A thousand hungry elephants have fled deserted tourist camps in Thailand and returned to their hometown. An unprecedented high-risk migratory wave for pachyderms once they return home.
Operated in amusement parks or “sanctuaries” which under cover of ethics and respect often hide a juicy business where training remains brutal, the 3,000 elephants employed in the tourism industry have been unemployed since the brutal closure camps in mid-March.
“We thought that the pandemic would be quickly under control, that the situation would return to normal. We have lost all hope, “said AFP Chaiyaporn, mahout (guardian) of elephants for fifteen years.
To prevent the seven pachyderms in his care from starving, he embarked on a journey of 100 kilometers through the thick forests of the north of the kingdom to bring them home.
The heat is overwhelming and the group moves before dawn or in the evening, the progression is slow – the animal travels 4 to 5 kilometers per hour – and breaks are frequent to find the 300 kilos of herbs and plants that they need every day.
“They are exhausted but rather happy. They have a very good memory. It looks like after years of absence they know they are finally going home, “smiles Chaiyaporn. Their destination? The small Karen village of Huay Pakoot, 180 kilometers from Chiang Mai (north).
In two months, a thousand elephants have returned to their village and dozens are still on the roads.
“A migration wave of such magnitude over such a short period of time is unprecedented in the country,” said Theerapat Trungprakan, president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association.
In Huay Pakoot, 92 pachyderms now cohabit with the 400 inhabitants.
Releasing them is impossible because they would conflict with the hundreds of specimens still in the wild and could be victims of accidents or diseases.
Long forced to carry tourists on their backs, bathe with them, or perform tricks as in a circus, they are no longer used today.
But this homecoming is not without other problems.
The vast forests surrounding the village have been cleared to make room for the cultivation of maize, and there is not enough to support such a large herd.
Jira, a young mahout who has walked two nights and three days from Chiang Mai with his pachyderms, plans to grow more herbs, bananas and sugarcane if the crisis continues.
It will not be enough. “Without the proper facilities, Huay Pakoot is not ready to manage such a large number of animals in the long term,” notes Theerapat Trungprakan, whose NGO supplies food and medicine.
According to him, it is very likely that conflicts with the villagers will arise, as soon as a pachyderm destroy cultures.
And fights between elephants, sometimes causing serious injuries, have already been reported.
Another fear is that, despite the ban on their exploitation in the forest industry, some risk being employed again in the transport of wood, responsible for numerous injuries.
“The mahouts are without income and most receive no aid from the government, many will have no choice but to have them reworked,” worries Saengduean Chailert of the Elephant Nature Park, who still advocates a return to the villages to overcome the crisis.
Professionals urge the authorities to act quickly.
“40 dollars a day must be released per animal, otherwise the survival of some is at stake,” warns Theerapat Trungprakan.
Others are hoping that the period will be used to start a broad reflection on the place of the pachyderm in the tourism industry.
The number of elephants in captivity has jumped 30% in 30 years and the sector is in dire need of regulation. Once domesticated, the animal is considered as simple cattle according to Thai law, unlike wild elephants, protected.
The sun is at its zenith when Chaiyaporn leads his flock to the river for daily swimming. “In Huay Pakoot, we have been taking care of elephants for 400 years, whatever happens we will not let go.”