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In Thailand, Growing Concern For Elephants As Coronavirus Pummels Tourism

Elephants and mahouts perform one of the last shows at the Maetaeng Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai before it shut last month.
Michael Sullivan for NPR
Elephants and mahouts perform one of the last shows at the Maetaeng Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai before it shut last month.

On a March morning at the Maetaeng Elephant Park in Thailand's northern Chiang Mai province, the elephants and their handlers, called mahouts, were entertaining visitors with tricks. Elephants painted pictures with their trunks and deftly back-kicked soccer balls into a net.

Maetaeng is one of the biggest wildlife camps in the north, with 85 elephants. They are also available for guests to ride or go trekking with in the surrounding hills.

It's a lucrative business in normal times. On a good day, says communications director Dhanapume Asoke-trakul, the camp draws about 1,000 visitors, mostly from China or other Asian countries. But this was not a good day.

He counted the crowd with his finger.

"One, two, three, four, five, six seven..." He stopped. "Fourteen," he said. "Fourteen, from 1,000 people a day."

He laughed grimly.

The Maetaeng elephant camp's general manager Borpit Chailert has vowed to keep paying mahouts at half-salary and feeding the elephants for as long as possible while the camp is closed. There are 85 elephants at the camp.
/ Michael Sullivan for NPR
Michael Sullivan for NPR
The Maetaeng elephant camp's general manager Borpit Chailert has vowed to keep paying mahouts at half-salary and feeding the elephants for as long as possible while the camp is closed. There are 85 elephants at the camp.

Not long after, Thailand declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus and asked entertainment venues to close. Maetaeng shut on March 27.

Thailand has nearly 3,800 domesticated elephants, most kept in camps like this, but concerns are growing over the animals' welfare in what's expected to be a time of prolonged severe economic hardship.

By the time Maetang shut, most other camps in the province had already closed for lack of customers, says Maetaeng's general manager, Borpit Chailert. His family-owned park is in a better position than most, with deeper pockets to ride out what he hopes is a temporary situation. But, he says, the clock is ticking.

"We can try to extend our, let's say, lifespan, for as long as we can," he says. "About five months or six months, that's the longest we can last."

That's because keeping elephants is expensive. You can't just park them like cars or tour buses until the situation improves, says Chatchote Thitaram of the Center of Elephant and Wildlife Research at Chiang Mai University.

"Elephants eat quite a lot, like 200 to 300 kilograms [440 to 660 pounds] a day," he says, "so this means you have to spend something like [about $1,000] a month just to feed them."

On top of that is the cost to employ the mahout who cares for each elephant.

Borpit says he's asked mahouts at his camp to take a 50% pay cut — about $300 a month — for the time being.

"They all agreed," he says. "Because they understand what the situation is like right now. And they understand if we don't do this, nobody will survive through this emergency situation."

As for the elephants, "We have to feed them the same as we used to do, because they can't find their own food."

For mahouts and elephants he doesn't employ, he worries that malnutrition could be just a few months away if mahouts can't afford to feed them.

With the current crisis, some mahouts who come from ethnic minority areas in northern Thailand can return home and let their elephants forage in the jungle near their homes. But most mahouts who own their elephants and rent them to the camps don't have that option, Chatchote says.

And that has animal welfare advocates and others especially worried.

"It's desperate times," says Lucy Field, the CEO of Trunk Travel in Chiang Mai. Her business — offering ethical, sustainable tours and camp visits — has been gutted, she says.

Two months ago, she employed 45 staff. Now there are 13, and most, she says, are working on reduced wages. She worries about how they'll survive. But she worries more about out-of-work elephants being "warehoused" in the north, with few mahouts to look after them in overcrowded shelters where camps have closed.

The elephants, she says, are on "one-meter to two-meter-long chains, tied up, you know, for days on end. I'm not over-exaggerating this in the slightest. ...This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better."

John Roberts of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation agrees. "Yes, it's drastic," he says. "We saw the one camp [in Chiang Mai] that had closed and was basically holding all of their elephants parked on one-meter chains 24 hours a day. It's like battery farming of chickens. Basically, you throw food at them, you scrape the dung away and that's going to be their existence for the next three months."

He insists there are simple ways to address the problem, including sending elephants to graze in government-owned forests that could be opened to them. But there are bigger issues at play, he emphasizes.

"Tourism, as it's been practiced for the past few years, has been very, very bad for the idea of managing down the captive elephant population," he says. Many tourism businesses — and mahouts — essentially look at their elephants as little more than ATMs, he says.

"You have to hope that when all of this passes, it will have gone in some way to reset that relationship again," he says, "and they begin to begin to appreciate their elephants more for their intrinsic worth than their financial worth again, which over the history of elephant owning, it has always been about."

His organization was started in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS pandemic, to help rescue elephants and their mahouts who were begging on the streets of Bangkok.

Street begging is banned, but now, with so many elephants suddenly unemployed, he says mahouts are starting to beg with their elephants again. Roberts believes Thailand's government has a six-month window to intervene and help preserve the captive elephant population by temporarily donating forest and jungle to graze in, and giving mahouts cash to feed their families and make sure the animals are properly looked after.

"If there's no government intervention," he warns, "yes, we can see elephants in really bad places and possibly compromising their health to such an extent that they die."

Nissa Mututanont, the veterinarian at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, is worried too. She's counting on the Thai reverence for the country's national animal.

"I think with the majority of the people in the country Buddhist, I think they actually would try not to cause bad karma or bad merit by trying their best to really keep the elephant alive," she says.

She's also counting on the mahouts' traditional bond with their elephants.

"I still feel like I can believe in people that own the elephant, that they believe that the elephants are part of the family, so I don't think they'll let the elephants starve," she says. She pauses for a second. "Or maybe they'll starve together with the elephant."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.