Elephants enjoying the water
There has been a significant decline in the elephant population of Southern Thailand as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Elephant numbers in Phang Nga Province, which normally has more domesticated elephants than any other Southern Thailand province, have dropped by a third of their normal number. (A survey in 2019 recorded 401 domesticated elephants in Phang Nga, whereas the most recent figures from the department of provincial livestock gives the current number as 270.)
This fall in elephant numbers is linked directly to the Covid-19 pandemic and the decimation of Thailand’s tourist industry. Without tourists to visit the elephant parks and sanctuaries that abounded in the region, there is no income and therefore no money to buy food for the elephants. 
The realisation that Covid-19 would affect the tourist industry for the long term meant that many mahouts had little choice but to return to their homes and families, many of which are in the north of Thailand. Of course, they took their elephants with them, and so for now Southern Thailand is depleted of its elephant population. Some owners transported their elephants to Surin, a major elephant centre in northern Thailand, from where some government support is being provided during the pandemic. But this is a journey of some 800 miles, and many owners cannot afford the cost of a truck ride for their elephant over such a distance.
Most of the elephant camps in Southern Thailand are now closed, and some will never reopen. Only a few parks or sanctuaries are still operating, and these are managing to care for their elephants only as a result of their own fund-raising efforts. Some of these parks have even taken in other elephants from owners who were struggling to feed them. Adult elephants drink around 100-200 litres of water a day and consume 200-300kg of vegetation, costing around £10 a day to feed.
When the lockdown first came to Thailand, many elephant parks in the region had closed almost overnight and simply told the elephant owners to remove their animals. But these owners were mostly mahouts who had one or two elephants contracted to a tourist park. Without any income from the park, the mahouts were left struggling to feed their elephants and they had no money to send back to their families. Aware of the impending crisis as the parks closed their doors, STEF stepped in provide food for the elephants in need. Our ‘Feed the Starving Elephants’ campaign, which ran from April to July last year, raised over £40,000 and our volunteers on the ground in Southern Thailand delivered over 700 truckloads of food. As the drift north began last summer, and the number of elephants in the region declined, we were able to wind down our campaign.
When tourists eventually return to Southern Thailand in significant numbers, hopefully the elephants will return too. For so many people, the chance to get up close, to stroke and feed these magnificent creatures is the highlight of their holiday.
 It is not practicable to let domesticated elephants roam free to find their own food, as there isn’t enough natural forest left in Thailand. These elephants are used to being cared for by humans and, left on their own, would be unlikely to be accepted by a wild herd and would probably struggle to find adequate food; there would be inevitable conflict with farmers and landowners as well as risk of severe injury on roads.
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