Despite often being overlooked in favour of Thailand, neighbouring Laos is a wonderful place to get up close to Asia’s giants. While reserves are fewer, there are some incredible ethical elephant sanctuaries in Laos, all of them doing great work to offer these animals a better kind of life.
To help you choose between the elephant sanctuaries in Laos, we’ve compiled this list of the best options for travellers. We’ll break down where each sanctuary is and exactly what tourists can do there, from feeding elephants to having a ‘hands-off’ experience.
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What is an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary?
There is a lot of debate as to what constitutes an ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuary. Simply put, an ethical elephant sanctuary places the elephants’ needs above profit. Ethical sanctuaries (mostly) allow elephants to roam freely within the grounds. The land will likely be hundreds of hectares, allowing them a fairly expansive territory.
At a truly ethical sanctuary, the elephants’ autonomy will be respected, meaning the animal will be allowed to do what it wants inside the confines of the sanctuary. They will not give rides or perform in shows. Both of these activities are a big red flag. Neither are natural and no truly ethical elephant sanctuary would endorse them.
Some sanctuaries allow tourists to feed and bathe the elephants. This is controversial, with some arguing that it takes autonomy away from the elephants. After all, if the elephants were living in the wild, they wouldn’t be washed several times a day by groups of tourists.
Many animal activists believe the only way to have a truly ethical experience is to observe the elephants in the sanctuary without touching or influencing them.
The need for sanctuary breeding programmes has caused division within animal activism circles too. In Defence of Animals say that no real sanctuary will ever breed elephants. However, other groups accept that elephant breeding is necessary to boost numbers – on the condition that there is a plan in place to release babies into protected wild areas when they are old enough.
👉View our list of ‘hands-off’ elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia here. You can now book your visit via our website! 🐘
3 Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Laos
Disclaimer: In Southeast Asia, things change quickly, especially in the animal tourism world. If you have updates or personal experiences to share about the sanctuaries listed here, please do so in the comments.
1. Elephant Conservation Centre – Sayaboury Province
- Riding: No
- Feeding: No
- Bathing: No
HANDS-OFF! 🚫✋🐘 This elephant sanctuary does not allow tourists to touch the elephants. You can book your ethical elephant experience via our website here. Discount code: HANDSOFF.
About: Offering a home for elephants that had previously been working in the logging industry in Laos, Elephant Conservation Centre is often said to be the most ethically run elephant sanctuary in Laos.
Established by elephant specialist Sébastien Duffillot in 2010 after 10 years of work in Laos with his initial NGO, ElefantAsia, the centre currently has 33 elephants roaming over an area of land of 530 hectares and 67 people caring for them.
Unlike other sanctuaries, the aim of 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 Centre is now officially managing.
To conserve the species, Elephant Conservation Centre run a breeding program supported by the Smithsonian Institute and the Australian Embassy in Laos. This breeding programme is not done to increase the number of elephants in captivity but to reintroduce them to the wild. Every new calf and its mother will be released into a wild herd once the calf reaches five years old. This will help to preserve Asian elephants in Laos, which are an endangered species.
How to visit: The cost for a 2-day, 1-night stay at the centre is $210USD per person or $280USD for a 3-day, 2-night stay. If you would like to learn more, a 7-day volunteering program is available for $470USD.
2. MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary – Luang Prabang
- Riding: No
- Feeding: Yes
- Bathing: No
About: Located in the jungle, around a half-hour drive from 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 were legal and active in Laos until quite recently. The sanctuary is run by Prasop Tipprasert, former director at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre.
MandlaLao have retrained their mahouts so that no traditional tools (for example bullhooks and hammers) are used on elephants. The animals also live unchained. No riding is offered at the sanctuary and bathing the elephants was also disallowed a few years ago, however, tourists can feed the elephants during a trip to the sanctuary.
Laos was once known as ‘Lan Xans’ which means ‘Land of a Million Elephants’, however, estimates now indicate that fewer than 400 Asian elephants roam freely in Laos. Mandalao is on a mission to change this. They plan to reintroduce a baby bull elephant into the wild, along with two matriarchs. It is hoped that this will be the beginning of a new wild herd.
How to visit: Visits can be arranged for $100USD (half-day tour) or $150USD (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.
3. Mekong Elephant Park, Pakbeng
- Riding: No
- Feeding: No
- Bathing: No
🚫✋🐘 HANDS-OFF! This elephant sanctuary does not allow tourists to touch the elephants.
About: This leading Laotian ecotourism project says the welfare of its elephants is its main priority. And, considering they only offer a hands-off experience for visiting tourists, it certainly seems like they have put their money where their mouth is!
Perched on the banks of the mighty Mekong River in Pakbeng, Mekong Elephant Park is home to four rescued elephants, including one bull. It prides itself on high welfare standards, good health and safety conditions for both animals and mahouts and providing a reasonable income to elephant keepers.
Asian Captive Elephants Standards have accredited Mekong Elephant Park with a gold award for their high levels of elephant welfare. Elephants are allowed to roam freely within the park and be observed by tourists. No riding, bathing or feeding by tourists is allowed at MEP.
How to visit: It is possible to get to Pakbeng onboard the slow boat which services Luang Prabang but there are currently no buses from the town. Two types of trips are offered by Mekong Elephant Park, ‘Privileged Instants’ which offers visitors two hours of enjoying the elephants in a small intimate group and a ‘Day Program’. The latter, costing $30USD per person, is only available if the ‘Privileged Instants’ slots are full. ‘Privileged Instants’ start at $50USD per person and include a trekking experience. On the ‘Day Program’ visitors are only able to observe the animals, not hike alongside them. Discounted rates are available for children.
Honourable Mention – Save Elephant Foundation Laos
Another offering by Save Elephant Foundation and its founder Lek Chailert, this elephant sanctuary in Laos is doing amazing work to offer Asia’s giants a better life. The sanctuary is home to five elephants who are free to wander within the grounds. It is not possible to visit Save Elephant Foundation Laos, however, if you want to support the work they do, you can donate here.
If you want to have an ethical elephant experience, Laos is an amazing choice. With so many tourists flocking to Thailand to get up close to Asia’s giants, the rescued elephants in Laos are often overlooked, despite needing the same amount of love and care!
Whichever Laotian elephant sanctuary you choose from our list, you are guaranteed an incredible day out and get to sleep a little easier knowing that you are contributing to a truly ethical organisation with the elephants’ welfare at heart.
Have you visited any of these elephant sanctuaries in Laos? Share your experience in our Facebook community!