Plight of elephants from COVID-19 tourism downturn

Proudly contributed by Keith Lyons

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Photos: David Van Driessche (


Hundreds of elephants throughout South East Asia are starving as camps, sanctuaries, and shows close due to COVID-19. With no tourists and months ahead of no visitors, many elephants have lost their meal ticket, says Nudplee Hamundee, director of World Elephant Foundation (


The foundation has launched an international campaign ‘Save the Asian Elephant’ to help feed and care for elephants across the Greater Mekong region. “Elephants are one of the invisible and forgotten victims of the pandemic, even though literally they are the biggest victims. These large mammals in elephant shelters and parks in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos normally rely on tourist revenue, but now need everyone’s support to survive.”


With all Mekong region nations heavily dependent on tourism, the downturn in visitor numbers started mid-January during the normal tourism high-season, causing financial challenges for the elephant owners, herders and carers. Many elephant camps rely on volunteers, using additional funds to further animal welfare, combat smuggling and encourage conservation and habitat restoration, says Mr Hamundee.


“While tourists can postpone their travel to South East Asia, the elephants need to eat. An elephant can eat between 200 and 400 kilograms a day of grass, bamboo and crops, costing around US$12-20 a day, but money is running out to feed and care for these animals.”


Even though elephants are a key attraction throughout South East Asia, he says governments aren’t offering any support. WEF estimates that there are several thousand elephants throughout the region who are going hungry. “If nothing is done, many of these elephants may starve to death. Some could be sold for illegal logging or hard labour, and pregnant females smuggled. The outlook for these smart, social animals is bleak.”


Asian elephant numbers have halved in the last century, with around 20,000 remaining in the wild, and several thousand in captivity in zoos, shows and parks. He says reports from the field suggest that many elephants are showing signs of stress and depression. “We are reaching out to friends of elephants around the world, to those who have visited South East Asia, to help save the Asian elephant during these difficult times.”


WEF has established a registry, encouraging rescue organisations and sanctuaries to notify the WEF of their numbers and needs so a better coordinated approach can be undertaken throughout the Greater Mekong region. Elephant owners can register each elephant with an individual page for donations by contacting or +66869777027.


The foundation is working in the traditional elephant ‘homeland’ of Surin in northeast Thailand’s Surin. The area, bordering Cambodia, is one of the hardest hit, not just for the elephants but also for the Kui or Kuy hill tribe are the ethnic group who have worked as mahouts and handlers with elephants for centuries in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Mr Hamundee says the situation is made worse by very little jungle remaining and the dry season which means there isn’t much fresh vegetation for animals to eat, so food has to be purchased from farmers. “They are running out of money, and won’t be able to feed the elephants any more. Unfortunately, in the months to come, we believe there will be another 300 elephants in the region who need our help to survive this year.”


WEF’s initial project is with Supatra Sonsong to provide food and care for 15 elephants, including three babies. “Compassionate friends around the globe can help sponsor an individual elephant.”


Despite the difficulties, Mr Hamundee is optimistic that concerned tourists who have visited South East Asia, as well as those planning to visit after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, will show solidarity not just with fellow humans, but with other mammals sharing the earth. “Our vision is for a world where animals live free from suffering. But it is only by working together we can change the world for animals.”

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