Header Photo: Never Forget Elephant Foundation.
Are you looking 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 article is to guide you in the best way we can towards an ethical elephant encounter in Thailand and/or other parts of Southeast Asia!
Before we begin, I must say that this topic 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!).
In this article, we have gone to great lengths to get first-hand information from elephant sanctuaries themselves, as well as some 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 in 2019 and recommend to you some elephant sanctuaries that are leading the way when it comes to the welfare of this amazing creatures, as well as the safety of their carers and visitors (often forgotten in the race for animal rights).
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! Please share with anyone who you think needs to know more about this very important topic.
In this article:
- We’ll cover the history of elephants in Thailand and why elephant tourism it 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.
- Finally, we’ll give you some recommendations for elephant sanctuaries to visit in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia.
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. In reality, 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. Read more about “Phajaan” below.
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 elephants, not wild elephants (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 in the wild below.
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 the elephants.)
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.
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 to India promoted elephant rides as the “best and most environmentally friendly way to visit the country’s National Parks.” This statement in 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. Read more on the use of the word ‘sanctuary’ below.
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.”
Rather than give our opinion on what we think is ethical or not, we decided to get as much first-hand information from the people who are running elephant sanctuaries across Thailand and Southeast Asia. We invited them to comment on a number of questions to do with elephant tourism and have reported their comments under each of those questions below…
Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries – 10 Controversial Issues
1. Are elephant performances okay?
What People Assume…
This is an easy one. If the elephant is forced to wear clothes, paint a picture or perform any kind of dance or trick, then you can be pretty sure that you are not dealing with an elephant “sanctuary”. The general consensus is that people should avoid any kind of camp or circus that offers these ‘performances’. This same rule can be safely applied to animal performances by all species, monkeys, snakes and bears can, sadly, also be found “performing” across the region.
What The Experts Say…
Jack Highwood (Managing Director of the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia and the Elephant Valley Project in Chiang Rai, Thailand) – “No, tricks and performances are never acceptable. Sure target train the elephants or perform clinical of health check procedures and have trained professionals work with them and have visitors observe but they should not perform tricks purely for a visitors pleasure.”
2. Is it ever OK to ride an elephant?
What People Assume…
Elephant riding is no longer considered acceptable, although you will still find many elephant camps all over Southeast Asia which still offer it to tourists and many tourists who still add it to their holiday bucket list. It must be acknowledged that the stance on animal ethics, elephant tourism included, varies from country to country. Whilst the majority of travellers from the USA or Europe will reject elephant riding, tendencies can be different among other nationalities. One point that will cause some controversy would be the distinction between visitors to a sanctuary riding an elephant, and a mahout doing so. Some people will say that the former is never OK, while the latter will be, depending upon circumstances.
What The Experts Say…
Jack Highwood (Managing Director of the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia and the Elephant Valley Project in Chiang Rai, Thailand) – “It is not acceptable for tourists to ride elephants. The riding of elephants should only be done for a specific purpose and carried out by qualified and (more importantly with animals) experienced people.
I will give you an example. I have a 23 year old bull elephant, a tusker who weighs around 4000kg. He is most of the time calm but can get nervous and his ‘go-to response’ when this happens is to become aggressive. All our male elephants have two or three mahouts who are responsible for the elephants care around the clock and they are responsible for the elephant, and in turn I am responsible for their safety. Now if I unchain this bull and don’t ride him he will be fine for about 2 days before he wants to attack another elephant or kill someone. If I chain him at night then this could be 3 days. If I have one of his mahouts ride him then he won’t attack anyone but the mahout unless the mahout has a bullhook. Then he is fine. We keep trying different methods to condition him to not be ridden but it always ends in 4 tonnes of tears.
And at the end of the day I am not prepared to have visitors or staff members injured or killed in our quest to give this elephant a better life. So this bull elephant has someone sit on top of him 8 to 9 hours a day. We don’t hit him, beat him or control him with fear or pain, we can just talk to him and nudge him with our toes but that mahout does need a bull hook at hand incase something goes wrong. In exchange he lives with other elephants, eats a natural diet, grazes in forest and grassland and is not chained up in a barn standing in his own excrement stereotyping his ears off.”
Sébastien Duffillot, Elephant Conservation Center, Laos – “At the ECC we do not offer people elephant rides. We do not encourage riding either. I believe that sanctuaries should not propose/promote riding as the purpose of a sanctuary is to provide conditions as close to the animal’s natural environment as possible.
However, I think that if performed under certain conditions (permanent access to food, water, shade (along rivers for example), one person per elephant maximum, elephant riding can provide both an income to mahouts and physical exercise to elephants. The current aggressive campaign against riding from several ‘animal welfare groups’ doesn’t provide any answers or solutions but instead merely demonises elephant riding and local mahouts, which is detrimental to the animal in the long run.
Indeed, if tourism (the major employer of mahouts and elephants currently), is boycotted, what will happen to the elephants? Without an income, mahouts will not be able to keep their elephants and will be tempted to sell them to zoos or circuses, or go back to working with illegal logging companies. Returning elephants to the wild is not always possible… So, what’s next?”
3. Is bathing elephants ever ethical?
What People Assume…
At the time of writing, bathing is perhaps the hottest of all these topics. There is considerable controversy over whether or not bathing with elephants is ethical. While many tourists clearly 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. Many elephant sanctuaries that until recently offered bathing are now banning this activity. Often, the motive for this decision is the view that it is an activity carried out for the benefit of the tourist rather than the elephant.
Elephant expert, Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation and Elephant Nature Park, says 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. If bathing with tourists takes place, the mahout is forced to restrain the elephant more (to prevent them from injuring the tourists) and they are not able to carry out their natural activity of splashing around in the mud, an essential daily habit of the elephant. (Elephant bathing was banned at ENP last year.)
Another claim that is often made is that elephants would not spend so long in the water of their own accord, and that forcing (a strong word, but one that is often thrown around) them to spend time in the water that they would not otherwise have spent there could be damaging for their skin, as well as emotionally draining for them.
What The Experts Say…
Jack Highwood (Managing Director of the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia and the Elephant Valley Project in Chiang Rai, Thailand) – “No. Bathing with elephants is not acceptable. Only a qualified elephant keeper should wash an elephant. It is not safe for the visitor and it stresses the animal because the elephant does not speak [insert non Thai language here]. We used to do this, it wasn’t safe, we stopped.”
Sébastien Duffillot, Elephant Conservation Center, Laos – “A sanctuary must give elephants the opportunity to behave naturally. Elephants need daily access to water, but they must choose to go, or not, and stay in the water as long as THEY want. Bathing with elephants is extremely dangerous, as visitors can get stuck in the mud and rolled over by an elephant. And, organising a bath for tourists to partake in means that the elephant will be ‘forced’ to enter in the water or stay for an amount of time that doesn’t correspond to its needs/choice. Observing an elephant bathing is wonderful and harmless and this is what should be proposed.”
4. Should elephants ever be in chains?
What People Assume…
This is an extremely divisive topic. On one hand, many travellers are appalled the moment they see an elephant chained. On the other, it is sited that the use of chains (and bull hooks, see below) can save the lives, of visitors and mahouts alike, as well as saving other elephants from aggressive encounters, (many of which are of an unwanted sexual nature).
Recently, in this very article, we had a statement which claimed that elephant chains were a complete ‘no-no’ when it comes to ethical elephant sanctuaries. We received an onslaught of criticism for having made such a claim. We will leave it to the elephant sanctuaries themselves to deal with this complex issue. One point that could be universally agreed upon is that the length of a chain makes a substantial difference to the wellbeing of the chained creature. We will be so bold as to claim to know that at very least, a longer chain is better than a shorter one.
What The Experts Say…
Jack Highwood (Managing Director of the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia and the Elephant Valley Project in Chiang Rai, Thailand) – “There may be a time when the use of chains and bull-hooks are called for. When it is necessary to protect the safety of the keeper and the elephant. With these tools we can provide a better quality of life to elephants that would otherwise be chained up and hidden away. However it is completely unacceptable to abuse these tools and in turn the elephants. The correct training is paramount.
I have been working with elephants for a long time now, and they are incredibly complicated. Some elephants you can leave in a patch of forest and they will happily stay there for a long weekend, others can be aggressive and if they are unchained they can (and have) attacked people.
At the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, the elephants are old and the sanctuary is much more like an old peoples home for elephants. They like soft foods and half of them have arthritis and special diets and pop enough pills to make any granddad proud! Some elephants there we chain and some we don’t. It really depends on the day of the week and the elephant. Here in Thailand the elephants are younger, faster, more virile and are quicker to injure but also quicker to heal but still just as equally fascinating. Here we chain the elephants, on long (12, 15, 20-metre) chains and on fresh ground every couple of days.”
Sébastien Duffillot, Elephant Conservation Center, Laos – “Long chains (30-50m long) can be used to keep elephants at night in venues that are established near populated areas and/or do not have effective fencing. If elephants are able to leave the sanctuary and can access villagers crops or homes, it can lead to disastrous results. As long as elephants can access water and food and communicate with other elephants, the use of chains at night is not detrimental if they are long enough and tied up correctly (not too tight).”
5. Are the use of bull-hooks okay?
What is a bull-hook? A bull-hook is a tool used by elephant handlers, or mahouts. It is basically a stick with a spike on the end that mahouts jab into the elephants skin at sensitive areas (such as behind the ears) to control the animal.
What People Assume…
Again, another extremely controversial topic! Any tourist who casts eyes on this instrument can be forgiven for thinking that it looks like an instrument of torture. (Image coming soon!) However, after speaking with several experts and founders of elephant sanctuaries, we have been told that the bull-hook is sometimes necessary, especially when it comes to the safety of visitors and mahouts and that without it, more deaths would occur… Throughout this article, let’s not forget that elephants are wild animals!
What The Experts Say…
Dr Ingrid Suter, Elephant Conservation PhD – “There have been MAJOR issues at ‘no hooks/no chains’ camps. Earlier this year, at the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (recommended below) Katherine (the founder)’s husband was killed by his very own elephant. He was a very experienced mahout, but was forced to work within the confines of the ‘no hook’ policy that Western tourists seem to approve of so much. Similar deaths have occurred at other ‘no ankus’ camps (for example, Elephant Nature Park). If used correctly, the ankus is not a cruel instrument. The ankus can save a life if an elephant is spooked and it is critical that mahouts have access to an emergency instrument. Do travellers care about mahout deaths, or are locals viewed as expendable? Western media ignores the human casualties of the ‘no ankus’ camps, and continues to say that these camps are the most ethical! The Western hysteria surrounding hooks and rides needs to stop. Yes, elephant camps need to improve their practices (and they are!), but this should not occur at a human expense.”
Sébastien Duffillot, Elephant Conservation Center, Laos – “The use of a bull-hook must be strictly reserved to life-threatening situations where the elephant is out of control and the life of mahouts, staff, visitors or other elephants is at risk. The bull-hook has always been part of the normal kit of mahouts for generations. The important question is how/when to resort to using it. Overzealous mahouts exist, and visiting camps where elephants have permanent bloody markings on the forehead should be avoided and the problem reported. An elephant weighs between 2.5 to 5 tons. If it goes into a rampage the situation can become out of control and deadly. It is the duty of the mahout to keep control over their elephant when the latter is “under human care”.
Stating otherwise is ignoring the reality of elephant handling and being very loose on safety. Those claiming to employ mahouts that do not carry a hook are either playing with the lives of their staff and visitors and/or using this argument for marketing purposes. Don’t get me wrong here. I am not promoting the use of chains and bullhooks. But when working with elephants, safety must be the top priority. Elephants can be extremely dangerous and it is the responsibility of the sanctuary’s management to ensure a maximum level of safety to whoever gets close to the elephants.”
Jack Highwood (Managing Director of the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia and the Elephant Valley Project in Chiang Rai, Thailand) – “Bull-hooks are also a very contentious issue and any sanctuary that takes care of elephants and says they don’t use them, or at least have them on site, are doing one of two things. They are either lying to you or being quite stupid to not actually have one at hand in the case of an emergency. The fact of the matter is that everyone has bull-hooks, but the difference in a real elephant keepers mind is not if you have have one or not but with what you do with the bull-hook and how you use it.
A policeman and a gun is a good analogy. Depending on the situation it is quite accepted in the majority of police forces for policemen to carry guns. In England, not every policeman has one, we have dedicated units, but the police force as a whole still has them on hand. But when they do they are not judged on if they have them but on how they use them.
At the EVP and the EVT this also applies to our work. We have bull-hooks onsite and not with all elephants but we do have them on hand and they are there to regain control of aggressive elephants. If the elephant is calm and there is no issue then we have no need for it. But they are still there, much like a policeman who goes to work everyday. It’s an uncomfortable truth for many who lie or do not have them but elephants are wild dangerous animals and at elephant sanctuaries, we often work with the most damaged of creatures, who have been abused both physically and mentally.”
6. Is touching elephants okay?
What People Assume…
The majority of people still appear to think that touching elephants is fine. It is, of course, necessary at certain times and from certain people (a visit from the vet, for example). However, there is a recent move towards ‘hands-off’ policies with tourists at many sanctuaries. As an adult Asian elephant weighs around 3000kg and their trunk can easily lift weights over 300kg, this ‘hands-off’ policy promoted as a safety measure as well as for the elephant’s well-being.
What The Experts Say…
Emily McWilliam, BEES Elephant Sanctuary – “Although BEES has adopted a strict hands-off policy, we (Burm and Emily) do not expect other sanctuaries to do the exact same thing at this moment in time. We feel that for right now, the most important focus in elephant facilities should be on providing quality care to the elephants and staff, the facilities should not offer riding or force performances.
I strongly believe that the future for elephant tourism is in high welfare facilities that offer limited to no interaction. But right now the reality is there is not enough funding and resources available to make these ideals. We must continue to support quality facilities and encourage the shift by ensuring they have the income to support the livelihoods of the elephants and people that work with them. Without funds how can they feed their elephants, pay their staff and provide quality care?”
Jack Highwood (Managing Director of the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia and the Elephant Valley Project in Chiang Rai, Thailand) – “No. Elephants, like ourselves have a personal space requirement and it is critical for elephant sanctuaries to provide this. If you, the visitor, can hug an elephant, sit under an elephant, ride around on an elephant, get sat on by a baby elephant, this is not an elephant sanctuary. It is not safe.”
Sébastien Duffillot, Elephant Conservation Center, Laos – “Again, the less physical contact with elephants the better, for safety reasons. However, patting an elephant when the mahout is in control and has given his green light is perfectly OK if those elephants are gentle and do not participate in a conservation programme (reintroduction into the wild, for example) that requires to de-impregnate elephants from human activity. If not done on an industrial scale (just like some places where splashing elephants is encouraged… and hundreds of backpackers a day end up splashing the elephant’s face, which is definitely stressful…) touching an elephant is not bad, if conditions of safety and welfare are met).”
7. Where do the elephants in elephant sanctuaries come from?
What People Assume…
Many travellers that I have come across, including myself before I started to research this topic properly, believed that the elephants that are in sanctuaries in Thailand had been ‘rescued’. This is to say that someone, in the dead of the night, with a big lorry, stole the elephant away from a circus or a riding camp and took it to the safety of the “sanctuary”. What many people don’t realise is that the elephants in sanctuaries are bought, having been previously owned by a mahout family or another elephant camp or zoo.
What The Experts Say…
Elephants are extraordinarily expensive, and can cost up to $50,000 USD. Elephant Valley Project told us that a docile old 55 year old elephant is the most expensive kind of elephant at around 1.5 million Thai Baht (or $46,000 US) and aggressive large 22-year old bulls can be half that price. This is because a sanctuary wants to have a relaxed and calm animal to present to tourists. Bulls (as we have seen above) are much more difficult to handle and require more methods of control, some of which can be controversial in the eyes of the paying visitors.
As well as buying elephants for your sanctuary, another way of having elephants is to rent them, from a mahout family. There is what Never Forget Elephant Foundation in Thailand do, as well as Mandalao in Luang Prabang. There are many differing opinions on whether it is better to buy or rent an elephant for your sanctuary.
8. Do elephants born in captivity have their ‘spirit broken’?
What People Assume…
When people first learn about the ‘Pajaan’ they are shocked. They wonder if all of the elephants that now live in elephant sanctuaries have undergone this treatment and if it is necessary to break the spirit of baby elephants that are born in captivity. As we discovered, it is not the case that all elephants in sanctuaries across Southeast Asia have been through ‘Pajaan’.
What The Experts Say…
Dr Ingrid Suter, Elephant Conservation PhD – “Not all elephants in tourism have experienced the ‘Pajaan’. Thirty years of captive elephant tourism has seen an entire generation of calves born into captivity. Positive training and verbal commands are taught from a very young age. Indeed many calves at elephants camps are spoiled rotten! The outdated stereotype of all elephants going through a “spirit-breaking” trauma needs to stop. There is simply no need for the ‘Pajaan’ to occur and heeds back to the lazy stereotype of all mahouts being cruel tormentors, needing saving from themselves.”
9. Why can’t captive elephants be released into the wild?
What People Assume…
When we talk about elephant sanctuaries in our Facebook Community several animal rights activists comment that all the elephants should be released in the wild and that sanctuaries should not exist at all. The issue, as we found out, is much more complicated than it seems, bearing in mind that the elephants in sanctuaries have never been wild animals in the first place and many of them continue to be born in captivity.
What the Experts Say…
Sébastien Duffillot from Lao Elephant Conservation Center – “It is possible to release elephants into the wild. However, many criteria must first be met: the size of the protected area/size of ranger teams. Law enforcement. Ranger presence. Technology (GPS collars, drones, camera traps…) We at ECC are currently experimenting with releasing elephants. So far it has proved successful but it requires a lot of work and the presence of teams in the field to make sure poaching is avoided and the elephants are safe. But there’s hope it can be achieved!
However, I would add another simple fact: many elephants are the property of private owners (as we mentioned above)… and as such, releasing them means buying them first (at $40-50,000 US each) and making sure their owners are ready to sell them (they are usually their owners’ only means of subsistence)… So there’s a socio-economical aspect too here.”
10. Is The Word “Sanctuary” Sacred?
What People Assume…
Also popular in the yoga world, the word “sanctuary” connotes the feeling of safety, wellbeing and morality. A ‘haven’ where animals roam freely and happily comes to mind. Many people assume that if a place which keeps elephants and allows visitors calls themselves a ‘sanctuary’, then there should be no confusion that this is a place which has the welfare of the animals in mind. However, as we mentioned above, there is no law anywhere on the use of the word sanctuary. There are no licenses needed before calling yourself a ‘sanctuary’ and no audits or inspections of elephant sanctuaries across Thailand. This makes it extremely difficult for a traveller to sort the good from the bad and the ugly.
What the Experts Say…
We spoke to John Roberts from the Asian Captive Elephants Working Group about standard practises, inspections and audits across elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.
“You correctly mention that there is no law on using the word ‘sanctuary’. To that I would add that what is presented during guest hours isn’t necessarily standard practice throughout the day…
There are currently four standards available to camps in Thailand with varying degrees of emphasis on welfare and other factors. Whichever standard they choose, I am a great believer in independent auditing because it means the camp is not afraid to have people go behind the scenes, score and publish those results somewhere. Unfortunately those results are not always public – often the audits are paid for by Travel Agents who then own those results – but a camp is at liberty to say they’ve been audited even if they cannot tell you the score.
Also, very rarely will any camp get 100% first time so this gives camps suggestions and incentives to improve their policies and procedures and, consequently, their welfare. It is not uncommon for an agent to agree to keep using a camp providing it undergoes an audit but to then insist on an improvement year on year in order to keep that business.
The standards are:
1. The Ministry of Tourism & Sports Elephant Excellence Standard – This was drafted largely in consultation with the elephant tourism industry and it is fair to say it focuses more on guest safety (you get more points for having a security guard than a vet!) than direct welfare but there are welfare sections. It is the easiest to get and I would suggest that no-one visits a camp that doesn’t have it. You are, at the very least, sure they camp is properly licensed and insured. Unfortunately their website leaves a lot to be desired to the point that I can’t even find it now!
2 and 3. Two other standards are based on guidelines drawn up by the ACEWG and administered and audited by Travelife (Sustainability Guidelines for Tour Operators) and Elephants Standards both of them do have a ’truth in advertising’ section that at least stops places that have no projects working with wild elephants or habitats claiming to be doing ‘conservation’ work.
4. The most difficult to get (a five day on-site audit process) and an industry standard is the Global Spirit Standard for Animals in Tourism.
To me (particularly because agents are willing to pay for the latter three and the MOTS one is free) if a camp doesn’t have at least one of those certificates it indicates something is fishy.
Recommended Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand
The following elephant sanctuaries have been recommended by travellers, locals and expats in our Facebook Community. “What is the best place to see elephants in Thailand?” is a Frequently Asked Question in our group and one that generates a lot of discussion.
The following sanctuaries were each contacted by email and asked their opinions on the contentious issues above. Many of the sanctuaries responded to us in great detail (a good sign) and we have inserted their comments under the relevant sections above. For the sake of transparency we have noted below each sanctuary if they replied or not. Please note, that we have not yet had 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. 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 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.
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.
Did Wildlife Friends Foundation respond to our questions? No.
3. 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? No.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
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.
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.
8. 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!
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 teaching English at the local school, planting trees, cooking and weaving classes, as well as adventure and sightseeing activities such as temple going and tubing down the river. You will need to contact the sanctuary for a price.
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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
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.
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 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 week-long 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.
Did the Elephant Valley Project respond to our questions? Yes. Jack Highwood, who is also the MD of Elephant Valley in Chiang Rai, Thailand answered our questions in depth.
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 $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.
Did the Elephant Conservation Center respond to our questions? Sébastien from the ECC provided extremely detailed answers to each of the issues. You can find his answers under each of the points above.
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.
Did Green Hill Valley respond to our questions? No.
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.
Did MadaLao respond to our questions? No.
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).
Did Barumun Nagari respond to our questions? No.
Should You Ever Boycott an Elephant Sanctuary?
We spoke to Dr. Ingrid Suter about her thoughts on boycotting elephant sanctuaries that do not meet with our idea of what a ‘sanctuary’ should look like. She says:
“At Asian Captive Elephant Standards (ACES) we believe respect and communication with elephant camps is the best way to improve elephant welfare. Bans and boycotts don’t achieve the desired result, in pretty much all areas of life. Engage and educate camp managers on best practice will reap far more elephant welfare benefits that saying that all captive elephant tourism is wrong.
ACES wants to ensure that if camps offer riding, the howdahs fit perfectly; the elephants do not walk in extreme heat; they have continual access to fresh drinking water, and they are not overworked. All of our standards have been created by Asian elephant experts, academics and veterinarians. We would never condone cruel or tortuous camp behaviour. But we also believe that elephant riding or bathing can be done without causing stress or harm to the elephant. Again, all scientific evidence points to this, but is overlooked by animal rights activists and admittedly, an industry with an historically poor track record.
Travellers should be aware that industry reform is currently occurring. Good change is happening. Visit an elephant camp with internationally-recognised camp standards. This way travellers can be sure that all areas of elephant welfare have been considered. Elephants are a true wonder of nature, and people should be able to enjoy their elephant experience in Southeast Asia without feeling guilty.”
Do Your Research
Above all, it is important to do your own research and make your own decision.
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, and also read the responses of the camp to any negative reviews. This is the best 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 sanctuary will not hesitate to answer them by phone or email.
The whole issue of elephant tourism is one of many opinions and great debate. 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.
Resources and Further Reading
- Congratulations! You boycotted an elephant camp! Now, what happens? – This article, written by Dr. Ingrid Suter of the group “Asian Captive Elephant Standards” was sent to us by more than one of teh elephant sanctuaries that we contacted. It challenges some of what is accepted as the general consensus. We’d certainly recommend you give it a read.
- In Defence of Elephant Tourism – Another article written by Dr. Ingrid Suter about the positive role of elephant camps and sanctuaries.
- The Asian Captive Elephant Working Group – ACEWG is a group of elephant specialist veterinarians and scientists who have set themselves the job of coming up with the closest thing possible to veterinary and expert consensus and then using that knowledge to identify research questions and to improve the welfare of captive elephants. Also check out their March 2017 Statement on the welfare of captive elephants in Asia.
- Center of Elephant and Wildlife Research, Chiang Mai University – While none of us can put ourselves into the head of an elephant and find out how happy they are, there has been some interesting work done by Chiang Mai University on the stress levels of elephants in camps across Thailand. The organisation is the only one to have performed a large scale study on Thai elephant camps (including stress hormone measurement) and to get it statistically analysed, peer reviewed & published.