Coronavirus: Thai elephants sent home from sanctuaries as pandemic hits tourism

Dozens of elephants in Thailand have been released back into the wild as the global coronavirus outbreak continues to hit the pockets of animal sanctuaries.

It comes after a warning that more than 4,000 Thai elephants could starve thanks to the lack of income for sanctuaries as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

More than 100 elephants are walking 95 miles to their habitual homes, with a charity raising money for those that remain in the care of sanctuaries.

The Save Elephant Foundation is also helping to support the animals as they resettle into their home communities.

Elephant herds have been walking from the city of Chiang Mai, in the north of the country, to their homeland of Mae Chaem - where local villages of Karen ethnic minorities traditionally keep elephants.

Sadudee Serichevee from Chiang Mai's Mae Wang district owns four elephants, and said that he had followed the approach of the charity by setting up his own Karen Elephant Experience park with the animals he bought from his wife's village - Mae Chaem's Ban Huay Bong.

However, his plans were put in to question by the COVID-19 outbreak. He said: "At first I thought the situation would be back to normal within a month or two. At the end of April, I lost all hope."

The couple agreed to transfer the elephants back to her village after it became clear they could not afford to pay the costs - close to 200,000 baht (£5,000) a month - to rent the land and facilities, pay staff and buy food.

Elephants eat around 300 kilograms of grass and vegetables a day.

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Mr Sadudee and his wife convinced other elephant owners to make the almost 100-mile trek across the region with them, as sending the animals on a truck tends to be expensive for park owners.

Their group, which contained 11 elephants, their owners and their handlers, left on 30 April and were welcomed by the village's residents upon their arrival on Monday.

Mr Sadudee said: "These elephants have not had a chance to return home for 20 years.

"They seem to be very happy when arriving home, they make their happy noises, they run to the creek near the village and have fun along with our children."