An Uncertain Future for Thailand’s Elephants

Jittrapon Kaicome


Thailand has approximately 2,700 captive elephants, most of which are trained to entertain tourists, a long significant source of national revenue. COVID-19 plunged the global economy into collapse, forcing hundreds of these elephants and their mahouts to migrate back home from tourist sites. The nation is ranked third-worst globally for its handling of the pandemic. Two years without income and amid an ongoing public health crisis, a sustainable solution is yet to emerge for the animals and their unemployed caretakers. Hope for the recovery of the sector—once an economic goldmine—remains uncertain. Government support has been minimal. Unemployed mahouts, mostly from ethnic minority communities, are struggling with the massive responsibility of caring for both their elephants and their families. Without access to veterinary care in rural areas, some elephants have died of medical conditions which may have been treatable. In response, some local vets have launched Thailand’s first mobile clinic to care for them. Amidst anguish and misery, some mahouts are seeking alternative ways of earning enough to feed the animals dependent on them by opening community-run camps or using online tools to connect with tourists virtually. A new protection act addressing elephant welfare is being examined which could potentially replace an outdated law created in 1939 when the animals were seen as beasts of burden serving the logging industry. Animal rights groups have urged Thailand’s current tourist camp business model to reform to an “elephant friendly” setting that would allow the giants to roam more freely in a forest, no longer reliant on performing for visitors to ensure their own survival. While the debate continues over the precarious future of Thailand’s iconic elephants, the pandemic has revealed the animals to be more than simple money-makers for their mahouts, who treat them as part of their families.

Jittrapon Kaicome is an independent photojournalist based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. His projects focus on countries in the Mekong region of Southeast Asia. His works highlight current affairs, environmental crises related to climate change, sex workers’ rights, animal welfare, and the struggles of marginalized communities including ethnic groups and displaced persons along the Myanmar-Thailand border. Jittrapon has worked with clients and his works have been published in Le Monde, Liberation, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, Agence France Presse (AFP), Agencia EFE, The Diplomat, The Irrawaddy, Bangkok Post, National Geographic Thailand, WWF-Thailand, International Rivers, among others.

[ COVID PICTURE STORY ] A multiple-picture story, essay, sequence or series based on daily coverage of general news or breaking news related to COVID-19. Each submission consists of 10 to 20 images. Each participant is allowed to enter up to 3 submissions. All images must be taken in 2020 or 2021.

Judges for Covid Picture Story
Anush Babajanyan
Liang-Pin Tsao
Nyimas Laula
Samuel He
Jean Chung