Weary elephants make 300-mile walk home as tourism industry struggles in Thailand

Five weary elephants are making a 300-mile walk home after struggling to find work during the Covid-19 downturn in Thailand. The elephants were once used in a tourist centre in Pattaya, Chonburi province, giving rides to holidaymakers from around the world. However, travel restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 have prevented tourists from visiting the country – sending numbers plummeting from more than 110,000 a day in 2019 to virtually zero this year. The elephants were today (April 8) making the gruelling 300-mile walk by road back to their home in Surin province in the northeast of the country as the owners lost their incomes to pay for the transport. Caretaker Naphalai Mai-ngam, 26, and her family members have been riding on the back of the jumbos on their way home while occasionally stopping on the roadside for a meal and feeding the elephants with grass. She said five of her family members have been working with her as mahouts for five years but the tourist decline had left them out of jobs so they are returning home. She said: ‘We have four male and one female elephant that we used for rides. The farm used to pay us 15,000 baht a month for each elephant and the tips were enough for the living expenses. ‘After the pandemic outbreak, all tourists disappeared and the farm lost all their revenue. We kept hoping that everything would be better but it didn’t happen. ‘Now, we have been forced to return to our hometown and become farmers. I just can’t seen when it will all end and we will return to normal again.’ The family had to begin their journey in the early hours of the morning to avoid the heat which was most intense during the afternoon as the country’s temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius in the summer season. The group then stop under shady trees to rest when the weather becomes too hot to avoid injuring the animals. They believe they will reach Surin in two weeks. Locals who saw the group passing offered fruit and water but the jumbos mostly survive on grass. Naphalai added that each of the elephants needs around 300 kilograms of food to be healthy. She said: ‘We have to make do with what we have now. We are glad that some people help us along the way but we don’t have much choice.’ An estimated 2,000 captive elephants working in the tourism industry suffered from the pandemic crisis since last year due to the lack of tourists and travel bans. The situation is expected to worsen as the number of coronavirus cases surged again in Thailand this month, with 29,571 cases and 95 deaths as of April 8. Authorities have banned owners from returning the elephants back into the wild amid fears of overpopulation which could cause problems in farms and villages near forests.