Around 1,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand could be at risk of starvation after COVID-19 closed the camps where they are kept.
Campaigners are warning that without income from tourists, some owners will struggle to feed their animals.
The country has around 4,000 domesticated elephants which visitors pay to trek with, bath or ride depending on the venue.
But all camps across Thailand were instructed to close in March following the coronavirus outbreak.
Tree Tops Elephant Reserve on the island of Phuket is quiet.
The elephants here are free to roam around the sanctuary during the day.
Usually around 40 visitors a day come to walk with them but now the reserve is closed.
“I think soon all of the camps are going to start to struggle financially trying to find food to feed the elephants and to pay their staff,” project director Louise Rogerson said.
It costs around £600 per month to feed an elephant which is a huge amount of money when there is no income.
While the herd at Tree Tops is retired and can be seen ambling around the park in the day time, the absence of tourists has led to concerns about the welfare of other elephants across Thailand.
“The riding camps that were catering for the Chinese visitors actually closed early February and if the elephants aren’t being ridden there then most of the places will be chaining the elephants 24 hours a day which is obviously bitter sweet because the elephants are getting a rest from riding but they’re not getting any exercise at all,” Ms Rogerson added.
Elsewhere on the island, mahout Veerayut has been looking after elephants all his life.
He raised nine-year-old Buatong whom he feeds with mounds of pineapple grass.
While his camp has secured funding for the next few months, he said others are not as fortunate.
“There are some mahouts not getting paid in this period because they have just started their businesses and they don’t have enough savings to use during this time,” he said.
“There are some that aren’t paying salaries.”
Save The Elephant Foundation estimates around 1,000 of the country’s domesticated elephants could be at risk of starvation.
“If there is no support forthcoming to keep them safe, these elephants (some of whom are pregnant), will either starve to death or may be put on to the streets to beg,” founder Lek Chailert said.
“Alternatively, some may be sold to zoos and some may be returned to the logging business (which officially banned the use of elephants in 1989 due to its cruel nature).
“It’s a very bleak outlook unless some financial help is received immediately.”
Starvation is a fear shared by the mahouts – elephant riders, trainers or keepers – as food is expensive and drought has dried out the grass.
“That’s what they are most afraid of. Even though the elephant might not belong to the mahout it’s instinct that we have to take care of them because this is what we were born to do,” Veerayut added.
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