One of the things we planned to do when in Thailand was to visit an elephant sanctuary. We wanted to get up close with these majestic, beautiful, intelligent creatures. The best place to visit a sanctuary is Chiang Mai. But, beware there are different types of 'sanctuary'. Some genuinely care for the health and welfare of the elephants. Others billed as 'sanctuary's' are, in fact, glorified tourist attractions that leave elephants working long hours and in squalid conditions. There is nothing finer than seeing these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat happily enjoying life so make sure you choose the right sanctuary.
Why should I be careful when choosing an Elephant Sanctuary?
Welfare standards in elephant venues across Thailand vary. Some have genuine ethics, placing the well-being and care of the elephants at the heart of their operation. Sadly, some venues have been assessed as providing quite poor facilities and levels of care.
To ride or not to ride?
Some sanctuary's allow you to ride elephants. Now this may be on your bucket list but can we urge you to seriously reconsider?
Elephants' spines cannot support the weight of people. Doing this activity day-in-day-out can lead to permanent spinal injuries. To accommodate riders, a chair (howdah) is attached to the elephant's back which in itself causes further complications. The clunky contraption rubs their backs, which can cause blisters that can often become infected. Elephant's also suffer foot infections and injuries after continuous long-term trekking.
The animals are taught to carry people and the abuse the animals undergo during this training brings it's own safety concerns.
Traditions used to train elephants
Phajaan (or elephant crushing), is the harmful training method that elephants undergo to enable them to become part of the tourism industry. It is an accepted, long-standing tradition in Thai culture and is used to prepare elephants to perform for tourists either in the form of riding, circus acts or painting.
Young elephants are selected and taken from their mothers and kept in a small, confined place. They are abused with bullhooks and bamboo sticks spiked with nails to ensure behaviour. Often, they are starved and deprived of sleep, in order to crush their spirits and become submissive to humans.
As this is an accepted practice in Thailand, many of the elephants you will see in trekking camps will have undergone this horrific process.
Like humans, elephants are sociable creatures. They have families and friends. They feel pain, grief and happiness. When the elephants are kept in trekking camps, often they are not engaging with other elephants and can essentially live their lives in solitary confinement.
The effect on a Baby Elephant
Baby elephants can be chained to their mothers during treks. This can cause them harm, as they have to keep the pace of their mother as she walks. The baby elephants must continue trekking and can't stop to rest or nurse. To keep the required pace and keep the elephant moving, their guide (mahout) will prod them with a bullhook. The elephant will remember this bullhook from their early years torture and as such can immediately strike fear. After the trek and when not working, the elephants are kept chained and not allowed to roam free. They are not fed enough or given enough water. It has been reported that elephants have been seen swaying, pacing and bobbing their heads at trekking camps – all signs of serious psychological stress.
Choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary
Avoid a sanctuary if:
a tour operator offers anything other than spending time with elephants.
if the 'sanctuary' or wildlife park offers elephant riding, circuses or painting shows
if the animals are chained
some places may market their experience as humane (and say they don’t use bullhooks). The fact elephants are being used for trekking means they are being harmed.
Choose a sanctuary if:
they are against riding
you only have a limited amount of time to spend with the elephants
only a limited amount of people are allowed to visit the sanctuary at a given time
We visited Kanta Elephant Sanctuary for a half day visit. Find out more on our separate blog post. Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation centre also recommended by many. Sadly, it was fully booked when we were there (but it was peak season, January).