Out of work from coronavirus, these elephants pack their trunks and head home

A herd of elephants on a road in northern Thailand
A herd of elephants walks along a dirt road last week during a nearly 100-mile journey from Mae Wang to Ban Huay in northern Thailand.
(Save Elephant Foundation)
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The millions thrown out of work in Thailand by the coronavirus include elephants dependent on tourist money to feed their voracious appetites. With scant numbers of foreign visitors, commercial elephant camps and sanctuaries lack funds for the animals’ upkeep and have sent more than 100 of them trudging up to nearly 100 miles back to their homes.

The Save Elephant Foundation in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai has been promoting the beasts’ return to the greener pastures of home. The foundation supports fundraising appeals to feed animals still housed at tourist parks, but also believes it is good for them to return to their natural habitat, where they can be more self-sufficient.

The situation is critical. London-based World Animal Protection says that as many as 2,000 tame elephants are at risk of starvation because their owners are unable to feed them.

Since last month, more than 100 of the animals have marched from all over Chiang Mai to their homeland of Mae Chaem, which is dotted with villages where members of the Karen ethnic minority live and traditionally keep elephants.

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More than 100 elephants in Thailand have marched to their homeland of Mae Chaem since last month.
(Save Elephant Foundation)

Save Elephant’s founder, Saengduean Chailert, said the project to bring out-of-work elephants home was launched in response to appeals from their owners.

Her group promotes settling elephants where they can live alongside villagers in sustainable eco-friendly communities. It believes the animals are abused at many high-profile tourist attractions.

Zoos and breeding centers in Peru say they’re running out of feed for their animals as the coronavirus pandemic keeps paying customers at home.

Sadudee Serichevee owns four elephants in Chiang Mai’s Mae Wang district. He followed the foundation’s approach in setting up his own small Karen Elephant Experience park with elephants brought from Ban Huay Bong, his wife’s village in Mae Chaem.

But his good intentions were no match for the coronavirus.

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“At first I thought the situation would be back to normal within a month or two. At the end of April, I lost all hope,” Sadudee said.

The herd takes a break on the shore of a river. The project to bring unemployed elephants home was launched in response to appeals from their owners.
(Save Elephant Foundation)

He and his wife agreed to bring their elephants back to her village because they could no longer shoulder the monthly expenses of close to 200,000 baht ($6,250) for rental of land and facilities, salaries for handlers — known as mahouts — and food. Elephants eat as much as 660 pounds a day of grass and vegetables.

They convinced some other owners to make the 95-mile trek on foot with them. Trucking the animals is prohibitively expensive for owners of small parks, and elephants can maintain a walking speed of 4.5 mph.

Their caravan of 11 elephants, their owners and their mahouts set out April 30, traveling over hills, on paved and dirt roads. They were greeted by a welcome-home party on their arrival at Ban Huay Bong on Monday.

The elephants can maintain a walking speed of 4.5 mph.
(Save Elephant Foundation)

“These elephants have not had a chance to return home for 20 years. 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,” Sadudee said.

The project is also active in the northeastern province of Surin, famous for its annual elephant festival. The province’s Tha Tum district, home to hundreds of elephants, welcomed about 40 of them back last month.

“We don’t know when COVID-19 will go away,” said Save Elephant’s Saengduean. “So this is our task, to help feed the elephants that were laid off because of the outbreak.”