Thailand’s jobless elephants go online for their money

In the village of Ban Ta Klang in northeast 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 cared for elephants since she was at school, points her phone at the animals as she feeds them bananas and they walk around the back of the family home.

Siriporn says she can raise around 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 as one of her elephants rests in Ban Ta Klang Elephant Village

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

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

Like thousands of other elephant owners across the country, the Sapmak family had to return to their home village as the pandemic decimated elephant camps and foreign tourism all but came to a halt.

“We hope that tourists [return]. If they come back, we may not be doing those live streams anymore,” Siriporn says.

Mahouts with 53-year-old bull elephant Thong Bai

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Chained elephants reach to touch the trunks

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“If we have to go back to work, we get a [stable] income to buy grass for the elephants to eat.

Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, estimates that at least 1,000 elephants in Thailand would have no “income of their own” until more tourists return.

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

Baby elephant Pangmaemae Plainamo takes a bath

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

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Wiek says the Livestock Development 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 trade, located in Surin Province, have cared for elephants for generations and maintain close ties with them.

A mahout named Sak, 55, poses with his elephant

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Two elephants touch each other after taking part in a painting show for local tourists

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Elephant shows and rides have long been popular with tourists, particularly Chinese, while criticism from animal rights groups over the way elephants are treated there has prompted tourism in the shrines.

“We are bonded, like family members,” says Siriporn’s mother, Pensri Sapmak, 60.

“Without elephants, we don’t know what our future will look like. We have today thanks to them.

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

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An elephant chained in the rain

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The government has sent 500,000kg of grass to several provinces since 2020 to help feed elephants, according to the Livestock Development 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 not yet received any government assistance.

An elephant with bones visible through its skin is chained up outside a mahout’s house in Ban Ta Klang

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An elephant rides a truck in Ban Ta Klang

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“It’s a big national problem,” says Sorawit Thanito, director general of the livestock development department.

He says the government plans to help the elephants and their keepers and that “measures accompanied by a budget will be proposed to the cabinet”, without giving a time frame.

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

“Who has the money right now to organize a truck? And how much security [do] do they really have business again when they get back? says Wiek.

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