Your In-Depth Guide to Choosing an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand

Last Updated on April 27, 2024 by Kylie

With social media dominating our everyday lives, visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand has become a top pick among backpackers. Elephant sanctuaries are a thriving leader in Thailand’s tourism industry. While you’ve got an endless supply of elephant encounters to choose from, many unfortunately mislead tourists solely for the “insta-fame”. 

Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

As a first-time backpacker in Thailand, deciphering ethical from inhumane sanctuaries can be daunting. Is it even possible for an elephant sanctuary to be 100% ethical?

Luckily for you, I’ve spent a lot of time researching their history, red flags to be on the lookout for, and how to best select an ethical sanctuary.

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How did elephant sanctuaries become a tourist attraction?

Throughout the 1900s, thousands of elephants forcibly logged heavy timber across Thailand. After decades of deforestation due to logging, Thailand imposed a ban in 1989 that eliminated the work of over 70% of elephants (Joan, n.d.).

Thus, mahouts (elephant caretakers) were challenged to continue caring for their elephants, who each consumed around 500 pounds of food daily. Many turned to illegal practices to maintain an income such as continued logging, drugging elephants with amphetamines to make them work faster, and parading them around the streets of Bangkok to be fed by tourists (Joan, n.d.). 

These ultimately contributed to elephants’ exploitation in the tourism industry today. Although many elephant sanctuaries in Thailand advertise themselves as “ethical”, they prioritize sales revenue over the elephants’ quality of life, leaving them malnourished for the sake of entertainment.

Unethical logging for elephants in Thailand
Photo by Nathapol HPS on shutterstock.com

Elephant tourism starts paving the way

According to World Animal Protection, Thailand’s tourism doubled from 15.9 million to 32.6 million visitors between 2010 and 2016. These numbers correlated to a 30% rise in elephant captures from 1,688 to 2,198 for entertainment purposes (“Taken for a ride,” 2018).

How do elephant sanctuaries come into play?

Originally designed as a haven for rescued elephants, many sanctuaries today have deviated from that intention. Today, less than 4,000 elephants are roaming Thailand, with most domesticated and unable to care for themselves. One of the sanctuaries I visited shared that despite letting the elephants roam freely, they always make their way back.

Visiting an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Beware of these red flags!

1) Riding elephants

Riding is the clearest indication of mistreatment! Asian elephants can grow up to 9 ft. and weigh 2 to 5 tons but don’t assume their size means they can carry you. Riding ultimately leads to irreversible spinal damage that can affect other functions, such as walking.

One elephant I encountered was overcoming her fear of humans (we had to be extra cautious around her). Turns out, she’d been rescued from a circus that forced her to be ridden on for hours, which explained the scars and burns atop her back, as well as the limp in her back leg.

Riding elephants in Thailand
Image by Andrey Paltsev on shutterstock.com

2) Tricks and performances

Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that advertise any sort of performance guarantee the usage of phajaan, breaking the spirit of a young elephant. These mahouts separate babies from their mothers and lock them in confined structures. They’re bound to posts with no more than 3 yards of rope and are terrorized with ankle spikes, shackles, bullhooks, and starvation (“Asian Elephant,” 2019).

Why? To instill obedience out of fear from a young age.

Another study from World Animal Protection found that 65% of mahouts use bullhooks to control the elephants at advertised ethical sanctuaries (Stewart, 2018). Just goes to show the importance of doing your research and not blindly trusting any self-proclaimed sanctuaries.

Mahouts forcing an elephant to paint for an audience in Thailand
Image by Karl-Heinz Gutmann from Pixabay 

3) Misinformation

Not as much of a “red flag”, but something to be mindful of. When reaching out to sanctuaries with questions, don’t be quick to believe everything they say. Mahouts can be quick to respond with an answer that satisfies ill-informed foreigners. Rely on multiple reviews and blog posts for honest opinions on the overall experience and elephants’ treatment.

National Geographic uncovered the brutal treatment of elephants in Thailand. This may be difficult to watch, but it’s SO important in spreading awareness!

What should I look for in an ethical elephant sanctuary?

Remember, Thailand’s elephant sanctuaries were originally designed for retired and rescued elephants. A truly ethical sanctuary will emphasize the elephants’ quality of life over monetary profit.

1) Space to Roam

The only time you should see elephants in an enclosed area is when a mother is with her newborn. Mothers are very protective of their babies, so this is to ensure the safety and bonding of both elephants.

Otherwise, you should see the elephants offered extensive fields to roam freely without restriction. As you walk with the mahouts, they shouldn’t be carrying any bullhooks to keep the elephants in line. If the elephants decide to slow down and eat or wander into another field, they should be free to do so.

2) Space from Visitors

Ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand will limit the time tourists spend with elephants. Typically, elephants are kept behind a wooden fence during feeding and are kept at a distance as you walk beside them. Even during bathing, you aren’t necessarily scrubbing the elephants, but rather splashing water onto their backs.

At Elephant Nature Park, the highest-rated ethical sanctuary in Thailand, visitors aren’t even allowed to touch elephants. Their hands-off experience lets travelers observe the elephants and learn about their history; truly caring for the well-being of elephants over social media virality.

Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

What can I expect when visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand?

Most elephant sanctuaries are situated in the mountains of Chiang Mai. Half-day and full-day tours are most commonly offered. I’ve done half-day tours twice and honestly, that was the perfect amount of time to learn about these majestic creatures!

A driver picks everyone up from their accommodations and drives about an hour and a half outside the city to the sanctuary. 

Your experience should look something like this:

  • Learning the history (both ethical and unethical treatment) of elephants in Thailand
  • Food preparation
  • Walking with them at a distance to a river or waterfall
  • Bathing/splashing water on them
  • Ending the day with a Thai meal

Half-day tours run from 1500 to 1900 baht ($40 to $50 USD) and are offered either in the morning or afternoon. Other packages can be upwards of 3000 baht ($90 USD) depending on the tour. 

Regardless of the tour you choose, be prepared to get your hands dirty, hair wet, and leave with your heart full!

Final thoughts on Thailand’s elephant sanctuaries

As backpackers, we’ll never fully see what happens to these elephants behind closed doors. Our choices as travelers directly influence the amount of elephant riding and inhumane practices that continue in Thailand. With more people saying “yes” to riding, more unethical businesses will continue to capture and exploit these animals.

Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

If visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand doesn’t sit well with you, I recommend visiting Thailand’s national parks, such as Kui Buri, instead. This allows you to witness these wild animals in a completely untouched manner.

However you choose to spend time with them, do extensive research in contributing to this industry. Use your best judgment and take into consideration your priorities: the treatment of elephants or the number of likes you can get on your latest Instagram post.

References

Asian Elephant. (2019, July 5). Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/a/asian-elephant/

Joan, C. S. Y. (n.d.). The 1989 Logging Ban. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/hp331-2012-shiyun/threats/logging-ban/

Stewart, N. (2018, October 8). There are no winners in the elephant tourism industry. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/blogs/there-are-no-winners-elephant-tourism-industry

Taken for a ride: Thousands of elephants exploited for tourism are held in cruel conditions. (2018, November 29). Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/news/taken-ride-thousands-elephants-exploited-tourism-are-held-cruel-conditions

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8 Comments

  1. July 25, 2020 / 5:34 am

    Wow thank you so much for writing this! I would see tons of elephant selfies on Instagram and wanted to experience it myself but never fully thought about the affects on the elephants. Visiting a wild park is a great tip. I’d always rather see an animal in their natural habitat anyway 🙂

    • July 27, 2020 / 1:29 am

      Yes! Natural is always the best way to go!

  2. July 25, 2020 / 6:05 am

    Thank you for writing about this topic – it is so important and I wish more people learnt about how unethical riding animals could be! It breaks my heart to think of animals enduring such pain for human entertainment.

    • July 27, 2020 / 1:37 am

      Me too 🙁 it’s so sad they’re being exploited like this

  3. July 25, 2020 / 6:14 am

    Great post! I went to a sanctuary near Chiang Mai a couple years ago, and bathed the elephants and fed them, and watched one literally pull down a tree to eat it! They seemed very happy, and well treated, and enjoyed being mischievous. Glad you put these tips out there.

    • July 27, 2020 / 1:40 am

      Omg pulled down a TREE?! That’s crazy! Definitely an unforgettable travel memory 🙂

  4. July 25, 2020 / 6:00 pm

    Thank you so much, this is such an important topic! Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of any of this when I visited Sri Lanka one year ago and followed the locals’ recommendations of riding elephants. Since then, I’ve learned much more about the topic and hope to experience a more ethical elephant experience in the future.

    • July 27, 2020 / 1:47 am

      Aww I’m so glad to hear that!! 🙂 I didn’t know much about this either until I dug into research. I hope you can experience an ethical sanctuary soon too!

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