The elephant has a place of honor in Asian culture and Buddhism in particular.
In Thailand, you can find paintings or pictures of an elephant almost everywhere – on t-shirts in the market, on the walls of temples, in engravings and paintings.
Over the years, the Thai elephant has been an integral part of human development. They helped humans in lifting heavy loads, break ways through for roads and reach incredible achievements.
The Elephants Wildlife Issues
The wild elephants are an important factor in the environment as well: they spread seeds and fertilizers, plow the soil, create a home for insects and identify water reservoirs from a distance and open them up.
But despite their benefits and cultural importance, less than fifty thousand elephants now live in the wild in Asia, more than 15,000 live in captivity.
This situation is particularly severe in Thailand, even though the Thai elephant is the national animal. There are only 3,500 elephants that live in the wild, compared to more than 3,800 elephants that “work” in captivity. These elephants are usually “employed” in the tourism industry. They carry tourists on their backs, draw, do stunts and play football. In some cases, they also carry heavy logs (although such use of elephants has long been outlawed in Thailand).
Covid-19 and the Elephants
But now, as Covid-19 is hitting all over the world, the tourism industry in Thailand must and probably will change.
This may be a turning point in the human attitude towards elephants. The elephants that live in the “Elephant Farm” in captivity require more than a hundred kilos of food a day (per elephant), which costs about 150 shekels a day – three times the minimum wage in Thailand.
Now, when tourists do not arrive, these costs threaten to collapse the Thai elephant farm. The immediate danger is that the elephants will be irresponsibly released, reaching the city gates to find food, or returning to carry logs on the border with Myanmar. But there is a better solution, which can benefit both the elephants but also the humans who work alongside them.
Best Solution for the Elephants
A new initiative is currently being discussed in Thailand. Proposes to create “corridors”, connections between wooded areas. which will allow the elephants to have a natural and large living area. This move is combined with the establishment of tourism based on elephant watching, can continue to bring in tourists without harming animals.
Another kind of tourism needs to be created: one that operates within local communities, that the money will go directly to them. Tourists will not come to see cruel elephant shows, but to enjoy the wild nature of Thailand. They will see where new elephant families will thrive. In addition, around a large community of elephants, new industries can be created – museums, guides, food, and more.
Is it really possible to do?
Thailand currently has 272 protected forests, which cover about 20% of the country’s territory. Of all these, elephants can only be found only in 69 forests. If only some more areas are declared protected. And elephants are released, then we can see real change.
As for the elephants (from the thousands of elephants), this can be a blessing. The economy and tourism around them can grow (once it starts moving again). And for humans, they get rid of the need to feed the elephants as the elephants will be taken care of by nature.
How Can it Be Done?
Indeed, the question of the “how” remains but can be solved as well.
Studies done in Africa show that to return elephants to the wild and allow them to adapt easily. They must be released in large groups. Elephants are a social animal that rests on a strong and cohesive herd. Social ties alleviate the elephants’ fear of moving to a new area. In addition, it is recommended to release elephants in herds that combine adults and puppies. That way it creates protective family ties between them.
There are other challenges in such a large change in the existing order, but the goal is very clear. While Covid19 is hurting Thailand’s economy and tourism, there is an extraordinary opportunity. Opportunity to redress two injustices and create a new and sustainable solution. The only question left is – will Thailand dare to change a tradition of decades? Let’s say YES!
One thing we can all do to help though: On your next vacation to Thailand, make sure you visit the elephants in nature!