Dozens of elephants 'set free' as chairs used to carry tourists are scrapped in wake of COVID-19 downturn

Dozens of elephants were set free this morning (March 25) as their owners scrapped the heavy wooden chairs that are tied to their backs for carrying tourists.

The jumbos at the Maesa elephant camp in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, have been giving rides to holidaymakers for 44 years but the Covid-19 coronavirus has decimated tourism.

With no end to the pandemic in sight and a ban on such businesses opening, owners have decided to scrap the huge wooden and metal carriages that are strapped to the elephants' backs throughout the day.

Camp director Anchalee Kalampichit said this was the first time in 44 years that the elephants had not worn the seats at the start of the day.

She said the company will now change their business to allow the elephants to roam freely in the grounds and operate as a place for visitors to observe the animals - and all 78 of the jumbos will never have to wear them again.

She said: "Since we entered the business in 1976, riding on the elephants has always been the favourite activity of tourists.

"But because the coronavirus has spread there have been fewer tourists and eventually the government ordered us to close so we have removed the chairs to liberate the elephants.

"We are not planning to put the seat supports back on the elephants, even if we can operate again. We want to change the style of the place and find more natural ways that the public can enjoy the elephants.

"We will welcome tourists to enjoy learning about the elephants' ways of life naturally instead of using them to entertain the tourists."

Anchalee added that the government enforced closure of the elephant camp, along with 28 other types of non-essential customer-facing businesses, means that the owners will have to take care of the animals without any revenue from customers.

She said: "The cost for taking care of the 78 elephants and 300 staff is five million THB (130,399GBP) per month. So for now, we have to bear that expense without income from tourists.

"But we will not leave anyone behind and will try to take the best care of the elephants for as long as we can. Now we are planting vegetables for the staff to eat as one of the ways we can reduce the expenses."

In Chiang Mai, where there are 93 elephant camps of varying size, officials said that 85 of them were facing closure unless the situation improved.

Boontha Chailert, president of the Chiang Mai Tourism Business Association and the Maetaeng Elephant Park, said hundreds of other elephant centres around Thailand were also facing closure due to the lack of tourists.