With social media dominating our everyday lives, elephant sanctuaries have become an icon in Thailand, thriving as a leader in the tourist industry. Although there are a plethora of elephant sanctuaries throughout Thailand to choose from, many unfortunately mislead tourists with this label, and in actuality, are only in it for the “insta-fame”.
As a first-time traveler to Thailand, deciphering ethical from inhumane sanctuaries can be a daunting task. With so much information out there, is it even possible for any elephant sanctuary in Thailand to be 100% ethical?
Here’s what to lookout for when choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand.
BUT FIRST, how did elephant sanctuaries come about in Thailand?
Over the last century, thousands of elephants in Thailand were used in the logging industry for transferring heavy timber across the country. After decades of deforestation due to logging (which also caused flash floods in the south), Thailand imposed a ban in 1989 that eliminated the work from over 70% of elephants (Joan, n.d.).
Mahouts (elephant caretakers) were then faced with the challenge of continuing care for their elephants, who each consume roughly 500 pounds of food daily. Many turned to illegal practices to maintain an income including: continued logging, drugging elephants with amphetamines (to make them work faster), and parading them around the streets of Bangkok to be fed by tourists (Joan, n.d.).
This ultimately contributed to their exploitation in the tourist industry today. Although many elephant sanctuaries in Thailand advertise themselves as “ethical”, they prioritize sales revenue over the elephants’ quality of life, leaving them malnourished and inhumanely treated for the purposes of entertainment.
How has this impacted elephants in Thailand today?
According to World Animal Protection, Thailand’s tourism doubled from 15.9 million to 32.6 million visitors between 2010 and 2016 (with continuing growth each year). These numbers correlated to a 30% rise in elephant captures from 1,688 to 2,198 for entertainment purposes (“Taken for a ride,” 2018).
So how do elephant sanctuaries come into play?
Elephant sanctuaries were initially designed as a haven for rescued elephants. Today, there are less than 4,000 roaming Thailand, with most of them domesticated. Because the majority were raised in the vicinity of humans, many are unable to care for themselves. One of the sanctuaries I visited shared that despite letting the elephants roam freely, they always make their way back.
Choosing an elephant sanctuary in Thailand: what are some red flags?
1) Riding elephants
This is the clearest indication of mistreatment. Although Asian elephants can grow up to 9 ft. and weigh between 2 to 5 tons, their spines aren’t structurally built to carry people (“Asian Elephant,” 2019). Because of their anatomy, riding ultimately leads to irreversible spinal damage that can affect other functions, such as walking.
One of the elephants I encountered was rescued from a circus where she was ridden for countless hours each day. Because of this, she was not only fearful of humans (we had to be extra cautious around her) but she also had scars and burns atop her back from the saddle, and now walked with a limp in her back leg.
2) Tricks and performances
Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that advertise painting or any sort of performance guarantees the usage of phajaan (breaking the spirit of a young elephant). These mahouts separate babies from their mothers and lock them in confined structures. They’re bound to posts with rope (no longer than 3 yards) and are terrorized with ankle spikes, shackles, bullhooks, and starvation to instill obedience out of fear from a young age (“Asian Elephant,” 2019). In fact, 65% of mahouts were found to use bullhooks to control the elephants at their “sanctuaries” (Stewart, 2018).
Not as much of a “red flag”, but something to be mindful of. When reaching out to sanctuaries with questions, don’t be quick to believe everything they say. Mahouts may be quick to respond with an answer that satisfies ill informed foreigners, but this ultimately illustrates the need to educate and research when choosing sanctuaries! Rely on multiple reviews and blog posts for honest opinions on the overall experience and elephants’ treatment!
National Geographic uncovered the brutal treatment of elephants in Thailand – it may be difficult to watch, but it’s SO important in spreading awareness!
What should I look for in an ethical elephant sanctuary?
Because sanctuaries are intrinsically designed for retired and rescued elephants from inhumane habitats, you should expect a sanctuary to place the elephants’ wellbeing at the forefront of everything. Their quality of life should outweigh the sanctuary’s monetary profit.
1) Space to Roam
The only time you should see elephants in an enclosed area (with neither tied down), is a mother with her newborn. Mothers are very protective of their babies, so this is to ensure the safety and bonding of both elephants. Otherwise, you should see the elephants offered plenty of field to roam freely without restriction. As you walk with the mahouts, they shouldn’t be carrying any bullhooks to keep the elephants in line. If the elephants decide to slow down and eat, or wander into another field, they should be free to do so.
2) Space from Visitors
Ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand will limit the amount of contact tourists have with elephants. Typically, elephants will be kept behind a wooden fence during feeding, and as you walk with them, you’ll be encouraged to keep a safe distance. Even during bathing, you aren’t necessarily scrubbing the elephants, but rather splashing water onto their backs. Additionally, the amount of time you spend in contact with them should be limited to just a couple of hours, regardless of the length of your tour.
What can I expect visiting at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand?
Most elephant sanctuaries are situated in the mountains of Chiang Mai. Half-day and full-day tours are most commonly offered. I’ve done half-day tours twice and honestly, that was the perfect amount of time to learn about and interact with these majestic creatures!
First, a driver picks everyone up from their hotels and drives about an hour and a half outside the city to the sanctuary.
During your visit you should experience the following:
- Learning the history (both ethical and unethical treatment) of elephants in Thailand
- Proper care of them
- Preparing food and feeding the elephants
- Walking alongside them to a river or waterfall
- Bathing them
- Ending the day with a Thai meal
Half day tours are usually around 1500 to 1900 baht ($40 to $50 USD) and are offered either early in the morning, or afternoon. Other packages can be upwards of 3000 baht ($90 USD) depending on the tour.
Regardless of the tour you choose, be prepared to get your hands dirty, hair wet, and leave with your heart full!
My conclusion on elephant sanctuaries in Thailand
As travellers, we’ll never fully see what happens to these elephants behind closed doors. Although they are rescued and are lucky to be free from the shackles of exploitation, at the end of the day, they’re still technically captive. However, the ways in which they’re treated is what sheds light on each sanctuaries’ best interest: the elephants’ wellbeing or gaining revenue from ill-informed tourists.
So what can we do?
Our choices as travelers directly influences the amount of elephant riding and inhumane performances that continue in Thailand. With more people saying “yes” to riding, the more unethical businesses will continue to capture and exploit these animals.
If visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand doesn’t sit well with you, I’ve found an amazing alternative! Visiting some of Thailand’s national parks allows you to witness wild animals in an untouched and respectful manner! You can find elephants at: Kui Buri, Thungyai-Huai Kha Kaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries, Khao Yai, and Kaeng Krachan (Annan, 2017). Click here for in-depth descriptions on seeing these creatures in their natural habitats.
However you choose to spend time with them, above all else, DO EXTENSIVE RESEARCH in making the best decision in how you want to contribute to this industry. Use your best judgment and take into consideration your priorities: the treatment of elephants or the amount of likes you can get on your newest Instagram post?
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Annan, G. (2017, February 23). Wild Elephants in Thailand. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://www.thailandelephants.org/single-post/2016/08/16/Wild-Elephants-in-Thailand
Asian Elephant. (2019, July 5). Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/a/asian-elephant/
Joan, C. S. Y. (n.d.). The 1989 Logging Ban. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://blogs.ntu.edu.sg/hp331-2012-shiyun/threats/logging-ban/
Stewart, N. (2018, October 8). There are no winners in the elephant tourism industry. Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/blogs/there-are-no-winners-elephant-tourism-industry
Taken for a ride: Thousands of elephants exploited for tourism are held in cruel conditions. (2018, November 29). Retrieved April 26, 2020, from https://www.worldanimalprotection.org/news/taken-ride-thousands-elephants-exploited-tourism-are-held-cruel-conditions