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Thai elephants, out of work due to coronavirus, return home to natural environment

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BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand elephants are returning home to the wild after being “laid off” thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

The millions of unemployed in Thailand due to COVID-19 include elephants dependent on tourists to feed their voracious appetites. With scant numbers of foreign visitors, commercial elephant camps and sanctuaries lack funds for their upkeep and have sent more than 100 of the animals trudging as far as 150 kilometres back to their homes.

The Save Elephant Foundation in the northern province of Chiang Mai has been promoting the elephants’ return to the greener pastures of home. The foundation supports fundraising appeals to feed animals still housed at tourist parks, but also believes it is good for them to return to their natural habitat where they can be more self-sufficient.

The situation is critical. London-based World Animal Protection says as many as 2,000 tame elephants are at risk of starvation because their owners are unable to feed them.

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

Save Elephant’s founder, Saengduean Chailert, said the project to bring unemployed elephants home was launched in response to appeals from their owners.

Her group 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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Sadudee Serichevee owns four elephants in Chiang Mai’s Mae Wang district. He followed the foundation’s approach in setting up his own small Karen Elephant Experience park with elephants brought from Mae Chaem’s Ban Huay Bong, his wife’s village.

But his good intentions were no match for the coronavirus.

“At first I thought the situation would be back to normal within a month or two. At the end of April, I lost all hope,” Sadudee said.

He and his wife agreed to bring their elephants back to her village because they could no longer shoulder the monthly expenses of close to 200,000 baht (CA$8,648) for rental of land and facilities, salaries for handlers — known as mahouts — and food. Elephants eat as much as 660 pounds a day of grass and vegetables.

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