How Covid has plunged Asia’s captive elephants into fresh crisis

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It has been a tough year for many, and for the elephants at Elefanjoy sanctuary in Jaipur, India, it has been no exception. As the pandemic hit in March, the country imposed a strict nationwide lockdown, and the sanctuary’s dozens of elephants could no longer take their 30-mile daily walks, vital for stretching their legs and aiding digestion.

Health problems began to set in, worsened by a glum mood that beset human and other animal inhabitants of the sanctuary.

Ankit Pareek, who runs the Elefanjoy sanctuary, said: “The elephants could sense the stressed and anxious feelings of the humans. Many became depressed because they were no longer getting exercise and entertainment from the tourists who used to walk with them, wash them, play with them and take beautiful selfies with them. We were very worried for the elephants.”

But Pareek had even greater concerns since he relied solely on the income and donations generated by tourists. Elephants will eat up to 200kg of food a day, amounting to 10% of their body weight, and it costs up to 5,000 rupees daily (GBP51) for each animal.

“We did not want to let the elephants suffer at all, they only deserve love and respect, so we have taken loans to cover the food costs,” said Pareek, who has lived and worked with elephants since he was a child. “But if foreign tourists do not come back soon it is very bad for us.”

Animal rights activists have long highlighted how the training of captive elephants for tourism is cruel and abusive. In countries such as India and Thailand, where elephant tourism is usually a lucrative and booming industry, the absence of tourists has created a new animal welfare crisis.

However, activists are hoping that this interruption will finally bring an end to this animal exploitation through tourism.

In September four elephants, trained to carry tourists on rides up to Jaipur’s Amer fort, died. The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) found they had been tied up all day for months with limited food and water as the pandemic hit, causing lethal health complications.

Elephants carrying tourists up a stone passage to Amer fort, Jaipur.

Varda Mehrotra, the executive director of FIAPO, said: “For years, we’ve been documenting how bad the conditions are for India’s captive elephants. Covid has exacerbated all the problems we’ve been raising for years and now elephants are dying.”

A big issue, Mehrotra said, was that there were only about eight elephant sanctuaries in India, and most did not have the capacity to take any of the elephants now “out of work” and going hungry.

Many of India’s 1,800 privately owned elephants generate income and donations through their roles in Hindu festival rituals, known as pujas, or through wedding processions, all of which remain banned due to pandemic restrictions.

The governments of Kerala and Rajasthan gave small amounts of financial aid to elephant owners during lockdown, but those payments have since ceased, while other states gave nothing at all.

Hareshbabu Rengan, 37, whose family in Tamil Nadu owns two 40-year-old elephants, Lakshmi and Kusma, has resorted to social media videos and a crowdfunding page to try to raise money for both his elephants and others who are struggling. “I am very worried about elephants across India,” he said. “Nobody wants to openly say that they are struggling to look after their elephants and need some funding, because they are worried about being victimised.”

In Thailand, where 2,000 elephants have been held in tourist camps, the captive animals are now regularly abandoned. While the government offered some assistance, distributing emergency supplies of grass and hay earlier in the year, some camps had no option but to close.

An elephant exodus across Thailand followed, with about 1,000 animals walking for days back to the villages of their mahouts, often also their birthplaces, places they had not seen in decades.

Boon Thong, 40, Ronaaldo, 18 months and his mother Lersu, 30, on a hillside near Mae Sapok village, Chiang Mai, Thailand. More than 100 elephants have been returned to their home villages in the mountains near Chiang Mai for access to farmland to support the 200kg of food each adult needs daily.

In March, three female elephants, Suparp, Dok Mai, and Hong Fah, arrived at Sangdeaun Chailert’s Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Their handler asked to stay for a short time at Sangdeaun’s sanctuary. By the morning he had gone. Later, he called to explain he simply did not have the resources to care for the animals.

“It is like when people bring the dog to the clinic, and then leave it with us. I thought this would only [happen] with a dog or cat. Now they are leaving elephants with us,” said Sangdeaun. Her centre has 97 elephants, mostly older, “retired”, animals rescued from riding and trekking camps.

The crisis has caused the price of elephants in Thailand to more than halve, according to Sangdeaun. WWhile a year ago a baby elephant might have cost $100,000, now the same animal could be sold for $40,000. She worried that elephants would be no longer be kept by the families who had looked after them for generations – that they would be sold off cheaply to big companies.

For elephants remaining in Thailand’s camps, it is a life in chains for long periods. “They are depressed and they get so frustrated and they attack each other,” said Sangdeaun.

Some camps have reduced the number of mahouts, so there are fewer people attending the elephants’ needs. Theerapat Trungprakan, the president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association, said the number of callers asking for veterinary assistance had grown since March.

Patitta Traiwet, the president of Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which has branches across Thailand, said she had managed to maintain the animals’ routine but the elephants had noticed the absence of tourists lining up to give them bananas and pineapples. “They were confused at the beginning – where are the people? Why is nobody feeding me banana?” she said.

Nonetheless, for the hundreds of elephants who have returned home with their mahouts, the coronavirus pandemic may have provided the chance to frolic in the jungles and rivers of their birth.

Many people now hope that even when the tourists return, these elephants will remain resettled in their natural habitat for good.

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