The issue of elephants in tourism is an emotive subject. It’s also a complicated one. For example, we’ve used the word ‘sanctuary’, but in Thailand there are currently no agreed standards to define what is or isn’t a sanctuary. Although there are a number of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, we also have to acknowledge that some elephant centres have added the word sanctuary as a marketing ploy. Adding to the confusion is the fact that travel industry guidelines vary when it comes to defining what is or isn’t an ethical elephant facility.
It’s also important that visitors to Thailand appreciate the context to this emotive subject. The elephant is Thailand’s national animal and figures prominently in Thai history and culture. For centuries, elephants were used in Thailand in warfare, for transport and in the logging industry. When the logging industry was suddenly banned in Thailand in 1989, it created an immediate problem for the captive elephants and their unemployed mahouts. Elephants need to eat at least 150kgs per day and their upkeep costs around £800 per month. With no welfare system and their way of making a living suddenly taken away from them, some mahouts took their elephants into the cities to beg while others continued to work in the illegal logging industry. It was tourism that provided a viable alternative.
Advice for responsible elephant tourism
In those early days of elephant tourism, riding was common. That has changed. Although riding does still take place at some venues, there is an increasing movement towards more responsible tourism in Thailand and that includes visitors seeking out ethical elephant experiences. But the subject of elephants in tourism remains complicated and even elephant experts disagree about what is best. So how do you decide what to do if you want to be a responsible traveller but still want to interact with elephants during your trip to Thailand? Ry Emmerson, the Projects Director at Save Elephant Foundation, provides the following advice:
- Do your research
Many elephant projects will use the name sanctuary, retirement park or something similar. Tourists need to understand that this is often used as a marketing tool only and doesn’t always reflect the animal welfare practices within the project. In Thailand, anyone can register these business names without having to meet any animal welfare criteria. Research behind the scenes is essential; check reviews on TripAdvisor and photos/videos posted on social media by previous guests.
- Don’t ride elephants
Never ride an elephant with or without a ‘saddle’. Baby elephants are removed from their mothers at a very young age to be trained to service tourists desire to ride them.
- Don’t buy artwork made by elephants
Many tourists come to Asia and want to take home a souvenir that makes them feel close to elephants. But what many tourists don’t know is that before the elephant will paint the picture they will be removed from their mother. The young elephant’s spirit will be broken until they follow human commands then they will be trained to paint by the handler.
- Where is the mother?
Save Elephant Foundation sees many videos go viral on social media where a baby elephant is rolling around with a tourist in the mud or water. Many see this as cute and are encouraged to visit a project that has baby elephants. No one asks the question, “where is the mother?” Responsible travellers should always ask this question and investigate the answers they receive.
Projects supported by Save Elephant Foundation can be found here:
Elephant sanctuaries and ethical projects in Thailand
There are an increasing number of responsible and ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. As Ry Emmerson says, try to research as much as possible before deciding where to visit. We offer some more suggestions below for where to go, but there are many more places in addition to those listed where you can also interact ethically with elephants in Thailand.
Elephants World, Kanchanaburi
Located to the west of Bangkok in Kanchanaburi province, Elephants World was founded in 2008 by Dr. Samart Prasitthiphon, a veterinarian and livestock officer working in the area. The work of Dr. Samart showed him the continuing problems that these animals faced and he decided to create a facility for elephants where they no longer worked for people, but people worked for them. Elephants World is a safe haven where the elephants can live in dignity with no rides, no shows and no work.
Elephant Haven, Kanchanaburi
This former trekking camp is positive proof of the move towards more ethical elephant encounters. The team from Elephant Nature Park worked with the old trekking camp to show them how the elephants, tourists and staff all benefit from the no riding ‘Saddle Off’ policy. Elephant Haven opened to visitors under this new model in 2015. Located in the Sai Yok district of Kanchanaburi, Elephant Haven can be visited on a day trip or an overnight stay.
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) takes its name from an extraordinary young elephant that fought against adversity from the day it came into the world. Born several months premature, Boon Lott was transported with his mother to an elephant hospital in northern Thailand where a British woman, Katherine Connor, was a volunteer. Katherine and the elephant calf formed an immediate bond. Boon Loot would face many challenges during his short life, but Katherine never gave up on him. When Boon Lott finally died, Katherine set about establishing an elephant sanctuary in his honour. That sanctuary is located in 600 hundred acres of forested land north of Si Satchanalai Historical Park in Sukhothai province. Guests at BLES share in all aspects of the elephants’ day to day life and visitor numbers are kept deliberately low for the benefit of the elephants and the visitors. BLES is a fitting testament to Boon Lott and a remarkable achievement by Katherine Connor.
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES), Chiang Mai
There is a simple philosophy at Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES); let elephants be elephants. The ‘eles’ at BEES are free to roam, forage naturally, enjoy dust baths and socialise. In keeping with this ethos, BEES have adopted a ‘no contact, hands off’ policy which means visitors observe the elephants at close quarters but don’t get to bathe them or pat them. In addition to the elephant sanctuary, BEES also provides a safe haven for rescued cats and dogs and run sterilisation programs and provide care to animals in need in the local vicinity. BEES also work closely with the local community helping children and providing employment opportunities for adults.
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Probably the most famous elephant sanctuary in Thailand, Elephant Nature Park has risen to prominence due to the work of Lek Chailert. Her work with elephants has won her numerous accolades from international media. The diminutive Thai woman was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time magazine in 2005 and has featured in a host of documentaries including the mini-series, Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise which was broadcast on BBC2 in 2017.
Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, Lampang
Guests are allowed to visit the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, but please follow similar rules of behaviour you would at any hospital and respect the staff and patients. Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) was founded by Soraida Salwala who was instrumental in establishing the world’s first elephant hospital in Lampang. The elephant hospital now treats weak, sick, and injured elephants from across Thailand. One of those residents is Mosha. As a young elephant, Mosha lost her right leg after stepping on a landmine. Mosha was subsequently treated at the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital and in 2007, the then 3-year old Mosha became the first elephant in the world to be fitted with an artificial leg. Given the extent of her injury Mosha will remain at FAE Hospital as a permanent resident.
Elephant Parade, Chiang Mai
Mosha’s story inspired father and son team, Marc and Mike Spits, to set up Elephant Parade. The social enterprise now runs the world’s largest art exhibition of decorated elephant statues. The life-size, baby elephant statues are created by artists and celebrities and exhibited as an Elephant Parade in cities around the world to raise awareness about elephant conservation. Mosha has become the mascot of the Elephant Parade with a statue of her appearing at every exhibition. Elephant Parade may now be an international event, but its spiritual home is Elephant Parade Land in Chiang Mai where visitors can learn more about conservation work and take part in fun workshops.
Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai
Located in the Sankampaeng district of Chiang Mai province, Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary is working towards bringing as many captive elephants as possible back to their natural habitat. Working alongside elephant owners, the local community, research partners and other organisations, Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary aims to bring about a brighter future for Thailand’s elephants.
In December 2020, the outstanding work of the team at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) was recognised by the Responsible Thailand Awards. The judges commended KSES, not just for their commitment to elephant welfare, but for the way they continue to support the local community.
Read more here
Mahouts Elephant Foundation, near Mae Sot
Mahouts Elephant Foundation adopts a safari-style model of elephant tourism in direct partnership with mahouts. Instead of selling their elephants or taking them to work in tourist areas, the elephant handlers are able to keep their elephants close to their home village. At the LIFE (Living In the Forest with Elephants) project in northern Thailand, Mahouts Elephant Foundation works with Karen hill tribe mahouts. However, the approach is designed so that it can be replicated throughout elephant rangeland in Thailand.
The Surin Project, Baan Tha Klang, Surin
Surin province in the Isaan region of north-east Thailand has a long association with elephants. For many generations, the Kui community who live in rural Surin were renowned for the skills of the mahouts who trained the elephants that were used in warfare, then logging and then tourism. The mahouts haven’t always been happy to adapt to more ethical methods and some continue to rely on unsustainable tourism to earn a living. The Surin Project aims to change attitudes and bring about positive changes for mahouts and elephants. To help bring about this change in attitudes, foreign visitors are essential. When guests visit The Surin Project it demonstrates to the mahouts that there is a demand for ethical elephant tourism and this is a viable way to earn a living. By their own admission, the project has a long way to go. Conditions for the elephants are still far from ideal and changing the old way of doing things isn’t easy in this very traditional area of rural Thailand. But things are improving and foreign tourists and volunteers are helping to drive the change.
Elephant Hills, Khao Sok
Elephant Hills have won numerous awards for the way they promote responsible tourism. Guests staying at the luxury tented camp in Khao Sok can enjoy meeting the elephants who live in this serene location in Khao Sok. Many of the elephants here previously worked in the logging industry, but thanks to the efforts of Elephant Hills they are now able to live out a dignified retirement. Watch the elephants socialise naturally and help prepare and feed them one of their daily meals.
In July 2019, Elephant Hills won a prestigious award from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA). The award recognises the environmental work and various responsible tourism projects at Elephant Hills. This is the third consecutive year the team at Khao Sok have received awards from PATA. Elephant Hills have been praised for their elephant conservation work, their work with wildlife in Khao Sok, and their community projects which help local schools in the Khao Sok area.
Phang Nga Elephant Park
Although it only opened in 2015, the family who own Phang Nga Elephant Park have an association with elephants that dates back more than 150 years. The owner, Khun Jake, is Thai and has also lived and worked in the UK. He is in a position where he can see all sides of the debate about ethical elephant tourism.
At Phang Nga Elephant Park, there is a strong bond between the kwan chang (elephant handler) and their elephant. At some elephant facilities in Thailand, not enough emphasis is placed on the importance of this bond. But it is crucial for Phang Nga Elephant Park who also take plenty of time at the start of your visit to explain the reality of elephants in tourism. Located in a quiet location in beautiful Phang Nga province, the park can arrange round trip transfers for visitors staying in Khao Lak, Khao Sok, Krabi, Phang Nga and Phuket.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary provides a safe haven for sick, old or mistreated elephants who have been rescued from the logging industry and disreputable elephant camps. Watch the elephants bathe and help to feed them during your visit to the sanctuary located in the north-east of Phuket.
Samui Elephant Sanctuary, Ko Samui
This sanctuary on Ko Samui is inspired and supported by Save Elephant Foundation. The forested environment offers a safe retirement home for elephants who have previously been overworked or poorly treated in the logging and tourist industries. Visitors to Samui Elephant Sanctuary are able to walk with the resident elephants and observe them socialise, bathe, and play in the mud.
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