Exposing the Elephant in the Room

Thailand’s endangered elephants still exploited often abused and now facing starvation.

By Ray Sinclair.

Covid-19 has put enormous pressure on the elephant sanctuaries. Reliant on tourism to feed and treat the elephants, the sanctuaries are asking for donations to feed thousands of domesticated elephants. Photo by the global panorama on Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Historically, Thailand’s elephant population has steadily declined mainly due to loss of habitat. Today it is estimated that 3,800 captive elephants and 3,000 wild elephants remain from over 100,000 elephants in captivity and 300,000 in the wild in the early-1900s. The Asian elephant was listed as endangered in 1986. More than ever, the elephants need people to champion their lives and wellbeing. One such woman is Sangduen “Lek” Chailert.

The translation of Lek from Thai into English is small. Other than her diminutive stature, there is nothing small about the animals’ Lek champions or her advocacy and compassion for those animals. She is a Thai woman with a big heart and enormous empathy for Asian elephants. Lek Chailert is the founder of both Elephant nature Park and Save the Elephant Foundation located in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, Lek has been working in elephant conservation since 1996. Animal advocacy is her life’s work.

Tourism stops due to Covid-19 pandemic

The global pandemic Covid-19 has caused the elephant tour operators another problem which directly affects the elephants; no tourists means no money to feed the elephants. Thousands of Thailand’s domesticated Asian elephants are facing starvation due to loss of funding as tourist numbers plummet, according to reports from the World Elephant Foundation

A lack of funding across the industries of riding and circuses has resulted in over 400 elephants returning to illegal logging. The elephant rescue parks like Chailet’s have also been affected with the loss of tourist dollars needed to feed the elephants which eat 350 kilograms of vegetation per day.

Chailert said the daily cost of feeding one elephant is 2,900 Baht, equivalent to 130 Australian Dollars.

“The government gave us 5,000 baht for the park, which is 180 American Dollars for 100 elephants,” she said.

Elephant Nature Park founder Lek Chailert. Photo by permission of Lek Chailert.

Chailert (58), was declared an enemy of the state by the Thai government because of her public condemnation of elephant abusers. Government policies protect these abusers that continue to use elephants for illegal logging, hauling heavy timber. A 30-year-old Siamese rosewood tree can fetch 300,000 Thai baht equivalent to 13,500 Australian dollars on the black market. While there is a demand for exotic rainforest timbers, illegal logging will not stop.

Chailert said, “Before Covid-19, there were about two hundred elephants logging now during Covid-19 the number of elephants logging has raised to six hundred.”

Logging Industry:

With the Coronavirus pandemic, founder of World Wildlife Foundation Thailand, Edwin Wiek said, “ Elephants have gone back to logging in the rubber tree farms where they drag the older trees out of these plantations and clear other areas form other species of trees.

Disappearing forest in Asia. Map: Philippe Rekacewicz, UNEP/GRID-Arendal

“It is a huge industry in Southern Thailand and is bad for the elephants; there is no such (logging) ban.”

The lack of tourist money has forced some elephants back to the jungle and the brutal logging trade.

Illegal logging continues in both Northern Thailand for teak and rosewood and Southern Thailand in the rubber plantations. Photo by muzzanese on Foter.com /

The Thai government introduced a logging ban in 1989. The ban was not implemented to save the endangered elephants from long and arduous labour, instead, the Thai timber industry has logged over two-thirds of the countries natural forests. Teak and rosewood trees were cut down and hauled out by elephants over the decades. The result of Thailand’s deforestation led to flash floods in the southern provinces in late November 1988. The Thai government imposed a nationwide logging ban through an emergency decree in January 1989. The logging ban in 1989 had a drastic impact and far-reaching effects on elephant populations in Thailand. With no economic value, the owners had to look to other revenue sources to feed themselves and the overworked elephants.

Asian elephant from Thailand showing trauma both on her head from decades of pushing logs and scarring from hooks and chains used to haul logs. (circled) Photo credit Ray Sinclair

Riding Industry:

While researching Thailand’s elephant tourism industry, it became clear that riding of the elephants by tourists was a contentious and sensitive issue. Where money and lively hoods are involved, elephant tour operators will always have an agenda to promote how eco tourist-friendly their elephant experience is. The tour group Phuket Elephant Trails promotes itself on the website as “We provide Eco-friendly elephant trekking tourism in Phuket Island and its surroundings.” Their site states “Our elephant camp is dedicated to providing the highest quality of life possible for our elephants.”

On Animal Asia website the webpage “The truth about elephant riding” they write about elephants that are worked to death.

“Once sold into the tourism industry, elephants must work to earn their keep and turn a profit for their new owners. Elephants used for rides are typically available to give rides all day, every day.

When no tourists are present, the elephants are tied up to wait. When the tourists appear, the elephants must work for up to eight hours ferrying large groups on their backs in the tropical heat.”

The saddles can weigh 100 kilograms, with two or more tourists the weight can be over 350 kilograms. The poorly designed saddles with tourists could be on their backs for 12 hours a day, every day. Photo credit Asian Elephant Projects

The saddles can weigh 100 kilograms, with two or more tourists the weight can be over 350 kilograms. The poorly designed saddles with tourists could be on their backs for 12 hours a day, every day. Photo credit Foter

Lek Chailert, said, “No tourists should ride the elephants.”

Lek is supported by the USA based charity “ Trunks Up” the organisation’s mission statement:


In Thailand alone, there are over 2000 captive elephants in need of rescue from decades of abuse and suffering. The devastating exploitation includes tourist trekking camps, circus shows, street begging, and the logging industry.

In addition to their rescue, land purchase is vital to giving these elephants the home and freedom these sensitive and majestic animals deserve.

Lek initiated a program called “Saddles Off” under Asian Elephant Projects which encourages the trekking companies to join her in elephant experiences that do not allow the riding of elephants by tourists.

“If they want to join the program, they have to be under our conditions. They cannot use the hook, and they cannot beat the elephant, the elephant must get freedom. There are five freedoms, freedom from fear, freedom to access food and water, freedom to be treated when they are sick, freedom from discomfort, Chailert said.

Circus Industry

Elephants have long been used to entertain the public. According to “Trunks Up” the elephants are confined and live in barren conditions most of their lives. They will suffer extreme physical and psychological deprivation. When not performing, they spend 96 per cent of their time in cages or chains.

When travelling long distances between cities, the elephants are locked in transport boxes with extreme heat, sleeping, eating and defecating where they stand. To train the elephants to perform hitting, whipping, and electric shocks are used to discipline and cruelly control them.

Baby elephants will be forcibly taken from their mothers at one year old, the baby elephant in a normal relationship will stay with the mother for four years. The young elephants are often abused with bullhooks, chains and fear to get them to perform unnatural acts that take a terrible toll on the health of the elephant. Of the three industries, Chailert says the circuses do the most psychological and physical damage to the elephants.

Elephants riding bicycle show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yl-5RBfo-gI

Elephants perform unnatural acts for the paying public. Lek Chailert says, “This is the worst type of abuse of the animals.” Photo by wolfsavard on Foter.com / CC BY

Post Covid-19

The elephant in the room is a well-known metaphor for not addressing an obvious problem. With the pandemic still not allowing international travel at pre-Covid-19 levels, the elephants are at the mercy of wealthier counties to foster or donate funding to ensure the wellbeing and survival of these gentle giants. When browsing the fine furniture stores, think about the rosewood and teak and how it arrived to your first world country. Thailand will eventually open up to tourists; you are sure to want a photo with the gentle elephant for your Instagram account. Maybe do some research before climbing into a saddle or getting a selfie with performing elephant.

On a clear blue day in Chaing Mia at her elephant sanctuary, with elephants roaming in the background, I interviewed Lek. Full interview here. https://youtu.be/nJmO8njpUak



Bachelor of Journalism. Actor. Aspiring Poet. Former Royal Navy Clearance Diver. Falklands Veteran. HMS Coventry Salvage Team. ray.sinclair.journo@gmail.com

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Ray Sinclair

Bachelor of Journalism. Actor. Aspiring Poet. Former Royal Navy Clearance Diver. Falklands Veteran. HMS Coventry Salvage Team. ray.sinclair.journo@gmail.com