Streaming to survive: Thailand’s jobless elephants in crisis | The mighty 790 KFGO

By Jorge Silva and Chayut Setboonsarng

SURIN, Thailand (Reuters) – In the northeastern village of Ban Ta Klang in 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 in school, points her phone at the animals as she feeds them bananas and walks around the back of her family’s house.

Siriporn says it can collect around 1,000 baht ($27.46) from donations from several hours of live streaming on TikTok and YouTube, but that’s only enough to feed its two elephants for one day.

It’s a new — and insecure — source of income for the family, who before the pandemic made money by putting on elephant shows in the Thai city of Pattaya. They supplement their earnings 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 stopped. Only 400,000 foreign tourists came to Thailand last year compared to almost 40 million in 2019.

Some days, Siriporn doesn’t receive donations and its elephants are malnourished.

“We expect the tourists (to return). If they come back, we may no longer do these live streams,” she said.

“If we go back to work, we get a (steady) income to buy grass for the elephants to eat.”

(For a photo essay, click https://reut.rs/3RJR6oK)

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

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

Wiek said the Department of Livestock Development 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 said.

“LIKE FAMILY”

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

Elephant shows and rides have long been popular with tourists, especially Chinese, while criticism from animal rights groups over how elephants are treated has given rise to tourism at the sanctuaries.

“We are united, like members of a family,” said Siriporn’s mother, Pensri Sapmak, 60.

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

The government has shipped 500,000 kilograms of grass to various provinces since 2020 to help feed the elephants, according to the Department of Livestock Development, which monitors captive elephants.

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

However, Siriporn and her mother said that they have not yet received any support from the government.

“This is a big national problem,” said Director General of the Department of Livestock Development Sorawit Thanito.

He said the government plans to help elephants and their keepers and “measures will be proposed along with a budget to the cabinet”, without giving a time frame.

While the government expects 10 million foreign tourists this year, some say this may not be enough to attract elephant owners to major tourist destinations, given the costs involved. Chinese tourists, the mainstay of elephant shows, have yet to return amid COVID-19 lockdowns at home.

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“Who has the money right now to organize a truck…and how confident are they that they will actually be back in business when they come back?” Wiek said.

He expected more elephants to be born in captivity over the next year, exacerbating pressures on their owners.

“Some days we make some money, some days none, which means less food on the table,” Pensri said.

“I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

($1 = 36.4200 baht)

(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng; Additional reporting Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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