Captive Elephants in Thailand May Starve as Tourist Camps Close During Coronavirus Pandemic, Conservationists Say

The COVID-19 lockdown is threatening Thailand's captive elephant population as tourist camps are forced to close amid the coronavirus outbreak, conservationists have warned.

Lockdown measures introduced by the Thai government on March 9 barred foreign visitors from entering the country, causing Thailand's tourism industry to grind to a halt. As elephant keepers' income source dries up, conservationists say the animals are at risk of starvation and malnutrition.

"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."

According to World Animal Protection (WAP), at least 85 camps in northern Thailand have had to lay off staff and shut their doors. Those that haven't are struggling to keep their elephants fed and looked after, with keepers resorting to gathering weeds and fodder for the animals to eat.

WAP estimate 2,500 elephants may be affected, each requiring up to 880 pounds of grasses, tree branches and other plants for food a day.

Katheryn Wise, Wildlife Campaign Manager (WAP), told Newsweek it costs approximately $118 to feed an elephant for a week, but that does not include any additional veterinary costs. "Without immediate help, these captive elephants are at risk of malnutrition and death by starvation," she said.

Wise said the downturn in tourism is compounding the suffering of elephants, many of whom are housed in cruel conditions and until the start of the lockdown were engaged in exploitative activities such as riding and performing for tourists.

"Many elephants have also been sent back to their rural owners, it is difficult to keep track of conditions there, but the high welfare venues that we are working with—observation only venues where there is no physical contact with the animals—are digging into their reserves to look after their elephants as best they can," she said.

Mahout and elephant at Elephant Nature Park
Mahouts (elephant keepers) look after elephants rescued from the tourism trade at the Elephant Nature Park in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai on March 13, 2020. Activists say captive elephants could be at risk of starvation and malnutrition. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty

Lek Chailert, who founded Elephant Nature Park (ENP)—an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai Province in Northern Thailand, has said the outbreak is behind a noticeable increase in the number of elephants admitted to the park.

In a Facebook statement, posted in March, she described the current crisis as the toughest point in her career so far, saying the number of elephants at ENP increased from 84 to 90 in the space of a week as it took in animals owners could no longer take care of. Last week, she told Mongabay she expected to see around nine more arrive over the next couple of days.

"If there is no support forthcoming to keep them safe, these elephants (some of whom are pregnant), will either starve to death or may be put onto the streets to beg," Chailert said in a statement, adding others may be sold to zoos or even returned to the logging business—a practice officially banned in 1989.

"It's a very bleak outlook unless some financial help is received immediately," she said.

Carol Buckley, President of Elephant Aid International, told Newsweek she has also received requests of support from tourist resorts struggling to cover costs so that they do not have to return them to the camps they came from. But she does not believe owners will let their elephants starve because, ultimately, the elephants are worth money. Buckley is concerned that cries that say otherwise may be disingenuous.

Wise told Newsweek the situation is made worse by the fact that the country is approaching its hottest and driest period.

"In some areas the forest's supply of natural foliage is completely depleted," she said. "Without incoming funds to source supplementary food, elephants are unable to graze and forage adequately to meet their physical and psychological welfare needs."

But Chailert suggests there could be a silver lining to the current crisis: "Often things seem to change for the worse, but I think that this crisis is a great opportunity to change the lives of the captive elephant," she wrote on Facebook. "Let us together create a beautiful future for them."

Elephants rescued from the tourism and logging trade
Elephants rescued from the tourism and logging trade gather under heavy smog at the Elephant Nature Park in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai on March 13, 2020. Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

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World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

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