Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand: Making the Ethical Choice
Elephant visits while on holiday in Asia are on many people’s bucket lists. Thailand, especially the tourism hubs, thrive on tours to so called “elephant sanctuaries”. You can book tours to these places at every tour peddling shop (and there are A LOT). The problem is most people booking through these shops haven’t given thought to the fact that these sanctuaries are far from ethical. With elephants chained or in cages, often without food or water, just waiting like a demented petting zoo to entertain visitors. Performing tricks like painting or playing football, and waiting to be ridden, which elephants were simply not built for. Anywhere that is offering elephant rides is looking out for their wallets, not the animals. But fear not, you don’t have to totally give up on your dreams of getting close to these gorgeous creatures. There are a several parks that have actually earned the title of sanctuary! If you do a little research and book in advance (sometimes by a few months, keep that in mind) then you can fulfill your desire to walk with the elephants, and feel good knowing you are supporting an organization that actually cares for their creatures.
I chose a park known as Elephant Jungle Sanctuary to visit. At the time, they only had a location in Chiang Mai, but are now expanded to Phuket, Pattaya and Samui. They pride themselves on being ethical and eco-friendly. I cannot speak on the other locations (more on that later) but the one in Chiang Mai did live up to those claims. They picked me up at my Airbnb at around 8am, and after a 2-hour jeep ride into the mountains (with a stop for breakfast) we were in the park. First, we had an instructional meeting where they taught us about the park and their mission, how to behave around the elephants, and allowed us to make some treats for the elephants. There are 8 camps in the park, each with their own herds, and the elephants are allowed to wander freely. After that we were given the opportunity to feed the elephants sugar cane, bananas, and the treats we’d made. We were supervised the whole time, but the elephants were free to roam and walk around, and were not forced into participating, though they were eager too anyway. Along with the treats, there was ample food for the elephants to graze on throughout the day, and chains/bull hooks were NEVER used. Then the elephants took a mud bath and a swim of which we were allowed to participate, and finally we were fed an amazing lunch before being carted home.
Would I return or recommend?
Unfortunately, I would not. As I said before, the Chiang Mai location lived up to being ethical, but as they have expanded they have either lost this model or have no control over their franchises. Either way not a good look. Reports of the Phuket location being little more than a petting zoo make me unable to ask anyone to support their cause. And, while it was fun to bathe with the elephants, and they seemed to enjoy it while I was there, this is really not the most ethical practice either. I can’t speak to whether their other locations have cleaned up over time, but either way there are other, consistently reputable places to go in Thailand. I will list those below, with their contact information for you. Ultimately if you would like to visit the elephants, and have the time to spend, the best way you can support these places is to volunteer. You will get a deeper experience, and they will get your time and money.
My Recommendations - Ethical elephant visits
Elephant Nature Park – Chiang Mai
Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital – Lampang
Elephant Hills – Khao Sok
Mahouts Elephant Foundation
Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) Thai Elephant Refuge - Tha Mai Ruak
Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) - Sukhothai
Elephant Valley - Chang Rai