Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand: Guide to Choosing an Ethical Sanctuary

elephant tourism in Thailand

Are you looking to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand?

In this article, we’ll cover the history of elephant tourism in Thailand and why it exists. We will give you advice on how to encounter elephants in Thailand in the most ethically sound way possible, as well as giving you some recommendations on the best elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Elephants in 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. Historically, 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 in Thailand

While it was good news that these elephants were no longer used for logging, it brought with it a big problem. Being captive elephants (meaning that they had been brought up with the help of humans), as well as the fact that their natural habitats had greatly decreased during the 20th century, these creatures could not be released into the wild all at once. In addition, the danger of animal poachers meant that they would not be safe in the jungles of Thailand and Southeast Asia. They needed protection.

So, 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? (The reality is that feeding an elephant is not cheap – an elephant eats approximately 10 percent of its body weight per day.) Some turned to illegal logging and the dangers that came with it. Others turned to taking their elephants to the streets of cities and towns to beg!

Coincidentally, the logging ban occurred at the same time as 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.

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)

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

Quite controversially, one expert claimed: “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

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.

In some ways, 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. However, what is less clear-cut is what ethical elephant tourism should look like.

Ethical elephant tourism
What does ethical elephant tourism look like?

Sadly, elephant tourism in Thailand (and across Asia) takes on many different forms and not all of these support the wellbeing of the elephants themselves. 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… The spectrum of what is deemed ‘ethical’ is constantly in flux.

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-Thailand
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.

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. So what then does an ethical elephant camp/sanctuary look like?

Can you see Wild Elephants in Thailand?

Kui Buri National Park – Hua Hin, Thailand

About: One of the only places to see elephants in the wild in Thailand is Kui Buri National Park. Here, elephants (believed to be 320 of them) roam completely free in the national park, which lies between Hua Hin and Prachuap Khiri Khan in the South of Thailand. Many people claim that this is the best place in Thailand to encounter elephants as they are 100% in their natural habitat and visitors are not allowed to bathe, ride or touch them. In this way people claim that the experience is more ‘real’ than the other experiences.

How to visit: The entrance fee to visit the national park is 200 THB (which is the same as most national parks in Thailand) and to hire a private driver with jeep it is 850 THB per person (mandatory). To visit, you must make your way to the park headquarters to buy a ticket, or book a tour from a nearby town. You can read many Trip Advisor reviews about a visit to Kui Buri National Park here.

Note from the editor: My boyfriend and I visited Kui Buri National Park last year, but also felt that it was somehow ‘unreal’. We were put in jeeps and the driver simply chased the elephants around the park in an effort to allow tourists to take photos of them. I’m sure the elephants don’t really want to be chased like this, and it’s not really that ‘wild’ in my opinion. Although granted that the elephants have a lot of space in the park and looked healthy – and there’s no riding or bathing of course. However, when we left the paid part of the park, we were riding our motorbike down the road and spotted a family of elephants in the bushes at the side of the road, it was amazing! Two local guys had stopped and pointed them out to us. This felt like we had really seen elephants in the wild and was a brilliant experience!

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.

 

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

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. The word ‘sanctuary is banded’ about all over the place these days. But how many of these so-called ‘sanctuaries’ are actually legit?

Whether it’s a sanctuary, a park or a camp, 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 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’ given by tourists.

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 and mud 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.

Is bathing elephants ethical?

There is some controversy over whether or not bathing with elephants is ethical. While clearly many tourists long for this unique and fun experience, some experts claim that it is not natural for elephants to bathe so often, especially with humans present.

Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park, claims that bathing is a fundamental habit of elephants and one that is better done alone and as enthusiastically as possible. If humans are present, the elephant is not able to ‘let go’ properly and therefore is not behaving naturally. Many ethical camps therefore, do not allow bathing as part of their visitor programs. Other camps, such as the popular Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai has long banned riding, but continues to allow visitors to bathe with elephants.

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

Do Your Research

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 in Trip Advisor reviews etc. Read the reviews carefully, but also read the responses of teh camp to negative reviews. This is a good indication that the camp cares about their elephants and is trying to educate visitors about how to care for an elephant. Most of all, feel free to ask questions – a good camp will not hesitate to answer them by phone or email.

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, 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.

Baby elephant in Thailand
Baby elephant in Thailand.

Recommended Places to See Elephants in Thailand

The following elephant sanctuaries have been recommended by travellers and expats in our Facebook Community. “What is the best place to see elephants in Thailand?” is a Frequenty Asked Question in our group and one that generates a lot of discussion. The following sanctuaries have been researched online by our team, however we have not had the chance to visit all of them. If you have an update about one of the sanctuaries below, don’t hesitate to contact us.

1. Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai, Thailand

About: Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai has been running since the 1990s offering once working elephants the chance to rehabilitate and relax in a safe and supportive environment of over 250 acres in Northern Thailand. This is the most highly respected elephant sanctuary in Thailand founded by local heroine, Lek Chailert, once voted Time Magazine’s “Heroes of Asia” for her conservation work with elephants. Lek runs a foundation called ‘Save Elephant Foundation‘ which has several projects across Southeast Asia.

How to visit: Elephant Nature Park is extremely popular so it is wise to book as far in advance as possible. The cost for a single day visit is 2,500 THB per person and for a 2-day, 1-night (overnight stay) the cost is 5,800 THB per person. (Children can enter for half price.) Visitors to the park get to meet the elephants (but not ride or bathe them) and learn about the rescue and healing process of elephants in captivity. Read more on the Elephant Nature Park website.

2. Wildlife Friends Foundation – Petchaburi, Thailand

About: Also with an excellent reputation, this sanctuary is not only home to elephants, but many other animals who have been rescued from terrible circumstances (monkeys, bears, crocodiles). Their elephant refuge and education centre allows visitors to encounter elephants in their natural environment. The elephants roam freely in the forested land around the centre and are never chained up, not even at night. It’s a great place to get informed about the plight of elephants and other endangered creatures in Thailand.

How to visit: Day visits can be arranged at 1,600 THB for a full day and 1,100 THB for a half day. (Child prices are 1,100 THB for a full day and 900 THB for a half day.) There is a limited number of guests each day so you must book far in advance if you wish to attend the centre. For those who wish to spend more time looking after the animals at the centre, volunteer placements are available from $350 US per week. See the Wildlife Friends Foundation website for more information.

3. Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary – Sukhothai, Thailand

About: With over 750 acres of wild land, the elephants at the Boon Lott Sanctuary roam freely amongst trees and grasses. Located half way between Bangkok and Thailand near the old historical city of Sukhothai, Boon Lot is a highly respected place to see elephants in their natural environment. There are currently 12 elephants at the sanctuary, all of whom were rescued from miserable conditions. The sanctuary was founded in 2007 by Katherine Connor, originally from the UK, and named after a brave baby elephant named Boon Lott.

How to visit: Rumour has it that visits to Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary are fully booked one year in advance so be sure to plan ahead if you want to visit this sanctuary! It costs 6,000 THB per night (per person) to stay at Boon Lott which includes transport, meals and lots of quality time with the elephants. Reservations can only be made on the Boon Lott Sanctuary Website.

4. Samui Elephant Haven – Koh Samui, Thailand

About: Another fairly new elephant sanctuary (opened August 2018) that is associated with Save Elephant Foundation, the initiative founded by Lek Chailert, owner of Elephant Nature Park (see above). The haven is home to several elephants who were rescued from terrible conditions (work and tourism) in the South of Thailand. No riding, performances or bathing is permitted but you can go with the elephants to their custom-built mud pool to take photos as the elephants splash around.

How to visit: Morning or afternoon visits can be arranged for 3,000 THB per person. (Child price is 1,500 THB and children under 4 years go for free. You can book your tour on this page.

5. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary – Phuket, Thailand

About: Another highly reputable and recommended ethical sanctuary inspired by Lek Chailert (Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park) is the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, on the popular tourist island of Phuket. Located in Paklok, Northeast of the island, visitors to this sanctuary must be warned that there are many other non-ethical camps pretending to be this one to attract visitors! Be aware that this is the first and only ethical elephant sanctuary in Phuket. Set in 30 acres of jungle land, ex-working elephants here can enjoy their retirement in relaxation.

How to visit: Morning and afternoon visits are available as well as 3-day or one- week-long volunteer programs. Check out the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary website for more information.

6. Never Forget Elephant Foundation – 400km from Chiang Mai, Thailand

About: A brand new project founded in January 2019 the Never Forget Elephant Foundation aims to return captive elephants to their natural habitat in the jungles of Northern Thailand. American founder, Ava Lalancette an her team of passionate elephant lovers work closely with the Karen Hill tribe people from the mountains of the north to inspire solutions towards elephant and environmental progress. 

Never Forget Elephant Foundation
The aim of the Never Forget Elephant Foundation is to put elephants back in the wild!

How to visit: They will be opening their doors to week-long ‘volunteer visits’ at the end of this year. The visitor village is located on a hillside near a local Karen ethnic community 400km from Chiang Mai. It’s an amazing place to see the elephants in their natural habitat and learn more about the history of elephants in captivity in Thailand. Prices to be confirmed. Keep an eye on the Never Forget Elephant Foundation website for more info.

Recommended Places to See Elephants in Southeast Asia

Outside of Thailand, there are several places that have a good reputation for being ethical elephant sanctuaries. Here are a few of the best…

1. Mondulkiri Elephant and Wildlife Sanctuary – Sen Monorom, Cambodia

About: This elephant sanctuary is located in a little-visited part of East Cambodia, called Sen Monorom, that is becoming more well-known as an eco-tourism destination. It us run by the charismatic ‘Mr. Tree’ who has dedicated his life to animal conservation. The sanctuary was established in 2015 to protect ex-working elephants in Mondulkiri Province, of which there are 41 left. The owners are constantly offered money to sell their elephants to tourist camps in Siem Reap. Today, the elephants are left to roam freely, looked after by the local Banung Tribe, who protect them from poachers. The sanctuary is the biggest free roaming area per elephant of anywhere in Southeast Asia.

How to visit: You can go trekking through the forests and encounter elephants on a wonderful day hike which costs $50 US per person. There are no performances, tricks or riding and the elephants are in their natural habitat as you observe them respectfully. Trekking groups per day are 2-15 people and children above 6 years are allowed as long as they are accompanied by an adult. (Child discount is 50%.) Your visit contributes towards conservation of the forests and elephants. You can find out more on the Mondulkiri Sanctuary website here.

2. Elephant Conservation Center – Sayaboury Province, Laos

About: Offering a home for elephants that had previously been working in the logging industry in Laos, the Elephant Conservation Center (opened in 2001) is known as the most ethically run place to see elephants in Laos. There are 29 elephants roaming over an area of land of 530 hectares. Unlike other sanctuaries, the aim at the ECC is not to keep hold of the elephants that they have rescued, but to slowly reintroduce them into the wild once they have been rehabilitated. In March 2019, their first herd of five elephants was released into a protected area of Nam Pouy.

How to visit: The cost for a 2-day, 1-night stay at the center is $210 US per person or $270 US for a 3-day, 2-night stay. If you would like to learn more, a 7-day volunteering program is available for $450 US. Learn more on the Elephant Conservation Center website.

3. Green Hill Valley – Kalaw, Myanmar

About: Founded in 2011 by a local Burmese family, Green Hill Valley is a home for elephants who used to work in the Myanmar timber industry. It is the first ethically run elephant sanctuary in Myanmar that raises awareness amongst locals and foreigners about the plight of the working elephant in Asia. Co-founder, Maw, actually grew up in a family that worked for the Myanmar Timber Enterprise that used elephants in logging for many years. It was her passion that led her to set up a camp for retired and disabled elephants that could no longer work. The centre also supports reforestation of the local area and visitors can help with a plantation program. 

How to visit: Daily visits to the sanctuary can be arranged from the nearby town of Kalaw where you can learn how to take care of the elephants as well as take a short hike around their environment and get involved in planting trees. You can arrange visits on the Green Hill Valley website.

4. MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary – Luang Prabang, Laos

About: Located in the jungle just outside the popular tourist destination of Luang Prabang you will find the highly recommended elephant sanctuary of MandaLao. The elephants at MandaLao have been mainly rescued from logging camps, which was legal and active in Laos until quite recently. The sanctuary is run by Prasop Tipprasert, former director at the Elephant Conservation Centre (above).

How to visit: Visits can be arranged for $100 US (half day tour) or $150 US (full day tour) on the MandaLao website. Child discounts available. Visitors will learn more about what elephants eat, their habits and natural habitat and how to take care of elephants in captivity. Strictly no riding is allowed at MandaLao.

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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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    Nikki Scott is the founder & editor of South East Asia Backpacker. A traveller-turned-entrepreneur, she left the UK in 2009 and after 6 months on the road, she started a bi-monthly print magazine about backpacking in Asia. South America Backpacker soon followed and today she runs her backpacking enterprise from her base in Spain. Her honest and fascinating book, Backpacker Business, tells the story of her success in the face of adversity.