The elephant is the national animal of Thailand and the country has benefited from the popularity of this gentle giant for years. Unfortunately, the increased tourism has led to many crooked elephant sanctuaries mistreating the animals for a quick profit. Hence, it’s important to do our research and properly choose an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand.
Things to look out for
To ensure you are visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary, be sure to do your research and look out for the following qualities.
As much as you might want to ride or play with an elephant, this is incredibly detrimental to their health. Not only are you supporting the teaching of unnatural behaviors that will prohibit the elephant from returning to the wild, you are also encouraging brutal and painful training techniques. This also leads to the breeding of baby elephants in captivity, so that the elephant can be broken in from an early age.
Simply put, the only way to ensure you are visiting an ethical sanctuary is to look for one that allows natural observations and doesn’t offer riding, performances or any other behaviors that wouldn’t occur in the wild. Many sanctuaries allow bathing and feeding on the elephant’s terms, meaning you can still have the interaction and photo opportunity, but without forcing an elephant into activities it doesn’t want to do.
“Elephants love reunions. They recognize one another after years and years of separation and greet each other with wild, boisterous joy. There’s bellowing and trumpeting, ear flapping and rubbing. Trunks entwine.”
― Jennifer Richard Jacobson, Small as an Elephant
Elephants are social creatures, so you should expect the sanctuary to give them the time they need to socialize with other elephants in the herd, as well as with the tourists.
Perhaps an obvious one, but you should steer clear of any sanctuaries that regularly use chains, restraints, bull hooks or other invasive methods to keep the elephants contained. Ethical sanctuaries will allow the elephants to walk around freely, even when the tourists have gone home for the day; elephants should only be restrained in absolutely necessary, emergency situations.
3. Food and water
Like any living creature, elephants need food and water to survive, so only visit a sanctuary that prioritizes plentiful access to water – both for drinking and swimming in to cool off – and a healthy diet. Most sanctuaries give daily treats such as bananas, often during feeding sessions for tourists to get closer to the elephants. However, these high-sugar snacks should remain a treat, so avoid anywhere where this ritual is allowed too many times in a day.
The best sanctuaries understand the elephants will mostly want to forage for grass and leaves in the forest, as this is what they would eat in the wild.
The best sanctuaries will be built across large areas of land, to mimic the elephants’ natural environment and allow them the space they need to roam around throughout the day. There should also be plenty of shade for them to shelter from the searing heat, and the sanctuary should prioritize giving the elephants the rest and breaks they need, rather than the tourists’ desire to interact with them.
5. Mahouts (elephant caretakers)
Mahouts refer to elephant keepers or caretakers. Some mahouts use physical punishment to control the behavior of elephants. As such, it’s important to find an elephant sanctuary that employs mahouts with a proven track record and with long experience caring for animals. This is to make sure that the animals are taken cared of by a person with deep understanding and compassion towards them.
Good mahouts respect the elephants and some even treat them as family members.
Ethical elephant sanctuaries you can visit in Thailand
Here’s a full list of ethical elephant sanctuaries you can visit in Thailand:
The Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, Sukhothai
Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, Petchaburi
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Thalang
Krabi Elephant Sanctuary, Krabi
If you’re still struggling to decide which sanctuary to visit, then we recommend The Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Founded by a pioneering conservationist, Lek Chailert, this sanctuary provides a haven for rescue elephants with a history of abuse. You can purchase day passes, where you can observe the elephants without touching, riding or bathing with them. To contribute further to the cause, sign up for one of the many different volunteering opportunities available.
Elephants are wonderful creatures and it’s a privilege to see and interact with them in person. That saying, it’s important for us as responsible travelers to carefully choose an ethical elephant sanctuary to visit in Thailand, or even in other countries in Southeast Asia and even Africa.
Have you been to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand? Is there anything else you’d like to add? Let us know in the comments below!