A tourist rides an elephant on a Thai beach. Thailand's closure of its borders during the European holiday season because of the Covid-19 pandemic has rendered thousands of elephants and their handlers jobless. (Photo: wallpaperflare.com)
Some 20 elephants have returned to a small village of Mae Chiem in Karen territory in the Chiang Mai region in the last few weeks. Before the coronavirus pandemic crisis, they were living in in one of the many camps in the city, where tourists can take them for walks, feed them or bathe with them. They were "working," as the locals say. With the closure of its borders since March, Thailand has no tourists and the elephant camps are deprived of any income."When it began, we tried to adapt," says Thanarat Pupei, a young mahout (elephant attendant). "The elephants ate a little less fruit and more herbs.” But as the situation continued, some camp owners eventually resigned, leaving the elephants and their attendants to fend for themselves.The mahouts rarely own their elephants because of the expense involved. An adult animal costs about US$35,000. Usually, they look after the animals of someone else. They get poor pay of about US$250 a month, although theirs is one of the oldest trades in Thailand. In the past, mahouts enjoyed an enviable status, thanks in particular to the place they occupied at court, where royal elephants were means of transport, war tanks and symbols of power. "Their knowledge is considered as art, wisdom and even as a form of spirituality in Thailand," says Tam Pranarat, project manager at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. In the past, mahouts passed down the knowledge about animal behaviour and the virtues of certain medicinal herbs from father to son through songs and gestures. Today, an eager industry "forms a mahout in a few days, and the elephant seems to accept it.”
‘Cruel activity has to stop’
The profession is also a lifelong commitment: an elephant normally has only one mahout.
Changing forest conservation lawsWhile the idea sounds good, it faces many obstacles. First, it needs relatively large investments to build houses for tourists and developing these areas, which Karen villagers do not have. On the other hand, some associations feel that putting elephants under the responsibility of villagers does not guarantee the well-being of the animals.Several of them were known in the past for the capture, intensive training and resale of elephants to the city's camps. Finally, perhaps the major obstacle, may be the recent change in forest conservation laws, which now denies Karen people access to important resources to feed their elephants."An elephant eats an average of 200-300 kilograms of food a day and drinks 150 liters of water," says Supinda, head of Mae Chiem village. River water is now so polluted that the elephants themselves refuse to drink it, she says. Many elephants, held in captivity for several decades, have little chance of survival in the forest. They need, she says, at least initially, the support of humans."It's nice of you to tell us to make ecovillages," she says, "but if we're not allowed to take the elephants a little further away for food, we can't afford the cost of maintaining them on our own.”
This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.