Coronavirus News Asia

Thai elephants head home as tourists stay away

One thousand elephants threatened by starvation have journeyed through the hills of northern Thailand, making a slow migration home from tourist sites forced shut by the pandemic.

Home for some of the animals is the northern village of Huay Pakoot, where generations of ethnic Karen mahouts – or elephant handlers – have been rearing the giant mammals for four centuries.

But it is around the tourist hub of Chiang Mai, 180 kilometers away, that many mahouts and their elephants work, performing money-spinning tricks for foreigners in amusement parks or “sanctuaries.”

Some of the controversial camps employ abusive methods to “break” and train the elephants, who earn their keep by entertaining busloads of tourists eager for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed global travel and closed many of the parks in mid-March, however, Thailand’s roughly 3,000 domesticated elephants have been unemployed. Many – at risk of starvation – have been brought home. 

“They are tired but rather happy,” said Chaiyaporn, a mahout of 15 years, after they arrived in Huay Pakoot.  

“They have a very good memory. It seems that after years of absence they know they are finally coming home,” the 35-year-old said. 

About 1,000 elephants and their mahouts have returned to their villages in the past two months, said Theerapat Trungprakan, president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association.

“Such a big migration over such a short period of time is unprecedented in this country,” he said.

A mahout watching a young elephant in Baan Na Klang village in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai. With their incomes vanished and risk of starvation growing, more than 1,000 elephants and their mahouts have returned to their villages in the past two months. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Territorial fights

But the homecoming is not without problems. 

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