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Scores of elephant tourism camps in Thailand have had to close as the coronavirus wipes out tourist numbers. While animal rights groups that lobby for their boycott may wish the demise is permanent, the health crisis is a golden opportunity to effect positive change in the controversial business, rather than be the last straw that breaks up an entire industry.

So believes the Asian Captive Elephants Standards, a company that audits camps, It is is calling for large wildlife advocacy groups to support captive Asian elephant populations by partnering with smaller camps and by providing them with essential elephant welfare services and training.

Another company, Animondial, which guides companies to make the right animal welfare decisions for their business, also sees an opportunity “to influence change in operations and animal care that will improve standards and offer different, more elephant-friendly activities,” said its director Daniel Turner.

As reported in Skift’s Deep Dive, The Complicated Business of Saving Elephant Tourism, the world of Asian elephant tourism is wracked with jumbo divisions. Animal rights groups wants to stop the sale of elephant rides and other forms of touching due to cruelty. But vets and other experts who work with the Asian industry say what’s needed is not a boycott but a reform of elephant training techniques and camp management.

Thailand has by far the highest number of elephants in tourism in Asia, close to 2,200, which is roughly twice as many as elephants in tourism in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Laos, and Cambodia combined. Of 350 to 400 elephant camps in Southeast Asia, 250 are estimated to be in Thailand.

In Chiang Mai, north of Thailand, 85 of 94 camps have closed, according to this report by Chiang Rai Times.

Around 1,000 elephants are in danger of starvation in this crisis, according to Sangdeaun Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation, a non-profit that provides care to Asian elephants through sponsorship, donations and voluntary tourism.

“If support is not forthcoming, these elephants, some of whom are pregnant, will either starve to death or may be put onto the streets to beg. Alternatively, some may be sold to zoos and some may be returned to the logging business [which officially banned the use of elephants in 1989]. It’s a very bleak outlook unless some financial help is received immediately,” she said.

Chailert has launched a “frantic” fundraising effort, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by Trunks Up. Her Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai already shelters more than 3,000 animals, 87 of which are elephants; moreover, transporting the elephants to the park takes meticulous planning and is costly. The best option is to at least ensure they are fed and have access to water, and Chailert said she has been in touch with at least 30 camp owners to help them find a way out of the crisis.

A donation of $30 will feed an elephant for a day, thrice the minimum daily wage in Thailand.

While the Save Elephant Foundation and other more well-known facilities have launched public appeals for funds, Asian Captive Elephant Standards’ founder Ingrid Suter calls on large wildlife NGOs to reconsider their position on captive elephant conservation at this critical time.

Large organizations such as World Wildlife Fund and International Fund for Animal Welfare continue to provide scant attention to captive elephant populations, preferring to focus all conservation efforts on wild elephants, Suter wrote in an article she shared with Skift.

This has led to the “bizarre” situation in which inexperienced camps and tourism stakeholders are held entirely responsible for endangered species welfare, management and protection. Some camps succeed in providing excellent levels of welfare, while others continue to work unencumbered by any expectations of endangered species responsibility or accountability, she said.

Historical controversies surrounding captive elephants were certainly a reason for the NGOs’ focus on wild elephants. “But it’s important to acknowledge that what happened in the 1990s is not commonplace anymore,” Suter argued. “Elephant experts and governments have worked hard to correct the mistakes of the past.

“The tightening of legislative loopholes, microchipping and DNA ‘passports’ have all had positive impacts on the once blurred lines between wild and captive elephants. Smuggling elephants from the wild has markedly reduced, as calves are now born into captivity with celebrated regularity. This has erased the need for any large-scale form of ‘breaking in’ ceremonial practices. Calves are habituated to humans from the moment they are born. Receiving verbal training every day, calves grow up knowing exactly what is expected of them.

“There are so many positive training methods now applied at camps, there is simply no need for fear, pain or cruel training methodologies to exist.”

“At the very least NGOs could appreciate the current financial struggle faced by elephant managers and assist camps in caring for their elephants,” said Suter. “Now is the perfect time to reassess what is working in elephant conservation, what can be improved, and how the captive population of elephants can be better supported for the guaranteed future of all Asian elephants.”

Animondial’s director Turner does not believe this industry will end. Captive elephants are assets and their owners will care feed and water them until available resources are exhausted.

“The worst case scenario is that the pandemic continues to spread and increase in severity, which will ultimately drain all available resources to a degree that the keeping and managing of the elephants is no longer considered viable. Elephants, their mahouts and owners and their families, will then face an uncertain future,” he said,

But the worst case isn’t here yet. “I get the sense that the whole industry, after the initial chaos, has now opted for a period of hibernation, on a reduced staff base, hoping that this will be sufficient to build the business once again when global/regional tourism and commerce resumes,” he said.

Which is why now is a good time to influence change, he said. “The status quo, prior to Covid-19, was not a suitable or sustainable situation due to misinformation over operations, poor practices and animal husbandry, camp boycotts, and minimal mahout care and training. This situation allows the camp operators and travel businesses to take stock, review operations and practices, and consider improvements and or changes in approach. This is the best outcome for the elephants, their mahouts and their families.”

Photo Credit: Elephants at Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo: Elephant Nature Park