“A few weeks ago, we started seeing elephants walking on the streets. Then, I realized they were being kicked out of all of the sanctuaries,” said Alexandra Pham, founder of Daughters Rising, an organization that empowers at-risk girls to end human trafficking. She also runs Chai Lai Orchid, a hotel that allows you to live with elephants.
Thailand is home to over 160 sanctuaries and 3,000 elephants, some 2,000 of which cater to the tourism industry.
According to Lucy Field, who runs Trunk Travel, which provides “ethical tours and promotes sustainable tourism,” the expenses of taking care of elephants are THB200,000-350,000 per month, for sanctuaries with no more than eight elephants.
Every single baht of which comes from foreign and local tourists, except for the few like the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, under royal patronage.
With the COVID-19 outbreak and its effect on the tourism industry, elephants and their mahouts (caretakers of elephants) are becoming homeless.
“Elephants have been domesticated for 4,000 years,” said Field
She explained that when a camp releases the elephants and their mahouts due to the lack of funds, they would have to make their way back to where they came from, and that could take from three days to two months.
What’s the solution?
Releasing them back into the forest may be the first that comes to mind, returning them to nature where they’re supposed to be in the first place, right? But how would domesticated elephants survive in the forest?
“First problem is that it is illegal. Captive elephants are being classed as livestock, therefore, are not allowed in protected areas [national forests],” said John Roberts, Group Director of Sustainability and Conservation. He oversees the Sustainability & Conservation Projects for Minor hotels, owner of Anantara & AVANI.
“There’s just not enough forest remaining to house over 3,000 elephants,” he said of the second problem.
“And third, elephants born and raised in captivity don’t automatically know how to survive in the wild—especially in droughts like this—nor do they automatically form friendly and equitable herds.”
There is an ongoing debate over elephant sanctuaries. Many animal rights advocates see them as inhumane treatment of animals. While there are elephant camps that are guilty of inhumane treatment, not all sanctuaries are the same.
According to Roberts, there are abusive sanctuaries that force elephants to give rides to tourists all day and imprison them with two-meter-long chains at night. But also, there are sanctuaries that treat elephants humanely with the best care possible.
Either way, many elephants from both types of sanctuaries now see the same fate, becoming homeless.
Furthermore, the forests surrounding Chiang Mai have been burning with wildfire for the past two months, destroying over 2,400 rais of land thus far, and is still ongoing. Therefore, there’s further food and water shortage for the elephants.
If you wish to help elephants affected by COVID-19, follow this link. It’s a page run by Alexandra Pham to accept donations that will go towards feeding the elephants.
As well, this link is a campaign by Lucy Field. Here, you can book a virtual date with an elephant and the money will be used to support elephants in need.
You may also help the elephants by donating to John Roberts’ Golden Triangle Project, follow this link.