Elephants and their mahouts near the Patara Elephant Farm near Chiang Mai, where many camps have been shuttered due to fears of the COVID-19. AFP
Underfed and chained up for endless hours, campaigners warn many elephants working in Thailand's tourism sector may starve, be sold to zoos or shifted into the illegal logging trade as the coronavirus decimates visitor numbers.
Before the virus, life for the kingdom's estimated more than 2,000 elephants working in tourism was already stressful, with abusive methods into giving rides and performing tricks at money-spinning animal shows.
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With global travel paralysed the animals are unable to pay their way, including the 300 kilogrammes of food a day a captive elephant needs to survive.
Elephant camps and conservationists warn hunger and the threat of renewed exploitation lie ahead, without an urgent bailout.
Chiang Mai is Thailand's northern tourist hub, an area of rolling hills dotted by elephant camps and sanctuaries ranging from the exploitative to the humane.
Around 2,000 elephants are currently "unemployed" as the virus eviscerates Thailand's tourist industry, says Theerapat Trungprakan, president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association.
For those hawking a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the giant creatures — whether from afar or up close — the slump began in late January.
Chinese visitors, who make up the majority of Thailand's 40 million tourists, plunged by more than 80 percent in February as China locked down cities hard-hit by the virus and banned external travel.
By March, the travel restrictions into Thailand — which has 1,388 confirmed cases of the virus — had extended to Western countries.
With elephants increasingly malnourished due to the loss of income, the situation is "at a crisis point," says Saengduean Chailert, owner of Elephant Nature Park.
Her sanctuary for around 80 rescued pachyderms only allows visitors to observe the creatures, a philosophy at odds with venues that have them performing tricks and offering rides.
She has organised a fund to feed elephants and help mahouts in almost 50 camps nationwide, fearing the only options will soon be limited to zoos, starvation or logging work.
"We need 1,000 baht a day (about $30) for each elephant," says Apichet Duangdee, who runs the Elephant Rescue Park.
Freeing his eight mammals rescued from circuses and loggers into the forests is out of the question as they would likely be killed in territorial fights with wild elephants.
He is planning to take out a two million baht ($61,000) loan soon to keep his elephants fed.
"I will not abandon them," he added.
The fearless primates rule the streets around the Prang Sam Yod temple in the centre of Lopburi, patrolling the tops of walls and brazenly ripping the rubber seals from car doors.
With almost 23 million international visitors last year, the Thai capital outpaced both Paris and London, which were second and third with just over 19 million visitors.
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