For many visitors to Thailand, the opportunity to get up close with elephants is a highlight of their trip. But with so many elephant experiences to choose from in Thailand, how do you find a genuine sanctuary which is ethical and ensures the elephants are well-treated?
The issue of elephants in tourism in Thailand is complex. The Thai elephant (chang Thai) is Thailand’s national animal and has played a key role in the history of the country. Elephants have been used in warfare and for transport. In more recent times, they have been used in the logging industry. When the logging industry was suddenly banned in the late 1980s, it created a problem for the captive elephants and their unemployed handlers (known as mahouts or kwan chang). Elephants are expensive to keep. They eat up to 150kg per day and their upkeep costs around 35,000 baht (18,000 rand) per month. With no income, some mahouts took their elephants into the cities to beg. Others continued to work illegally with their elephants in logging. It was tourism which provided a better, albeit not ideal, alternative.
In the early 1990s, elephant riding was common. That has changed. Although there are still some elephant camps where riding does take place, there has been a move toward more ethical elephant experiences. An ethical elephant sanctuary will not only look after the elephants but will also look after the welfare of the mahouts.
Why can’t captive elephants be released into the wild?
In an ideal world that would be the answer. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as that. The loss of natural habitat and the fact that a captive elephant will struggle to survive if set free in the wild are just two factors at play in a complicated debate. Even elephant experts have different views on the best approach.
Save Elephant Foundation
Save Elephant Foundation advocates the ‘Saddle Off’ model. There is no riding at any of their projects and this approach is also being adopted by other elephant centres across Thailand. At Save Elephant Foundation projects, the animals are allowed to roam, forage and socialise under the watchful protection of their mahouts.
How to choose which elephant sanctuary to visit
Firstly, it’s important to note that just because an elephant centre uses the word sanctuary in their name, it doesn’t necessarily mean they operate ethically.
“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.– Ry Emmerson (Save Elephant Foundation)
The Projects Director at Save Elephant Foundation, Ry Emmerson, advises visitors to do their research. He says, “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.”
Ry also advises visitors to never ride an elephant either with or without a saddle. And if you are tempted to visit a location because you’ve seen coverage on social media, be prepared to ask questions before you go. Ry says, “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.”
Where to go
Projects supported by Save Elephant Foundation can be found here:
Asian Elephant Projects
In addition to these projects, there are various locations around Thailand where visitors can enjoy an ethical elephant experience. These include:
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES)
Elephant Nature Park
Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai
Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Mahouts Elephant Foundation
Pattaya Elephant Sanctuary
Phang Nga Elephant Park
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)
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