Pachyderms and the Pandemic: Repercussions of COVID-19 for Elephants in Thailand

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc worldwide, with devastating medical, economic, and cultural repercussions. In Thailand, millions of people have become unemployed or lost their primary source of income as a result of international containment measures, and it appears that the financial hardship for many is unlikely to abate significantly in the immediate future.
Thailand’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism, and with the onset of the pandemic, travel restrictions and rapidly declining tourist numbers have left many in the industry jobless and destitute. But it is not only humans who rely, directly or indirectly, on money generated from overseas travellers and domestic tourists – certain animals, too, are now subject to difficult times as a result of the loss of revenue. Most domestic elephants in Thailand are in some way involved in the tourist industry, either in ethical sanctuaries, elephant shows, or riding camps. Regardless of their approach or their stance on genuine elephant welfare, each of these operations relies heavily on income and support from international visitors to feed and provide veterinary treatment to their elephants, maintain infrastructure, and pay their employees, including Mahouts (elephant caretakers).
With the indefinite emergency closures of almost every elephant camp in Thailand, many elephant owners and Mahouts who had previously leased their elephants to tourism operations have now been left in a position of dire uncertainty. Some camps have already been forced to cease operations permanently, and the majority of those that remain have been rendered financially unable to support their elephants and employees, due to the relatively high cost of feeding elephants and maintaining their environment. Elephants typically eat around 10% of their body weight in food per day, and this year, a combination of forest fires and drought has devastated natural food sources, forcing elephant owners to rely heavily on crops to feed their animals. According to some sources, as many as 2,000 domestic elephants in Thailand are at risk of starvation if their present circumstances continue unaided. Furthermore, it is feared that elephants whose owners are unable to feed them may be forced to participate in street begging, illegal logging activities, or other forms of hard labour.
A large number of mahouts who have lost their jobs, or are otherwise concerned about the lack of financial security for themselves and the elephants in their care, have found it necessary to leave their places of employment in tourist areas, and return to their homes in remote villages. The cost of using a vehicle to transport an elephant is often prohibitively high, meaning many caretakers must make the arduous journey with their elephants on foot, sometimes walking up to 150km over the course of several days. As of the end of April, roughly 60 elephants who had previously been working in the tourist hot-spots of Krabi, Phang-Nga, and Phuket had returned to their homes in Trang and Phattalung Provinces. Meanwhile, in Northern Thailand, at least 100 elephants had left their places of employment near Chiang Mai and walked with their Mahouts to their traditional homes in villages throughout Mae Chaem District. When the elephants reach their home village, the responsibility felt by the Mahout is not diminished, and they must still find a way to feed and look after the elephant – or elephants – in their care. These caretakers often rely on subsistence farming to feed the elephants and support themselves and their families.
Over the course of the past few months, The Care Project Foundation team has been working to support elephants and Mahouts affected by COVID-19. In addition to fundraising efforts, TCPF has donated a total of 25 tonnes of elephant food, such as bananas, pumpkins, watermelons, banana plants, and mangoes, to elephant caretakers throughout Northern Thailand, in areas like Mae Wang and Mae Chaem. This food has helped feed an estimated 300 elephants during a time when many have been struggling to support their elephants financially.
In Thailand, the term ‘elephant tourism’ covers a broad spectrum of activities, and many individuals and organisations within the industry differ in their beliefs, ideas, and practices in regard to elephant welfare. We believe that all elephants deserve good health, and as such, our elephant food donations were available to all elephant camps and owners. The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, and we must all assist and support one another to ensure the survival and prosperity of humans and animals alike. The hardship caused by this crisis is felt equally by everyone.
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The Matriarch Project