The unemployed headcount in Thailand includes some very large noggins. They belong to elephants. The giant animals depend on tourists to fund their food. But with few visitors due to the coronavirus, elephant camps and sanctuaries are running short of income. Now more than 100 pachyderms have been sent packing.
The Save Elephant Foundation in the Chiang Mai province has been promoting the elephants’ return to the greener pastures of home. The foundation does support fundraising appeals to feed animals still housed at tourist parks. But the group also believes it’s good for the elephants to return to their natural habitat.
Save Elephant also says the animals are abused at many high-profile tourist attractions. Additionally, some estimates say 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 tromped from Chiang Mai to their homeland of Mae Chaem. Members of the Karen ethnic minority live there. They traditionally keep elephants.
Sadudee Serichevee owns four elephants in Chiang Mai. He followed the foundation’s approach in setting up his own small Karen Elephant Experience park. He brought elephants from 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 says.
He and his wife agreed to take their elephants back to her village because they could no longer handle the monthly expenses for land and facilities rental, handler salaries, and food. (Elephants eat as much as 660 pounds a day of grass and vegetables!)
The couple convinced some other owners to make the 95-mile trek on foot with them. Elephants can maintain a walking speed of 4.5 miles per hour. Besides, trucking the behemoths is too expensive for owners of small parks.
The caravan of 11 elephants plus owners and trainers set out on April 30. They traveled over hills, on paved and dirt roads. They were greeted by a welcome-home party on their arrival at Ban Huay Bong on Monday.
“These elephants have not had a chance to return home for 20 years. They seem to be very happy when arriving home. They make their happy noises. They run to the creek near the village and have fun along with our children,” Sadudee says.
“We don’t know when COVID-19 will go away,” says Save Elephant’s founder Saengduean Chailert. “So this is our task, to help feed the elephants that were laid off because of the outbreak.”
(A herd of elephants walks along a dirt road during a journey from Mae Wang to Ban Huay in northern Thailand. Save Elephant Foundation via AP)