18-year-old Kwanmueang and his mahout Lek
Kwanmueang and his mahout Lek have returned to their home town as the tourism industry changes

His size takes your breath away as he is about to have his health checkup.

The 18-year-old Thai bull elephant has tusks that curve together until they almost touch, it is an imposing sight.

He and his mahout are in trouble.

They used to make a living by dressing up as a war elephant for re-enactments of historic battles and ordaining new monks. The Covids were on lock down.

Over 3000 elephants are used for tourism in Thailand. Most of Thailand's citizens are privately owned. The collapse of tourism has had a devastating effect on the elephants and their owners, who no longer make enough to look after them.

There is another threat hanging over this unique industry. Many foreign visitors are boycotting elephant shows due to ethical concerns over how they are kept and trained.

The people of Lek's home village are renowned for their skills in keeping and training elephants.

Mahouts walking their elephants in Surin
Elephants are everywhere in Surin

There are others like Lek. Hundreds of elephants went to tourist hot spots like Phuket and Chiang Mai where they made money by giving rides to foreign visitors.

The villages are disarming. Elephants are chained up in front of most houses. You get used to seeing the big animals on the road, their mahouts straddling their broad necks, and you learn to drive around them.

When tourism dried up in 2020, Joy and her partner brought their elephants back from Thailand. A baby is penned in with its mother in front of a house.

She said that covid stopped everything. All of the mahouts, owners and elephants have been out of work. The females are kept apart from the bulls in the tourist camps, but here we have all been hanging out together, and the elephants have been having sex. They don't have to. In their own time, they do it. The number of people is increasing.

Joy thought about selling her baby elephant to raise money, but she was worried about how he would be looked after. Joy's mother is 39 years old and has lived with him since he was a baby.

An elephant playing in Surin
Elephants are expensive animals to care for - needing vast amounts of food and water each day

The mahouts may live for decades with the same elephant from when they are both young, taking them to lakes or rivers to bathe in the evening, and keeping a close watch on their health. It has been a challenge.

Elephants cost a lot. An adult needs to eat and drink a lot of food and a lot of water. Joy has been livestreaming her animals on social media without any other income.

Sometimes this is done at home, as the elephants play or bathe, or they get a friend to ride a motorbike with them to film them. Elephants can be paid online to perform tricks, but this is not ideal for their health.

With so many elephants returning to the area it is hard to find enough leaves and grass for them.

Elephant Kingdom, a project started seven years ago to improve the welfare of elephants in Surin, is giving free check-ups to elephants.

The mahouts or elephant owners don't have any income when they return to their homes. They don't have enough money to buy food or grass for themselves. This causes health problems because they have to do these social media livestreams.

The owners of elephants are using social media to make money.

The wild population of elephants in Thailand has shrunk from 100,000 a century ago to 3000-4,000 today. When the logging industry was banned in the 1980's to protect the country's forests, large numbers were used to entertain tourists.

They demonstrated their skills with logs. As Thailand's tourism boomed, these expanded to include attractions such as having the animals paint or play football. Up to $770m a year could be generated by Covid elephants for Thailand, according to the World Animal Protection.

One of the groups trying to end the use of elephants for entertainment is the WaP. Many tourists want to experience elephants in a more ethical way. Some tour groups in Europe and North America have stopped sending clients to elephant camps.

A new niche has been created in the eco-tourism industry.

The Elephant Nature Park was opened in the 1990s as a refuge for injured animals and as a way to allow tourists and elephants to interact.

We wanted to be ethical and focused on the preservation of the environment. The elephant baths and feeding for tourists were stopped.

It cost them half of their booked time. She says that tour operators couldn't send clients to them because they wanted to touch and hug the elephants.

A man washing elephants in Surin
Thailand's captive elephants would not be able to live independently in the wild

There are no bull-hooks, no chains, and no riding today.

Before there were so many camps doing elephant riding, I checked in the island. Two players remain. Only a few places are left in Thailand.

Elephant tourism has its limitations. Lek's was one of only 11 camps that got the approval of theWAP.

There is a large area of land along the Mae Taeng river. She has enough space for 122 elephants to be able to wander without being chained.

The other camps don't have that option. One in Chiang Mai allows bathing with humans. It says that because it doesn't have enough money to build a large enclosure, it has to chain them in the evening.

A woman with her elephants in Baan Ta Klang
Some elephants are chained up to stop them wandering - something rights groups criticise

Some in the industry think that there needs to be a more balanced approach between the abuses of the past and the demands of animal rights groups that all elephant entertainment should end.

Theerapat Trungprakan is the leader of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association, a group of elephant owners.

They can go to a waterfall where they can drink the best quality water or swim at a beach. It makes the elephant safer to go with humans because there are dangers beyond an elephant's judgement.

Some of the arguments made by animal rights groups are melodramatic, and he believes that ethical sanctuaries can be less healthy if humans aren't paid to ride them.

The future of Thailand's elephants is being debated. Humans should not be allowed to do things with one another. There are a lot of practical options for supporting a large population of animals.

"I have a wish list in my head, and on top of the wish list is to end the captivity of all wildlife, but we just know that that's not going to happen," says the most prominent anti-trafficking campaigner in Thailand.

Edwin Wiek and an elephant
Edwin Wiek has worked with wildlife in Thailand for two decades

The Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand was started by him 21 years ago. The elephants are free in a corral.

The ideal scenario would be having elephants semi-wild, like we keep them here, in large natural enclosures where they can hang around, bathe, run or eat.

He knows that it would be a lot of work and that Thailand is home to a lot of elephants.

I'm afraid that most of the elephants will need to find another source of income. There will still be places where tourists can take elephant rides, elephant bathing and elephant feeding.

When tourists from markets like China, Russia and India travel to Thailand again, they will enjoy the old-fashioned elephant entertainment shows, which are often included on their package tours.

The breeding of domestic elephants should be stopped so that the population can be kept in semi-wild conditions, so that tourists won't mind seeing them.

The government could turn its attention to managing a growing wild population by creating corridors that allow them to move between Thailand's national parks and fragments of forest.

Jun letting his elephant scratch against a tree
Thailand used to have an estimated 100,000 elephants living in the wild

Thailand doesn't have a plan for that. Three ministries don't co-ordinate with each other and that's why regulation of domestic elephants is a mess.

Many of the magnificent creatures are still in precarious financial shape, so the future of them is mostly with their owners.

The mahouts worry that the only business they know may be threatened by changing tastes as they count the days until tourists come back.

Joy had to pay more than $2,000 to bring her elephants home. She can't afford to go back until she's certain the shows are drawing big crowds again.

We don't have enough money so it's hard for us. Humans and elephants are not employed. There may still be shows. I think there won't be many because some foreign tourists think we torture elephants with bull hooks to make them perform. I think there will be changes.

  • Tourism
  • Elephants
  • Asia
  • Thailand
  • Wildlife