In Thailand’s northeastern village of Ban Ta Klang, Siriporn Sapmak starts her day by doing a livestream of her two elephants on social media. She does this to raise 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 behind her family home.
Siriporn says she can raise about 1,000 baht ($27.46) in donations from several hours of livestreaming on TikTok and YouTube, but that is only enough to feed her two elephants for one day.
It is a new, and insecure, source of income for the family, who before the pandemic earned money by doing elephant shows in the Thai city of Pattaya. They top up their earnings by selling fruit.
Like thousands of other elephant owners around the country, the Sapmak family had to return to their home village as the pandemic decimated elephant camps and foreign tourism ground to a halt. Only 400,000 foreign tourists arrived in Thailand last year compared with nearly 40 million in 2019.
Some days, Siriporn doesn’t receive any donations and her elephants are underfed.
“We are hoping for tourists to [return]. If they come back, we might not be doing these livestreams any more,” she said. “If we get to go back to work, we get an [stable] income to buy grass for elephants to eat.”
Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, estimates that at least 1,000 elephants in Thailand would have no “proper income” until more tourists return.
Thailand has about 3,200 to 4,000 captive elephants, according to official agencies, and about 3,500 in the wild.
Wiek said the Livestock Development Department needs to find “some kind” of budget to support these elephants.
“Otherwise, it’s going to be difficult to keep them alive I think, for most families,” he said.
The families in Ban Ta Klang, the epicentre of Thailand’s elephant business located in Surin province, have cared for elephants for generations and have a close connection to them.
Elephant shows and rides have long been popular with tourists, especially the Chinese, while animal rights groups’ criticism of how elephants are handled there has given rise to tourism in sanctuaries.
“We are bound together like family members,” Siriporn’s mother Pensri Sapmak, 60, said.
“Without the elephants, we don’t know what our future will look like. We have today thanks to them.”
The government has sent 500 tonnes of grass across multiple provinces since 2020 to help feed the elephants, according to the Livestock Development Department, which oversees captive elephants.
Elephants, Thailand’s national animal, eat 150 to 200kg (330 to 440 pounds) each day, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Siriporn and her mother, however, said they have not yet received any government support.
“This is a big national issue,” said Livestock Development Department Director-General Sorawit Thanito.
He said the government plans to assist elephants and their caretakers and that “measures along with a budget will be proposed to cabinet” without giving a time frame.
While the government is expecting 10 million foreign tourists this year, some say this may not be enough to lure elephant owners back to top tourist destinations, given the costs involved. 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] they have that they are really going to have business again when they go back?” asks Wiek.
He expected more elephants to be born in captivity over the next year, exacerbating the pressures on their owners.
“Some days we make some money, some days none, meaning there’s going to be less food on the table”,” said Pensri. “I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”