How to Have an Ethical Elephant Experience

How to Have an Ethical Elephant Experience: Elephants Up Close
Elephant Santuary - Chiang Mai, Thailand

Picture Thailand, a beautiful country in southeast Asia full of rich cultural history, delicious food, and unique experiences. It’s a great location for those who want a little luxury and those who are on a budget, and it attracts many long-term backpackers and tourists who travel throughout southeast Asia.

When I planned my short trip to Thailand, one of the first points of information that I found from other blogs, review websites like Trip Advisor, and even YouTube was about visiting an elephant sanctuary. I had never even thought of the idea, but of course, the idea of seeing an elephant truly up-close and personal was an experience that I wanted to have.

I found countless blogs, vlogs, and Instagram posts showing people posing with elephants, feeding elephants, bathing elephants, walking beside them, and even riding them. That all seemed like experiences that you could only experience once in your lifetime, and me knowing little to nothing about elephants, saw those opportunities as something similar to riding a camel for a desert trek. Luckily, I continued to research and read reviews as I began to pinpoint elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that I wanted to visit. One of the biggest warnings I began to find was DON’T ride the elephants. This brought me to a river of confusion about what was “ethical” and what was “unethical” about even visiting an elephant sanctuary. Countless blogs and reviews contradicted each other, and by the time I finally chose a sanctuary to visit, I was exasperated with all the confusing information surrounding the industry as a whole.

Two years later, and the discussion of elephant sanctuaries, the sanctuary industry, and eco-tourism as a whole is ever more pressing as social media, influencers, and bloggers like myself spread the word about countries as travel destinations and promote bucket list experiences. I want to make it easy for you to make ethical and eco-friendly decisions  (or as eco-friendly as possible) when you travel and give you the best information necessary for the most informed outcomes. I’ve researched and compiled the information necessary for you to have an ethical and well-informed elephant experience or encounter.

Two Elephants Greeting Each Other

Ethical Experiences for Ethical Travel

My Experience at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

Before setting off on my one-week adventure in Thailand, I settled on two different elephant sanctuaries, Elephant Nature Park and Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, that got the green light at that time from websites specialized in providing resources about elephants ethics. While I was in doubt about Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Elephant Nature Park had some of the best reviews about the ethicacy of the sanctuary and its operations. Had the sanctuary not been booked full, I would have visited there. Instead, I settled on visiting Elephant Jungle Sanctuary as most of its reviews praised it as ethical and only a few raised some flags.

I spent a day at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai with my two friends, and the experience began with a very early morning ride on the back of a rickety covered truck. Every bump and jolt forced us awake before we finally arrived at the sanctuary grounds. The land around the sanctuary was peaceful and picturesque, and rolling hills surrounded the small Karen village that was built into a valley.

After we arrived, we received a quick introduction to the mahoots (elephant keepers) and Karen villagers at the Chiang Mai location, learned some basic information about elephants and about the elephants at the sanctuary. We were also given a shirt to wear that was knitted by those in the village. The shirts were similar to those you can see at other sanctuaries and in countless Instagram photos. We were guided down to the feeding area, a roof structure made of wood, and waited for the elephants to come out from the surrounding forest. About 5 or 6 elephants of varying ages walked down to us as we were handed bananas. Although we were all basically face-to-face with the elephants, they were free to take bananas from us or even graze on the bamboo that the mahoots later scattered on the ground.

When the feeding was over, we had the opportunity to bathe the elephants. The elephants were allowed to roll around in the water, and we were advised to not only give the elephants space, but also be careful of getting the muddy water in their eyes, for our safety. At one point, the elephants decided they did not want to bathe and ran off towards the hills. They were allowed to leave and were not punished–as far as I could tell–for it.

Although there were some things that made me pause and question the whole experience, the elephants seemed happy and free to do as they pleased. They were free to roam and they did not do tricks nor were ridden at any point. I left hoping that the sanctuary was as ethical as it claimed. Even though I enjoyed the experience, I was torn by some of the things I saw and many of the things I didn’t see. While I wouldn’t recommend the sanctuary now, if you do decide to choose Elephant Jungle Sanctuary over other, possibly more ethical sanctuaries, then stay alert and be aware of the red flags and signs of unethical behavior.

A Mahoot With His Elephant

The Value of the Asian Elephant in Southeast Asia

When you first start dreaming of seeing an elephant in person–I get it, it’s exciting and elephants are beautifully intelligent, emotional and majestic creatures–the first places you’ll probably go for research and “inspo” are Instagram, travel blogs, and YouTube. In your research, there will be so many “sanctuaries” that pop up boasting activities such as elephant feeding, elephant bathing, and the worst of all, riding elephants. Some may even advertise themselves as “ride-free” with all the unethical practices of a “ride-only” site. But, what makes a sanctuary ethical or unethical, and what are the signs you should look out for when choosing the best way to see elephants in the most ethical way possible?

The Asian Elephant in countries like Myanmar or Burma, Thailand and Cambodia has a long history that has changed throughout the centuries as technologies innovated and farming became less profitable. Asian Elephants in southeast Asia were once worshiped and revered as key actors for ceremonies and religious practices. Now, the Asian Elephant is an endangered species due to habitat loss, poaching, and trafficking. The animals are now used in two common industries: tourism and lumber; however, the industry that has received the most attention for the brutal treatment of these elephants is the tourism industry.

While the decades-old lumber industry in southeast Asian jungles and forests is surely dangerous for the “working elephant,” some research suggests that using elephants for lumber logging is safer than if they were all set free. Instead of returning to their depleted or treeless homes in the wild, freed elephants would wander the streets and fall victim to the tourism industry or worse. On the other hand, the tourism industry forces these elephants to be “trained” to interact with humans, often for the sake of performing tricks or offering rides in jungle trek experiences or circuses. These elephants are often trained into fearful submission in a process called the Crush.

An elephant never forgets.

What is “the Crush”?

In order for unsuspecting tourists to be able to ride elephants and get them to do “cute” tricks, elephants must go through a process of brutal taming called Phajaan or the Crush. The process of the crush begins on young or baby elephants in which the babies or forcibly separated from their mothers and tied into a fixed standing position in a small box enclosure. They are given neither food nor water during this time. Calves enduring the crush are unable to walk, sit or lie down. This is to break the poor calf by exhaustion on top of the already traumatic ordeal of being taken away from its mother.

To further ‘break the spirit’ of the calf, the mahoots of the elephant will beat, burn and stab the baby while it is tied in place. During this torture, the tool often used is a bullhorn, or a metal or bamboo stick with a sharp knife and hook fastened on the end. With this tool and other weapons, the mahoots will target sensitive spots on the elephants body, such as the ears.

Captured by award-winning photographer, Brent Lewin.

Phajaan will often last for weeks until the elephant’s spirit is completely broken. Many young calves won’t survive the process. Now that the elephant is broken, the mahoots are able to completely control the elephant and force it to do tricks, manual labor, and any other command it is told. The elephant is under the mahoots complete and utter control.

Although graphic, I encourage you to find a video or other imagery of the process yourself to really see the cruelty of the action. While not all mahoots put their elephants through Phajaan, most elephants in the tourism industry, especially those that offer rides or do tricks, have been through this process. That is why it is important to choose not only a sanctuary, but also one that is truly ethical and allows the elephants to roam as if they were back in the wild. 

What is “Unethical”? What is “Ethical”?

There is so much new information coming out about the brutal elephant tourism industry that it can be hard to know what is ethical and what is unethical for someone who just wants to enjoy a “simple” vacation! Although there are incredible grey areas even within discussions between elephant advocates and well-researched and/or well-intentioned bloggers and influencers, here are some key questions to think about when choosing an ethical experience:

Q1: Why are these elephants at the “sanctuary” in the first place?
Q2: Do the elephants roam free or are they usually chained up?
Q3: Does the “sanctuary” offer elephant rides, tricks or other circus-like experiences?
Q4: How many tours does the “sanctuary” allow in one day?
Q5: How many people are allowed in each tour?
Q6: If the “sanctuary” offers elephant feeding and bathing, how many times a day does this happen?

Here lies the grey area. Some take a hard line and say that bathing and feeding an elephant is unethical, equating those experiences to elephant riding. Others feel that as long as the elephant is free to roam without chains and bull-hooks, then bathing and feeding is ethical. To weigh in my own opinion, I am on the fence. Having visited a “sanctuary” that did not offer rides, but did have elephant feeding and bathing, I find myself wondering what is best. Elephants commonly found in these sanctuaries are those that have either been bought from elephant circuses and poor mahoots or were retired by their mahoot and sold, and the belief for these sanctuaries’ necessity is that the elephants have been tamed so brutally that they may not be able to go back into the wild. Although the elephants can roam freely within the confined “wild” of the sanctuary, they have already experienced the Crush, unlike those elephants who remain relatively “safe” in the wild. But, what is actually true?

Ultimately, if you visit a sanctuary, I encourage anyone to visit one that limits the interaction between humans and elephants and encourages education of the issue to all of its visitors. We are unable to know how these elephants really feel and if they are truly comfortable with humans interacting with them, bathing them or even feeding them–and most likely, the answer is no.

Full List of Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries

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What You Should and Shouldn’t Expect from an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary

    • You should expect education on not only elephants in general, but on why the sanctuary has elephants in the first place. 
    • You should also expect to be kept at a supervised distance. After all, although tamed, the elephants are still very large animals with minds of their own and should be treated with the same amount of respect as you would treat an elephant in the wild.
    • You should expect not only limited times for interacting with the elephants, but also a limited number of participants allowed in the tours offered.  
    • You should expect to see living conditions for the elephants that allow them to roam free (ie., no chains) and has adequate food and water. 
    • You should be cautious of bathing and feeding the elephants. If such experiences are offered at the sanctuary you chose, you should be cautious and look out for the common signs of abuse. 
    • A bonus you should expect is that the sanctuary has a rehabilitation program not only for the elephants, but for the mahoots as well. 
    • You shouldn’t expect an elephant to give you a ride, or do some sort of trick. As stated before, not only are these actions harmful for the elephants, but these are the common reasons why elephants are subjected to the Crush in the first place.
    • You shouldn’t expect to see mahoots carrying devices that hurt or torture the elephants such as bull-hooks or other sharp objects. If you do see those weapons, the sanctuary is probably not ethical.

Why You Should Care

Whose responsibility is it, anyway?

This is not just the responsibility of travel bloggers or social media influencers, this is the responsibility of everyone who travels, and even those who don’t. As tourism becomes even easier and more affordable for the average person, industries like the massive tourism industry in Southeast Asia will encourage those whose goal is to exploit. It is said that at least one Asian Elephant is smuggled into countries like Thailand every week for illegal lumber logging and to perform for tourists. They are often taken from their families in the wild at a young age only to endure a life of slavery and torture.

We all as humans inhabiting and using this land, can and should advocate for those–animal or human–that cannot speak for themselves. Always keep your eyes open and spread the word. When your friends ask you for travel advice, you can take the opportunity to make a difference. It’s never too late to spread awareness about animal cruelty (or anything environmentally harmful or cruel, for that matter), and it only takes one person to start a movement.

The Breakdown (TL;DR)

  1. Don’t ride elephants (on a wooden seat on their backs or on their necks) or do anything that would be considered encouraging “elephant tricks.” While elephant feeding may not be “unethical” and elephant bathing is tip-toeing the line, riding an elephant is surely unethical. Not only can it be painful for elephants to carry humans, these elephants have undergone extreme training to crush their spirits so that they are tame enough to be ridden. This practice, Phajaan or “the crush,” usually begins on baby elephants. 
  2. “Ethical sanctuaries two years ago might not be ethical now, or are moving into “unethical” practices. “Unethical” sanctuaries or camps two years ago may have rebranded themselves to seem more “ethical” to tourists. 
  3. A YouTuber, Instagram influencer, or travel blogger can give you all the recommendations in the world, but please go beyond that and do even more research! I have listed my sources within this post, so please read more for yourself.

In researching for this post, I found so much more information now than I found two years ago. The matter is extremely complex, much like the other “cultural experiences” that let you interact with animals, and even common practices and industries that we as humans rely on today. If I go back to Thailand again and wish to see an elephant, I will choose a sanctuary carefully and go with apprehension and a much better understanding of the issue. For now, having experienced seeing elephants very up-close and personal and knowing what I now know, I am satisfied with just advocating for them from afar.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries and National Park Reserves in Asia and Africa

If any sign of a red flag at a sanctuary is unacceptable to you, then I urge you to try the sanctuaries that I have extensively researched. I not only recommend these sanctuaries to you because of the ethical practices I found outlined on their websites, throughout reviews, and even through images found online, but also because many other websites and blogs suggest these locations as the most ethical places. If all of this has led you to give up the hope of seeing an elephant entirely, then there is an alternative to interacting with an elephant in captivity. You can instead see wild elephants from a safe distance in national park reserves.

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14 thoughts on “How to Have an Ethical Elephant Experience”

  1. I’m so glad you continued doing research when you decided to go for an elephant experience! It’s so easy to get mesmerized by the beautiful photos people post on social media, but the torture the poor animals go through is beyond heartbreaking. Luckily more and more people are seeing the reality and opting for a sustainable way to see animals. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Thank you for this post! I volunteered at Elephant Nature Park four years ago and it’s still one of the best experiences of my life. The sanctuary industry has become very convoluted with businesses pretending to be sanctuaries, and it’s really hard to choose a good one. It’s such an important thing to talk about – I always think people are well aware of things like this, but in reality they are not. So more awareness is ALWAYS a good thing.

    1. Clazz, I wasn’t even aware of how complex the issue is two years ago! Now, I’ve gotten a better understanding of the issue, but as you said there are more businesses pretending to be “ethical sanctuaries” than before.

  3. It just hurts my heart to think there are places and people that could mistreat animals, and these beautiful intelligent elephants are one of the main highlights of my trip to Thailand. I was lucky enough to get into Elephant Nature Park and it was possibly the best day of my life. I loved being that close to the elephants and spending time with them.

    1. Emma, I’m glad you were able to get a spot Elephant Nature Park! I’ve heard so many good things about that sanctuary and they advocacy work that they do. 🙂

  4. I shy away from any animal experience unless it is something that is completely in the wild. I understand that people want to see these animals – they are amazing, but humans have ruined so much that I don’t want to contribute to that. I totally understand the desire to get up close and appreciate that there are efforts to protect them, the fact that we have to worry about whether they are ethical or not makes me sad. Thanks for putting together this piece, I hope it makes people think good and hard before doing these and to try to find the ones that are really trying to do what is best for the animals. Thanks!

    1. Andi, thank you for reading! I think as traveler’s, people often just want to have a good time or get their “bang for their buck” without thinking too hard about the effects (vacations are supposed to be stress/worry/guilt free!), but it does truly take a little bit of enlightenment and just a quick Google search to learn about the bad things out there.

  5. Elephants are my favorite animal! It really breaks my heart to know people still ride elephants etc. I’ve never and would never do it – never been to a circus and hate them. But I would love the opportunity to visit a legit sanctuary. To be close to such a majestic creature would be amazing but not at the expense of its well being. Thank you for helping me and others make a decision on which places to visit for such experiences!

  6. What an excellent post going in-depth explaining what to look for in an elephant sanctuary. I think so many people before being educated have no idea the harm that’s being done including myself. I rode an elephant years ago before social media made it popular and brought to light how bad it is. Thank you! ?

    1. Vanessa, luckily when I was planning my trip to Thailand, people were aware about not riding elephants! I just didn’t know about all the other grey areas and such, but there’s still so much more to learn about this issue.

  7. Thanks for sharing your research on such a thorny topic.

    Did you see the article about animal tourism in the national geographic earlier this year? That was a real eye opener for me. It made me try to avoid all animal tourism ‘attractions,’ as I just don’t want to give money to something that may (even inadvertently) harm them. The part that shocked me the most was reading how some of the elephant sanctuaries team up with the places that sell elephant rides, so it is often the same elephants that move between the two. It’s so hard to tell which are the ‘good’ places.

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