4 April 2024

Elephant Jungle Survival: A Retrospective Look at EJS During the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic caused innumerable far-reaching and often devastating difficulties for people around the world, some of which continue to resonate. But less commonly discussed than the ramifications the crisis has had on humans is the severity of the impact that coronavirus – or, often more correctly, the restrictions implemented to limit the spread of coronavirus – had on animals, both wild and domestic. While some of these effects resulted in a positive outcome for one or more species, the repercussions for domestic elephants in Thailand were dire. Many elephants faced the threat of hunger and illness as their owners’ income – primarily derived from international tourism – dissolved, and many mahouts were left without employment as the months progressed. Elephant camps and tourism organisations throughout Thailand were forced to cease operations, in some cases permanently. Fortunately, with help from our wonderful supporters, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (EJS) was able to adapt and, ultimately, survive. In this blog post, we will discuss the issues faced by EJS during the pandemic, as well as some of the strategies our devoted team used to ensure we could continue to provide a high quality of life for the elephants in our care.

If you would like to learn more about the hardships faced by elephants in Thailand generally, you can read an informative blog post on the topic at our partner The Care Project Foundation’s website HERE.

An elephant walks with mahouts to a new home at a nearby EJS location in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Like people around the world, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, the EJS team waited anxiously to find out what might happen. As the months progressed, it seemed that a resolution to the situation would likely not be reached quickly, and with the introduction of international travel restrictions and mandatory closures of tours, national parks, and other attractions in Thailand, it became clear that extraordinary measures would need to be taken in order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the elephants at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. One of the most immediate problems we faced – and ultimately, one which would prove enduring – was that of feeding close to 100 elephants with little to no income.

Elephants eat approximately 10% of their body weight in food daily, which, on average, equates to around 200kg per elephant, per day. Although at most EJS locations we are fortunate to have abundant lush jungle in which the elephants can forage, we understood that this would be unsustainable as a sole food source for any extended period of time, and that we would need to find complementary sources of food. Additionally, we were mindful of the risks posed to local ecosystems if we relied exclusively on the surrounding forest for elephant food. Taking advantage of any otherwise unused land available to us, with the help of our mahouts we planted a large amount of Napier grass at many of our locations. Cultivating our own grass partially reduced our reliance on external food sources, but with a growth cycle of around 3 months needed before each harvest, this too would prove insufficient to meet the daily dietary needs of our elephants.

Prior to the pandemic, a significant portion of the food given to our elephants on a daily basis was purchased from local farmers in the communities surrounding each EJS location. In addition to the necessity of having an additional food source as the pandemic progressed, we wished to honour our existing agreements with these farmers and help support them financially during this time of shared hardship. However, the majority of the income received by Elephant Jungle Sanctuary has, historically, been generated by offering ethical elephant interaction experiences to international visitors. Without this important source of income, we knew that our daily expenses, including elephant food, veterinary care, staff wages, and maintenance of infrastructure, would eventually become unaffordable. To offset the effects of this severe impending problem, the EJS team developed a number of innovative solutions.

Initially, we decided to adapt by pivoting some of our existing office spaces into alternative businesses designed to appeal to local Thai people. We quickly opened several cafes and restaurants, where talented Elephant Jungle Sanctuary chefs pivoted from preparing buffet lunches for visitors to serving papaya salad, noodles, and coffee. In addition to providing EJS with much-needed income, these endeavours allowed us to continue to offer employment to many people whose jobs would otherwise have been rendered redundant by the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. Furthermore, they offered us a platform to reach out, educate, and directly discuss elephant welfare with people in the local area. The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Phuket team also managed to engage with people internationally during this time, by launching a personalised video content service via Cameo. While we had some success with these ventures, despite our best efforts, the income generated by them unfortunately remained insufficient to meet the requirements of our elephants on a long-term basis.

In early 2021, a critical turning point was reached, and drastic actions needed to be taken in order to keep our beloved project alive. After much deliberation, discussion, and thorough planning, the EJS team made the difficult decision to close several of our Sanctuary locations in order to reduce operational expenses. This temporary solution brought with it a variety of new challenges, not least of which was the logistical difficulty of finding new homes for, and ultimately relocating, the elephants living at the locations to be closed. While this outcome was far from ideal, continuing to maintain operations at every existing EJS location had begun to prove wholly unsustainable, and radical action was needed to ensure the continued survival of Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and the wellbeing of the elephants in our care.

New home locations were carefully selected for each elephant to be relocated, based on an array of considered factors, including health status, personality type, and pre-existing social relationships. EJS management, our veterinary team, mahouts, drivers, and auxiliary support staff collaborated to ensure that each elephant had a smooth journey to a permanent new home large enough to accommodate them comfortably. After a period of close monitoring while they settled in, we were satisfied that every relocated elephant had integrated easily and happily into their new herd, and we are glad to report that we encountered no social integration or other issues since.

Each of the aforementioned methods to gather or retain resources was an important part of our overall makeshift pandemic survival strategy, but there is one thing we have not yet mentioned which was absolutely vital – the support we received from you! Without the overwhelmingly generous support and morale-boosting messages of love we received from our friends, past visitors, and supporters, both in Thailand and around the world, EJS might not have made it through the many months of hardship to continue to care for elephants today. Aside from offering financial support for elephant food, booking a personalised video greeting featuring an elephant, or simply sharing powerful words of encouragement on social media, some of our supporters found novel and mutually beneficial ways to offer assistance to EJS. Some new friends who live in Thailand even offered us the plants from their overgrown gardens for elephant food, and in return received a free gardening service from EJS staff!

As international borders reopened, and the severity of the daily struggle to feed our elephants subsided, The EJS team was able to pause and reflect on their incredible achievement, marvel at the generosity of our supporters, and appreciate the constant dedication and sacrifice of our mahouts, who work for the benefit of elephants every day, whether there is a pandemic in progress or not, and without whom our Sanctuary could not function on a daily basis. With a combination of hard work, ingenuity, and assistance from amazing people around the world, we are proud to say that the elephants in our care never went hungry, and thanks to our veterinary team, they never missed a routine health inspection either. The entire Elephant Jungle Sanctuary team (Chiang Mai, Phuket, Pattaya, and Samui) would like to offer our sincere gratitude and appreciation for the incredible support we have received from our supporters worldwide in the past years, and for the love we were consistently shown throughout the pandemic. In addition, we would like to thank everyone who offered their support to our partners at The Care Project Foundation, who worked tirelessly to distribute elephant food to an estimated 300 elephants in many locations throughout Thailand, as well as to support mahouts who were exposed to the coronavirus.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary remains wholeheartedly committed to caring for our resident elephants regardless of any difficulties or hardships we may face. We will continue to work daily to ensure that every elephant in our care remains in good health and receives the love, respect, and freedom they deserve. We will always stand by our mission, and our convictions will not waver regardless of any obstacle. Together, we can overcome any challenge and attain a truly prosperous and harmonious future for all beings.