One of the bucket list items on a Thailand adventure is getting to interact with elephants at a sanctuary. But in the back of our minds there is usually a little light that asks is this ethical? In this post I will be exploring the different ways you can find Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This guide will also apply to the rest of the world, but since my research began in Thailand, this is where I am focusing on.
Due to the popularity of elephant sanctuaries, unethical ones pop up all the time. Money makes the world go round and, therefore, people will exploit these magnificent creatures for financial gain.
Interestingly, in the pandemic, a lot of “sanctuaries” couldn’t look after the elephants and sold some of them to other homes. For me, that is the first red flag. Sanctuaries should be for the ethical wellbeing of the elephants, not as a money-making attraction.
What makes an Elephant Sanctuary ethical?
An ethical elephant sanctuary will never punish the elephants for bad behaviour, use bullhooks or chains, or force the elephants to have social interaction with tourists. According to PETA, a true sanctuary will never buy, sell, trade, breed, exploit or profit from the elephants.
What is the definition of Ethical?
According to the Oxford dictionary ethical means “relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these”.
Is riding an elephant ethical?
No. Riding an elephant for the purpose of entertainment is not ethical. There are exceptions to elephant riding but this is only for the mahout when the Elephant needs to go to the Vet, or if the Elephant has wandered off too far from their home and is on farmers’ land. Farmers put pesticide on their crops that can be harmful to the Elephants.
Even with this exception, riding a wild creature is still not right. But we need to remember that an elephant to a Thai person is the equivalent of a horse to someone in Europe. Many villages grew up with these creatures helping out with the farms, transporting items and being a loyal pet. Therefore how can we judge when we have tamed wild horses for the same purposes?
Is bathing an elephant ethical?
This is the million dollar question at the moment. A lot of people are now saying that this is not an ethical practise and should be phased out. Elephants can become stressed when they are surrounded by people. I too would probably not appreciate a stranger jumping into my bath water and trying to wash my back. If you do choose a sanctuary with this option, watch the interaction with the mahout and the elephants, are they being forced to be bathed or are they freely coming to interact with guests.
Unfortunately, this is a part of the process you won’t know until you are at the sanctuary.
When I visited Into the Wild Elephant Camp, there were only 5 of us, making it an intermate group. The elephants were called over for bath time and out of the 6, 3 decided to come in. We spread mud on them and then took them to another part of the pool to wash off. After the Elephants had finished playing and grew bored of us they wandered out of the pool and back into the forest area. They were not called back or forced to squirt water for us, they just simply came and went as they pleased.
Why don’t the sanctuaries release the Elephants back into the Wild?
Unfortunately because the elephants have been brought up around humans and tortured into submission, they simply would not survive in the wild. They are fed everyday by their owners and wouldn’t know how to forage for food or survive alone.
Elephants have always played a key part in Thailand’s history. From helping them fight wars, to manual labour. When logging became illegal, the mahouts had to find a way to feed their elephants and their families, so they turned to the tourism industry. The elephants would be forced to entertain tourists by doing tricks and being ridden.
How to find the ethical elephant sanctuaries
Every tourist information center and hostel will hold leaflets about all the sanctuaries around Chiang Mai. This piece of advertising along with their website will be your first clue as to whether the sanctuary is ethical.
When you look at the advertising of the sanctuary, is the focus on the customer experience or the Elephants. If all the pictures are of tourists having a great time, this could show that their main focus is on the people and not the wellbeing of the animals.
Another way to see if the sanctuary is ethical is to go onto websites like Tripadvisor, Google reviews and Instagram. By doing this you can see the photos that tourists have taken of the experience. This will give you a good indication of how the animals are treated and the interactions you have with them. Look out for signs like; if the elephants have rope around their necks? Do the Mahouts have bullhooks in their hands? Can you see chains in the background? Is there space for them to roam?
You can also check on the sanctuary website to see if they have a section about the history of the elephants in their care. If the sanctuary is taking time to write and explain where the elephants were rescued from this would indicate they are ethical.
Unfortunately, because there are a large number of sanctuaries to choose from, there can be poachers for your money (bad pun, sorry!). Locals will call you over on the street and ask what touristy things you are planning on doing. If you say that you are doing a Elephant experience, chances are they have a better one for you than the one you are about to choose.
Listen to what they have to say, but 9 times out of 10 I do not recommend trusting that their 2 elephants in a little field without a leaflet are ethically sourced.
Always trust your gut. Usually, the big sanctuaries are big for a reason.
How I felt when I visited an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
After doing a ton of research, I found a sanctuary that I felt comfortable visiting. I chose Into the Wild Elephant camp as it ranked in the top 3 ethical sanctuaries on every blog and website I looked on. However, after speaking to a girl in the hostel about a different sanctuary (Elephant Nature Park) and how they don’t offer bathing with the elephants for ethical reasons, I started doubting my choice.
For the whole journey to Into the WIld Elephant Camp I was anxious and skeptical. But when the first part of the experience was learning about the elephants history, behaviours and elephant care ethics it put my mind at ease. All their Elephants were retired from logging and tourism.
The elephants were well looked after and had space to roam. They can wander off for up to 2 hours before the carers start to worry about them. The elephants were not manhandled or hit to “entertain” us. They are literally spoken to and if they choose to listen or not is a different story. I loved that they were not forced to be with us. They came and interacted with us on their own terms and walked away when they had finished playing.
Top rated Chiang Mai Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries
They have been running the project since 1990 with their aim to provide sanctuary and rescue for their elephants.
Feeding Included: Yes
Bathing Included: No
Price: 2,500 THB (£60)
This sanctuary is a place where elephants can just be elephants. The elephants get to forage for themselves, have dust baths, socialise and explore.
Price: Need to enquire
This Sanctuary focuses on Elephant wellbeing and educating visitors on history, behaviour and ethics.
Price: 1,700 THB (£40)
I encourage everyone to do their own research to find the best Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, this you will make your experience so much more rewarding. Seeing the Elephants and getting to interact with them was one of the best parts of my trip and I highly recommend it. However I do understand that sometimes making a choice to interact with these magnificent creatures in a captivity environment isn’t 100% ethical. It really is down to your personal preference.
As always, Happy Exploring!