Thailand elephants
Mahouts feed elephants rescued from the tourism and logging trade at the Elephant Nature Park in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai on March 13, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, millions have been unemployed in Thailand’s tourism dependent economy and that also includes starving elephants that rely on foreign visitors for work and meals. Now, they are being made to walk as far as 150 kilometers back into their homes in rural areas.

With hardly any tourists, commercial elephant camps and sanctuaries lack funds for their upkeep. Recent reports stated that the animals have been starving.

According to a report by the Associated Press (AP), the Save Elephant Foundation in the northern province of Chiang Mai has been promoting the elephants’ return home. The foundation supports fundraising appeals to support animals working at tourist attractions, but also believes it is beneficial for them to return to their natural habitat “where they can be more self-sufficient”.

Since last month, reportedly more than 100 of the animals have marched from all over Chiang Mai to their homeland of Mae Chaem, which is lined with villages where members of the Karen ethnic minority live and traditionally keep elephants.

AP quoted an owner and his wife who agreed to bring their elephants back to the village because they could no longer shoulder the monthly expenses of close to 200,000 baht Dh22,855) for rental of land and facilities, salaries for handlers, known as mahouts, and food. Elephants eat as much as 300 kilograms a day of grass and vegetables.

The Save Elephant Foundation promotes settling elephants where they can live alongside villagers in sustainable eco-friendly communities. It believes the animals are abused at many high-profile tourist attractions.

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Maetaeng Elephant Park, north of the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Image Credit: NYT

However, there are also initiatives that are trying to support the elephants that have not yet migrated.

The Southern Thailand Elephant Foundation, @elephantcharity has updated its followers on Twitter about its effort to take care of the animals. In a May 10 tweet the foundation wrote: “We’ve been out delivering more food to #elephants in need. This time a truck of pineapple fodder and three bags of concentrates to this handsome 70yr old called Plai in Khlong Phanom National Park, Kapong District…”

A May 11 update stated: “Thanks to the wonderful generosity of our supporters we’re providing emergency feed supplies to over 200 very hungry #elephants across Southern #Thailand during this #COVID19 crisis.”