Across the world, the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has created far reaching consequences. The death toll has been accompanied by emotional stress, job losses and financial hardship. In Thailand, the number of reported cases of Covid-19 has been comparatively low, but the closure of borders and the loss of tourism revenue has had a huge impact on the Thai economy. And amidst the human anguish, there are problems too for Thailand’s elephants.
Help Community, Help Elephant, Help Nation
To help alleviate the problems faced by the elephants and their owners, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has launched the ‘Help Community, Help Elephant, Help Nation‘ project.
There are estimated to be around 7,000 elephants in Thailand. Around half of this number live in the wild in National Parks with the remainder living in captivity. The issue of captive elephants in Thailand is an emotive subject. In an ideal world all elephants would live freely, but it isn’t as simple as saying release the elephants into the wild. The loss of natural habitat and the fact that captive elephants struggle to adapt to living in the wild are just two factors in a complex debate.
Many of Thailand’s domesticated elephants are owned individually by a mahout (kwan chang) or a small family. In return for a regular income, the owner contracts their elephant to a park or centre where tourists can visit. Before the arrival of Covid-19, it was tourist revenue that helped ensure these elephants could be fed and cared for. In addition to 100-200 litres of water a day, elephants need to eat around 10% of their own body weight each day. This equates to approximately 200-300 kg per day and their upkeep costs around £800 per month.
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. That is the problem.– Lek Chailert (Founder of Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephant Foundation)
The ‘Help Community, Help Elephant, Help Nation’ project brings together different government departments as well as experts from the public and private sector. The aim is to provide assistance to the elephant centres and to the local communities that grow crops for the elephants. The help is in the form of money, medical assistance, food and welfare programs. More than 100 elephant facilities have already joined the project and around 1,500 privately owned elephants have been helped so far.
Thai Elephant Alliance Association
The Thai Elephant Alliance Association (TEAA) is one of the organisations which is helping elephant centres across Thailand. They have launched a donation channel with money raised helping to buy food and medicine for the elephants. Funds are also being used to allow veterinarian teams to travel to areas where elephants have returned to live with their mahouts in their home villages. TEAA is also co-ordinating food donations. President of TEAA, Theerapat ‘Pat’ Trungprakan, outlines the problems faced in this BBC interview (recorded April 2020).
Elephant Nature Park
In Chiang Mai, the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is one of the organisations that has taken in more elephants as the absence of tourists and the financial implications of Covid-19 continue. Lek Chailert, the founder of ENP and Save Elephant Foundation says, “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. That is the problem.”
While the Elephant Nature Park has been closed, they have set-up virtual tours via a live streaming platform. The tours promote the ‘Drink Coffee, Save Elephants’ campaign with the ENP raising revenue from the sale of locally grown coffee which in turn helps local communities and helps support the elephants.
Southern Thailand Elephant Foundation
To help the elephants during the Covid-19 pandemic, a UK-registered charity, Southern Thailand Elephant Foundation (STEF), has been raising money to distribute food for elephants in the south of the country including Phuket and Ko Samui. Donations from people in Thailand and those overseas has enabled STEF to buy food and deliver it by the truckload to where it is needed. The money being donated is also benefiting the local communities as well as the elephants with STEF buying the elephant food from farmers who have lost some of their normal sales outlets.
Walking with giants in Chiang Rai
Founded in 2005, Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) has a number of projects including welfare for captive elephants, protection for wild elephants, and research & education. Set up in cooperation with Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort in Chiang Rai, one of the goals of GTAEF is to assist and support elephants and caretakers, as well as their families. Guests staying at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort see a portion of their spend directly sponsoring the foundation and in turn helping the elephants and their mahouts. With the absence of guests, GTAEF has turned to technology with a daily livestream of the elephants in their natural environment.
When overseas tourists return to Thailand, there will be an emphasis on health and safety. Initiatives like the Amazing Thailand Safety and Health Administration (SHA) are already helping to raise safety standards in the travel and tourism industry and restoring the confidence of domestic and international tourists. There is also likely to be more interest in off the beaten track destinations and a higher demand for more personal and individual experiences compared to group tours or trips to crowded venues. And for anybody seeking the ultimate in social distancing, stay in one of the jungle bubbles at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. Enjoy this once in a lifetime experience as you sleep among the elephants and observe them in their natural habitat.
Helping sick elephants
In the northern province of Lampang, assistance is provided at the government facility, the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (TECC). The centre funds veterinary science and provides a mobile elephant ambulance unit with a veterinary team. The team and ambulance provide free treatment for sick elephants and help care for elephants in remote areas throughout Thailand.
Adjacent to the TECC, but run separately, is Thailand’s first elephant hospital. Friends of the Asian Elephant opened their hospital in 1993 and provide free treatment for sick elephants and also take care of confiscated, old or abandoned elephants.
The future for elephants in Thailand
Although the impact of Covid-19 will continue to be felt for some time yet, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Life in Thailand is returning to a ‘new normal’ and, at some stage, tourists will be allowed to return. In the meantime, the ‘Help Community, Help Elephant, Help Nation’ project is making a difference. If you’d like to help, please visit any of the group’s websites mentioned above and, when the time is right and you are able to visit Thailand, continue to support these ethical elephant facilities in person.
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