Northern Thailand is known for thick, lush forests and hilly terrain, making it a great habitat for the Asian elephant. Many elephant sanctuaries are located in northern Thailand, particularly in the popular tourist destination, Chiang Mai.
The chances are if you’re travelling to Thailand you’ve got a visit with these magnificent creatures on the top of your bucket list. And if it’s not on your bucket list, add it! Meeting these creatures was such an incredible, humbling experience and it is undecidedly one of the best days of my life.
Finding an ethical elephant sanctuary is a bit harder than you may think. Just because a place is labelled a sanctuary and does not allow elephant riding does not mean it is ethical. This is one of the most important things you can take away from this article.
Choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary can appear daunting, but we have some tips and tricks on how to identify them. We’ll also introduce you to Elephant Nature Park, one of the few ethical sanctuaries in the whole country.
Why shouldn’t you ride elephants?
If you love elephants, please do not ride them. There’s an incredibly dark side to elephant tourism that many do not know about.
The process of taming and training the elephants to allow people to ride them or to perform tricks is extremely distressing and abusive. Training begins immediately, so baby elephants are snatched from their mothers and are subjected to torture to completely break their spirit. This process of crushing their spirit is called Phajaan and is done to tame the elephant.
Unfortunately, this mistreatment does not stop here. If an elephant acts out, they are punished. Manipulation using hooks, nails or any sharp object to prompt the elephants, as well as beatings are amongst some of these punishments.
The fear evoked in this torture and torment causes the elephants to become completely submissive to their trainers’ instructions. This is how elephants are able to be trained for riding on their backs, balancing on a ball or painting.
After reading the above, you’d probably imagine the living conditions are all but adequate. Elephants are kept in cages and are chained when not in training, are malnourished and are trained to severe exhaustion. These harsh conditions, in conjunction with their training, causes arthritis and joint problems.
Unfortunately, elephants are only used for this type of tourism until two years old. At this point, their spine and joint problems render them ‘useless’ and they are abandoned along with their lifelong injuries and pain.
Going to ‘sanctuaries’ that allow for elephant riding and tricks means you are supporting this behaviour and giving money towards their businesses and this dark side of tourism.
Essentially, the choice is yours but please take the time to find the right place to visit.
How to choose an ethical elephant sanctuary
An ethical elephant sanctuary will prohibit elephant riding and be given sufficient space to move around and do how they please. They should not be forced or manipulated using hooks or nails.
A good sanctuary is one that:
- Is completely ethical and transparent regarding their practices
- Utilises trained guides, or mahouts who are knowledgeable about said practices and are able to answer your questions
- Allows the elephants to roam free instead of being chained up
- Does not allow elephant riding, circus acts, painting or abuse their elephants with hooks and nails
- Provides proper medical care
- Restricts tourist numbers – this is a big one people may not think about. Choose a place that is not trying to make as much money as possible at a cost to the elephants’ happiness and wellbeing.
Without first having visited the sanctuaries, it is very hard to judge which sanctuaries are ethical and which are not. It’s also difficult to know what to trust on their websites. Research is the best tip we can give you to find the right one to visit.
Check out this article from the Guardian to help you make your decision. They also include a link to the Responsible Travel site which includes a full list of the world’s ethical sanctuaries.
Thailand is a huge hub for tourism so luckily, there are many reviews for each elephant sanctuary. Tripadvisor is a great resource, where reviewers share their own experiences. Elephant Nature Park is rated a perfect score on TripAdvisor of 5/5 featuring glowing reviews from over 10,000 visitors.
This is the only ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai we were able to find that is completely focussed on the rescue and rehabilitation of elephants rather than the profits from tourism.
When Teak logging became banned in 1989, many of these elephants were sold for tourism (mainly circus tricks and riding) or abandoned. This lead to the birth of Elephant Nature Park in the 1990s.
At the time, like all other elephant ‘sanctuaries’, the park offered elephant tricks or other acts. The park’s founder, Lek, put an end to this abuse towards elephants and shifted the focus towards a rehabilitation centre for those who had been mistreated, distressed and abandoned.
She has since won multiple awards and is named one of “Asia’s Heroes” despite previous backlash from the Thai government. Her legacy has started to take precedence over elephant tourism and nowadays many sanctuaries are starting to follow in her footsteps.
The organisation offers over 30 different tour options from half a day visit to a seven-day volunteer program so you’re guaranteed to find one that interests you.
Day visits to Elephant Nature Park
This is a great option for first-time visitors. You’ll get many chances to feed the elephants, observe them bathing and playing in the water, and you’ll also be provided with a delicious vegetarian buffet lunch.
As well as elephants, you may get to see buffalos, dogs, cats and birds. These are amongst the other rescued animals in the park.
There are two options for the visits; half day or full day. Half-day visits are great for those with younger children who may not be able to handle a full day out. The half-day is a total of 7 hours (including travel duration) and the full day is a total of 10 hours.
Tickets are priced at 2500 THB each for adults and 1250 THB for children, including return transport from your hotel. This may be a little dearer than that offered at other places, but knowing the money is going to a good, ethical cause is more than worth the extra few dollars.
Bear in mind up to 80 visitors can be involved in the day trip although this does not usually get fully booked. You’ll definitely get a few chances to feed the elephants as there are over 80 elephants at the park, but for more private experiences, consider the other tour options – we highly recommend this. The park visit also does not include preparing rice balls for the elephants and bathing them. This may not appeal to everyone, but for those who are interested, the other options may suit you better.
Elephant Nature Park’s Saddle Off! Program
Located outside the park at independent camps, the Saddle Off! Program aims to improve the quality of life of previously-mistreated elephants. They also aim to educate their owners of proper care and bringing income to the families by means other than elephant riding or circus tricks.
There are many different programs to choose from. We highly recommend the Sunshine for Elephants tour. You’ll get to meet three beautiful female elephants rescued from elephant riding.
Prepare food for and feed the elephants during a trek and prepare a papaya salad along with feasting on an amazing vegetarian lunch. At the end of the day, bathe the elephants in the river. During the rainy season, you’ll get to plant trees within the area and slide down a waterfall.
This tour only allows a maximum of 12 visitors per day. We were lucky to have only ten people (and three friendly guides) to look after three elephants.
The small tour group is uncommon in many elephant sanctuaries, especially the ones more interested in exploiting elephants for tourism and profit, rather than creating a safe and healthy environment for the animals. This, in fact, was one of the reasons we chose the Elephant Nature Park and this tour.
Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park
There’s also the option of volunteering at the park for extended durations or an overnight, as well as one-week stays. Be a part of the award-winning projects and immerse yourself in this rewarding experience.
The program includes cutting food from plantations, preparing food for the elephants and feeding them. You’ll also carry out maintenance tasks which include maintaining mud pits and tasks required for elephant care. You’ll have many activities available during your free time including cultural lessons and treks.
The Journey to Freedom Project also includes activities outside the park concerned with the education of the local community towards proper elephant care and conservation. You may get a chance to improve the standards in these communities such as building clean village toilets, bridges for school children to cross and much more.
Vets, vet nurses and vet students listen up! You can complete one of these seven-day projects as part of your placement field work!
These volunteer programs are only available for those over 12 years and start at 12000 THB per person. There’s also a seven-day Dog Rescue Project available for dog lovers at 7000 THB. Considering food and accommodation for a week may be similar to this price anyway, this is a great way to give back to the community.