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Thailand's elephant sanctuaries face crisis without tourists

Lee Cobaj
Thailand's elephants are struggling without tourists - getty
Thailand's elephants are struggling without tourists - getty

"There are no tourists in Thailand, which elephant tourism relies on to feed elephants at camps and sanctuaries. A high percentage of the elephants are going hungry, many are chained most of the day, with some camps on the verge of closure," said Louise Rogerson, the Project Director at Tree Tops Elephant Reserve in Phuket. 

On a regular day, Tree Tops would welcome about 40 visitors a day, each spending £70 to enjoy a hands-off ethically-led experience with elephants rescued from riding camps and the illegal logging industry. But with Thailand's borders closed since 25 March and the tourist tap turned off, funds have dried up.

"It is very worrying for us here at Tree Tops with seven elephants to feed and mahout salaries to pay. We need 200,000 (£5000) just to feed our seven elephants each month," says Rogerson. Veterinary costs would come on top of that. 

Previously working in fashion, Rogerson has launched a series of fundraising initiatives including opening an online clothes store, wildandgrey.com, and collaborating on graffiti elephant designs with artist and musician Goldie, who lives in Phuket.

Tree Tops is one of a small number of ethical camps in Thailand but for every do-gooder there are dozens of less scrupulous elephant riding camps, where the situation is far bleaker. As their businesses fold, elephants are being sold into the black market or, if the elephants are lucky, taken to rescue organisations which still have some funds. But, with between 2,500 and 4,000 captive elephants in Thailand even the largest charities are going to struggle to care for more elephants than they already have. 

"The future seems to be very uncertain,' said Rogerson. "The reality is that tourism won’t return to the way it was for a long time. We were hoping that tourists would be coming back in time for Christmas, but this doesn’t seem likely. We just have to sit this out and do the very best we can to care for our elephants and fund ourselves until a new normal is established." 

To make a donation to Tree Tops visit treetopselephantreserve.com. Elsewhere, The World Elephant Foundation has launched a 'Help the Starving Elephants' campaign to support elephants across South East Asia.