Thailand’s unemployed elephants go online for their money

In the northeastern village of Ban Ta Klang, Thailand, Siriporn Sapmak starts her day by livestreaming her two elephants on social media to raise money to survive.

The 23-year-old, who has been caring for elephants since she was at school, points her phone at the animals as she feeds them bananas as they walk around behind her family’s home.

Siriporn says she can raise about 1,000 baht (£23.73) in donations through several hours of live streaming on TikTok and YouTube, but that’s only enough to feed her two elephants for a day.

Pensri Sapmak sits in her home while one of her elephants rests at Ban Ta Klang Elephant Village


An elephant, a baby and a man in Ban Ta Klang


It’s a new – and uncertain – source of income for the family, who made money from elephant shows in the Thai city of Pattaya before the pandemic. They supplement their income by selling fruit.

Like thousands of other elephant owners across the country, the Sapmak family have been forced to return to their home village as the pandemic decimated elephant camps and foreign tourism virtually ground to a halt.

“We hope for tourists [return]. If they come back, we might not do those livestreams anymore,” Siriporn says.

Mahouts with 53-year-old male elephant Thong Bai


Chained elephants reach to touch trunks


“If we’re allowed to work again, we’ll get one [stable] Income to buy grass for elephants.”

Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, estimates that at least 1,000 elephants in Thailand would not have “real income” until more tourists return.

Thailand has between 3,200 and 4,000 elephants in captivity and about 3,500 in the wild, according to official figures.

Baby elephant Pangmaemae Plainamo takes a bath


An elephant is forced to play basketball during a show for local tourists


Wiek says the animal husbandry department needs to find “some kind” of budget to support these elephants.

“Otherwise I think it will be difficult for most families to keep them alive,” he says.

The families of Ban Ta Klang, the epicenter of Thailand’s elephant business in Surin province, have cared for and have a close connection with elephants for generations.

A mahout named Sak, 55, poses with his elephant


Two elephants touch after performing in a painting show for local tourists


Elephant shows and rides have long been popular with tourists, particularly the Chinese, while criticism from animal welfare groups of the handling of elephants there has led to tourism in protected areas.

“We’re connected like family,” says Pensri Sapmak, 60, mother of Siriporn.

“Without the elephants, we don’t know what our future will be like. We have them to thank for today.”

An elephant is chained to a tree while being tamed in Ban Ta Klang


A chained elephant in the rain


The government has sent 500,000 kg of grass to several provinces since 2020 to help feed the elephants, according to the Livestock Department, which oversees elephants in captivity.

Elephants, Thailand’s national animal, eat 150 to 200 kg a day, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.

However, Siriporn and her mother say they have yet to receive any government support.

An elephant with translucent bones is chained outside a mahout’s home in Ban Ta Klang


An elephant rides in a truck in Ban Ta Klang


“This is a major national problem,” says Sorawit Thanito, director general of the Animal Husbandry Department.

He says the government is planning to help elephants and their handlers and that “measures, together with a budget, will be proposed to Cabinet” without giving a timeframe.

While the government expects 10 million foreign tourists this year, some say that may not be enough to lure elephant owners back to popular tourist destinations.

“Who has the money to organize a truck right now? And how much security [do] they have that they will really do business again when they come back?” says Wiek. Thailand’s unemployed elephants go online for their money


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