Chiang Mai, located in the northern jungles of Thailand, has several attractions that draw a huge crowd of tourists whose number is only topped by Bangkok among Thai cities.
The biggest attraction for many tourists are elephant parks and sanctuaries. From highly respected sanctuaries where injured elephants recuperate to morally questionable parks where elephants are put on shows, it nonetheless is the single biggest selling point for the city.
An estimated 3,800 elephants are said to be living in these parks of varying qualities. That means that there are at least the same number of mahouts – those who ride or take care of elephants – who make a living via the tourism industry.
The global coronavirus pandemic has suddenly changed the lives of the animals and its keepers. On March 27th, the Thai government has formally announced a state of emergency and closed down all non-essential facilities.
The elephant parks across the nation have been closed accordingly. This has caused serious concerns about the wellbeing of both the animals and the industry that is based on them.
For example, Maetang Elephant Park located in Chiang Mai welcomed up to 1,000 guests during peak seasons. Prior to the government announcement, that number has plummeted down to single digits. Other parks had already voluntarily closed their doors before Maetang.
NGOs and activists are worried about what this would mean for the elephants. Unlike airplanes or other machinery, one can’t simply put elephants in a garage and wait for the tourists to return.
An average elephant consumes anywhere between 440 to 660 pounds – 200 to 300 kilograms – of grass everyday. It roughly translates to $1,000 a month per every elephant. With no income being generated, watchdog organizations worry that the mahouts may underfeed the elephants or exploit the animals for profit.
For example, some mahouts are already considering to bring back the abolished practice of begging elephants. Before it was outlawed thanks to the lobbying efforts of conservation organizations, it was fairly common in Chiang Mai and other Thai cities to see mahouts and their elephants begging for money in the streets.
The possibilities that some handlers may revert to the ways of old are increasing as the pandemic continues. Already, many parks have reduced the salaries given to mahouts by 50%. Experts worry that this desperation may push to mahouts to make the wrong choices.
What do you think about this story? Share with us your thoughts in the comments section and be sure to follow us on Facebook for more news like this one.