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Environment & Wildlife, From the Field

The Impact of Covid-19 on Elephant Well-being in Thailand

July 6th 2020

Tagged: Covid-19, Elephant, Thailand

Water bubbles down through the jungle, just as it has done for millennia, but this year it is surrounded by an eerie silence. Far from the noises of jubilant splashing, relaxed washing, excited voices and trumpeted reassurance, the jungle sounds are missed by the largest of land mammals, the elephant. The area around Mae Chaem, which usually reverberates with the sounds of retired and rescued elephants has fallen quiet. Another victim of the Covid-19 catastrophe which is sweeping the globe, destroying lives and livelihoods.

On a good day the sounds of mahouts and their charges ring out across different watering holes in this part of northern Thailand, sadly this time is not a good time. Tension and anxiety permeates the air and makes the focus of the well established elephant volunteer project all the more unstable. It’s sadly a common situation at the moment for projects across the world. Project managers and workers battling long hours, fear for their animals, stress and tension just as many battle for their lives during this Covid-19 year.

The Elephant Volunteer Project ThailandElephants eating grassVolunteer with Elephants | Volunteer Thailand | Working Abroad, run by Emily McWilliam and Burm Rinkaew, is a rescue centre for elephants, as well as forest and domestic animals. In fact because the welfare of all animals is part of their raison d’être, Emily is unwilling to turn any away in their hour of need and therefore has a rather eclectic collection who are in various stages of being ready for release back into the wild.

Their elephant care and rescue lies closest to their heart and as the Covid-19 pandemic has gripped country after country, eventually prompting Thai intervention, they have become aware that across Thailand elephants are no longer receiving the care and attention they deserve. The return of elephants to their ‘owners’ home villages has been met with an anxious rather than celebratory air. Panic planting of basic fodder crops to feed them has taken up vital finance, effort, and space. Sadly, there are camps the breadth of the country which retain hundreds of ‘working’ elephants, many of which will be shackled, lacking their necessary exercise, and living in unsuitable conditions with limited food simply because there are no resources, no tourism, to finance their needs.

Much of Thailand is dependent on the ‘tourist dollar’ and with the ‘lockdown’ of most of the globe is experiencing a damaging lack of income, the adverse effects hitting the voluntary sector badly. Emily McWilliam, co-founder of the Elephant Volunteer Project, says:

”It is very clear that tourism plays an important role in the care and management of elephants in captivity at this time. Without tourism many elephants are now suffering. Alternatives and solutions must be found.”

Elephant Eating Grass ThailandVolunteer with Elephants | Volunteer Thailand | Working Abroad

As many families across the globe are painfully aware, the change in situation -be it lockdown or not- does not change the immediate needs of the family members. Everyone still needs their food, shelter and amenities sorted out, but with dwindling financial resources, this poses a difficult situation. Some staff at the Project have had to be suspended due to the financial constraints at this time, although they has kept on as many as possible. Well aware that the loss of income incurs difficulties to family groups, this has been necessary to ensure that there is enough food for the elephants (200-350kg per day, 10% of their body weight) and enough money for the retained staff. All of whom are working harder than ever to manage the projects daily needs.

Sadly, Emily has been managing difficult personal health issues alongside managing the daily running of the project at an untenable time. Hospital visits have been fraught with anxiety and the day-long, curfew mandated, return journeys to appointments have been tense and exhausting, but her focus and dedication are undiminished. Having established the Project in 2011 and poured her heart and soul into it, it appears that nothing is going to stop their work.

Under the current Covid cloud, the Project is desperate for help to continue its amazing work. The short term ‘fix’ from donations offering immediate salary, food and Project sustainment and forward looking volunteer bookings offering hope that subsequent years will be possible. The need for finance is self evident but more than that, Emily, Burm and the Project workers need to know that there is a life beyond this disastrous year. They need to focus on getting through to a positive life beyond Covid-19.

To give them that gift of hope and pathway through these treacherous times please donate to them and check out their work. In addition to this, messages of support are also well received. After all, looking forward to pleasant futures is essential to us all right now.

Written by WorkingAbroad Blog Writer, Rae Hadley


To make a donation to any of our project partners, please click here to donate under PayPal – and remember to write in your reference which project you would like the donation to be given to. It should be the project name so e.g. the Elephant Project, Thailand.

If you are able to join the project as a volunteer later this year or in 2021, then even better! The volunteer project runs throughout the year, and we have made volunteer dates available all the way till August 2021. You can find more info via the project page and if you are ready to join already, you can fill in the online application form by clicking on APPLY NOW. 

About the Author

WorkingAbroad Projects

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