For those hawking a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the giant creatures — whether from afar or up close — the slump began in late January.
Chinese visitors, who make up the majority of Thailand’s 40 million tourists, plunged by more than 80 percent in February as China locked down cities hard-hit by the virus and banned external travel.
By March, the travel restrictions into Thailand — which has 1,388 confirmed cases of the virus — had extended to Western countries.
With elephants increasingly malnourished due to the loss of income, the situation is “at a crisis point,” says Saengduean Chailert, owner of Elephant Nature Park.
Her sanctuary for around 80 rescued pachyderms only allows visitors to observe the creatures, a philosophy at odds with venues that have them performing tricks and offering rides.
She has organized a fund to feed elephants and help mahouts in almost 50 camps nationwide, fearing the only options will soon be limited to zoos, starvation or logging work.
For those restrained by short chains all day, the stress could lead to fights breaking out, says Saengduean, of camps that can no longer afford medical treatment for the creatures.
Calls are mounting for the government to fund stricken camps to ensure the welfare of elephants.
“We need 1,000 baht a day (about $30) for each elephant,” says Apichet Duangdee, who runs the Elephant Rescue Park.
Freeing his eight mammals rescued from circuses and loggers into the forests is out of the question as they would likely be killed in territorial fights with wild elephants.
He is planning to take out a two million baht ($61,000) loan soon to keep his elephants fed.
“I will not abandon them,” he added.
by Sophie DEVILLER with Dene-Hern CHEN/afp