An elephant park in Bali left more than a dozen elephants to starve, and staff without pay after plummeting ticket sales forced it to close when COVID-19 spread around the world and borders were closed.
Bali Elephant Camp (BEC) is a safari-style park, a half-hour drive north of Ubud, the Indonesian island's cultural capital, that offered a range of nature-based activities like bike-riding through rice fields, and white-water rafting.
In 2005, BEC joined a wildlife conservation programme run by the Ministry of Forestry that entrusts privately-owned zoos and safari parks in Indonesia with the care of critically endangered Sumatran elephants.
A 2007 study by the World Wildlife Fund found there were as few as 2,400 Sumatran elephants left in the wild, and the number now is thought to have halved as a result of poaching for ivory, human-elephant conflict, and deforestation. Between 1980 and 2005 – the equivalent of only one and a half elephant generations – 67 percent of the potential Sumatran elephant's habitat was lost. In the wild, the animal was listed as 'critically endangered' in 2012.
The elephants for the parks and zoos are sourced from breeding centres established 30 years ago in Sumatra in a programme that was supposed to help stabilise the population. In exchange for giving the animals a home, accredited businesses were permitted to sell elephant-tourism services that were wildly profitable before the pandemic. BEC was charging $230 for a half-hour elephant ride for two people.
The birth of three baby elephants over the past 15 years suggests BEC was not only meeting but exceeding its animal welfare requirements.
"Our friends in conservation say we have some of the healthiest, happiest elephants they've ever seen!" the company's website boasts.
But photographs taken by a wildlife veterinarian at the park in May and shared exclusively with Al Jazeera showed several severely undernourished elephants.
"You cannot imagine a skinny elephant until you see one," said Femke Den Haas, a veterinarian from the Netherlands who has been working to protect wildlife in Indonesia for 20 years.
"They are big animals and you're not meant to see their bones. But that's what they were – just skin and bones."
Haas visited the camp as a partner of Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam Bali (BKSDA), the government body that supervises the safari parks and zoos that have adopted Sumatran elephants.
"Many industries in Bali have collapsed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic," said Agus Budi Santosa, director of BKSDA. "But the impact on small companies like Bali Elephant Camp has been especially severe. [When tourism stopped] they were no longer able to cover operational costs, especially the cost of feeding elephants. The government had to assist them by paying for food and electricity."
In July, the company told the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) that it was doing its best to take care of the elephants but struggling to meet its monthly $1,400 operating costs and that neither the forestry department nor BKSDA had offered any financial support.
BEC representatives were not available to answer Al Jazeera's questions about the elephants, and its telephone numbers were disconnected.
"You can't as a company say there are no more visitors so I am not taking care of the elephants anymore," Haas said.
"That is what has happened and it is really disgusting because these elephants have given them profits for 15 years. So I don't believe it when they say they don't have any money. Elephants are not that expensive to take care of anyway. It costs $200 a month to feed one."
Haas says BEC also left its staff without pay.
"They have acted irresponsibly not only to the animals but to employees who committed their lives to their jobs. When I first got there, some of the staff had left and others were still there, working for free, trying to take care of the elephants," she says.
Santosa says BEC was given two months to find new investors and restructure the business, during which Haas's NGO, the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, fed their elephants and paid the keepers' wages.
When BEC failed to come up with a solution, the government seized the elephants.
"We had to solve the problem quickly because if we delayed it could have resulted in the death of the elephants," Santosa said.
Adds Haas: "They didn't want to let them take the elephants. They wanted to keep them to put them back to work after the pandemic."A new home
Three of BEC's 14 elephants were adopted by an unidentified zoo on the neighbouring island of Java.
The remaining 11 were relocated to Tasta Wildlife Park, a new, modern zoo that opened in June in Tabanan Regency, a lush mountainous region in south-central Bali. When Al Jazeera visited Tasta Wildlife Park in September, all 11 animals had been successfully rehabilitated and regained weight.
The chief elephant handler, Ketut, is a former BEC man who worked for the company for 13 years – the last 12 months with little to no pay.
He does not bear any ill will to his former employer, only gratitude to his new one. He knows the name and age of every elephant in the herd and loves sharing his knowledge with visitors, even if they remain rare for now.
"Elephants digest very little of the food they eat. So they're always eating" he said. "They can eat up to 10 percent of their body weight in a single day."
With tickets priced between $2 and $4 and only a handful of visitors per day, Tasta Wildlife Park is operating at a loss, but it continues to ensure all its animals are well fed.
Three other elephant parks in Bali – Mason, Bali Zoo and the Bali Safari and Marine Park – are also struggling financially but feeding their elephants, according to BAWA.
But they are concerned about the welfare of seven elephants at Bakas, a safari-style amusement park in east Bali that charges $25 for entry and $85 to wash an elephant in a pool.
Bakas has long been dogged by accusations of underfeeding its elephants with complaints from visitors on TripAdvisor dating back a decade.
"Do not go to Bakas Elephant Park. This park is primarily aimed at extracting as much money as possible from tourists, with little regard to the welfare of the animals," wrote a tourist on the site in 2011. "The elephants were clearly underfed and the one we were on kept trying to stop and eat, which resulted in a sharp bang on the head with the keeper's stick."
Haas says Bakas's owners are also crying poor and demanding government assistance: "It's quite easy to say we have no money to feed their elephants, so hello government, come and take care of it. But the ones who are responsible are the owners."
Al Jazeera visited Bakas a few days after it had reopened following a three-month closure during partial lockdowns, and there were no visitors at all.
Staff said they still feed the elephants, but do not know whether the food is paid for by the owners or donations. In the car park, they offered a 'selfie' with an elephant for a fee, but refused to show the areas inside where the elephants were being housed. The owners of the camp did not respond to Al Jazeera's requests for a response to the allegations.
The plight of the underfed elephants amid talk of more sustainable tourism in post-pandemic Bali has reignited calls for a rethink of elephant tourism on the island.
"There are no known ethical sanctuaries in Bali," Bali Elephant Paradise Hell, an advocacy group created before the pandemic by tourists who did not like what they saw at the islands' elephant camps, wrote on their website before the pandemic.
"The elephants are often kept chained for prolonged periods of time when not performing hideous shows or used for rides, living in fear of being stabbed with bullhooks and denied what is natural and important to them."
The BAWA voices similar sentiments. The group referred Al Jazeera to comments it made even before the pandemic.
"Tourist elephants are often overworked and forced to work in the heat of the day with inadequate food, water or rest. They may not show overt signs of distress, and may be obediently plodding along, but constant, forced proximity to humans without choice of retreat is extremely stressful for elephants," BAWA said. "They are deprived of the opportunity to perform natural behaviours, as they are either confined, tethered or under the bullhook. This creates anxiety and frustration."
Haas says all of these problems were created by demand from tourists for elephant rides: "That one ride, that one selfie, it means a life sentence for these animals and now that Covid has hit it's even worse because no more money is coming in and some elephants are starving."
"I am not saying these businesses should close," the veterinarian said. "But I am hoping that after the pandemic, tourists will have a wake-up call and not ride elephants or play with them in swimming pools anymore.
"It's 2021 and we should have ethical tourism where people who visit Bali on holidays should say, yes, we want to see elephants, but in a sanctuary where they can graze and are not tied up in chains waiting for people to ride them. You don't have to come close to wildlife, you don't need to touch them or get a selfie, just admire them from a distance."