Thailand’s tourism trade has been temporarily destroyed by the coronavirus pandemic, and the pause in footfall has given one elephant attraction time to reflect on its practices. Maesa Elephant Park has had a dramatic change of heart, and decided to scrap elephant rides and shows – allowing the animals to roam freely on the grounds.
The Chiang Mai park was forced to close due to coronavirus, and the owners have decided to completely overhaul their focus. The 78 elephants at the park previously had to carry heavy wooden and metal saddles on their backs all day to carry tourists.
The elephants finally have relief as the saddles were removed when the park closed in March – in a move which the park’s owner said would ‘liberate’ the animals. And the owners have announced the elephants will never have to endure the load again.
When they reopen, the park will educate its visitors about elephants rather than allowing them to ride the animals or watch them in degrading shows.
Owner Anchalee Kalampichit told CNN: “on 23 March I decided to close and asked my staff to keep the seating [for spectators] and put them aside.. we put away everything we used to have for tourists and my announcement to the public is that we will stop from now on shows and riding on the elephants.”
The change is a first for the park, as tourist rides have been a prominent feature in its offer for more than 40 years.
Kalampichit told the Independent: “Since we entered the business in 1976, riding on the elephants has always been the favorite activity of tourists.
“But because the coronavirus has spread there have been fewer tourists and eventually the government ordered us to close so we have removed the chairs to liberate the elephants.
“We want to change the style of the place and find more natural ways that the public can enjoy the elephants.”
Thailand has been one of the more successful countries in containing coronavirus. Today (June 11, 2020) the government announced there were no new cases or deaths over the previous 24 hours. There have only been 58 confirmed deaths in total.
While the country has far lower coronavirus rates than many other countries, its economy relies heavily on tourism, and animal parks are struggling to pay for their expensive elephants.
The owner estimated that the monthly cost to look after the elephants and staff on site was about five million baht (£140,000). They have even begun to grow their own vegetables to keep everyone fed.
Elephant organisations have warned that many parks face closure due to coronavirus.
While many parks in Thailand force elephants to carry tourists and perform in shows, many of the captive elephants have nowhere to go and would struggle to be released into the wild without dedicated support.
The president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association has warned that without government support, many elephants could go back to the streets or be forced into illegal logging operations.
“It will endanger the welfare of the elephants, such as having the elephants roaming the streets begging for bananas or sugar cane,” Theerapat Trungprakan told the NewYork Times.