• Spike

Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

I feel that this will be the most important post I will write regarding Thailand.

Elephants have always been a big tourist attraction in Thailand and they continue to be, but unfortunately more often than not the attractions are not ethical.

Elephant Riding

Elephant riding used to be a big money maker for locals in Thailand. Tourists would pay money to have a ride on an elephant, simple as that. Elephants are huge animals, bigger than horses, so this should be fine shouldn't it? No!

After my negative experience at an Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai I have researched elephant tourism thoroughly. I wish I knew then what I know now.

There are lots of scientific reports stating that elephants backs are not designed for taking weight and riding elephants damages their backs and often hurts them. Now if this isn't reason enough not to ride elephants, then perhaps these next few lines will be.

Elephants are wild animals, sometimes friendly, sometimes not. Would an elephant just let people ride on it's back? Doubtful.

Most of these elephants are taken from their mothers at birth. They are then raised in captivity and trained to be slaves. They are beaten from a young age, quite often with a spiked stick or bullhook. This keeps them inline and prevents them hurting tourists.

I personally find this sickening. I didn't know the details about the cruelty of elephant riding previously but I knew it was bad, which is why I wanted to go to an elephant sanctuary. I wanted to help the elephants that had been mistreated and rescued.

Fake Sanctuaries

"Elephant Nature Park" is possibly the most famous of the sanctuaries. I'd heard great thing about this place, they rescue the elephants and the tourist's money helps to pay for their upkeep and helps to give them happier and comfortable lives.

Unfortunately due to timings and my short duration in Chiang Mai, it would have been difficult to visit under the times available. I therefore found another popular elephant Sanctuary called "Elephant Jungle Sanctuary". The times available suited my schedule so I booked with them.

This was one of the activities I was most looking forward to. I felt like I'd be doing some real good by helping the elephants. Oh, how wrong and naive I was!

I was picked up at my hotel and joined several over tourists on the way to the sanctuary. The group consisted mainly of people wanting to help the elephants, including a girl who was a vegan and animal lover (this is important for later).

We arrived at the sanctuary and had a brief talk about how to act around the elephants, that we had to feed them first to gain their trust. But there was nothing said about where from or how the elephants had been rescued, or what they were doing to help the elephants. this was a little strange, but it didn't set off any alarms just yet.

It was then feeding time, we were given buckets of bananas and the elephants ran over to us (although behind a fence) and we began to feed them. I loved this, interacting with the elephants, feeling as though I was slowly bonding with them, which I' sure I was.

After they were fed it was okay for us to enter into the park and have photographs with them and touch them if we wished to do so.

Now the alarms were going off in my head!

There was a baby elephant amongst the herd, and the 30 odd tourists who were part of our group were surrounding it, all desperate for selfies with the baby. Firstly I thought this was wrong of the tourists, but why weren't the staff doing anything to stop it? Surely this wasn't right. It was now that I took a step back and looked around properly, no longer in the wonderful world I'd first entered into. Now I was seeing clearly, watching how the tourists were interacting with the elephants, in a way that was not so much about the care of the elephants but about the fact they were having a photo with one.

In my clear minded state I then noticed an adolescent elephant with a rope linked from it's neck to it's foot. I'd completely missed this earlier, she was one of the elephants I'd bonded with while feeding.

I pointed this out to the animal loving vegan girl I'd met on the coach, telling her I was quite concerned as it didn't seem right. Her response was a shrug of the shoulders, she didn't care and then ran off to get more selfies. My mouth dropped in disbelief.

I then decided to ask one of the members of staff why the elephant has a rope restraining it's movement. The mahout (elephant keeper) told me it was so she could not run and hurt the tourists. But surely this isn't right. If an elephant is a danger to tourists, keep this elephant separate from them, Don't restrain their movement to keep the tourists happy.

It was also now that I noticed the other mahouts were carrying bullhooks on their belts. The spiked tools used to beat elephants.

From this moment my heart sank, things just didn't seem right. Elephants arrived for food according to the timing of the tourists, we bathed with the elephants when they were told to bathe, not as the elephants wanted to. I have since found out that bathing with elephants is also damaging, and they are usually beaten from a young age to allow tourists to join them bathing.

As the day went on, I noticed that this was more of an elephant petting zoo, not a sanctuary. To my knowledge the elephants had not been rescued, but were being bread in captivity. It calls itself a sanctuary simply to pull in the tourists.

I've since looked into this sanctuary and have found similar reports like mine, however most tourists don't seem to open their eyes to what's really happening here. I believe that most of the other sanctuaries in Thailand are similar. Because elephant riding is no longer as popular, sanctuaries are the way to make money, so it's easy to create a petting zoo and call it a sanctuary.

There was one lady who had video evidence of the mistreatment at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (see bottom of page), which was even worse than I had witnessed. She stayed overnight and in the early morning saw where the elephants were kept. When I was there I was told the elephants roam freely in the jungle and then come for food when the tourists arrive. This is a lie.

In her video the woman had filmed the elephants chained up in the jungle. They're unable to move to get food or water, and will defecate where they are standing, unable to move away from it. When the tourists arrive, the elephants are hungry and released by the keepers. They are then obviously very happy to interact with the tourists for food.

I'd read various reviews of this sanctuary and others, with similar stories, however the reviews are always outweighed by positive reviews, from tourists who are fooled from what really goes on. I've read reports of people witnessing the elephants being hit with the bullhooks, although I did not witness this myself.

Ethical Sanctuaries

I have read reports of a handful of sanctuaries said to be ethical, but it's very hard for me to accept they are. The only one I genuinely believe to be ethical from thorough research and friends having visited is "Elephant Nature Park". This was where it all started. They detail how the elephants were rescued, they don't allow bathing, and the focus is on the elephants well-being the whole time. If you want to visit a sanctuary in Thailand, please visit this one. There may well be other ethical sanctuaries, but it's still very hard to tell. At least with "Elephant Nature Park" there is overwhelming evidence dating back years to suggest it's the most ethical.

Final thoughts

For days after my visit to "Elephant Jungle Sanctuary", I felt down. I felt annoyed and a little disgusted with myself for going to such a place. Sure it may be better than elephant riding, but it was the opposite of what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to help elephants, not help to give the owners more money for themselves.

I've since left negative reviews for "Elephant Jungle Sanctuary" where I can, often having to fight with the owners who try to get my reviews removed, but also from tourists who have visited. Just because they did not witness mistreatment does not mean it doesn't happen. I've had so many responses claiming I'm lying, even when I provide photographic evidence and video evidence. People don't like to think they've been fooled or think negatively of a cherished memory, so they choose to believe the lie that it's a real sanctuary.

After my visit I thought back to one of my first conversations when arriving in Chiang Mai. In the taxi to my hotel from the airport I was speaking with the driver about visiting an elephant sanctuary. He told me he owned an elephant that lived at a sanctuary, and how he was paid money for having it there. I was very confused what he meant at the time. After my trip to a sanctuary though, it all became clear.

It seems that locals will buy an elephant, they then have it live at the sanctuary and then earn a percentage from the tourists who visit. Whether or not his elephant was at the sanctuary I visited or another, I'm not sure. But elephant sanctuaries are obviously becoming a big business in Thailand now, and are not so much the charity they would have us believe they are.

As much as my experience was negative, my love for elephants has only increased. I am now a supporter of several elephant charities and I do feel as though I bonded with the elephants I met. I just wish they could have been in a real sanctuary where they were properly looked after. Seeing animal mistreatment certainly makes you appreciate all living things a lot more.

There are so many tourists who visit elephant sanctuaries and most have no idea what really happens behind the scenes. Many won't want to admit there could be such horrors happening and even with proof refuse to believe it's not a sanctuary. But I'm hoping that anyone reading this will be very careful about where they choose to visit. Please do your research! Check thoroughly before you visit any sanctuary. And if I can advise you to visit any, I would say the only one I trust would be "Elephant Nature Park".

One last thing to end on. A video which shows evidence of the mistreatment. I believe from thorough research that this is what happens in most of the sanctuaries.

Check out my other guides on Thailand here.

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