A thousand elephants are threatened by hunger have fled the camps deserted by the tourists in Thailand and returned to their native village. A migration wave is unprecedented at high risk for the elephants once they are back home.
Operated in amusement parks or “sanctuaries” that under the cover of ethics and respect often concealed a juicy business, where the dressing remains sharp, the 3 000 elephants employed in the tourism industry are unemployed since the abrupt closure of the camps in mid-march.
“It was thought that the pandemic would be quickly under control, that the situation would return to normal. We have lost all hope”, tells the AFP Chaiyaporn, mahout (keeper) of elephants for fifteen years.
To avoid that the seven pachyderms, of which he has custody die of hunger, he began a journey of 100 miles 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 progress is slow – the animal travels 4 to 5 miles per hour – and the breaks are frequent to find the 300 pounds of herbs and plants that are needed every day.
“They are exhausted, but rather happy. They have a very good memory. It seems that after years of absence they know they are finally 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 road.
“A migration wave of such magnitude over such a short period of time is unheard of in the country,” said Theerapat Trungprakan, president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association.
Huay Pakoot, 92 pachyderms coexist now with 400 inhabitants.
The release is not possible because they would conflict with the hundreds of specimens remain in the wild and could be victims of accidents or diseases.
Long forced to carry tourists on their backs, swimming with them, or perform tricks like in a circus, they are no longer operated today.
But this return to the sources is not without cause other problems.
The vast forests surrounding the village were cleared to make way for the cultivation of corn and there is not what to provide for the needs of a vast herd.
Jira, a young mahout who worked two nights and three days since Chiang Mai with its pachyderms, account to grow more herbs, bananas and sugar cane if the crisis continues.
This will not be enough. “Due to the lack of proper installation, Huay Pakoot is not ready to manage in the long term such a number of beasts,” said Theerapat Trungprakan, including the NGO book food and drugs.
According to him, it is very likely that conflicts with the villagers appear, therefore, that a pachyderm will destroy crops.
And fights between elephants, leading to sometimes serious injuries, have already been reported.
The other fear, despite the ban on their exploitation in the forestry industry, some may be used again for the transport of wood, responsible for many injuries.
“The mahouts are without income and most do not receive any help from the government, many will have no other choice than to do rework”, is concerned Saengduean Chailert of the Elephant Nature Park, which advocates a return to the villages to overcome the crisis.
Professionals are urging the authorities to act quickly.
“40 dollars a day will need to be unlocked by animal, otherwise it is the survival of some is at stake”, if alarm Theerapat Trungprakan.
Others take it to be hoped that the period to be used to launch a wide reflection on the place of the pachyderm in the tourism industry.
The number of elephants in captivity has jumped by 30% in 30 years and the sector, the lack of regulation. Once domesticated, the animal is considered as simple cattle according to the thai law, in contrast to the wild elephants, protected.
The sun is at its zenith when Chaiyaporn leads his flock to the river for bathing everyday. “Huay Pakoot, we will take care of elephants for the past 400 years, whatever happens we will not let go not”.