Conservation news

Thailand’s captive elephants face starvation amid COVID-19 tourism freeze

  • The COVID-19 crisis has brought tourism in Thailand to a halt, forcing at least 85 elephant camps in northern Thailand to close and lay off more than 5,000 staff.
  • Captive elephants used in the tourism industry are at high risk of starvation and neglect, animal advocates say.
  • Organizations like Save Elephant Foundation and World Animal Protection are working to bring food and other resources to as many needy elephants as possible.
  • Sanctuaries are also facing difficult times without revenue from paying volunteers and day guests.

In a Facebook photo, a truck with an open trailer is backed up against a mound of sand. The tailgate is down, and the gray shape of an elephant steps out into a dark night, guided by the yellow beams of headlamps.

This animal is one of six elephants that unexpectedly arrived at Elephant Nature Park (ENP), a sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand, raising its total number of elephants from 86 to 90 in just a few short weeks. Lek Chailert, founder of ENP and Save Elephant Foundation, expects to take in several more.

An elephant arriving at Elephant Nature Park during the COVID-19 crisis. Image by Elephant Nature Park.

“Maybe nine in the next couple of days,” Chailert told Mongabay last week. “It’s sick elephants who are moving over to our property.”

The reason for this sudden influx of elephants into ENP is the COVID-19 crisis. In late March, Thailand closed its borders to foreigners, and tourist camps offering the popular, but highly controversial, thrill of elephant rides and trekking tours were forced to close. Without revenue from paying guests, camp owners have been struggling to feed and care for their elephants, and many have turned to organizations like ENP for help.

“People [our supporters] are so happy because the elephants don’t have to work anymore, but the problem is, the owners have no food to feed the elephants,” Chailert said. “That is the problem.”

Lek Chailert tending to a sick elephant at her sanctuary. Image by Elephant Nature Park.

Captive elephants ‘facing starvation’

In Thailand, approximately 2,500 captive elephants are employed for commercial purposes, such as elephant rides and circus-like shows, according to a recent report by World Animal Protection (WAP). But the COVID-19 crisis has forced at least 85 elephant camps in northern Thailand to close and lay off more than 5,000 staff, and animal advocates are concerned that the captive elephants will now face starvation and neglect.

“Most camps that we work with are digging into their reserves to cover for their elephants as well as they can,” Jan Schmidt-Burbach, head of wildlife and animal welfare research at WAP, told Mongabay in an email. “But given many camps’ dependency on the tourism income, it’s now the time to prevent that suffering before it becomes apparent. Many elephants have also been sent back to their rural owners and it is difficult to keep track of their conditions there.”

Each day, an adult elephant needs to eat about 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of food, such as grass, leaves, vegetables and fruits, according to WAP. To feed a single elephant over a month would cost about $200-$400, Schmidt-Burbach said.

An elephant being used for riding in Thailand. Image by Elephant Nature Park.

Some owners are allowing their elephants to forage for their own food in the forest, but this is also proving to be challenging.

“To compound the situation, it is Thailand’s hottest, driest period of the year and in some areas, the forest’s supply of natural foliage is completely depleted,” Schmidt-Burbach said. “Without incoming funds to source supplementary food, elephants are unable to graze and forage adequately.”

These dry conditions have led to wildfires, which are currently ripping through large swatches of northern Thailand, and posing additional threats to elephants searching for food.

Elephants foraging for food in the dry forest during COVID-19. Image by Elephant Nature Park.

WAP has received pleas from at least 11 tourist camps for assistance in getting food and medicine to their elephants, although the organization has only been able to help nine with its current funds.

Chailert and her staff are also getting constant requests for help from elephant tourist camps. They are currently feeding about 20 elephants in the immediate area, and Save Elephant Foundation is delivering food and supplies to at least 668 elephants in 59 camps all over Thailand.

“It is difficult for us,” Chailert said. “We have to transport food. Our staff have to go to look after the animals, and everything is quite difficult because we have a curfew. If you go out after curfew, you might get arrested.”

Elephant owners grateful for support from Save Elephant Foundation. Image by Elephant Nature Park.

While smaller elephant camps seem to be hit harder by the COVID-19 crisis, larger outfits like Maesa Elephant Camp, which advertises elephant rides and circus-like elephant shows on its website, are also struggling.

“Like all the other camps, [we] have no income,” Colin Penberthy, a spokesman for Maesa Elephant Camp, told Mongabay. “Our monthly expenditure is over 5,000,000 baht [ about $154,000], so you can see how serious this is to us. Yes, we have cash reserves we can use, but these are finite. We can only last so long, before we have a major catastrophe on our hands. We have taken drastic steps to reduce our monthly financial outlay. Most of the staff of over 300, have been laid off, or are on half pay, working half days. Obviously, the mahouts have to be kept on, to care for the elephants day and night. This is the first time in over 40 years, that Maesa Elephant Camp has had to close.”

Sanctuaries are also struggling

But it’s not just elephant camps that are suffering during the COVID-19 crisis. Animal welfare organizations like Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), which rescues elephants and other animals from the tourism industry and the wildlife trade in Thailand, also relies on paying visitors to fund its work. Without this income, WFFT is struggling.

Elephants receiving food at a camp in Thailand. Image by Elephant Nature Park.

“We are experiencing some difficulty with funds right now,” Tom Taylor, director of WFFT, told Mongabay in an email. “As with all elephant facilities (camps and refuges), we have lost our income from paying guests and volunteers. Most of our day to day running costs, including animal food, is usually covered by our paying day guests and volunteers. We have no guests and a few volunteers at the moment. With 25 elephants and over 700 other animals to take care of, we are struggling to make ends meet. Also, our work force on the ground has drastically decreased so we are all rushed off our feet. Yes, we are experiencing some difficulty with funds right now.”

A smaller outfit in Chiang Mai, Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES), which forbids physical contact between its visitors and resident elephants, is also grappling with financial stress.

“We rely on our observation and visitor program,” co-founder Emily McWilliam told Mongabay in an email. “Without visitors we have no income, which is our main source of funding. Without funding, like all elephant [facilities], we cannot afford to feed the elephants.”

Two rescued elephants drinking from a river at BEES sanctuary. Image by BEES.

McWilliam added that local elephant owners have been turning to BEES for advice about how to find food in the forest for their elephants, although BEES hasn’t been asked to take in any additional elephants.

“If we did take any new elephants at this time, we would require a lot of support,” McWilliam said. “We are only a small organisation that struggled to make ends meet prior to the coronavirus. Now, with no income at all, we have had to set up a fundraising appeal to raise funds to survive through the coronavirus crisis.”

While ENP has been able to continue feeding and caring for its elephants and other animal residents, and to even post the occasional video on Facebook of an elephant enjoying a dust bath or swimming session, the sanctuary is not without its struggles.

“To update all of you, since COVID19, we have little rest,” Chailert wrote in a public Facebook post. “It is the most difficult time since I began to rescue animals.”

Elephants enjoying a meal during the COVID-19 crisis. Image by Elephant Nature Park.

But Chailert and her team continue to work tirelessly to care for ENP’s animals, and to assist elephants at camps in different parts of Thailand. “I will help any animal that needs help,” Chailert told Mongabay.

The captive elephant industry in Thailand

 While there is a shared concern to keep Thailand’s elephants fed and cared for during the pandemic, animal advocates like Schmidt-Burbach do not support the elephant riding industry.

“Elephants are wild animals — they are not domesticated — and are incredibly powerful and intelligent animals,” Schmidt-Burbach said. “It is impossible to keep them adequately in captivity. As a result, it is often the tragic necessity that elephants are being chained, beaten and prevented from behaving naturally in order to use them for tourism. Our research has shown that the welfare conditions for the vast majority of elephants in tourism camps is very poor. The biggest threat is the continuous rampant breeding of captive elephants to further increase the number of tourism elephants. More elephants will mean more problems and poorer welfare.”

Elephant owners thanking Save Elephant Foundation for support during COVID-19. Image by Elephant Nature Park.

Chailert, who helps elephant owners to transition their camps into sanctuaries and to find new income avenues, says she hopes the pandemic provides an opportunity to connect with elephant owners she’d previously had no contact with.

“Most owners don’t like me or my work because I go and speak and fight against the cruelty [of elephant riding],” Chailert said. “They think I’m the one who tried to change their tradition. Finally at this time … they contact me and they say, ‘Please help.’ I do not hesitate to go and bring our friendship to them. And I hope we can break down walls and open up windows to work with them.”

Banner image caption: Elephants searching for food in the dry forest in northern Thailand during the pandemic. Image by Elephant Nature Park.