Captive elephants in Thailand face crisis with dearth of foreign visitors and revenue

Published on : Thursday, June 10, 2021

“For sale: 11 clever elephants. 3 million baht each,” Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Chon Buri, Thailand, announced this in an ad on Facebook on May 29. That’s about $96,000 a piece.


The zoo makes money from tourists with the help of admission tickets, elephant rides and animal shows, but now with Thailand closed for most foreign visitors or needing mandatory quarantine since March 2020 in the wake of the corona virus, it’s facing monetary crisis. In a Facebook post on May 28 about its elephant problem, the zoo voiced that “at this point, to close the wounds from COVID, we need to sell [them] out.”


It’s a similar story across the country. Around 3,800 elephants live in captivity in Thailand, many in camps, zoos and sanctuaries. Some camps rent their elephants from individual owners, and now, not being able to pay for the costs of keeping them on, they have no other option but to send the animals and their caretakers or mahouts, away. Other camps still have their elephants but they are finding it hard to feed and care for them, leaving many elephants isolated and hungry. Across the industry, people are doing everything they can to sustain.


Edwin Wiek – the founder and director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a sanctuary that’s home to 850 rescued animals, 29 are elephants. Although losing most of its income, the foundation has taken in six displaced elephants. “It’s almost impossible to sustainably run the place,” Wiek said. “Every time a donation comes in, we are celebrating. For every thousand dollars, we’re a day further again.”


Wiek said that the situation is especially grim in tourism-dependent southern Thailand. “When I go to these camps that are temporarily closed, and I look at [the elephants’] physical and mental state, I almost feel that some would be better off dead,” he said. “It’s very hard to see the shaking heads, the aggressive behavior. They’re really hungry. Really, really hungry.”


Elephant tourism has always been a lucrative business for Thailand. Visitors from around the world pay between $20 and $150 to ride elephants or watch them perform tricks.


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