Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand + Southeast Asia: Making an Ethical Choice

Never Forget Elephant Foundation

Do you want to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand or Southeast Asia?

First of all, WELL DONE YOU for doing your research and being a responsible traveller when it comes to animal welfare! Secondly, you have come to the right place! Our aim with this guide is to point you in the best way we can towards an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand and/or other parts of Southeast Asia!

Before we begin, I must say that this is one of the most complicated and controversial topics that we have ever written about on the website! There are few other topics which receive as much debate and disagreement in our Facebook Community (just search the comments!). The issue of elephant tourism is anything but black and white. As the debate on the ethics of elephant tourism evolves, so will this guide.

So, please do share with anyone who you think needs to know more about this very important topic!

elephant tourism in Thailand
Elephant conservation is a complicated and controversial topic!

About this guide – Our In-Depth Research

In this article, we have gone to great lengths to get first-hand information from the owners of elephant sanctuaries, as well as some of the most respected elephant conservation experts in Asia.

We are very proud to present this guide as an overview of elephant tourism as it stands and recommend several fantastic elephant sanctuaries that are leading the way when it comes to the welfare of these amazing creatures, as well as the safety of their carers and visitors (both of which are often forgotten in the race for animal rights).

In this guide, we’ll cover the history of elephants in Thailand and why elephant tourism exists. We’ll discuss why elephant tourism is so controversial. We discuss some of the most Frequently Asked Questions when it comes to elephant tourism and get feedback on each of these questions from some of the most respected elephant conservation experts in Asia. But first of all…

Recommended ETHICAL Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

The following sanctuaries were each contacted by email and asked their opinions on several animal welfare questions as suggested by the conservation experts that we spoke to. Many of the sanctuaries responded to us in great detail (a good sign). For the sake of transparency, we have noted below each sanctuary if they replied or not. Please note, that we have not yet had the chance to personally visit all of the sanctuaries on this list. If you have a comment about one of the sanctuaries below, don’t hesitate to contact us.

1. BEES – Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary – Maechaem, Chiang Mai, Thailand

About: A true sanctuary for elephants that was founded in 2011 by partners, Burm and Emily. During a backpacking trip to Thailand as a teenager, Emily (originally from Australia) has been appalled at the living conditions of elephants (especially older elephants) who were forced to ride tourists around and perform tricks. She became passionate to do something about it. A year later, Emily met her future partner, Thai native, Burm, local to the Maecham area, an area that had a high number of elephants in captivity working in the logging industry. Together, they planned to create the elephant rescue and retirement home that is known as BEES today. Their number one aim is to allow elephants to BE elephants and engage in natural behaviour. There is no bathing, riding, nor performances here. BEES is a safe and free place where elephants have humans working for them and not the other way around!

BEES Elephant Sanctuary – where elephants are allowed to just ‘be’.

How to visit: There is a visitor’s program where travellers can come and see how elephants behave in their natural environment. The main program runs Monday to Sunday and there are shorter or programs of 2 days/1 night or 4 days/3 nights. During your stay, you will be able to observe the elephants in the forest, help prepare their food and learn more about how to care for the elephants as well as several other rescued animals at BEES (cats and dogs). You may also get involved in some community projects such as planting trees, cooking and weaving classes, as well as adventure and sightseeing activities such as temple going and tubing down the river. You can book a visit to BEES Elephant Sanctuary via South East Asia Backpacker here.

Trekkers planting banana trees
A visit to BEES may also involve some planting trees!

Did BEES Elephant Sanctuary respond to our questions? Yes. Emily McWilliam, Co-Founder and Manager at BEES actually contacted us in the first place about some issues that she has with our article. We credit her with starting a very useful and progressive discussion in the interests of elephant welfare and educating tourists. You can see her answers above.

2. Elephant Valley Thailand  – Chiang Rai

About: Elephant Valley, located in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand is currently home to a family of five elephants on an area of 40 acres of forested land. This project was actually inspired by the Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri, Cambodia (see below). How to visit: At Elephant Valley you can stay in a homestay where you can be surrounded by elephants on all sides as you sleep (don’t worry, there’s an elephant proof fence around the home!). Activities during the day include going on walks to see the elephants, feeding them and learning more about how to care for elephants. An overnight package costs 2600 THB and includes food, transport to and from Chiang Rai and time with the elephants. Longer stays can be arranged. Did Elephant Valley Thailand respond to our questions? Yes. Jack Highwood, managing director of both the Elephant Valley Thailand and Elephant Valley Cambodia was one of the most vocal amongst the elephant sanctuaries that responded. We have added his thoughts above under the relevant sections.

3. 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 and 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.

Ava Lalancette With an Elephant at Never Forget
Ava Lalancette, founder of Never Forget Elephant Foundation.

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. The week-long visit costs $875 US and you can book it here via South East Asia Backpacker.Did Never Forget Elephant Foundation respond to our questions? Yes, Ava Lalancette, founder of NFEF and Holly Kwan (outreach director) responded in great detail to our questions and we subsequently arranged a Skype to discuss more. We have added their opinions under the relevant sections above.

Never Forget Elephant Foundation
The aim of the Never Forget Elephant Foundation is to improve the lives of endangered elephants in Thailand

4. 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 famous elephant sanctuary in Thailand founded by local heroine, Lek Chailert, once voted as one of 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 (many of which you will find in this list). 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.  Did Elephant Nature Park respond to our questions? No.

Elephant Nature Park's Inspiring Founder | Lek Chailert Interview

5. 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.  Did Wildlife Friends Foundation respond to our questions? No.

6. Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary – Sukhothai, Thailand

About: With over 750 acres of wildland, the elephants at the Boon Lott Sanctuary roam freely amongst trees and grasses. Located halfway 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.  Did Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary respond to our questions? The owner had not seen the questions we sent her until long after the article was updated. She has offered to answer them since and we will update this article again with her thoughts included soon.

7. Samui Elephant Haven – Koh Samui, Thailand (Save Elephant Foundation)

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. Did Samui Elephant Haven respond to our questions? No.

8. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary – Phuket, Thailand (Save Elephant Foundation)

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, in the 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 (with the exception of their other project, Phuket Elephant Park, below). 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. Did Phuket Elephant Sanctuary respond to our questions? No.

9. Phuket Elephant Park – Phuket, Thailand (Save Elephant Foundation)

About: Another project by Save Elephant Foundation (Lek Chailert), Phuket Elephant Park is set against a beautiful backdrop of national park. On this 12-acre plot of land, elephants are left to behave as they would in their natural environment; there is no riding, forced bathing or touching, only close observation. The herd currently consists of three rescued elephants; Deelert, Srinuan and Boonsib. How to visit: You can take a half-day morning tour to visit the elephants at Phuket Elephant Park which costs 2,500 THB per adult and 1,300 THB per child (3,000 THB per adult and 1,500 per child with transport included ). Vegetarian lunch is included.  Did Phuket Elephant Park respond to our questions? No.

10. Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary – Chiang Mai

About: Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary is a non-profit foundation that aims to bring elephants back to the forest. As well as helping the elephants to thrive in their natural environment, the NGO aims to provide an alternative way of making a living for the mahouts and elephant owners who are often a forgotten side-effect in the push for ethical elephant tourism. How to visit: The sanctuary offers two types of visitor packages; a 2-day/1-night package for 9,000 THB per person or 5,000 THB for two people, and a 3-day/2-night package for 10,000 THB per person or 7,000 THB for two people. The price includes pick up and drop off in Chiang Mai, accommodation and food during your stay. You will stay in a hill tribe village overnight and hike in the forest to see the elephants. You will feed them, learn how to care for them and observe these amazing creatures in their natural habitat. Did Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary respond to our questions? No.

11. Elephant Haven – Kanchanaburi, Thailand (Save Elephant Foundation)

About: One of the newest projects supported by Save Elephant Foundation is also known as the ‘Elephant Freedom Project’. As the name suggests, the aim of the sanctuary is to help elephants to achieve ‘freedom’ (back in the wild) of which they have so far achieved with seven elephants. Visitors to Elephant Haven should know that it was once an elephant camp which permitted riding until renowned conservationist, Lek Chailert, encouraged the camp to become ‘saddle off’! The transformation was documented in the international film ‘Love & Bananas; An Elephant Story’. Now, the camp is one of the most ethical places to see elephants in Thailand as they roam around the spacious grounds and play around in the River Kwai which runs right through the camp.How to visit: If you would like to visit Elephant Haven Kanchanaburi, there are a few options. You can take a one day visit which costs 2,500 THB per adult and 1,500 THB per child. You can do an overnight stay (2 days, 1 night) which costs 5,800 per adult and 2,900 THB per child, or you can inquire about possible volunteer opportunities which last one week. Visits to the sanctuary can take place all year round and include a pick up from Kanchanaburi bus or train station, food and accommodation if doing the overnight stay. Did Elephant Haven respond to our questions? No.

Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story  - Trailer

12. Samui Elephant Sanctuary

About: Samui Elephant Sanctuary is one of two ethical elephant sanctuaries on the island of Koh Samui (the other is Samui Elephant Haven) and they are both located in the North East of Koh Samui near to Mae Nam and are both associated with Save Elephant Foundation. The founder of the sanctuary is Thai native, Wittaya Sala-Ngam who has learnt from Lek Chailert in making the sanctuary an ethical and protected place for rescued elephants. How to visit: Both half-day morning and afternoon tours (3 hours in total) cost 3,000 THB per person and 1,500 THB per child. (Children under 4 years of age go free!) Like all of the other sanctuaries on this list, riding and bathing are strictly forbidden. Vegetarian buffet included. Did Samui Elephant Sanctuary respond to our questions? No.

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.

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.

Recommended Elephant Sanctuaries in the rest of 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. Elephant Valley Project – Mondulkiri, Cambodia

About: Founded in 2006, Elephant Valley Project is the original and first elephant sanctuary in Cambodia located in over 1,500 hectares of forest, dedicated to providing a safe home for the ex-working elephants of Cambodia. Their sanctuary echoes their motto: “Let them roam free.” The Elephant Valley Project runs under the NGO, the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment which (ELIE) which began by providing veterinarian care to elephants and education to the mahout families in the far east Mondulkiri province of Cambodia. They aim not only to care for the elephants but support the families that used to rely on elephants for their livelihood in this part of the world. How to visit: If you want to visit the Elephant Valley Project, there are a variety of ways to do so, from a day visit to an overnight stay and a five day volunteering program. A day’s visit will cost $95 US while a 2-day visit (in a shared room) will cost $140 US. There are discounted rates for group bookings and school groups. Book your visit to the Elephant Valley Project 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. Established by elephant specialist Sébastien Duffillot in 2010 after 10 years of work in Laos with his initial NGO, ElefantAsia, the Center currently has 33 elephants roaming over an area of land of 530 hectares and 67 people caring for them. 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 the 192.000-hectare Nam Pouy protected area of Sayaboury Province that the Elephant Conservation Center is now officially managing. How to visit: The cost for a 2-day, 1-night stay at the centre is $210 US per person or $280 US for a 3-day, 2-night stay. If you would like to learn more, a 7-day volunteering program is available for $470 US. You can book a visit to the Elephant Conservation Center here.

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.

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 Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. How to visit: Visits can be arranged for $100 US (half day tour) or $150 US (full-day tour). Children’s discounts are 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.

5. Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary – Sumatra, Indonesia (Save Elephant Foundation)

About: A non-profit organisation located in Aek Godang in North-Central Sumatra (Indonesia) that began life in 2015 when it rescued six ex-working elephants suffering from very poor health conditions. They are the first elephant sanctuary in the whole of Indonesia to initiate a ‘chain-free’ elephant program and are currently promoting it up and down the country. The elephants that were once suffering from PTSD due to being chained all day and night now have a wonderful 32 hectares of jungle to roam around in. There is also a Sumatran Tiger rehabilitation on-site. How to visit: A day visit can be arranged for 1,200,000 IDR per person (approximately $85 USD). One week volunteer programs start at 6,200,000 IDR ($440 US). 

A Short History: Why Elephant Tourism Exists in Thailand

Like the horse in Europe, elephants were used historically in Thailand as a working animal. In a world without machines, elephants were employed in logging, farming, as a mode of transport in daily life and even as a vehicle in warfare. Elephants were also used in festivals, ceremonies and rituals and were an important part of Thai culture dating back centuries.

Breaking the Elephants Spirit or “Phajaan”

In case you didn’t notice, elephants are huge. They are also extremely powerful (and potentially dangerous) creatures weighing up to 3,000 kilograms with the ability to lift over 300 kilograms with their trunks! So how was it possible for these wild and mighty beasts to be tamed and made to do what humans desired of them?  You may or may not have heard of the concept of ‘breaking an elephant’s spirit’, also known as ‘The Crush’ (or ‘Phajaan’ in Thai). This unsavoury practice was bestowed upon baby elephants, after they were caught in the wild, with the aim of making the elephant submissive to humans. Ancient stories suggest that the captors believed that they were separating the “evil wild spirit” of an elephant from its body so that it could be controlled by the mahouts. To most eyes, however, it was a simple case of torturing the animal so that it would be afraid to ever disobey its master and would become a reliable worker.

Baby elephant in Thailand
Baby elephants caught in the wild were once subject to “Phajaan” or spirit-breaking to make them docile to humans.

The 1989 Logging Ban

Following a series of flash floods in the South of Thailand in 1988 which was directly caused by logging and deforestation, the Thai Government decided to ban logging in an emergency decree in January 1989. At this time, over 4,000 elephants were working in the logging industry and all of sudden, the elephants (and their owners, known as ‘mahouts’) found themselves out of work.

Why Not Release Ex-Logging Elephants Back Into The Wild?

At this point, many people ask why these ex-working elephants could not just be released into the wild. The answer is complicated. First of all, these elephants were captive, not wild (having already gone through the process of ‘phajaan’, or having been born in captivity). They were used to being around and relying on humans for food and basic needs and therefore needed their support to survive. Secondly, the natural habitat of the elephants had greatly decreased during the 20th century. There was not enough jungle left to release these huge creatures safely. Finally, the danger of animal poachers meant that they would not be safe in the jungles of Thailand and Southeast Asia. The elephants now needed protection. Read more on releasing elephants into the wild below.

Post-1989 Problems

Just after the logging ban, it was not uncommon to see mahouts, with their elephants, roaming the streets of towns and cities begging for food to support themselves, their elephants and their families. As an elephant eats approximately 10% of its body weight per day, feeding an elephant is not cheap. With this sudden change to Thai society, the mahouts did whatever they could to survive, some of which would be looked upon very negatively today. In 1997 a ban on bringing elephants into Bangkok to beg was implemented. However, this did not stop some mahouts from heading into the capital city and sucking up the fines as part of their ‘business expenses’. (In 2016, I personally saw a very sorry-looking elephant in Bangkok along Sukhumvit Road with a mahout selling sweetcorn to tourists to feed to it.)

Enter Elephant Tourism

During the early 1990s, tourist numbers to Thailand rose rapidly, and Thai people started to realise that elephants were a big tourist attraction. People from Western countries wanted to ride elephants, touch them and bathe with them. They were prepared to pay a lot of money to do this. Many mahouts turned to elephant tourism, in its myriad forms, as a way to provide an income for themselves and their families. John Roberts, co-chair of Asian Captive Elephants Working Group, offered these further thoughts having read the previous paragraph… “Actually I think part of the problem is most people are not prepared to pay “a lot” of money to interact with an elephant, leading to overwork of elephants as an elephant needs to ’service’ a lot of people to break even, if people paid more the elephant could, theoretically, have more time off (though if time off is short-chained on concrete, that is not necessarily better!)”

Ethical Elephant Tourism & The Shift in Opinion  

During the 1990s and early 2000s, visiting an elephant show and elephant riding and trekking through the jungles of Thailand were very popular activities. Nowadays, these are a big no-no! Tourists who do ride elephants whilst backpacking in Asia are generally seen as immoral for doing so. 


However, we must understand that this shift in opinion has happened so quickly that many people in the travel industry are still catching up. Even as recently as 2009, the Lonely Planet for India promoted elephant rides as “the best and most environmentally friendly way to visit the country’s National Parks.” For this statement to be foin one of the world’s most respected guidebooks is outrageous to many just 10 years later.  Until recently, many of the large travel companies also included elephant riding as part of their travel packages. As this article by the BBC in 2016 explains, what was once a ‘must-do activity’ when visiting Asia has become something to actively avoid. Today, there are similar debates about whether or not it is ethical to; bathe with elephants, use chains in the care of captive elephants and even touch elephants. (We will discuss these one-by-one later.)

The Rise of Elephant Sanctuaries

Today, the general consensus is that one of the most ethical ways to encounter elephants is to visit an Elephant Sanctuary. In the majority of elephant sanctuaries, you will find ex-working elephants who have been rescued from the tourist industry (elephant trekking) and/or ex-logging elephants. The sanctuaries are seen as a place where elephants have all of their basic needs met (food, water, enough space to roam around, interaction with other elephants) and are exempt from having to partake in activities that are solely for the pleasure and entertainment of tourists (performances, riding, tricks etc.).

The Word “Sanctuary”

Those looking for an ethical elephant encounter should be warned that there are no rules on using the word “sanctuary” and it can be used freely by any organisation regardless of its practices. There are no government regulations that exist in any Asian country to specify when and under what guarantees the word ‘sanctuary’ can be used and no governing body inspecting centres handing out certificates. For the traveller, therefore, it is difficult to know which place to trust when it comes to the wellbeing of the elephants themselves. While one sanctuary will deem riding or bathing with the elephants a thoroughly ethical experience, another will disagree. Added into the mix is a fierce group of animal rights activists, with little or no experience in caring for elephants, viciously calling out what they see as ‘unethical behaviour’ at elephant sanctuaries, pushing the demands of how to treat these animals to ever-greater extremes.

Why is elephant tourism so controversial?

With opinions shifting so rapidly on what is deemed ethical and what is not when it comes to elephant tourism, it becomes very difficult to find “the truth” amongst the varying points of view. It is worth remembering that elephants and humans do not speak a common language. Nor has any human ever experienced what it is like to be an elephant. Animal psychologists and other experts can form opinions as to what they believe to be in the best interests of an animal and what brings them joy/pain. Expert opinion shifts with time, uninformed opinion shifts quicker-still. It’s near-certain that what is considered ethical today, will be rejected as abject cruelty before you can say “Nelly the elephant packed her trunk”.  After weeks of investigation for this article, I can’t resist pointing out that the rights and wrongs of human interaction with elephants are much more hotly debated than our interaction with any other animal. The requisites we demand of those who let us anywhere near elephants are beyond anything else you will come across in the realm of “responsibility”. If the bar were set as high for our relationships with horses, cats or dogs, society would surely struggle. As for those we eat… need I mention battery hens? As Dr Ingrid Suter, captive elephant researcher from Asian Captive Elephant Standards, with a doctorate in captive elephant conservation, told us: “Travellers should appreciate the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare. I think many are not clear that there is a huge difference between the two. Animal welfare is an issue all people should care about, and captive elephant welfare standards is certainly an industry under continual improvement. Whereas animal rights activists believe any interaction with any animal is morally wrong, regardless of the cultural, environmental, economic or political context. Animal rights activists will not be happy until all elephants are set free from captivity; something that entirely ignores the complex issues of elephant management. This is an entitled opinion and one that comes with more than just a touch of ‘white saviour complex’. Of course, travellers should care about elephant welfare, but there are more ways to care than just bans or boycotts.”

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

Find me: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

2 thoughts on “Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand + Southeast Asia: Making an Ethical Choice”

  1. I rode an elephant in Thailand back in 2016. In an effort to be more animal friendly, the tour provider didn’t use a saddle; all riding was done bare back. A few days after the tour, I visited the hospital with what I though were bed bugs. Turns out that I was infected with Mites from the bareback elephant ride. The bites ran the length of my legs, anywhere where my skin had contacted the elephant. Unfortunately, this issue is somewhat common. To this day, I still feel the experience of riding an elephant did NOT justify the pain and trouble caused by the mites.

    1. Suzana Ielcean

      Elephants are not yours to ride. With or without a saddle. It would have been wonderful if you could just sit back and observe them rather than sitting on their back. The mites seems to justify your behaviour.

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