Animals and coronavirus (COVID-19): Animals that rely on tourism are suffering around the world

Food riots, hoarding, starvation, torture, suffering and death – the coronavirus pandemic has brought havoc to the animal kingdom as well as our own.

While dogs, cats, minks and primates can catch coronavirus, they appear to be far less susceptible than humans. The bigger problem for animals is the dislocation caused by the lockdown.

Around the world many animals have become dependent on tourists for their food, either because they're what people pay to see at zoos, nature parks and attractions where they perform or are there to be ridden, or indirectly, such as the city pigeons that feed on scraps that tourists leave behind.

In some cases the absence of humans has been a liberation. Wild boar have been filmed in the streets of Barcelona. In March, mountain goats took to grazing in the local churchyard when the lockdown emptied streets in the North Wales city of Llandudno. Bears, coyotes and wildcats have appeared in Yosemite National Park in California's Sierra Nevada mountains in parts where they are rarely seen.

But in Germany, Spain and Italy pigeons have been going hungry without the usual tourist leftovers, while East Riding of Yorkshire council has warned locals to beware of aggressive seagulls, missing out on their usual meals of discarded fish and chips and driven to swoop-and-grab tactics.

In Lopburi, 155 kilometres north of Bangkok, video footage emerged in March of hundreds of macaque monkeys staging a running battle through the city streets as they fought over food. The macaques which live among the ruins of the city's ancient temples have long been a drawcard for tourists who would feed them bananas and other fruits sold by street vendors, and often less wholesome snack foods. When the tourist trade dried up so did their food supply, and they're taking action.

Since then they've become a pestilential, pooping curse for city residents, some of whom have taken to wrapping their houses and terraces in netting to prevent smash-and-grab raids from marauding monkeys.

Elephants hit hard by the pandemic

In Thailand, up to 1000 elephants could be at risk of starvation after their camps have closed due to the pandemic. In normal times these camps are a magnet for tourists, who pay to bathe the elephants in rivers, feed them, snap a selfie and watch them kick footballs and perform other circus tricks in slightly cheesy crowd-pleasing displays.

When the tourist trade shut down, the income of these parks tanked. It's believed that as many as 85 elephant-based tourism businesses in northern Thailand may have stalled due to lack of visitors. Some of the luckier elephants have been transported to live temporarily in rural villages where they can forage for food, but not the sugar cane and bananas they enjoyed in the elephant camps.


In response to the crisis, Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert, who comes from a hilltribe village in northern Thailand, founder of the Elephant Nature Park, has launched a project to provide food for elephants at low cost. Her Save Elephant Foundation has been connecting with landowners to rent out parcels of land at a low price, simultaneously working with Karen communities, who are traditional elephant handlers, on reafforestation efforts to re-establish elephants' natural environments.

In the Indian city of Jaipur, almost 100 caparisoned and painted elephants are employed in the tourist trade, taking them up the steep ramp to Amer Fort. It's been a healthy trade for decades, providing a decent living for several hundred families of mahouts, stable hands and farmers who grow fodder for the elephants, but during the pandemic tourist numbers have plummeted and the cash tap from elephant rides has been turned off.

With a small subsidy from the state's Forest Department, the elephant owners are able to provide their animals with their daily requirement of 100-150 kilos of food per day, but it's a more restricted diet and if the tourists don't return there are fears some of those elephants will be euthanised.

The workers taking it hard

While the plight of the elephants and primates that are the staples in the animal tourism industry have been highly visible during the pandemic, the fate of working animals has gone largely unnoticed.

In Morocco, donkeys are the all-purpose pack animals in the agricultural sector, but it's in the cities, especially in the medinas of Fes and Marrakech where the streets are too narrow for vehicles, that they do much of the heavy lifting. Donkeys and mules are a melancholy presence as they plod the narrow alleyways, heads bowed, loaded with bags of cement and bricks, televisions, air conditioners and hides from the tanneries.

They're also cheap – around $100 – and if they're injured or too old or sick to work they end up on the scrap heap. Their owner will abandon them where they drop and buy another.

Morocco shut its doors early on in the pandemic and it's weathered the storm relatively well, but the resulting economic downturn has been particularly hard on the country's donkeys and mules. Deprived of their economic utility, many owners have simply stopped feeding them. Pictures have emerged of tragically emaciated donkeys, some with their mouths wired shut to stop them from foraging.

If those animals find themselves at Jarjeer Mule and Donkey Refuge their lives are transformed. Jarjeer is the creation of Susan Machin, a retired English barrister who moved to Morocco with her partner, Charles Hantom.

"It was our retirement home," says Susan, a warm weather bolthole, but the quiet retirement plan took a turn in 2009 when they adopted an orphaned donkey delivered by a dying mother at an animal refuge in Marrakech. One became two, and over the past decade the number of animals at Jarjeer 25 kilometres south of Marrakech has grown steadily, a sanctuary for sick, abandoned, orphaned and injured mules and donkeys. Today, the paddocks and stables at Jarjeer are home to more than 100 animals.

The latest animals to fall victim to the wider fallout from the coronavirus in Morocco are horses. In Marrakech, horses are used to pull the caleches, the fanciful open carriages that take tourists around the central area, but the tourist trade has collapsed and horses that can't earn their keep aren't kept.

According to Machin, many of Marrakech's carriage horses are only getting around 20 per cent of the food they would normally get. Desperate to rescue some of those horses, Machin has galloped to the rescue and set about building more stables and leasing more land that will allow Jarjeer to accommodate at least some of these animals.

It's a never-ending mission. The number of animals in need of care and attention is huge in Morocco. Word has spread, and Susan and Charles are constantly being asked to pick up sick or neglected animals that have been abandoned, or which are too broken to be of any further use to their owners. If it's within their powers to respond, the call is never refused. For a cause like this it would take a hard heart not to be moved.

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