How to interact ethically with elephants in Thailand
Riding on the back of an elephant was once a quintessential Thailand travel experience. In recent years, increasing concern for elephant welfare has seen consumer attitudes shift away from rides and other tourism activities that may be harmful for elephants. So what options are left for travellers in Thailand to admire Asian elephants in a responsible way?
Elephant welfare issues
Not so long ago, you could barely turn a corner in Thailand without seeing a billboard touting elephant rides or shows. But, while Thailand has been slow to legislate the protection of elephant welfare (under Thai law, elephants are still classed as livestock), consumers are now more aware of the negative effects of elephant tourism: the systematic abuse of newly-captive and captive-born Asian elephants required to "train" them to perform tourism activities, as well as the physical strain of carrying tourists on their backs for long hours. As a result, many elephant tourism venue owners have ended rides and shows, and reassessed their use of bull hooks and other cruel methods of elephant control.
While these moves have been celebrated by animal welfare experts, Drinya Kenyon from World Animal Protection, which advises against interactive elephant experiences in its elephant-friendly tourist guide, says it’s not just rides that can be harmful for elephants – and travellers. “There is still a certain element of control required for elephants to be in close contact with humans, whether it’s rides or elephant bathing,” says Kenyon. “Even when elephants are under a high level of control, they can still be unpredictable.”
Armed with this information, it’s easy to argue that supporting interactive elephant tourism in Thailand – and across Southeast Asia – is not responsible. But the situation is complex. More than half of the nation’s estimated 7000 elephants are thought to be captive – they need to be fed and exercised, and financially support their mahout (traditional carer). Following Thailand’s 1989 ban on using elephants for logging, many mahouts claim that without charging tourists for rides and shows, they and their elephants would starve.
Fortunately, a small but growing number of elephant centres are now proving that elephant tourism programmes can be profitable without putting pressure on elephants to perform in any way. Here are five examples of high-welfare elephant tourism venues where elephants can be admired simply being elephants.
ChangChill, Chiang Mai
Opened in 2019 with support from World Animal Protection, ChangChill was the first elephant venue in the Chiang Mai area to transition from an interactive elephant tourism programme (formerly known as Happy Elephant Care Valley) to an observation-only model. Day visits begin with a jungle hike to observe ChangChill’s six female elephants moving around the hilly, jungle-covered property, an-hour-and-a-half drive southwest of the city. In the afternoon, visitors relax on viewing platforms as the elephants socialise by a gurgling stream, with a guide on-hand to interpret their natural behaviours.
Need to know
One-day visit (including transfers and lunch): 2500B.
Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES), Chiang Mai
After witnessing the hardships experienced by elephants working in tourist camps on a trip to Thailand as a teen, Australian Emily McWilliam returned to Thailand to found BEES with her Thai partner Burm Rinkaew in 2010. Visits to this lush sanctuary, two-an-a-half hours drive southwest of central Chiang Mai, are structured like a mini-volunteering programme, with lots of hiking to observe elephants between helping out with elephant food preparation, construction tasks, planting trees, and more. BEES once allowed touching elephants, but now has a "hands off" policy.
Need to know
Full-day visit with lunch (with own transport): 2500B; one-night visit: 6000B; three-night visit: 10,200B; six-night visit: 15,000B (all with meals and transfers).
Elephant Valley Thailand, Chiang Rai
Following the success of the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, Elephant Valley Thailand, which opened in 2016, is Chiang Rai’s first elephant sanctuary. Full-day visits revolve around following the herd through their daily routine with your personal guide, then spending the afternoon helping out with tasks such as planting food, or even assisting with construction projects. There’s also a homestay option, and at the time of writing Elephant Valley had just launched an "Elephant Safari" experience at a new sanctuary habitat nearby.
Need to know
Full-day visit (including transfers and lunch): 2000B.
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai
BLES was founded by Briton Katherine Connor in 2007 after a courageous baby elephant called Boon Lott ("survivor" in Thai) inspired her to dedicate her life to nurturing rescued and retired elephants. Visitors to BLES, located outside the village of Baan Tuek, an hour’s drive north of Sukhothai airport, are involved in all aspects of sanctuary life, from collecting elephant food from the jungle to maintaining herding areas and grazing grounds.
Need to know
Overnight visit (including transfers and all meals): 6000B. Due to its remote location BLES does not run single-day tours – most visitors stay for several days on individually-tailored itineraries.
Following Giants, Ko Lanta
Also supported by World Animal Protection, Following Giants transitioned to an observation-only tourist programme in late 2019. On a day visit to this lush Ko Lanta elephant venue, guests shadow elephants on a jungle walk and plant treats for the pachyderms to find before those staying for the full-day program embark on a hike to a stunning cave and a waterfall, topped off by sharing a herbal drink with the local mahouts.
Need to know
Full-day visit (including transfers and lunch): 3500B.
What to wear and what bring to an elephant centre
Lightweight clothing (with long sleeves/trousers for overnight visits), sunhat, sunscreen, DEET-free insect repellent, sturdy shoes, swimwear if there is a waterhole on the property, and a change of clothes in case you get muddy. Volunteers should expect basic facilities.
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Article first published in November 2014, and last updated by Sarah Reid in February 2020.
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