BANGKOK               -              Underfed and chained up for endless hours, campaigners warn many elephants working in Thailand’s tourism sector may starve, be sold to zoos or shifted into the illegal logging trade as the coronavirus decimates visitor numbers.

Before the virus, life for the kingdom’s estimated 2,000 elephants working in tourism was already stressful, with abusive methods often used to ‘break them’ into giving rides and performing tricks at money-spinning animal shows.

With global travel paralysed the animals are unable to pay their way, including the 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of food a day a captive elephant needs to survive.

Elephant camps and conservationists warn hunger and the threat of renewed exploitation lie ahead, without an urgent bailout.

“My boss is doing what he can but we have no money,” Kosin, a mahout -- or elephant handler -- says of the Chiang Mai camp where his elephant Ekkasit is living on a restricted diet.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s northern tourist hub, an area of rolling hills dotted by elephant camps and sanctuaries ranging from the exploitative to the humane.

Footage sent to AFP from another camp in the area shows lines of elephants tethered by a foot to wooden poles, some visibly distressed, rocking their heads back and forth.

Around 2,000 elephants are currently “unemployed” as the virus eviscerates Thailand’s tourist industry, says Theerapat Trungprakan, president of the Thai Elephant Alliance Association.

The lack of cash is limiting the fibrous food available to the elephants “which will have a physical effect”, he added.

Wages for the mahouts who look after them have dropped by 70 percent.

Theerapat fears the creatures could soon be used in illegal logging activities along the Thai-Myanmar border -- in breach of a 30-year-old law banning the use of elephants to transport wood. 

Others “could be forced (to beg) on the streets,” he said.