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Thailand’s Unemployed Elephants and Their Families Face Uncertain Future

Published: September 9, 2022
Mahouts and their elephants hand out balloons to children during Christmas celebrations at the Jirasart Witthaya school in Ayutthaya on Dec. 24, 2021. (Image: JACK TAYLOR/AFP via Getty Images)

In the northeastern village of Ban Ta Klang in Thailand, Siriporn Sapmak starts her day by doing a livestream of her two elephants on social media to raise money to survive.

The 23-year-old, who has been taking care of elephants since she was in school, points her phone to the animals as she feeds them bananas and they walk around the back of her family home.

Siriporn says she can raise about 1,000 baht ($27.40) of donations from several hours of livestreaming on TikTok and YouTube but that is only enough to feed her two elephants for one day.

On average, elephants consume 200 kg to 400 kg of grass and fruits each day, according to conservationist groups.

It is a new— and insecure — source of income for the family, which before the pandemic earned money by doing elephant shows in the Thai city of Pattaya. They top up their earnings by selling fruit.

Like thousands of other elephant owners around the country, the Sapmak family had to return to their home village as the pandemic decimated elephant camps and foreign tourism ground to a virtual halt. Only 400,000 foreign tourists arrived in Thailand last year compared with nearly 40 million in 2019.

Some days, Siriporn doesn’t receive any donations and her elephants are underfed.

“We are only hoping for tourists to be back. If they come back, we might not be doing these live streams anymore,” she said. “If we get to go back to work, we get a (stable) income to buy grass for elephants to eat.”

The families in Ban Ta Klang, the epicentre of Thailand’s elephant business located in Surin province, have cared for elephants for generations and have a close connection to them.

“We love the elephants like they are a member of the family,” Siriporn’s mother Pensri Sapmak, 60, said. “Without the elephants, we don’t know what our future will look like. We have today thanks to them.”

Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, estimates that at least a thousand elephants in Thailand would have no “proper income” until more tourists return, and said families may struggle to keep their elephants alive without government assistance.

Thailand has about 3,200 to 4,000 captive elephants, according to official agencies, and about 3,500 in the wild.

The government has sent 500,000 kilograms of grass across multiple provinces since 2020 to help feed the elephants, according to the Livestock Department, which oversees captive elephants.

Siriporn and her mother, however, said they have not yet received any government support.

While the government is expecting 10 million foreign tourists this year, some say this may not be enough to lure elephant owners back to top tourist destinations, given the costs involved. Chinese tourists, the mainstay of elephant shows, have also yet to return amid COVID-19 lockdowns at home.

“The main market for tourist camps with elephant riding is people from India, Russia and China… the Russians, because of the war, probably not gonna be travelling in big, large numbers either,” said Wiek.

With more elephants at home, some are breeding, adding more costs and concerns for their owners.

“I actually expect that in the next year or so, there will be (a) lot of elephant calves born in captivity adding to the number of elephants in trouble already,” adds Wiek.

“It’s not going to be sustainable.”

By Reuters (Production: Jorge Silva, Juarawee Kittisilpa)