The Pandemic Has Made Things Worse for Thailand's Elephants

Animal welfare groups are trying to help.

Elephants In Thailand At Risk Amid The Coronavirus Pandemics
A tourist feeds an elephant in Ayutthaya, Thailand, in June 2020. Lauren DeCicca / Getty Images

In a “normal” world, Thailand’s 3,500 or so captive working elephants often have a difficult life. Many of them spend long days carrying tourists around and few get veterinary care. Now, during the pandemic, many of them are really struggling more so.

With the country mostly shut down to tourism — 20% of the nation's gross domestic product comes from its travel industry—the majority of those elephants are out of work. Their owners don’t have the means to feed them and they’re most often kept on chains, tied to poles or trees, raising their frustration levels, Wayne Pacelle, president of the Center for a Humane Economy, tells Treehugger. 

“The pandemic has reduced pressure on some animals (e.g., suspending spectator sports such as bullfighting for a time and reducing roadkill because of reduced driving). But it dealt other animals a terrible blow, such as increased testing on animals for vaccine development,” Pacelle says. 

It has also adversely affected Thailand’s enormous population of captive Asian elephants, he says. 

“Many of them had been conscripted into ‘elephant camps’ that specialize in tourism-based labor for riding and performing stunts," says Pacelle. "When the Thai government shut down tourism, the owners of the animals lost their livelihood.” 

Pacelle says the elephants did not live easy lives when they were working. Now things are worse. 

“This is not an industry that promotes animal health and well-being. The owners load as many as a dozen people onto the back of an elephant," says Pacelle. "They work long hours with little rest. Their handlers often do not provide necessary foot care for the animals. So even a functioning industry is bad news for the animals, but at least they had food.” 

Elephants can eat up to 300 pounds of food and drink 30-50 gallons of water per day. 

Numerous elephant owners have contacted Elephant Nature Park, one of Thailand’s respected elephant sanctuaries, asking for permanent or temporary homes for their animals. The sanctuary has helped many elephants and their mahouts—or handlers—during the pandemic. They've found homes for some and helped others make their way back to their home villages in the hopes of finding farmland to support the animals.

Supporting the Elephants

“The elephant camp owners can barely feed themselves, no mind care for the elephants,” Pacelle says. “When the animals are not working, they keep them on chains wrapped around poles or trees. That means 24/7 chaining. It’s just misery for these highly intelligent, sociable, migratory animals. Many are surviving on a fraction of the food volume that they need.” 

Because they believe so many animals are at risk of starvation, the Center for a Humane Economy has started a donation campaign, donating funds to the Elephant Nature Park to buy food and distribute it. 

“Ideally, we want to see elephants relocated to reputable sanctuaries, and there are already a set of them in Thailand. We want this crisis to trigger the birth of a revamped, more humane industry,” Pacelle says.

The group would like to see the end of elephant rides and elephant tricks, and instead have people watch the animals in settings where the animals live enriched lives and people can learn about the elephants.

For context, riding elephants is considered animal cruelty by animal welfare experts and young elephants are often "broken" to be groomed for Thailand's elephant tourism scene. Plus, the ethics of elephant tourism is complicated, as many self-proclaimed "sanctuaries" engage in abuse.

“Zoos across the world attract millions of people even though they don’t allow rides or human contact," Pacelle suggests. "Thailand can offer tremendous elephant experiences but shed the exploitation."

The Center for a Humane Economy has raised or pledged $125,000 so far, which they are donating in gradual allotments so food purchases and distribution can happen at a sustainable pace.

“This issue is not going to be solved in a week or a month," Pacelle says. "Each animal needs 300 pounds of food a day, so this will require staying power and pacing."

One Uncertain Story

In spring 2020, a team from the Elephant Nature Park and the Save Elephant Foundation, which funds them, followed a group of more than 100 mahouts and elephants as they made a five-day trek back to their village. There were elephants of all ages, including a mother and her baby.

The trek was through mostly hot and dry areas with little water and food. They stopped whenever they found water or a spot to eat. The mahouts had been away for three decades, working in the tourism industry and didn't know when they would return.

They were welcomed back with singing from the Karen tribe villagers, happy to have their family members and elephants back home. The village mahouts pass down care of the elephants from generation to generation.

Elephant Nature Park founder Saengduean "Lek" Chailert said:

"The owners and mahouts arrived home with uncertainty in their hearts. Their future seems so bleak, and no one can answer whether the situation will improve again or not. One thing is clear to them: they have one hundred elephants in their hand with the responsibility to care for them without an income!"

The sanctuary team followed to bring food for the elephants and the people. They checked up on them several times since they returned home, bringing food for the elephants and their mahouts. They arranged shelter for the mother elephant and her baby during the rainy season.

"We are also working on a future plan for elephant food, to consider all potential environmental impacts, and to prepare an area for the elephant home," Chailert wrote. "We are trying to help them survive this difficult time. We discuss the future of their elephants. Soon I will share with you a positive plan. It takes a village to raise a child, and so many more united people to see the captive elephant through to a better life, hopeful and dignified."

To donate for the elephants' care, reach out to the Center for a Humane Economy or the Save Elephant Foundation.

View Article Sources
  1. Pacelle, Wayne. "Center for a Humane Economy Launches Campaign to Aid Thailand’s Starving, Out-of-Work Elephants." Center for a Humane Economy, 2021.

  2. "About Us." World Travel & Tourism Council.

  3. "Elephant." African Wildlife Foundation.

  4. "Due to Covid-19, elephants and their mahouts have lost their job and returned to their homeland." Elephant Nature Park Updates.

  5. "Elephants in Crisis." Center for Humane Economy.