They would have to walk for days before reaching their native villages in remote areas along the Thai-Myanmar border inhabited by the Karen – an ethnic group with centuries-old tradition of keeping and taming elephants.
It is a journey of uncertainty – both for the tribesmen and their animals left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody knows if they will be able to return to their old workplace, as dozens of elephant camps which once attracted coachloads of tourists all year round are now shut due to the international travel ban.
“Tourists disappeared when the COVID-19 outbreak started. Everything shut down. Everybody was shocked but not as much as the elephants‘ owners,” said Sangdeaun ‘Lek’ Chailert, Thailand’s leading animal activist and president of the Save Elephant Foundation.
Located in Chiang Mai, the non-profit organisation provides care and assistance to captive elephants in Thailand through local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programmes, as well as ecotourism operations.
Since the pandemic began, the foundation has helped more than 1,500 elephants nationwide with food. Without tourists, the animals risk starvation as their owners have no income and struggle to cope with the expenses.
They don’t have income. They have no money to grow grass. Forest fires have also destroyed their food. So what can they do? They have to go home back in the forest.
They walked more than 100km, crisscrossing the jungle and climbing steep hills. Part of their journey involved navigating burnt forests with dead leaves and blackened trees.
“They ate food along the way but they were tired as well, especially the old ones and the little babies,” she said.
FROM ASSET TO BURDEN
Since then, the animals have become a tourist attraction. Visitors to Thailand often associate them with riding, trekking and circus-like performances as their owners sought new ways to earn money from their animals.
Their absence came as a blow to Thailand’s tourism sector, which greatly relies on international visitors. Earlier this week, the Thai government extended the ban on international arrivals until Jun 30.
Many elephant attractions rent the animals for shows and tourist rides. But since the pandemic made it impossible for the businesses to operate, a number of mahouts have been laid off. Their elephants, once a valuable source of income, are now a heavy burden they struggle to shoulder.
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“By the end of January, we had zero visitors. I used to have nearly 200 employees but today, only 60-70 people remain and only get paid half of their monthly salary,” he said.
Despite zero revenue, he has to take care of the animals. Their food costs him more than US$300 every two days. Besides selling all his cars, he is also putting up 10 of his elephants for sale for a total of US$37,500 – a big loss from the original buying price of US$68,700 for all of them.
“But I need to sell them. If I can’t sell them all at once, I’ll sell them individually. Each of them would keep the business afloat for a month. So 10 elephants mean 10 months. By that time, I should have some income. Otherwise, the business I’ve built up would collapse.”
Already, elephant owners have begun selling the animals. Her elephant sanctuary Elephant Nature Park has been approached by many mahouts who keep and drive the animals. They have so far offered to sell her at least 60 elephants.
To help the animals, the Save Elephant Foundation has launched a project to help mahouts grow food. It has called on landowners in various provinces across Thailand to lease empty plots of land to elephant owners at a cheap price.
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At the same time, it is also working with ethnic Karen communities in northern Thailand to rebuild their natural environment, transforming deforested areas into sustainable farms and paving the way for ecotourism operations.
“Many elephants have returned home after decades in tourism. So I’m trying to ask the mahouts to join a conservation project called Bring Elephants and Their Mahouts Home. This way, they won’t have to leave their village. Instead, they can manage their environment to make it suitable for homestay, and bring tourists there,” Lek said.
Then there will be no need for the elephants to offer rides to tourists or perform in shows. Their owners can take them to the forest, where they can bathe, play in mud and live with nature as part of an ethical tourism programme.
The villagers had prepared various kinds of fruits for the animals and sang local songs to mark the special occasion. Some old people wept when they saw the elephants they know return from work at tourist camps for the first time in decades.
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