With social media dominating our everyday lives, visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand has become an ICON. Look it up on Instagram – elephant sanctuaries are a thriving leader in Thailand’s tourism industry. And while you’ve got an ENDLESS supply of sanctuaries to choose from, many unfortunately mislead tourists solely for the “insta-fame”.
As a first-timer in Thailand, deciphering ethical from inhumane sanctuaries can be daunting. Is it even possible for an elephant sanctuary in Thailand to be 100% ethical?
Luckily for you, I’ve done a good chunk of research 🙂 To spare you some time, here’s your in-depth guide to choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand!
Want to learn more about traveling around Thailand? Check out these posts!
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Wait … how did elephant sanctuaries even become a thing?!
Over the last century, 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 care 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.
It goes downhill from here …
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 drifted from that plan. Today, there are less than 4,000 elephants roaming Thailand, with most domesticated and unable to care for themselves. In fact, one of the sanctuaries I visited shared that despite letting the elephants roam freely, they always make their way back.
Beware of these red flags!
1) Riding elephants
This 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. This explained the scars and burns atop her back, as well as the limp in her back leg (it was SO heartbreaking!).
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.
It doesn’t get any worse than this, right? Well … a 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 you can’t trust any sanctuary – you’ve got to do research!
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 – it 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 (with neither tied down), is a mother 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 plenty of 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 have 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.
The amount of time you spend in contact with them should be limited to just a couple of hours, regardless of the length of your tour.
What can I expect visiting at 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 and interact with these majestic creatures!
First, a driver picks everyone up from their hotels and drives about an hour and a half outside the city to the sanctuary.
During your visit you should experience the following:
- Learning the history (both ethical and unethical treatment) of elephants in Thailand
- Proper care of them
- Preparing food and feeding the elephants
- Walking alongside them to a river or waterfall
- Bathing 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 early 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!
My final thoughts on Thailand’s elephant sanctuaries
As travelers, 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 performances that continue in Thailand. With more people saying “yes” to riding, more unethical businesses will continue to capture and exploit these animals.
If visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand doesn’t sit well with you, I’ve found an amazing alternative! Visiting some of Thailand’s national parks allows you to witness wild animals in an untouched and respectful manner! You can find elephants at Kui Buri, Thungyai-Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries, Khao Yai, and Kaeng Krachan (Annan, 2017). Click here for in-depth descriptions of seeing these creatures in their natural habitats.
However, you choose to spend time with them, above all else, DO EXTENSIVE RESEARCH in making the best decision in how you want to contribute 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 newest Instagram post?
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Annan, G. (2017, February 23). Wild Elephants in Thailand. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://www.thailandelephants.org/single-post/2016/08/16/Wild-Elephants-in-Thailand
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