BAN TA KLANG, Thailand — Lucky was busy eating some freshly cut grass when she saw a special treat being offered to her by a tourist. She dropped her next bite of vegetables and reached for her trunk, asking for the plantain.
For the first time in nine years, Lucky, 32, was back in his hometown in rural Surin province in eastern Thailand, where tourists are far less frequent than on the resort island where he used to work.
“She loves bananas, also sugarcane or watermelon,” said Lucky’s caretaker, Aon Salangam. The magnificently intimidating elephant of hers may weigh almost four tons and stand nearly 10 feet tall, but “she’s a sweetie,” Mr. Aon said.
Lucky, along with his stepsister, Kaewmani, used to take tourists around an elephant park on the island of Phuket in the southern part of the country. But like thousands of other pachyderms in Thailand – and 200 in Surin province alone – they had to return home to their owners when the pandemic devastated the country’s tourism industry, which has yet to fully recover.
Visitors to the small village of Ban Ta Klang, with about 100 houses, are immediately struck by an amazing and even haunting sight: almost every house has one or more chained elephants outside.
On nearby roads, it is not uncommon to see pachyderms strolling along with their mahouts astride their thick necks as vehicles carefully circle around them.
Government agencies estimate that Thailand has 3,800 captive elephants and about 3,600 in the wild. Unlike other countries with significant captive populations, those in Thailand are almost all privately owned, with the animals and their offspring being passed down from generation to generation.
Kaennapa Suksri owns six elephants, three of them descended from a 67-year-old matriarch whom she inherited. For most of the past 20 years, Ms. Kaennapa and her partner had worked in the mainland resort of Pattaya, offering tourists elephant rides.
When the tourists stopped showing up, the couple tried to hold out in Pattaya, hoping the pandemic would only cause a brief disruption. But their savings ran out within a year and they had to return to Ban Ta Klang, which has its own tourist park, Elephant World, which is integrated with a research center.
“Caring for six elephants is not cheap,” said Ms Kaennapa. But looking for a new owner was out of the question. “I never think about selling them because I don’t know how well the new owner will take care of them. We just have to find ways to make money to feed them.”
Elephant-owning families in Ban Ta Klang—some keep their animals here permanently, to work in the local park or as pets—know that many people find chaining elephants cruel. But owners say their animals are considered part of the family and that their well-being is of the utmost importance to them, whatever the cost.
“Those people from the beautiful world accused us of not loving our elephants and of torturing them by making them take tourists or using hooks and chaining them,” Aon said, throwing more grass at Lucky with a pitchfork. “They should understand that if the elephants roam freely, they would destroy the field or the property of the neighbours. Worse yet, they might eat fertilizer, thinking it’s food.”
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Elephants eat a lot. An adult needs to consume at least a tenth of their weight in food every day, and some owners have taken to social media to raise money for their food.
The owners ask for donations to help feed the elephants, while live-streaming them eating, bathing and playing. Lucky loves to play with tires, and the baby elephants, who are not normally chained in their pens, kick balls or prance around with the village stray dogs. Some of the elephants have dedicated online fan clubs.
On weekends, when more tourists visit the village, the owners display baskets of bananas and sugar cane in front of their houses for tourists to buy and feed to the elephants.
While elephants crave sweet tastes and their owners need the income, a healthy diet consists mostly of different types of leaves and grass.
“We are finding that they have digestive problems,” says Nuttapon Bangkaew, a veterinarian at the Elephant Kingdom Project, a sanctuary in the province that aims to protect and improve the welfare of the animals. “As much as we want the elephants to have grass included in their diet, we have to understand that the owner has no other resources than to depend on the fruits that he sells.”
In the past two years, the government has sent nearly 400 tons of grass to two dozen provinces to help feed returning elephants, according to Thailand’s Department of Livestock Development, which monitors captive elephants.
“We also provide the villagers with seeds to grow grass for themselves,” said Somchuan Ratanamungklanon, director general of the department.
For homeowners, the future is brightening a bit. As international visitors begin to arrive in greater numbers (the government expects 28 million foreign tourists this year, compared with less than 500,000 in 2021 and 40 million in 2019), some are being called to tourist destinations.
Aphiwat Chongchaingam was preparing to travel with his four pachyderms back to the elephant park in Pattaya where they worked. The trip takes 12 hours by truck and will cost her nearly $2,000, which she had to borrow from relatives.
“It’s good to be home, but we’ve been out of work for about two years and things weren’t easy,” Aphiwat said. “I’m excited for all of us.”
“Even if the number of tourists is not like in the past,” he continued, “at least there will be better conditions for all of us where the elephants’ food is cheaper and we can earn a living again.”
While Aphiwat was sure his elephants would share his enthusiasm, animal rights activists disagree. They want to end elephant tourism.
Before the pandemic, there were heated debates in Thailand about how, or if, a balance could be struck between what was best for highly intelligent animals and the people who depended on them for a living.
The pandemic tourism hiatus has given authorities time to rethink the approach to captive elephants, and both animals and owners will return to a series of changes.
“Covid was the reset button for Thailand’s elephant tourism operation,” said Mr Somchuan, the government official, who said the country has created what he believes are the world’s leading guidelines for managing animal welfare.
“Elephant camps will have to meet our standard and get accreditation,” Somchuan said. “Thai elephants have many rules and regulations that protect them, and violators will be prosecuted.”
The local Buddhist temple in Ban Ta Klang allows villagers to tie up their elephants in its compound, which also has an elephant graveyard.
The abbot of the temple, who grew up surrounded by elephants, said he would prefer the elephants to remain in their natural habitat in Surin. But he added that he understood their economic importance to the villagers and said a balance could be struck between respecting the rights of the elephants and relying on them for a living.
“Is it a sin to put them to work? No,” said Phrakru Samuhan Panyatharo, the abbot of the temple, Wat Pa Ar Jiang. “They need each other and have been depending on each other,” he said of the elephants and their owners.
What was crucial, the abbot said, is “to understand the word ‘enough’. To not keep wanting to earn more. Because elephants also have feelings and can feel joy, sadness, feel healthy or get sick like us. We must take care of them and never overload them. Put ourselves in their shoes.”