Asian elephants can easily eat 300 kilograms of food daily. The giant vegetarians graze constantly. They eat when they’re hungry, when they’re bored, and even when they’re scared or anxious. So, they’re pretty much like everyone in quarantine.
Feeding an elephant in Thailand costs a minimum of THB500 ($15) per day and the country has roughly 3,700 elephants in captivity, about half of its elephant population. When the borders closed and international passenger flights were grounded in March, the income of the country’s sketchy elephant camps, upstanding sanctuaries, and everything in between quickly dropped to zero. However, the elephants’ incredible appetites never falter.
But Lanna Kingdom Elephant Sanctuary founder Witthaya Phongsiri has found a way to feed his five beloved beasts: paid Zoom calls. For a donation of $54 to his ethical sanctuary outside Chiang Mai—which does not allow riding and does not offer any kind of elephant performances—patrons can have a 30-minute call where they get to see the elephants frolic and eat, ask the carers questions, and watch as their meals and daily vitamins are prepared. The donation feeds three elephants and their caregivers for an entire day.
I jumped on an elephant Zoom call Phongsiri arranged to do a bit of good for the world and find out what this unique COVID-19-adjacent experience was all about. The calls are private but donors who arrange one can share the Zoom link in advance with whomever they choose.
Though it was early morning, seeing the elephants playing, eating, and carousing in the sunny jungle of Northern Thailand immediately made me smile. The experience was strangely soothing, seeing scenes of people together (the carers and staff have isolated themselves at the sanctuary), smiling, and hugging animals gave a feeling of hope and normalcy and a chance to immediately see the impact we had on the elephants and their carers in need.
Phongsiri dreamed up the Zoom calls as a way to feed his staff and elephants, but also as a heartfelt way to thank those who donated, and let them see for themselves that the elephants are OK.
The call starts with the mahouts, or elephant caregivers, waving and saying hello, hanging out with their elephant counterparts. Phongsiri greets the caller and thanks them for the donation, launching into a little update on the sanctuary and how they are doing.
There is a chance for the caller to ask questions—which range from children asking if the elephants snort food through their trunk, to deeper queries such as how the animals interact with each other and their relationships with the staff.
Callers get to see the elephants eat and the staff prepare their daily “vitamin ball”—a large, sticky wad of tamarind, sugarcane, sticky rice, sea salt, and bananas for which the elephants come running. After that, they can simply watch the elephants walk around or check out the staff making hundreds of pounds of dung into fertilizer—an option I passed on.
Though the entire world is suffering, Thailand’s situation is, in some ways, especially dire. With over 20 percent of the country’s GDP coming from tourism in 2019, and one quarter of all visitors arriving from China—an influx that abruptly halted back in February—those who rely on the travel industry have been suffering acutely. With Thailand's borders still shut to tourists, it’s not an issue that’s likely to rectify itself quickly.
Though Lanna Kingdom is surviving through donations from their Zoom callers around the world, many other places are not so lucky.
“Many camps are suffering, they have no income and elephants eat a lot,” Phongsiri said. “Thankfully, people are donating money and fruit, and owners are sharing what they have.”
He recalled how a friend gave him 1,000 kg of bananas, which he shared with other nearby sanctuaries. A tourism agency in Chiang Mai also donated THB10,000 ($308), so he bought a tonne of bananas from people in the nearby village, who were also suffering at the loss of tourism.
Even beyond the ability to feed his elephants, the Zoom calls serve another purpose, in Phongsiri’s eyes.
“It gives us purpose. All the mahouts gather (in their spiffy blue Thai shirts) and call their elephants out from the jungle," he said.
"It gives us some structure and something to look forward to. It’s a way to stay connected to past guests and elephant lovers around the world."
For this reason, he thinks they will continue the elephant Zoom calls, even after the pandemic recedes enough for tourism to resume.
“It’s a good way for people to check in on us, even when they can’t make it to Thailand.”
To schedule an elephant Zoom call, visit this page.
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