Elephants, trained to play football, compete against each other painted as the England and Brazil teams at Maesa Elephant Camp on April 21, 2010 near Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo by Bronek Kaminski/Barcroft India/Getty Images)
CNN  — 

Elephants forced to perform tricks and carry tourists in a Thailand park are to be liberated from their controversial work as a consequence of the coronavirus, the park’s owner says.

Anchalee Kalampichit, the owner of Maesa Elephant Camp in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, closed the park on Monday after tourist numbers plummeted from “hundreds” each day to less than 20, she told CNN.

Kalampichit said she would take the opportunity to revamp the park and let the 78 elephants on site roam freely for the first time.

When it reopens in the future, she said, the park would focus instead on “educating” tourists about elephants – and would no longer force them to carry tourists or perform tricks.

Following pressure from critics who say such wildlife tourism is cruel, Kalampichit said she had already decided to make a change last year to enable the elephants to live happier lives and had visited elephant sanctuaries with her staff to learn about them.

She said the coronavirus pandemic had accelerated her decision, as a drop off in footfall effectively forced the park to close.

Kalampichit, whose late father founded Maesa Elephant Camp in the 1970s, made the decision after visiting the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand “many times” last year, she said.

“I didn’t know what else to do in the camp instead of shows and elephant riding. I talked to one lady who is well known for saving elephants and nature at the Elephant Nature Park… she lets the elephants go around unchained.

“We want to do the same thing at Maesa Elephant Camp instead of riding,” she said.

“On 23 March I decided to close and asked my staff to keep the seating [for spectators] and put them aside… We put away everything we used to have for tourists and my announcement to the public is that we will stop from now on shows and riding on the elephants,” she said.

Kalampichit said that for many of the 78 elephants living on the site, this would be the first time they would not have to wear seats for tourists. “We don’t want to do it anymore,” she said.

The Thai government announced on Wednesday it would ban the majority of foreign nationals from entering the country as part of measures designed to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.

Thailand has so far had 1,045 confirmed cases of coronavirus and four deaths.