BAAN TA KLANG, Thailand — Lucky was busy munching on some freshly cut grass when she spotted a special treat a tourist was holding out. She dropped her next mouthful of greens and extended her trunk, asking for the banana.
For the first time in nine years, Lucky, 32, was back in her home village in rural Surin Province in eastern Thailand, where tourists are much rarer than on the resort island where she used to work.
“She loves bananas the most, also sugarcane or watermelon,” said Lucky’s caretaker, Aon Salangam. His magnificently intimidating elephant may weigh almost four tons and stand nearly 10 feet tall, but “she is a sweetheart,” assured Mr. Aon.
Lucky, along with her stepsister, Kaewmani, used to carry tourists around an elephant park on the island of Phuket in the southern part of the country. But like thousands of other pachyderms around Thailand — and 200 in Surin Province alone — they had to return home with their owners when the pandemic devastated the country’s tourist industry, which has yet to fully recover.
Visitors to the small village of Baan Ta Klang, with perhaps 100 homes, are immediately struck by an astonishing, even unsettling sight: Nearly every house has one or more elephants chained up outside.
On nearby roads, it’s not uncommon to see pachyderms traipsing along with their mahouts straddling their thick necks as vehicles carefully navigate around them.
Government agencies estimate that Thailand has 3,800 captive elephants and about 3,600 in the wild. Unlike other countries with significant captive populations, the ones in Thailand are nearly all privately owned, with the animals and their offspring passed down through generations.
Kaennapa Suksri owns six elephants, three of them descended from a 67-year-old matriarch she inherited. For most of the past 20 years, Ms. Kaennapa and her partner had worked in the mainland beach resort of Pattaya, offering tourists elephant rides.
When the tourists stopped showing up, the couple tried to hang on in Pattaya, hoping the pandemic would cause only a short disruption. But their savings were gone in a year, and they had to come home to Baan Ta Klang, which has its own tourist park, Elephant World, that is integrated with a research center.
“Taking care of six elephants is not cheap,” Ms. Kaennapa said. But looking for a new owner was out of the question. “I never think of selling them because I don’t know how well the new owner will look after them. We just have to find ways to earn money to feed them.”
The elephant-owning families in Baan Ta Klang — some keep their animals here permanently, to work at the local park or as pets — know that many people consider it cruel to chain elephants. But the owners say that their animals are considered part of the family, and that their well-being is of the utmost importance to them, whatever the cost.
“Those beautiful-world people accused us of not loving our elephants and torturing them by having them carrying tourists around or using hooks and chaining them,” said Mr. Aon, flicking Lucky more grass with a pitchfork. “They should understand that if the elephants roam around freely, they would destroy the neighbors’ field or property. Worse, they might eat fertilizer, thinking it is food.”
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Elephants eat a lot. An adult needs to consume at least one-tenth its weight in food every day, and some owners have turned to social media to raise money for their food.
Owners ask for donations to help feed the elephants, as they livestream them eating, bathing and playing. Lucky loves toying with tires, and baby elephants, typically not chained in their pens, kick balls or cavort with the village’s stray dogs. Some of the elephants have dedicated online fan clubs.
On weekends, when more tourists visit the village, owners display baskets of bananas and sugarcane in front of their houses for the tourists to purchase and feed to the elephants.
While the elephants crave the sweet flavors, and their owners need the income, a healthy diet consists mainly of different kinds of leaves and grass.
“We are finding they have digestive problems,” says Nuttapon Bangkaew, a veterinarian at the Elephant Kingdom Project, a sanctuary in the province that aims to protect and improve the animals’ welfare. “As much as we want the elephants to have grass included in its diet, we have to understand that the owner has no resources other than depending on the fruits that they sell.”
Over the past two years, the government has sent almost 400 tons of grass to two dozen provinces to help feed the returning elephants, according to Thailand’s Livestock Development Department, which oversees captive elephants.
“We also provided seeds to the villagers to grow grass on their own,” said Somchuan Ratanamungklanon, director general of the department.
For owners, the future is brightening a bit. With international visitors starting to arrive in larger numbers — the government expects 28 million foreign tourists this year, compared with fewer than 500,000 in 2021, and 40 million in 2019 — some are being called back to tourist destinations.
Aphiwat Chongchaingam was getting ready to travel with his four pachyderms back to the elephant park in Pattaya where they worked. The trip takes 12 hours by truck and will cost almost $2,000, which he had to borrow from relatives.
“It’s good to be home, but we’ve been out of work for around two years, and things were not easy,” Mr. Aphiwat said. “I am excited for all of us.”
“Even if the number of tourists are not like in the past,” he continued, “at least it will be better conditions for all of us where the elephant food is cheaper and we get to earn a living again.”
While Mr. Aphiwat was sure his elephants would share his excitement, animal rights activists disagree. They want to see elephant tourism ended.
Before the pandemic, there were heated debates in Thailand over how, or whether, a balance could be struck between what was best for the highly intelligent animals and the people who depended on them to make a living.
The tourism pause of the pandemic gave the authorities time to rethink the approach to captive elephants, and both the animals and the owners will be returning to a number of changes.
“Covid was the reset button for Thailand’s elephant tourism operation,” said Mr. Somchuan, the government official, who said the country has created what he believes are the world’s leading guidelines for managing the animals’ welfare.
“The elephant camps will have to meet our standard and get accredited,” Mr. Somchuan said. “Thai elephants have many rules and regulations protecting them, and offenders will be prosecuted.”
The local Buddhist temple in Baan Ta Klang lets villagers tie up their elephants in its compound, which also has an elephant cemetery.
The temple’s abbot, who grew up around elephants, said he would prefer if the elephants stayed in their natural habitat in Surin. But he added he understood their economic importance to the villagers and said a balance could be achieved between respecting elephant rights and counting on them to make a living.
“Is it a sin to put them to work? No,” said Phrakru Samuhan Panyatharo, the abbot of the temple, Wat Pa Ar Jiang. “They need each other and have been depending on each other,” he said of the elephants and their owners.
What was crucial, the abbot said, is “to understand the word ‘enough.’ To not keep wanting to gain more. Because elephants also have feelings and can feel happiness, sadness, feel healthy or get sick like us. We should care for them and never overwork them. Put ourselves in their shoes.”