The situation is critical. London-based World Animal Protection says 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.
Save Elephant’s founder, Saengduean Chailert, said the project to bring unemployed 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.
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 Mae Chaem’s Ban Huay Bong, his wife’s village.
But his good intentions were no match for the coronavirus.
“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.
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 300 kilograms (660 lbs) a day of grass and vegetables.
They convinced some other owners to make the 150-kilometer (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 7.25 kph (4.5 mph).
Their caravan of 11 elephants, their owners and their mahouts, set out on 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.
“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.”