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Thailand's captive elephants face uncertain future

COVID-19 sparks exodus from tourist sites and calls for post-pandemic reforms

An older and young elephant forge bonds. With Thailand's ban on international tourism, elephants now have more time to socialize than during their time at tourist camps. (Photo by Denis D. Gray)

HUAY PAKOOT, Thailand -- As Thailand witnessed the departure of foreign tourists in the wake of the COVID-19 virus, another exodus, inextricably linked, was gathering momentum. The country's elephants, by the hundreds, were going home.

With scores of elephant camps -- top destinations for foreign visitors -- forced to close or scale down by a ban on international tourism in March 2020, the only viable option for the discharged elephants and their keepers was to return to the villages from which they came. Life there, it was hoped, would be easier, with cheaper access to food and a loving environment born of centuries-old bonds between man and pachyderm.

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