Covid and ethics are changing Thailand’s tourism industry

18-year-old Kwanmueang and his mahout Lek

Kwanmueang and his mahout Lek returned to their hometown in the face of changes in the tourism industry

When it comes to the annual health checkup, Kwanmueang’s size is breathtaking.

Standing nearly three meters tall at the shoulder, weighing at least four tons, and with spectacular tusks that curve together until they are almost touching, the 18-year-old Thai elephant is an impressive sight.

However, he and his guardian, the mahout, Sornsiri “Lek” Sapmak, are in trouble.

They used to make a living by attending Kwanmueang monk ordination ceremonies or disguising themselves as war elephants to recreate historical battles. All of this stopped during the Covid lockdowns.

More than 3,000 elephants are used for tourism in Thailand than anywhere else. Unlike other countries with a captive population, in Thailand almost all are privately owned. So the collapse of tourism during the pandemic has had a devastating impact on elephants and their owners, who no longer earn enough to look after them.

Even as tourism begins to recover, another threat looms over this unique industry. Ethical concerns about how animals are kept and trained in captivity are prompting many foreign visitors to boycott elephant shows that were once a staple of tour groups, raising questions about whether elephant tourism can ever return to what it was before Covid.

Lek and Kwanmueang returned to Leka’s home village in Surin Province, a region famous for its ability to keep, train and, in the past, capture elephants.

Mahouts walking with their elephants in Surin

Elephants are everywhere in Surin

The drug is not alone. Hundreds of other elephants have returned to Surin from popular tourist destinations such as Phuket and Chiang Mai, where they earned money by performing tricks or riding foreign visitors.

A walk through these villages is a disarming experience. Almost every home has one or more elephants chained in the yard or resting under trees. You get used to the sight of huge animals wading along the road, their mahouts straddling their broad necks, and as you drive you learn to be careful to avoid them.

Boonyarat “Joy” Salangam owns four elephants that she and her partner brought back from Phuket when tourism ended in 2020. One of them is a happy baby, locked with his mother in the paddock that Joy built in front of her house.

“Covid has stopped everything,” he says. “Mahouts, owners and elephants were unemployed. In tourist camps, the females are kept away from the bulls, but here we all hang out together and the elephants have sex. We don’t force them. They do it in their own time. So the population is growing.”

Joy says she thought about selling her baby elephant to raise funds – they can fetch as much as a luxury car – but she was worried about how well it would be looked after. Joy has lived with his mother, who is 39, almost all his life and inherited it from his grandparents.

An elephant playing in Surin

Elephants are expensive animals to maintain – they need huge amounts of food and water every day

Mahouts, too, can live for decades with the same elephant from an early age, sometimes choosing to sleep with them, taking them to lakes or rivers for an evening swim, and keeping a close eye on their health. It was a challenge in the times of Covid.

Elephants are expensive. An adult needs to eat 100-200 kg (220-440 lb) of food per day and drink up to 100 liters (22 gallons) of water. With no other income, owners like Joy livestream their pets on social media while appealing for donations.

This is sometimes done at home when the elephants are playing or bathing, or they invite a friend to ride a motorbike alongside them to film their evening walks. Viewers can pay online for elephants to get baskets of bananas by performing tricks, but it’s not ideal for their health.

Their diet should consist mainly of various types of leaves and grass, but with so many elephants returning to the area, it is difficult to find enough for them.

“We find that they are having digestive problems due to a change in diet,” says Nuttapon Bangkaew, a veterinarian providing free checkups offered by Elephant Kingdom, a project launched seven years ago to improve the welfare of surin elephants.

“When mahouts or elephant owners go home, they have no income. So they have no money to buy grass or food. They have to do these live streams on social media to make money, but that causes health problems.”

Elephants are native to Thailand, but the wild population has decreased from about 100,000 a hundred years ago to only 3,000-4,000 today. In the past, large numbers were caught and used in the logging industry, but when it was banned in the late 1980s to protect the country’s remaining forests, they began to be used to entertain tourists.

In the earliest shows, they demonstrated their skills in handling logs. But these have expanded as tourism in Thailand has boomed, offering rides or antics like painting animals or playing soccer. Campaigning group World Animal Protection (WAP) estimates that before Covid, elephants generated up to $770m (£626m) a year for Thailand.

WAP is one of many groups trying to end the use of elephants for entertainment, claiming that it is unnatural and always involves cruel training techniques. Many tourists are already looking for more ethical ways to experience elephants in Thailand. Some tour groups in Europe and North America will no longer send clients to elephant camps that include horseback riding or bathing.

So, a new niche has emerged in the ecotourism industry to address these concerns.

Saengduean “Lek” Chailert, a pioneer of ethical elephant tourism, opened the Elephant Wildlife Park north of Chiang Mai in the 1990s – both as a sanctuary for injured animals and to explore better ways for tourists and elephants to interact.

“We wanted to go fully ethical, focus on protection. So we decided to stop the elephant bathing and tourist feeding programs,” she said.

It cost them half the booking. She adds that tour operators have said they can’t send customers to them because everyone “want to touch and hug the elephants, they want to lay their hands on them.”

A man washing elephants in Surina

Elephants trapped in Thailand would not be able to live on their own in the wild

But today, Lek says, there are signs everywhere in Chiang Mai advertising “no hooks, no chains, no horse riding.”

“I checked into Koh Samui – there were so many elephant riding camps before. Now there are only two players left. There are only a few places left in Phuket and only two in Chiang Mai.”

However, ethical elephant tourism has its limits. Of the more than 200 camps that were operating before the Covid closure, only 11, including Lek, received WAP approval.

Lek has a large plot of land, approximately 100 hectares (250 acres), along the Mae Taeng River. That’s roughly enough room for the 122 elephants it has – 45 of them rescued from bankruptcy during Covid – to roam freely without chains.

Other camps do not have this option. One, also in Chiang Mai, which advertises “ethical elephant tours” allows bathing with humans. He says that because he doesn’t have the funds to build an enclosure large enough, he has to chain it up in the evening for the safety of elephants and humans.

Woman with elephants at Baan Ta Klang

Some elephants are chained to prevent them from roaming – something human rights groups have criticized

Some in the industry say that’s okay; that a more balanced approach should be taken between the abuses that have characterized the industry and the demand by animal rights organizations to end all elephant-related entertainment.

“Riding elephants can be part of a caring system,” says Theerapat Trungprakan, who heads the Thai Elephant Alliance Association, a group of elephant owners and business operators.

“They can go to different places, for example to a waterfall where they can drink the best quality water or swim there. It also increases the elephant’s safety when walking with humans as there are dangers such as pesticides or electricity cables beyond the elephant’s assessment.”

He describes some of the arguments made by animal rights organizations as emotional and melodramatic, and believes that ethical sanctuaries may be less healthy because without people paying to ride them, elephants have fewer opportunities for long walks.

There are currently two debates about the future of Thailand’s captive elephants. One is about what people should and shouldn’t do with them. The second, more serious question concerns the practical possibilities of supporting such a huge population of large and long-lived animals.

“I have a wish list in my head and at the top of my wish list is to end the captivity of all wild animals, but we just know that it is not going to happen,” says Edwin Wiek, one of the most prominent anti-trafficking activists in Thailand.

Edwin The Age and the Elephant

Edwin Wiek has been working with wildlife in Thailand for two decades

21 years ago, he founded the Friends of Wildlife Foundation in Thailand to save injured and illegally kept animals. He has 24 rescued elephants roaming freely around the 16-acre enclosure.

“The ideal scenario would be semi-wild elephants like we keep them here in large natural enclosures where they can roam, bathe, run or forage as they do in nature.”

However, he realizes that it would be an expensive project with few volunteers, considering Thailand is home to 3,000 captive elephants.

“I fear most elephants, at least three-quarters of them, will still have to find alternative income. And that means there will still be plenty of places for elephants to be ridden, bathed and fed by tourists “as part of their daily routine.”

This is all the more likely when tourists from markets such as China, Russia and India start traveling to Thailand again, as they enjoy the old-fashioned elephant shows that are often part of their package tours more.

Edwin Wiek believes that the breeding of domestic elephants should be stopped – so that the population drops to a level where they can all be kept in these ideal, semi-wild conditions, visited by fewer tourists willing to pay just to see and not touch .

Then, he says, the government could turn its attention to managing the growing wild population by creating corridors that would allow them to move between Thailand’s national parks and patches of forest without coming into conflict with humans.

Jun lets his elephant scratch the tree

There are an estimated 100,000 elephants in the wild in Thailand

But Thailand has no strategy for that. In fact, regulation of domestic elephants is a muddle divided between three ministries that do not coordinate with each other.

So the future of these wonderful creatures depends largely on their owners, many of whom are still in precarious financial situations.

The mahouts are counting down the days until the return of tourists in numbers like they used to, but they also worry that the only business many of them know could be threatened by a change in taste.

It cost Joy over $2,000 to bring her elephants back to Surin from Phuket. She says she can’t afford to go back there until she’s sure the shows will draw crowds again.

“Right now it’s very difficult for us because we don’t have enough money. Both elephants and humans are unemployed. Will there still be shows? I think they will, but not that much because some foreign tourists think that we who keep the elephants don’t love them, that we torture them with bull hooks to make them perform. I think that will change.”

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