Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand: How to Make Sure You Choose an Ethical Experience

Baby elephant in Thailand

Tidarat Jitsook (Ann) is the founder of the ethical organisation, Hand2Trunk, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her aim is to educate travellers about elephant welfare beyond just a one-day visit to an elephant camp. She runs the elephant immersion program where travellers have a unique opportunity to live closely with elephants and learn about their lives, as well as the lives of communities who have co-existed with elephants for thousands of years. Below, Ann gives us a background on elephant tourism in Thailand and how to choose your elephant experience…

Elephants in Thailand

For many visitors to Thailand, getting to see the national animal, the elephant, is as important a box to tick as taking in the temples, grabbing bargains in the markets, sampling the delicious street food, or diving in the turquoise seas of the South. You may be one of those visitors who also want to make sure you don’t leave Thailand without getting close to the elephants, but at the same time, you want to do so in the most ethically sound way possible. What then are your options?

The author of the article, Tidarat Jitsook with an elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The author of the article, Tidarat Jitsook with an elephant in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

A Historic Relationship

Before discussing this, it is important to explain briefly about the history of elephants in Thailand. Many visitors to Thailand may not know that humans and captive/domesticated elephants have coexisted in Thailand for many centuries – long before the nation of Thailand we now know was even born. Elephants were used for warfare, logging, transportation, farming, and in cultural ceremonies.

Statue of elephants outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Statue of elephants outside the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

Of course, today elephants are no longer used in warfare, mechanisation has replaced the plough, and the car and motorbike have long since replaced the elephant as a mode of transport. Up until 1989, most captive elephants were used for logging, but in January of that year, the Thai Government passed a decree banning the practice. This meant that several thousand captive elephants that had been working in the logging industry found themselves out of work.

The Rise of Elephant Tourism

While it may seem good that these elephants were no longer used for logging, it brought with it a big problem. The reality is that feeding an elephant is not cheap – an elephant eats approximately 10 percent of its body weight per day.

Sadly, the result of this ‘unemployment’ meant many elephants and their mahout owners were faced with an unenviable dilemma – how to support their elephants, their families and themselves? Some turned to illegal logging and the dangers that came with it. Others turned to taking their elephants to the streets to beg.

Thankfully, the logging ban coincided with a dramatic rise in the number of tourists visiting Thailand. Many elephant owners subsequently turned to elephant tourism to help generate an income that could help support their elephants, families and themselves.

Elephant Tourism – The Saviour?

While for some the mere mention of the words ‘elephant tourism’ may seem unethical – context here is essential. In an ideal world all captive elephants would be returned to the wild, but that, unfortunately, is simply not possible. The reality is that there is not enough space for the elephants to return to due to the rapid rates of deforestation in the region which has seen the areas of natural habitat plummet.

The loss of natural habitat for the elephant is the biggest problem.
The loss of natural habitat for the elephant is the biggest problem.

Indeed, the relentless habitat destruction at the hands of human development is the chief reason why the Asian elephant is so critically endangered. As world-renowned animal behaviour scientist Frans de Waal puts it: “We cannot act as if captive elephants belong in the wild or should go back to the wild. The wild barely exists anymore.” (As quoted in Inside the Elephant Tourism Industry 19/5/16)

See below video of elephants in the wild spotted from the roadside on the way back from Kui Buri National Park, Central Thailand. There are between 3,000 and 3,500 elephants currently in the wild in Thailand and another 3,500 in captivity…

Elephant tourism is therefore now “the only viable, legal source of work for elephants in Thailand. There is no other job for them. So in a way, tourism is their saviour.” (Lair, Richard. Quoted in The Atlantic 19/5/16)

Ethical Elephant Tourism in Thailand

As mentioned at the start of this article, seeing the elephants when in Thailand is a box to tick for many visitors. This is good as it helps provide an income to the many thousands of captive elephants and human communities who rely on elephants for their livelihoods. What is less clear-cut is what ethical elephant tourism should look like.

Ethical elephant tourism
What does ethical elephant tourism look like?

Elephant tourism in Thailand takes on many different forms. From elephant rides to watching elephants perform in shows, to bathing elephants in elephant camps, to volunteering in one of the many elephant sanctuaries located across the country.

It is because of the historical domestication of elephants, there are now many ways tourists can visit Thailand and get up close and personal with these fascinating creatures. This is also an area of great debate, however, as what is considered unethical by some tourists, e.g. riding elephants, may not seem unethical to others.

Elephant riding is becoming less popular amongst Western tourists as awareness grows.

In recent years, there has been a tidal shift in attitudes towards elephant tourism among Western tourists to Thailand as this BBC article ‘Have we fallen out of love with elephant rides?’ discusses. Until only recently, visiting elephant shows and riding an elephant were popular activities. Now, these are a big no-no for many.

Editor’s note: Even as recently as 2009, the Lonely Planet to India promoted elephant rides as the ‘best and most environmentally friendly way to visit the country’s National Parks.’

Elephant camps and sanctuaries have instead become the most popular places for tourists to get to see the elephants. What then does an ethical elephant camp/sanctuary look like?

Travellers visit an elephant sanctuary in Northern Thailand
Bathing elephants is considered ethical practice at this sanctuary in Northern Thailand.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries, Thailand – 5 Things to Look Out For

Whatever the form of elephant tourism, elephant welfare boils down to one crucial question – how closely are the basic natural needs of an elephant being met? If a place you are looking to visit can provide most, if not all, of the following, then it’s fair to say that it has the interests of the elephants at heart:

1. Food

While this may seem obvious, elephants need food to survive and be healthy – and that means a rich variety. One of the joys of many visitors to elephant camps and sanctuaries is getting to feed these giant creatures with even bigger appetites.

Many camps provide their elephants with foods they love – for example, sweet treats such as watermelon, bananas and sugar cane. However, to ensure good health and to maintain a healthy weight, an elephant needs to eat a variety of foods and not just ‘sweet treats’.

Ideally, a camp/sanctuary will be able to provide elephants with access to a forested area where they are free to roam and eat foods natural to their diet such as bamboo leaves, bark and grass. If this is not possible, the camp will obviously ensure that the elephants are eating a rich and varied diet to ensure their health and wellbeing.

The health of an elephant depends on many factors.
The health of an elephant depends on many factors.

2. Access to water

It goes without saying that elephants need access to drinking water, but access to water for the elephants to bathe in is also important to their wellbeing.  A camp/sanctuary should have a large water area, e.g. access to a river, for elephants to swim, play, bathe and cool down in Thailand’s heat.

3. Interaction with other elephants

Elephants are very social animals and it is important that they are allowed to be with other elephants. A good camp will give elephants the time and freedom to socialise with other elephants and display their natural behaviours.

elephant tourism in Thailand
Elephants love company! Interaction with other elephants is essential for an elephant’s development.

4. Space and shade

Given their size and natural desire to roam, a good camp will be large enough to allow elephants the opportunity to move and roam. As mentioned above, access to a large, forested area is ideal as it allows elephants to roam in their natural environment as well as providing shade and access to food.

Where this is not possible, camps should provide elephants with both large areas to roam and access to a sheltered area to escape the day’s heat (ideally a natural sheltered area, but if it needs to be constructed it should be as natural as possible, i.e. not made of concrete).

Elephants need space, shade and access to water.
Elephants need space, shade and access to water.

5. Mahouts

Last, but certainly not least, it is important to mention those that work most closely with the elephants – the mahouts.  Once revered in Thailand and now often forgotten, the mahouts are crucial to the well-being of formerly domesticated elephants. A good mahout will have many years of experience working with elephants and will have already formed a loving and respectful relationship with them.

A mahout walking with elephants in Northern Thailand.
A mahout walking with elephants in Northern Thailand.

According to Preecha Phuangkum, one of Thailand’s foremost elephant veterinarians:

“Inexperienced mahouts use their strength to punish elephants, make them afraid, and force behaviour. The best mahouts will not only establish love but have the elephant respect him as much as he respects the elephant.”

A good camp/sanctuary, therefore, will have mahouts working that have many years of experience and understand how to ensure the happiness and well-being of the elephants. A camp that treats its mahouts fairly and with respect naturally treats their elephants the same way.

A good mahout is needed for captive elephants.
A good mahout is needed for elephants born in captivity.

The Last Word…

Tidarat with elephants
Tidarat Jitsook (Ann) with elephants in Chiang Mai.

Finally, it is important to do your own research. If there is a camp/sanctuary you are interested in visiting but a little unsure about, see what others have said about it online. Also, feel free to ask questions – a good camp will not hesitate to answer them.

The whole issue of elephant tourism is one of many opinions and great debate – ethical elephant tourism isn’t a simple black and white issue – rather, like the colour of the elephants themselves, it’s a grey one.

By making the right choice on your visit to Thailand, you can rest assured that you are not only helping to sustain these wonderful creatures but are sure to leave with memories that, like the elephants themselves, you will never forget.

More About the author:

My name is Tidarat Jitsook (Ann). My love for elephants was born not long after I was. My father was a mahout (elephant carer) and many of my earliest memories of this world are of being around elephants.

In my adult life, I have had the privilege of again being close to elephants when working for several different elephant organisations. These positions have also allowed me to work alongside many who share my love for elephants and meet many experts in the field of elephant conservation.

I have just started Hand2Trunk in Chiang Mai, Thailand: an organisation which offers travellers an educational 10-day “elephant immersion” program. This is an ethical and unique experience to live closely with elephants and learn about their lives as well as the lives of those communities who have co-existed with elephants for thousands of years.

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Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand

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  • Tidarat Jitsook (Ann) is the founder of the ethical organisation, Hand2Trunk, based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Her aim is to educate travellers about elephant welfare beyond just a one-day visit to an elephant camp. Are you interested in writing for us?

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