Lonely Planet Writer

Vietnam launches its first ethical elephant experience

In a move that will delight animal-lovers, one national park in Vietnam has decided to ditch elephant rides in favour of the country’s first ethical elephant experience.

Visitors can watch the elephants from a distance. Photo by Animals Asia

Yok Don National Park is now running ethical elephant tours where tourists can come and observe the park’s four elephants from a distance as they roam freely around the forest. Animals Asia, who work for long-term change in the treatment of animals in China and Vietnam, praised the move saying “exploitation has been replaced with respect.”

The move is a huge step for the park. Until very recently, elephants were kept in chains and being used to bring tourists on rides that could last the entire day. This also prevented them from engaging in their natural behaviour, such as foraging, touching each other or drinking water when they needed to.

The elephants now have the freedom to forage and go for water whenever they like. Photo by Animals Asia

In order to facilitate the transition, UK charity Olsen Animal Trust has provided funding to ensure that elephant owners will not lose out on their current livelihoods, with the hope that this more ethical approach will have long-term dividends for locals, the environment and the animals.

Already, there is a positive change in the elephants’ behaviour. Dionne Slagter from Animals Asia explained that “in the wild, elephants spend up to 18 hours a day foraging and this is exactly how Yok Don’s elephants now spend the majority of their time. They all look so much healthier and are increasingly confident in how far they roam.”

The animals are interacting more with each other. Photo by Animals Asia

As awareness grows about the negative impact of riding elephants, more ethical experiences have replaced the rides in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos but Vietnam has been lagging behind on conservation. As a consequence, their elephant population has been in steep decline and there are estimated to be less than 100 wild elephants left in the country, down from 2000 in 1990. 80 more elephants are estimated to be in captivity, most providing rides for tourists.

The park has signed on to this eco-tourism initiative until April 2023 and Animals Asia hopes that it will become profitable by that time, encouraging other elephant facilities around the country to follow their example. There are believed to be 40 captive elephants in the Dak Lak province where the park is located.

So far, early feedback from the first few tours has been encouraging and will help the park grow and evolve their offering over time.