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What Is Elephant Tourism & Why's It An Issue? Elephant Sanctuary Guide For Chiang Mai, Thailand!

After sharing our experience with an unethical elephant sanctuary in our last post (you can read about that here!), we really anted to share some of the useful tips and information in it to help others avoid making the same mistake! Here, we explain what elephant tourism is, why it’s an issue and how to find amazing, ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and beyond!


Here’s our guide to having an ethical elephant sanctuary experience in Thailand!

You can pin this post on Pinterest! Photo by Geran De Klerk on Unsplash.

A quick disclaimer: because of elephant tourism’s ties to “traditional” cultural practises, it can be a controversial issue. We are not experts on those cultural practises, the natural behaviour of elephants, and what may or may not be “necessary” for the welfare of them. This post is not a criticism of culture, but a look at why elephant tourism exists, why elephants need better treatment and how exactly we can help as tourists.


What Is Elephant Tourism? And Why Is It A Thing?

Being traditionally considered a working animal, elephants have been a massive part of many cultures across Asia for centuries. For a long time, elephants were used for transport and farming amongst many other things including religious ceremonies. Most notably though, elephants were used in the logging industry.

After logging was officially banned in 1989, thousands of elephants and their owners were without work. The now-captive elephants couldn’t exactly be returned to the wild, and many elephant owners had to turn to begging with their elephants on city streets.

Around the same sort of time, tourism in Thailand was on the rise. Western tourists had taken a liking to the incredible animals - wanting to see, feed and touch the elephants, and willing to do so for a fee. Elephant tourism had not only become a source of income for communities, but a bucket-list activity for tourists.

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What’s The Issue With Elephant Tourism?

When it became clear that elephants could be a tourist attraction, it didn’t stop at picture taking and feeding the animals, and even if it did, there were issues with those things alone. What came were circus-like shows with the elephants being forced to entertain for our amusement. Even more popular, and still seen fairly frequently today, were elephants in tight, heavy chains carrying a family of four tourists on it’s back, all for that new and exciting experience.

The issue here is that, whilst “the elephant looked happy and healthy”, stress and past-trauma aren’t always so easy to see.

To make the elephants obedient to the commands of their keepers (otherwise known as Mahouts), they usually go through a process called Phajaan, or “breaking the elephants’ spirit”. This process is incredibly brutal, and for the rest of the elephants’ lives, it’s not uncommon for them to be over-worked to exhaustion for nothing but pain and misery in return.

In many ways, this exploitation of elephants does still exist today, and elephants can still be seen as tourist attractions.

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Elephant Tourism Today!

There really is no question that elephant tourism has changed for the better in recent years. Most tourists are aware of the harmful practises associated with elephant tourism and don’t want to support the mistreatment of animals.

Tourists are actually quite likely avoid elephant rides and going to shows. Instead, a lot of tourists will seek out ethical wildlife experiences or sanctuary visits. But the sad news is that sanctuary visits don’t always mean an ethical wildlife experience… And I guess that's how we got ourselves into our very own unethical elephant sanctuary experience - you can read about that here!

elephant sanctuary photo with posing elephants, chiang mai, thailand

How To See Elephants Ethically In Thailand!

In recent years, more and more sanctuaries have been popping up around Thailand, and despite that probably being a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that some of those aren’t unethical ones. The truth is that there aren’t any requirements currently that allow a sanctuary to call it as such.

Elephants may still be getting beaten, in tight chains or made to perform for our amusement. Sometimes, harmful practises might be done behind closed doors, making it even harder to pick an ethical sanctuary… Meaning we could unknowingly still be supporting harmful practises.

So, it’s getting trickier and trickier to tell which are ethical and which aren’t… But, the good news is that there are some great sanctuaries for you to choose from, and it’s those sanctuaries that stand out from the rest that deserve your support!

But what makes those sanctuaries stand out from the rest?

And what should you look for when trying to find an ethical elephant sanctuary?

A Regimented Routine - will the elephants be free to move away if doesn’t want to interact with tourists? Will the elephants be free to bathe when it wants, or only at a dictated time with tourists? Will the elephants have fresh water and food freely available to them, or only what the tourists offer them?

What About Walks - we know that riding elephants and having them perform is a no-go! And bathing with them is questionable at best (we don’t recommend it). But what if a sanctuary you like is offering walking with the elephants? Is it done in the midday heat? Is it done just for the tourists and a photo-op? How much interaction will there be with the tourists?

Staff Can Mis-Sell - don’t trust the travel agent. Do your own research.

Read Reviews - don’t rely on an overall average. Look at the bad reviews and listen to the concerns that other tourists had. If you’re unsure about it, look at another sanctuary. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Sanctuaries’ Social Media - look at photos from previous visits. Are there any chains that you can see? Are there elephant rides, performances and bathing? How much interaction is there from tourists? And how much space do the elephants have to roam?

Recommendations From The Experts - is our go-to for ethical and eco-friendly experiences. Check out their recommendations here!

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The Best Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries In (Northern) Thailand!

Elephant Nature Park is one of the oldest and most famous elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, having really led the way since the ‘90s. The founder, Lek Chailert, has since set up the Save Elephant Foundation, working with sanctuaries all over Thailand and educating hundreds of elephant owners on better practises. As well as elephants (which it does actually allow bathing with) the sanctuary rescues buffalos, cows, cats, dogs and birds too. Elephant Nature Park offers day visits, over-night visits and even week long volunteering opportunities, and includes food and transport. Just be sure to book far in advance.

Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES) is a completely hand’s off sanctuary. Having offered bathing with elephants, touching elephants and hand feeding elephants in the past, they made the switch in 2018 to become a true sanctuary FOR the elephants. Visiting BEES is much more of a volunteer programme allowing you to gain a true insight into how to care for the animals, whilst gaining incredible new skills and experiences and not just a photo for Instagram. They also offer tree planting projects, cooking classes and the chance to help benefit the whole local community in many different ways. BEES offer week long or multiple night stays, and includes food and transport. Accommodation is no-luxury, basic-style living.

Never Forget Elephant Foundation (NFEF) is a relatively new sanctuary, opening up just outside of Chiang Mai in early 2019. Since it’s opening, NFEF adopted a ‘free roaming’ sanctuary style, allowing the elephants to truly enjoy their newfound freedom from being overworked and abused. NFEF also like to work closely with local villages, with an emphasis on trying to benefit the nearby Karen Hill Tribe. NFEF also offer volunteer style, one-week long visits, as well as yoga retreats.

Elephant Valley Thailand is modelled after their first sanctuary in Cambodia, bringing with it their high ethical standards. Their 500 acres of amazing elephant habitat allows them to strike a great balance between freedom for the elephants and interaction with tourists. You’re able to feed the elephants, but they are completely free to forage for their own food and walk away form the tourists if they want to. There’s also no bathing, riding or shows. Elephant Valley offers half day, full day, multiple day and even over two-week stays, and food and transport is included. Elephant Valley is located closer to Chiang Rai, but is well worth the journey a little further north. Note: Elephant Valley Thailand has sadly had to close down due to the current global lockdown and lack of tourism. Their sanctuary in Cambodia will continue to run, but is in need of desperate help. Find out how you can help down below.

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Can You Help These Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries From Home?

The world is experiencing something crazy right now. All travel is cancelled for the foreseeable future, which means those that rely on tourism are really struggling - for example, Elephant Valley Thailand having to close down! Not only is it people and communities that are struggling, but animals in need of care and food too. But, there are a few ways that we can actually help them.

How to help Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary: elephant adoption, donation

How to help Never Forget Elephant Foundation: sponsor an elephant, monthly donations

How to help Elephant Valley Cambodia: sponsor an elephant, donate


Also read:

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