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When the COVID-19 outbreak envelops the world, human losses are steadily rising, with little area left unaffected. Throughout Thailand, which has seen a gradual yet steady rise of more than 2,500 diseases and 38 fatalities as of April 13, the disease is now presenting another large animal with a catastrophe: elephants.
The sudden closure of Thai elephant camps — scattered around the world — has threatened the lives of thousands of exotic animals whose key task is to please the 40 million international visitors flocking to Thailand every year, where riding an elephant has become a notorious bucket-list attraction.
Following a government closure order in late March, some elephants and their trainers, identified as mahouts, were removed from camps that were unable to cover the expense of compensation and elephant food. Many elephant parks tend to fail to feed the animals and pay for their mahouts.
"It may be an incredible disaster," said Lucy Field, Trunk Travel's chief executive officer, a Bangkok-based ethical tourism coordinator. "If anything isn't accomplished early, there would be plenty of [elephant] fatalities."
Elephant groups, some even dragging chains, roam roadsides outside Chiang Mai, a renowned tourist destination in the north, Saengduen "Lek" Chailert, creator of the Save Elephant Foundation, a non-profit Thai organization dedicated to protecting Asian elephants, said.
Lek, who provides food for lost elephants, said at least 50 were attempting a risky journey to their distant former homes in northern forests, wandering across the fields burning with flames as a consequence of farmers' ground clearing fires. "It's horrible," she said as she was conducting a search operation. "They move in the boiling heat, with little to help them. It's a disaster. We've got to try to save them."
Elephant camps can be found in Thailand, including in coastal areas like Pattaya and Phuket which are bad animal environments which draw tourist droves. But the main hub for elephant tourism is Chiang Mai, which has about 90 camps and at least 900 elephants nearby, according to Chatchote Thitaram, head of elephant and wildlife studies at Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
Some of the bigger, more developed camps are likely to be able to deal with the current crisis but there is a chance of bankruptcy for smaller and younger traders that lack reserves or other business activities capable of providing substitute profits, said elephant experts.