In the village of Ban Ta Klang, northeast Thailand, Siriporn Sapmak started his day by live-streaming his two elephants on social media. She does this to earn money to survive.
The 23-year-old, who has been taking care of elephants since she was in school, points her phone at the animals as she feeds them bananas and they walk around the back of her family’s house.
Siriporn said she was able to raise around 1,000 baht ($27.46) from a few hours of live streaming on TikTok and YouTube, but that was only enough to feed her two elephants for a day.
It is a new, and unsafe source of income for the family, who before the pandemic made money by performing elephant shows in the Thai city of Pattaya. They earn extra money by selling fruit.
Like thousands of other elephant owners across the country, the Sapmak family had to return to their homeland when elephant camps were devastated and foreign tourist resorts shut down. Only 400,000 foreign tourists visited Thailand last year compared with nearly 40 million in 2019.
Some days, Siriporn didn’t receive any donations and her elephants were starving.
“We hope tourists will [return]. If they come back, we probably won’t be doing these live streams anymore,” she said. “If we go back to work, we get a [stable] income to buy grass to feed the elephants”.
Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, estimates that at least 1,000 elephants in Thailand will not have a “proper income” until more tourists return.
According to official authorities, Thailand has between 3,200 and 4,000 elephants in captivity and about 3,500 in the wild.
Wiek said the Livestock Development Department needed to find “some kind of budget” to support these elephants.
“Otherwise, it would be very difficult to keep them alive, I think, for most families,” he said.
Families in Ban Ta Klang, Thailand’s elephant trading hub located in Surin province, have cared for elephants for generations and have a strong bond with them.
Elephant shows and rides have long been popular with visitors, especially Chinese, while criticism by animal rights groups over the way elephants are handled there has sparked tourism in protected areas.
Ms. Pensri Sapmak, 60, Siriporn’s mother, said: ‘We bonded together like family members.
“Without the elephants, we don’t know what our future will be like. We are where we are today because of them.”
According to the Livestock Development Department, which oversees captive elephants, the government has sent 500 tonnes of grass across multiple provinces since 2020 to help feed the elephants.
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, elephants, Thailand’s national animal, eat 150 to 200kg (330 to 440 pounds) per day.
Siriporn and her mother, however, said they have yet to receive any government support.
“This is a big national problem,” said Sorawit Thanito, director general of the Livestock Development Department.
He said the government plans to support elephants and their caretakers and “measures and budgets will be proposed to the cabinet” without giving a timeframe.
While the government expects 10 million foreign tourists this year, some say this may not be enough to lure elephant owners back to top tourist attractions, with costs related fees. Chinese tourists, the mainstay of elephant shows, have also yet to return amid COVID-19 lockdowns at home.
“Who has the money right now to arrange a truck… and how much security [do] do they have that they will actually be in business again when they come back? ‘ Wiek asked.
He expects more baby elephants to be born in captivity in the coming year, exacerbating the pressure on their owners.
“Some days we make less money, some days we don’t, which means there’s less food on the table,” says Pensri. “I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”