More than 100 elephants kept at commercial camps and sanctuaries in Thailand are newly “unemployed” because of the coronavirus crisis.
As the number of foreign visitors dwindle during the pandemic, the facilities — which count on tourists to feed the animals — sent scores of them trudging up to 95 miles back to their native stomping grounds.
The Save Elephant Foundation in the northern province of Chiang Mai supports fundraising appeals to feed animals still housed at tourist parks, but has also been promoting the elephants’ return home, where they can be more self-sufficient.
Since last month, the animals have marched from all over Chiang Mai to their homeland of Mae Chaem, where members of the Karen ethnic minority traditionally keep elephants in their villages.
Sadudee Serichevee, who owns four elephants in Chiang Mai’s Mae Wang district, set up his own small Karen Elephant Experience park, bringing the animals from Mae Chaem’s Ban Huay Bong, his wife’s village.
But when the coronavirus crisis happened, he and his wife could no longer afford the expenses to keep them. Elephants eat as much as 660 pounds a day of grass and vegetables.
“At first I thought the situation would be back to normal within a month or two,” Sadudee told the Associated Press. “At the end of April, I lost all hope.”
So the couple decided to bring their caravan of 11 elephants back to their home turf — convincing other owners to do the same.
“These elephants have not had a chance to return home for 20 years,” Sadudee said. “They seem to be very happy when arriving home, they make their happy noises, they run to the creek near the village and have fun along with our children.”
The project is also active in Thailand’s northeastern province of Surin, known for its annual elephant festival. About 40 elephants returned last month to the province’s Tha Tum district, home to hundreds of the animals.
“We don’t know when COVID-19 will go away,” said Save Elephant’s founder, Saengduean Chailert. “So this is our task, to help feed the elephants that were laid off because of the outbreak.”
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