourist hub, an area of rolling hills dotted by elephant camps and sanctuaries ranging from the exploitative to the humane.
Footage from another camp in the area showed lines of elephants tethered by a foot to wooden poles, some visibly distressed, rocking their heads back and forth.
About 2,000 elephants are “unemployed” as the coronavirus eviscerates the tourist industry, Thai Elephant Alliance Association president Theerapat Trungprakan said.
A lack of cash is limiting the fibrous food available to the elephants, “which will have a physical effect,” he said.
Wages for the mahouts who look after them have dropped by 70 percent.
Theerapat fears the elephants could soon be used in illegal logging activities along the Thailand-Myanmar border — in breach of a 30-year-old law banning the use of elephants to transport wood.
Others “could be forced [to beg] on the streets,” he said.
It is yet another twist in the saga of the exploitation of elephants, which animal rights campaigners have long been fighting to protect from the abusive tourism industry.
Chinese visitors, who make up the majority of Thailand’s 40 million tourists per year, plunged by more than 80 percent in February.
By last month, the travel restrictions had extended to Western nations.
With elephants increasingly malnourished due to the loss of income, the situation is “at a crisis point,” Elephant Nature Park owner Saengduean Chailert said.
Her sanctuary for about 80 rescued elephants only allows visitors to observe the creatures, a philosophy at odds with venues that have them performing tricks and offering rides.
She has organized a fund to feed elephants and help mahouts in almost 50 camps nationwide, fearing the only options would soon be limited to zoos, starvation or logging work.
For those restrained by short chains all day, the stress could lead to fights breaking out, said Saengduean, of camps that can no longer afford medical treatment for their elephants.
Calls are mounting for the Thai government to fund stricken camps to ensure the welfare of elephants.
“We need 1,000 baht [US$30] a day for each elephant,” Elephant Rescue Park manager Apichet Duangdee said.
Freeing his eight mammals rescued from circuses and loggers into the forests is out of the question, as they would likely be killed in territorial fights with wild elephants.
He is planning to take out a 2 million baht loan to keep his elephants fed.
“I will not abandon them,” he said.
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