While the total of foreign visitors diminishing during the novel coronavirus crisis, the facilities which depend on tourists to feed the elephants' voracious appetites sent groups of them plowing up to 95 miles to return to their native stomping grounds.
A northern Thailand foundation in Chiang Mai called Save Elephant Foundation is currently raising funds to feed animals remaining at tourist parks, but are also promoting returning them to their origin in natural habitats in order for them to be more self-sufficient.
According to London-based World Animal Protection, around 2,000 tame elephants are at risk of starvation because their owners lack funds to feed them.
Since April, the elephants have trudged from all over Chiang Mai to their natural habitat in Mae Chaem, which is scattered with villages wherein residents of the Karen ethnic minority live and traditionally keep these animals.
According to Save Elephant's founder, Saengduean Chailert, the project to transport out of work elephants home was initiated in response to an urgent request from their owners.
Sadudee Serichevee owns 4 elephants from Chiang Mai's Mae Wang district.
He submitted to the foundation's method in setting up a small Karen Elephant Experience park with elephants transferred from Mae Chaem's Ban Huay Bong, which is his wife's village.
But Serichevee's good intentions were weak against the coronavirus.
"At first I thought the situation would be back to normal within a month or two. At the end of April, I lost all hope," Serichevee uttered.
Serichevee and his wife made an agreement to transfer their elephants back to her village due to the fact that the couple could no longer shoulder the monthly expenses of nearly 200,000 baht ($9,610) for these needs: food, rental of land and facilities, and salaries for handlers known as mahouts.
Elephants consume approximately 300 kilograms of grass and vegetables daily.
He and his wife coaxed other elephant owners to trek almost 100 miles across the region with both of them, as transporting the animals on a truck is expensive for park owners. Elephants can also sustain a walking rate of 7.25 kph (4.5 mph).
The caravan of 11 elephants, the elephants' owners, and their mahouts, launched their journey on April 30, traveling over hills and on paved and dirt roads.
Serichevee narrated, "These elephants have not had a chance to return home for 20 years. They seem to be very happy when arriving home, they make their happy noises, they run to the creek near the village and have fun along with our children."
The project is also implemented in the northeastern province of Surin, in Thailand, well-known for its annual elephant festival. Approximately 40 elephants returned in April to the province's Tha Tum district, which is a natural habitat for hundreds of animals.
According to Save Elephant founder Chailert, we are not certain when will the coronavirus go away.
He affirmed, "So this is our task, to help feed the elephants that were laid off because of the outbreak."
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