10 UNETHICAL elephant sanctuaries in Thailand you should avoid

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(Last updated on: 12/12/2020)

Sadly, there are many unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. These organisations often promote themselves as being ‘ethical’, but in reality they are not. Tourists who visit the unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand are unknowingly contributing to these poor animals’ pain and hurt. This malpractice needs to stop and it needs to stop now.

It is difficult to know what goes on behind the scenes. And most people who visit elephant sanctuaries are not elephant experts, therefore they may not see the warning signs. That’s why, in this article, I name and shame some of the worst players in the industry. Below I will tell you about 10 unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand- so that you know to avoid them!

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. They 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 an unnecessary 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.

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.

Recent years have seen a significant growth of establishments claiming to be ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Unfortunately, many of these ‘sanctuaries’ do not adhere to the principles that they should: they are not kind to the animals and they put profit before the elephant’s wellbeing.

How to spot an unethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand

unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand
Many tourists do not understand what goes on behind the scenes at elephant ‘sanctuaries’.

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. 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/making a 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.

Unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that you should avoid

Below, I have listed 10 unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that I recommend you avoid. There are plenty of fantastic ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand for you to choose from, as I outline in this article. But some do not have the best intentions and do not deserve your business…. here they are…

#1 Elephant Mahout Project, Pattaya

The Elephant Mahout Project offers ‘volunteer’ placements, where participants can ride the elephants like a mahout. This is framed as a chance to learn about elephants in an up close and personal way, but as it also involves riding elephants this isn’t ethical and should be avoided.

There are obvious safety concerns for humans and elephants. On top of this, the animals are often abused into submission when it comes to carrying people. 

Update: it seems that the Elephant Mahout Project in Pattaya has now closed. However, this can’t be 100% confirmed at this time and it is still worth mentioning to avoid this elephant ‘sanctuary’.

#2 Thai Elephant Home, Chiang Mai

While labelling themselves as an ethical experience, a visit to the Thai Elephant Home is actually far from being ethical.

You can ride elephants, which as mentioned can be dangerous for everyone involved – and you can also play with the baby elephants.

The ‘sanctuary’ operates a captive breeding programme, and visitors are invited to hang out with the baby elephants. However, habituating them in this way ensures they cannot be returned to the wild. They will be too used to human contact and interaction from an early age, and unable to cope in their natural habitat. Of course, baby elephants are adorable and you might be tempted to play with them. It’s a dream for many people. However, it isn’t what is right for the animals.

Often, these baby elephants are victims of phajaan, a cruel process that breaks a baby elephant’s spirit by ripping them away from their mother and using negative reinforcement to domesticate them.

Reviews say that the elephants are chained. They also say that the animals are forced into doing tricks, and struck with hooks when they don’t cooperate. Many previous visitors have stated that they felt like the elephants are exploited here. It has left a sour taste in many peoples’ mouths.

This video shows how ‘the baby’s spirit is broken’ in a process called phajaan. It’s heartbreaking.

#3 Chiang Dao Elephant Camp, Chiang Mai

Labelled as a must-see when in the area, Chiang Dao Elephant Camp is anything but – it is one of the many unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand.

Here, they train young elephants (bought and bred) to paint and perform. These animals are kept in captivity permanently, forced into domestication and made to entertain humans on a daily basis. This is exhausting and stressful for them. You can ride elephants here and watch them put on a show, things that are a far cry from what life would be like for them in their natural habitat.

Reviews say it should be avoided. The animals are shouted at and chained up, forced to perform by moving logs around and painting a picture of a tree. While it might be majestic to see an elephant use a paintbrush, it comes a great cost – the unhappiness and distress of these beautiful creatures. Previous visitors say it just feels like a poorly run circus.

#4 Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai

Many of the unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand are located in Chiang Mai, including the Patara Elephant Farm.

This is an elephant breeding farm which offers riding experiences. The babies here are bred to be kept in captivity, and domesticated – another place where phajaan is common. You can ‘have’ a baby elephant for a day; as mentioned above, this ensures that these animals will never grow up able to be released into their natural habitat. They will be too dependant on human interaction. Of course, this is desperately sad; these animals are supposed to be wild creatures. While the whole experience is framed as a way to learn about elephants (which you would), it just simply isn’t an ethical way to do so.

Previous guests have expressed regret at visiting the farm. They say the animals are hit with ‘sticks that have nails poking out of them’, as well as having their ears pulled and legs stepped on while laying down to rest. All in all, it just seems like an abusive way to spend time with these magical creatures who deserve so much more respect.

#5 Mae Sa Elephant Camp

Mae Sa Elephant Camp is a camp that has historically offered bathing and riding experiences as well as shows with the chance to watch the elephants paint. Reviews state that the animals aren’t treated well, and that the whole experience felt entirely exploitative. The website says that there has been a change of ownership, with riding and chains now banned. Their statement says:

Under the new ownership of Mrs.Anchalee Bunarat, the eldest daughter of Mr.Choochart, many changes have been made. It is part of an ongoing development, which includes Maesa Elephant Camp. The elephants now enjoy complete freedom of movement, no longer chained, they can roam wherever they choose in the sanctuary. The mahouts do not ride the elephants, nor do they use the hook for control. New dust and mud bath areas have been created, and the elephants can spend time cooling off in the stream.

Whether the elephants really are treated better now is something that time will have to uncover. For now, it should still be listed as one of the more unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand.

#6 Elephant Stay, Royal Elephant Kraal Village, Ayutthaya

Elephant Stay is a tourist-focused ‘working elephant village’. You can live, work and play with the animals. Visitors are given branded t-shirts, get to ride the elephants as part of learning to be a mahout, and pose for photos with them too.

While the program is a not for profit, it is still an example of unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. The retired, non-working elephants are not simply left to grow old in peace. Instead they are forced to interact with guests who will ride them, bathe them and more.

There is a conservation program here. However, with the option for guests to play with the baby animals, it is clear that the creatures bred here are being set up for a lifetime in captivity as they wouldn’t be able to be released into the wild after so long interacting with humans. It is heartbreaking.

man and baby elephant unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand
Photo by International Fund for Animal Welfare on Pexels.com

#7 Thai Elephant Conservation Center, Lampang

Not to be confused with the hospital nearby, (which is actually one of the BEST ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand), the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre is a separate, government-owned elephant camp with daily elephant shows and rides.

This is another example of unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, and should be avoided. Here, the elephants are chained up and bull hooks are used. You can ride the elephants, who are abused by the mahouts when not cooperating, and they are forced to perform too. They paint pictures and throw balls which might seem like light entertainment for the guests in the audience, but is the result of years of stress for the elephants.

The hospital is just next door: Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital. Here, the elephants are taken care of and adored. It is clear that this is where you should be visiting, especially if you are keen to avoid any unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand…

#8 Surin Elephant Round-Up

The Surin Elephant Round-Up isn’t actually an attraction, but a cultural festival. Held in the Surin Province of Isan in Thailand every November, it has been reported for its abuse of elephants.

Reported abuse includes getting them to perform tricks for tourists like tug-of-war (with the Royal Thai Army) and playing football. The festival also forces elephants to engage in mock battles, and there is an ‘elephant buffet’. Many of the ritualistic elements of the festival, that gave it its cultural prominence, have disappeared. It is purely a tourist attraction now.

See what the Surin Elephant Round-Up looks like here.

#9 BMP Elephant Care Project

With a website offering little information about the elephants and your potential experience with them, it is best to be wary of the BMP Elephant Care Project.

The elephants here reportedly don’t live on site. They are in fact rented, and brought to the camp daily. When not in the camp they are being used for riding, trekking and shows elsewhere – obviously this is a lot of upheaval and stress for the animals.

Reviews mention the metal hooks that are so common at unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, and that when it comes to feeding the animals they are always really keen to eat. This suggests that they are possibly not well fed. It also suggests that food is purposely withheld to encourage the elephants to ‘perform’ for guests. The elephants also have plenty of cuts and blood marks. Obviously this is not something you want from somewhere that claims to care for elephants!

#10 Anantara Golden Triangle Camp

The Anantara Golden Triangle Camp is actually luxury hotel that has an onsite elephant camp/mahout village.

The camp does not offer rides, but instead organises various experiences with the elephants, including dinner, picnics and sunset tours. While this isn’t the worst of the unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, it still leaves a lot to be desired as it encourages these wild animals to act in a domesticated way.

There is a lot of human-and-elephant interaction. Obviously this would never happen in a setting that *was* their natural habitat – as this claims to be. While the views and amenities at this hotel are absolutely beautiful, it might be worth looking elsewhere for your luxury Thai accommodation if you are concerned about the treatment of the elephants here…

Unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand: Know before you go

It is a very sad reality that there are so many organisations that claim to be ethical sanctuaries that actually are not. These organisations are unethically fooling the tourists, who are unknowingly contributing to the maltreatment and poor welfare of these precious animals. Do your part before you travel to Thailand and do a little bit of research into how you can be an ethical tourist to help prevent practices like these from occurring… Here are some articles that I have written on the topic that you may enjoy:

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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