A year without tourism: crisis for Thailand’s captive elephants

After 14 months without income from tourism, and COVID cases rising, Thailand’s captive elephants face prolonged peril.

Three elephants roam in a new free-range area of Maesa Elephant Camp, in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Formerly a traditional riding camp, it has been transformed during the pandemic to be more elephant-friendly. But caring for elephants without any income from tourism has plunged owner Anchalee Kalmapijit into staggering debt.

“For sale: 11 clever elephants. 3 million baht each,” Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Chon Buri, Thailand, announced in an ad on Facebook on May 29. That’s about $96,000 apiece.

The zoo makes money from tourists through admission tickets, elephant rides, and animal shows, but with Thailand closed to most foreign visitors (or requiring mandatory quarantine) since March 2020 because of the coronavirus, it’s facing a financial crisis. In a Facebook post on May 28 about its elephant problem, the zoo also said that “at this point, to close the wounds from COVID, we need to sell [them] out.”

It’s a similar story across the country. Some 3,800 elephants live in captivity in Thailand, many in camps, zoos, and sanctuaries. Some camps rent their elephants from individual owners and now, unable to afford the costs of keeping them on, have had to send the animals and their caretakers, or mahouts, away. Other camps still have their elephants but are struggling to feed and care for them, leaving many isolated and hungry. Across the industry, people are doing everything they can to hang on.

Edwin Wiek is the founder and director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a sanctuary that’s home to 850 rescued animals, 29 of them elephants. Despite losing most of its income, the foundation has taken in six displaced elephants. “It’s almost impossible to sustainably run the place,” Wiek says. “Every time a donation comes in, we are celebrating. For every thousand dollars, we’re a day further again.”

Wiek says it’s especially dire in tourism-dependent southern Thailand. “When I go to these camps that are temporarily closed, and I look at [the elephants’] physical and mental state, I almost feel that some would be better off dead,” he says. “It’s very hard to see the shaking heads, the aggressive behavior. They’re really hungry. Really, really hungry.”

Elephant tourism has long been lucrative for Thailand. Visitors from around the world pay between $20 and $150 to ride elephants or watch them perform tricks. In recent years, part of the industry has shifted to sanctuaries that place elephants in more natural environments—a response to rising demand for humane experiences as awareness grows of harsh training methods and substandard treatment of elephants at many traditional camps.

It’s unclear how much income elephant tourism generates overall. But the fact that before the pandemic, a camp might have paid up to $80,000 to buy a young trained elephant suggests how lucrative elephant rides, shows, and other interactive activities can be.

Sriracha Tiger Zoo’s $96,000 price tag for its elephants is unrealistic, Wiek says. “It won’t happen.” Show elephants are worth a third of what they used to be because of the pandemic. “Who is willing to invest money now, not knowing if in six months or a year this business will come back to life or not?”

The Thai government has announced plans to fully reopen the resort island hub of Phuket in southern Thailand in July. It aims to expand the policy to other tourist hot spots by October. But much remains uncertain—right now, the country is in the midst of its worst yet COVID-19 surge, with nearly 4,000 new cases daily.

‘I have to keep fighting’

Anchalee Kalmapijit came to a big decision in late 2019: She would end elephant riding and performances at Maesa Elephant Camp, a tourist facility in Chiang Mai with 73 elephants she’d inherited from her father earlier that year.

She sees the pandemic shutdown as fortuitous timing—it gave her the impetus to begin the shift to the elephant-friendly park she envisioned. On March 20, 2020, the day the government ordered all non-essential businesses closed, she told her staff to discard all the riding seats that had been tied to elephants’ backs. Then, in the absence of tourists, she spent the next several months readying many of the elephants to move to a free-roaming area within the 90-acre Maesa property. About a third are now there, and the remaining elephants get regular walks with their caretakers, or mahouts. She says she’ll never offer rides or shows again.

But the financial pressures of caring for 73 elephants during the pandemic are extreme. An elephant eats about 300 pounds of food (grasses, mostly, but also fresh fruits) a day at a cost of about $16 per animal—that’s about a ton every three days. To feed 73 elephants, Kalmapijit spends at least $30,000 a month. And that doesn’t include money spent on medicine, vitamins, and the salaries for 142 camp staff, including 120 mahouts, as well as veterinarians and service workers. In April 2020, she told National Geographic, “If COVID lasts for a year, I won’t have any money. But I have to keep fighting.”

A year later, she’s still fighting. The camp’s $600,000 savings are depleted, and Kalmapijit has taken out several bank loans. “I’ve borrowed over 45 million Thai baht [more than a million U.S. dollars] since COVID started a year ago,” she says. “And I know it’s not going to be enough. I don’t know how this is going to end.”

The camp gets a trickle of Thai visitors, mostly on weekends, but, she says, “it’s not enough to care for the elephants.” Like many elephant camp owners in Thailand, Kalmapijit now sells merchandise online—T-shirts, organic coffee, and souvenirs. She promotes fruit baskets with a bundle of bananas, sugarcane, mangoes, and pineapples for $16 to supplement elephants’ diets and gives supporters the option to “adopt” an elephant by contributing monthly to the cost of its care.

A national crisis

“The situation for the elephants is critical,” says Lek Saengduean Chailert, owner of Elephant Nature Park, a well-known sanctuary in Chiang Mai that’s home to 103 elephants. Chailert also runs Save Elephant Foundation, a nonprofit that received an influx of donations early in the pandemic, but that money tailed off as people needed to shoulder their own financial burdens. The foundation teamed up with Trunk’s Up, another NGO, to fund a food bank that’s helped feed 1,800 elephants at camps around the country.

“Many elephants have been tied up for so long, like over a year,” Chailert says. She’s purchased 24 elephants from struggling camps and individual owners and is giving a number of others a temporary home.

“Now almost every day, I have people calling,” she says, asking her to take their elephants. “But I can’t afford it anymore, because to rescue an elephant, even if it’s for a cheap [purchase price], I have to pay to keep and take care of it. I can’t at the moment. I wish I could do it, but I can’t. I don’t want our whole operation to collapse.“

Life at Chok Chai, a large camp in Chiang Mai that’s supported financially by Chailert’s team, through donations from the public, has been difficult for staff and elephants alike. Typically, camps employ one mahout per elephant, who’s responsible for feeding, walking, bathing, and sometimes training their charge, but many mahouts have been laid off. At Chok Chai, only 15 mahouts remain to care for the 56 elephants.

Some mahouts who own their elephants have brought them to beg at Buddhist temples around the country. Chailert says she’s advocated for years to end the use of elephants in shows and for rides, because it’s unnatural and typically relies on fear-based training, but that begging is even worse for elephants’ well-being. “With elephant riding, they can still walk, and their legs are out of [shackles]. But to stand at a temple, they have to chain them very tightly on concrete. All day,” she says. Mahouts are able to make money to feed their animals this way, but “it’s incredible suffering for the elephants.”

It’s similar to what Wiek has witnessed during the pandemic in camps around the country, where many elephants are chained up in the hot sun throughout the day.

“We talk about how bad the riding is,” Wiek says. “OK, yes, it’s one level of exploitation and suffering, but [now] the elephant is not being ridden at all.” It stands in the same spot, night and day, day after day. The elephant’s leg muscles atrophy, compounded by poor nutrition. As the elephants get weaker, they also can get ill. “It’s suffering on top of suffering,” Wiek says.

At the outset of the pandemic, many camps sent elephants and their mahouts back home—often to Surin, a region in eastern Thailand where elephants are bred, bought, and sold, or to hill tribe villages in the north—only to find after years away that landscape changes make it more challenging now to keep elephants safe.

“Twenty years ago, there were bigger forests but now there’s agriculture—there isn’t much land for elephants.” Chailert says. “Everywhere is dangerous for them. They can’t freely drink water anymore because of pesticides. [Owners] have to find space for the elephants to live, and many places belong to the government.”

The Department of Livestock Development, the government agency that oversees captive elephants in Thailand, has provided 290 tons of hay to elephant camps in 22 Thai provinces since July 2020, says agency veterinarian Sasi Jaroenpoj. That would be enough to feed a dozen elephants for 72 days. But Thailand has nearly 4,000 elephants living in captivity.

Wiek says he once received five tons of “old and dry grass” from the government for his 29 elephants. That’s “not even enough to feed [them] for a day and a half.” Wiek says he’s dismayed by the government’s skimpy assistance.

The Department of Livestock Development says that it’s gearing up to launch a program to help elephant owners in Surin and elsewhere plant seed to grow their own grasses.

For her part, Chailert has already begun helping camps grow their own grasses for desperately needed elephant feed. “Many times when I go to see elephants, I cannot hold my tears. It’s really emotional. I never felt this much pressure on my heart.”

Maesa Elephant Camp’s Kalmapijit says that despite all the difficulties, it’s been rewarding to see her elephants enjoy a more natural daily routine. “They live peacefully. They’re more free and more relaxed,” she says. “I don’t want the camp to collapse or disappear. That’s why I hang onto it. And of course I have to pay money back to the bank somehow, but I do have hope and strength still.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

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