Activists who are undernourished and tied up for endless hours may warn many elephants working in the Thai tourism sector starve, sell to zoos, or be trafficked illegally as the coronavirus decimates visitor numbers.
Before the virus, the life of the kingdom's estimated 2,000 tourism elephants was already stressful, and abusive methods were often used to get them to give rides and perform tricks on suspicious animal shows.
With global travel paralyzed, animals cannot pay for their way, including the 300 kilograms of feed a day that a captured elephant needs to survive.
Elephant camps and conservationists warn of hunger and there is a risk of renewed exploitation without the need for urgent rescue.
"My boss does what he can, but we have no money," says Kosin, a mahout – or elephant dealer – about the Chiang Mai camp, where his elephant Ekkasit lives on a restricted diet.
Chiang Mai is Thailand's northern tourist center, an area of rolling hills dotted with elephant camps and sanctuaries ranging from exploitative to human.
The footage sent to AFP from another camp in the area shows rows of elephants attached to wooden poles with one foot, some of whom are visibly desperate and their heads are rocking back and forth.
Around 2,000 elephants are currently "unemployed" as the virus guts Thailand's tourism industry, says Theerapat Trungprakan, president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association.
The lack of cash limits the fibrous feed available to the elephants, "which will have a physical effect," he added.
Wages for the mahouts taking care of them have dropped 70 percent.
Theerapat fears that the creatures could soon be used for illegal logging activities along the Thai-Myanmar border – a violation of a 30-year-old law that prohibits the use of elephants to transport wood.
Others "could be forced to beg on the street," he said.
It is another turn in the history of elephant exploitation, for which animal rights activists have long struggled to protect themselves from the abusive tourism industry.
– & # 39; crisis point & # 39; –
For those who have a unique experience with the giant creatures – whether from a distance or up close – the burglary started in late January.
Chinese visitors, who make up the majority of Thailand's 40 million tourists, fell more than 80 percent in February when China blocked cities affected by the virus and banned travel abroad.
By March, travel restrictions to Thailand – with 1,388 confirmed cases of the virus – had expanded to western countries.
With elephants increasingly malnourished due to loss of income, the situation is "in crisis," said Saengduean Chailert, owner of Elephant Nature Park.
In their refuge for around 80 saved pachyderms, visitors can only observe the creatures, a philosophy that contradicts places where they perform tricks and offer rides.
She organized a fund to feed elephants and help mahouts in almost 50 camps across the country. She fears that the only options will soon be limited to zoos, hunger or logging.
For those who are held back by short chains all day, the stress could lead to fighting, Saengduean says, in camps that can no longer afford medical treatment for the creatures.
The government is increasingly being asked to fund affected camps to ensure the well-being of elephants.
"We need 1,000 baht a day (about $ 30) for each elephant," says Apichet Duangdee, who runs the Elephant Rescue Park.
The liberation of his eight mammals saved from circuses and lumberjacks into the woods is out of the question since they would likely be killed in territorial battles with wild elephants.
He plans to borrow two million baht (USD 61,000) soon to feed his elephants.
"I will not leave her," he added.
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and published from a syndicated feed.)