The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 had a profound effect on the global economy. International travel collapsed, decimating the economies of many countries. Thailand is heavily dependent upon tourism, which made up over 20% of the country’s GDP in 2019. Thailand’s elephants have been a major tourist attraction for decades, as well as an important part of the country’s cultural heritage. The sudden collapse of the tourist industry resulted in thousands of elephants and their owners (mahouts) being suddenly made redundant and subsequently forced to return to their home villages to rethink their future.
As many mahouts struggled to maintain and feed their elephants, this enforced break from work provided a profound period of healing and reflection as well as an opportunity to free themselves from their dependence on elephant camps. For the elephants, it meant respite from the abuse often endured when working in Thailand’s tourist industry. As young calves, wild caught elephants are separated from their mothers during capture, then forced on to surrogate mothers and laundered into domestic populations through legal loopholes. Starved and beaten to break their spirits, their compliance is then maintained by regular jabs and cuts to the head from a bull-hook, leaving revelatory scars and psychological damage for the rest of their lives.
In recent years, international pressure to end elephant rides and animal cruelty in tourism has gained traction, but the onset of the pandemic made this a sudden reality as thousands of elephants were forced back to live in their home villages. The prolonged stays have led to a revival of close bonds and many owners sought ways to keep their elephants at home with their families. Many now feel reluctant to go back to the elephant camps once the ravages of the pandemic subside and mass tourism returns.
But what would the future hold for these elephants without tourism? Once retired, will they go to sanctuaries where people might still pay for a ride or watch them perform? Can mahouts be expected to keep a hungry elephant fed and healthy for the rest of its life? Asia’s wild elephant population is now barely 50,000 individuals and threatened by habitat destruction, poaching and expanding agriculture. The end of elephant tourism might save future populations from being taken from the wild, but a new cruelty-free relationship between man and elephant still lies in the hands of the mahouts, their families and the world’s tourist’s.