(Last updated on: 10/12/2020)
Ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, or any other country in the world, are the only kind of elephant attraction that you should visit on your travels. And even then some of the ‘sanctuaries’ are questionable in their practices. With the growth in ethical tourism and an increased awareness of animal cruelty, many people nowadays are looking to sanctuaries for their elephant experiences. But which of these are actually ethical and which are the best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand to visit?
In this article I will explain to you what a ‘sanctuary’ is, before telling you which ones have the best reputations and the best reviews; making them the best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand.
- What is an elephant sanctuary?
- How to tell if an elephant sanctuary is ‘real’
- The best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand
- The best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand: Know before you go
What is an elephant sanctuary?
In an ideal world, no elephants would be living in captivity, however, in the real world this is not possible. There are many sanctuaries around the world which seek to ‘fix’ the problems that humans have created for elephants over the years. There are thousands of elephants all over the world who have spent their lives suffering by working in the logging or tourism industries.
A sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety. The vast majority of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, and elsewhere, focus on taking care of rescued animals. They provide a safe home and shelter for elephants.
Sanctuaries do not always have the word sanctuary in their title. Three common titles that you will see are:
- Elephant park
- Elephant camp
- Elephant orphanage
However, it is not about the title, it is about the work that they do. Most sanctuaries are not for profit organisations or charities. The money that they make from allowing tourists to visit is spent on taking care of the elephants. In an ideal world (which we have already established we do not live in), there would be no interaction between tourists and elephants at all. But how else would the sanctuaries raise the money to care for these gentle giants? It is a necessary evil, I guess.
For many people, visiting elephants is a highlight of their trip to Thailand. Thailand is famous for its elephants, they are a symbol of this beautiful country. But sadly, history has not been kind to these animals, and it is only in the last decade or so that tourists have become more aware and more conscious of the wildlife tourism that they pursue.
This has resulted in the growth in the number of establishments claiming to be ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Fortunately, there has been a significant reduction in the maltreatment of elephants in Thailand, although there is still work to be done.
You cannot ride an elephant at an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand. However, you are often allowed to feed the elephants and bathe them. You will also usually learn about the elephant’s background and how the elephants are cared for. Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand can be a great educational tourism experience.
How to tell if an elephant sanctuary is ‘real’
Unfortunately, there are some organisations that claim to be ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, when in fact they are not. The owners of these organisations do not have the animal’s best interests at heart and are instead profit-driven. The people who own these organisations are simply looking for their next sale.
When you are considering visiting elephants, or any other animals for that matter, I strongly recommend that you do a bit of research first. Take a look on Trip Advisor to read reviews from other tourists and Google the name of the company. If it is a known organisation then something will usually come up in your research if they should be avoided.
However, if you are considering visiting a lesser-known establishment, as I often do on my travels, it may be difficult to find out whether it is actually an ethical elephant sanctuary before you go. Here are some tell-tale signs that may indicate that it is NOT an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand:
- They are charging high prices/obvious making a significant profit
- They use bull hooks/whips to control the elephants
- They force elephants to be near tourists when they clearly do not want to be
- They allow tourists to ride the elephants
- The elephants are exhibiting angry behaviour
If you see any of these things during your visit, it may indicate that the ‘sanctuary’ that you have chosen to visit may not be a sanctuary at all.
The best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand
To help you decide on where to go to visit elephants in an ethical way, I have put together a list of the seven top-rated ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. These establishments have an excellent track record and reviews. The organisations are trustworthy, so you know that you are doing good by visiting.
#1 Elephant Nature Park
The Elephant Nature Park acts as a ‘retirement home’ for rescued elephants. It does not promote elephant riding or performances, and is considered a pioneer in the treatment of captive elephants.
Located in the Chiang Mai province of northern Thailand and established in the 1990s, they are a true sanctuary for elephants as well as other animals. They have a five part mission statement. Briefly, this includes:
- Sanctuary for endangered species.
- Rain Forest Restoration.
- Cultural Preservation.
- Visitor Education.
- Act independently.
They aim to provide homes for animals as well as looking after them, ensuring they can develop. The sanctuary also plant trees in the surrounding area. This means they are working to restore the ecological balance of plants and animals, and increase biodiversity.
Elephant Nature Park also aim to preserve the cultural integrity of the local community through employment and by making local purchases where possible.
As with many similar parks, the Elephant Nature Park hope to educate their guests. This is important for it ensures that more people are able to understand the importance of their work, and why it is necessary. The final part of their mission statement makes it clear that they don’t engage with pressure groups who’s work is in direct contrast to the welfare of the animals at the park.
You can sponsor an elephant (or a dog) as well as donating to the park. This means they are able to carry on doing the vital work they do! When visiting the Elephant Nature Park, you are able to observe these magnificent creatures as well as the other animals on site like cats, buffalo, birds and dogs. You can feed the elephants, walk the dogs and more.
#2 Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
The Phuket Elephant sanctuary is leading the way when it comes to the ethical treatment of retired/rescued elephants. It is the first of its kind in the area, with incredibly high standards when it comes to animal welfare.
The sanctuary rescues, retires and rehabilitates elephants who have spent their lives suffering within the trekking and logging industries. They don’t offer elephant bathing, and were the first to pioneer the ‘Saddle Off’ program. This has been adopted by other sanctuaries.
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is run by a former elephant camp owner from the local area, Montri Todtane, and a world-renowned elephant rescuer Lek Chailert, who is also a conservationist and founder of the Save Elephant Foundation. Together they work hard to ensure the safety and welfare of animals across Thailand.
Set in 30 acres of stunning tropical jungle, there is plenty of space and biodiversity for the elephants who are lucky enough to retire to Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. You can visit the park for a morning, afternoon or full day experience. You can feed the elephants, walk with them and observe as they play, bathe and socialise!
It is important to note that there are parks impersonating Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in brochures and online. When booking, make sure you are being taken to the sanctuary in Paklok. It really is one of the best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand.
#3 Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, Lampang
This was the world’s first elephant hospital. Located in Lampang, the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital pioneers new methods and technologies to heal sick or wounded elephants. They even have their own prosthetics centre!
Since opening in 1993, the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital have treated over 5,000 elephants. Coming from the logging industry as well as the more unethical side of elephant tourism, there has been plenty of work for the staff here to do over the years. This is, of course, very sad. However, it is amazing that there is somewhere these injured and poorly animals can go to be treated with care and respect.
You can visit the hospital and make a donation on entry, which allows the centre to continue with the vital work they do. From informative videos to passionate staff as well as a short tour, it is a great place to visit and spend an hour or so while in Lampang. It is clear to see how much the staff here care for the elephants, and well worth experiencing. You won’t be able to touch the elephants, but you will be able to admire them and learn about how incredible they really are.
NOTE: don’t confuse the hospital with the Thailand Elephant Conservation Centre next door, who are much less ethical in their practises.
#4 Elephant Hills, Khao Sok
Elephant Hills is a luxury tented jungle camp offering natural encounters with elephants but no riding or performances. With canvas tents that have all the amenities of a 4-star hotel room and a choice of different ‘soft-adventure tours’, you’ll have a real adventure here.
You can meet the elephants, feed them and observe them. On top of the elephant experiences you are also able to take speedboat tours, visit the local market, swim in Cheow Larn Lake and hang out at the bar of an evening.
Having won various awards for their efforts in sustainability and animal welfare, Elephant Hills is an ideal choice when looking for ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Especially if you want added luxury!
As an added unique experience, Elephant Hills also offers a floating campsite on the lake. This is something completely different, and not offered at any of the other ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Your stay here really would be one to write home about…
#5 Mahouts Elephant Foundation
The Mahouts Elephant Foundation is working towards establishing a shift in attitude within tourism that facilitates the return of captive, working elephants to a protected forest habitat.
They currently run a project with hill mahouts in Thailand. This is to oversee the return of previously captive elephants to a protected forest area. On top of this, they aim to find an alternate income stream for their mahouts.
In their own words, they have a multifaceted approach which: cuts off the supply of elephants to the tourism industry, stops the demand of tourists by offering ethical alternatives, brings a sustainable source of income to impoverished communities, and provides science-based evidence showing good elephant welfare. We complement our industry disrupting tourism model with a scientific research program collaborating with international experts to expand the current body of knowledge on Asian elephant behaviour and biology.
To help with funding this they offer a Walking With Elephants programme in Thailand. You can also sponsor an elephant or simply donate to the project!
#6 WFFT Thai Elephant Refuge, near Hua Hin
The Wildlife Friends Foundation Trust takes an active stance against elephant exploitation. With large areas of land for the animals, the refuge was the first chain-free sanctuary for elephants meaning they have plenty of freedom here.
When visiting you can meet and feed the elephants, but they don’t offer any bathing or riding experiences. This is all part of being one of the best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. It means that the elephants are not being used for entertainment. You are still able to get to know these creatures and learn about their magnificence, but without causing them any harm or distress.
There are currently over 20 elephants here. You can volunteer with them for a week (or longer) if this is something that appeals to you. The longer you stay the cheaper it works out. So if you’re really keen to volunteer with elephants somewhere that really cares about their welfare, and you have the resources to do so, consider a few months of working with these beautiful creatures!
#7 Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai
Elephant welfare is, of course, the top priority at Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary. They put all of their profits into conservation, allowing the elephants to live in a natural environment which helps them ‘rediscover they true identity’. The sanctuary also offer support, jobs and funding to the local community as well as providing as much education as possible.
Guest numbers are kept low so as not to cause any stress to the elephants. However, when visiting you can participate in all sorts of activities. These include walking with the elephants, bathing the on-site dogs, repairing elephant pens, collecting food and more.
You can stay at the sanctuary or at a nearby guesthouse, and a reservation is absolutely essential. As one of the best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand (combined with their low capacity) they’re always booked up 1-2 years in advance!
The best ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand: Know before you go
For years we have destroyed our environment. Human beings have littered beaches, been cruel to animals and polluted the air that we breath. Do your part before you travel to Thailand and do a little bit of research into how YOU can be an ethical tourist. Here are some articles that I have written that you may enjoy:
- Why you should NOT visit the famous long neck tribe in Thailand
- Sustainable tourism explained: What, why and where
- Ethical tourism: Everything you need to know
- Ecotourism: Everything you need to know
- Sex tourism in Thailand: What where and why