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BANGKOK -- More than a decade ago, it was common for elephant owners to take their animals into Thailand's cities and beg in the streets. Other elephants were put to work by illegal loggers to harvest timber and haul it out of the forest.

Gradually, Thailand succeeded in reducing illegal practices and improving the lives of domesticated elephants. But now, the coronavirus that is sickening humans around the world may threaten to undo that progress.

A sudden drop in foreign tourists has forced the closing of dozens of elephant parks and similar tourist attractions, putting more than 1,000 elephants in Thailand out of work and endangering their futures, operators of the attractions said.

For many owners, keeping them fed is an urgent concern. Feeding an elephant can cost as much as $40 a day -- more than three times the minimum daily wage in Thailand.

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Theerapat Trungprakan, president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association, a group of elephant attraction operators, said he feared that unless the government intervened, some elephants would be forced back onto the streets or even into illegal logging operations.

"We don't want that loop of survival alternatives to come back," Theerapat said. "It will endanger the welfare of the elephants, such as having the elephants roaming the streets begging for bananas or sugar cane."

Thailand, which as of Tuesday had reported 827 coronavirus cases and four deaths, has sought to stop the spread of the virus by closing schools and entertainment venues and by encouraging people to stay home.

The initial outbreak in China led to a sudden drop in visitors to Thailand, as both countries restricted travel. In 2019, China contributed more than a quarter of Thailand's 40 million tourists.

In February, overall tourist arrivals in Thailand were down by 44% compared with a year earlier. Tourism has plunged even further in March with new limits on travel and activity.

The elephant attractions have been hit hard, operators say.

In northern Thailand, 85 such businesses have temporarily halted operations because of a lack of visitors, said Borpit Chailert, general manager of Maetaeng Elephant Park, north of the city of Chiang Mai.

He said the Maetaeng park, one of the country's larger operations, was still open, but visitors were down by 90%, forcing the company to reduce employees' hours. The park used to get as many as 1,000 visitors a day. On Saturday, there were only four.

Thailand has about 3,800 domesticated elephants. Releasing them into the forest, where about 3,000 wild elephants live, is not an option because it is illegal under Thai law; in the forest, domesticated elephants would compete with wild counterparts.

"They cannot look for food in the forest because they are used to being fed," Borpit said. "Imagine if we released around 3,000 domesticated elephants into the forest at the same time. There would be no food to feed all the elephants."

Elephants are Thailand's national symbol.

A Section on 03/25/2020

Print Headline: Elephant-progress in Thailand faces threat with viral outbreak

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