This is a guest post by Michelle and Jedd of Intentional Travelers. This 30-something couple left their full-time jobs to join the Peace Corps, then became digital nomads, doing work online as they travel the world. They share what they learned about finding an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand. We know first hand that there are many non-ethical elephant excursions, in fact, we have been on one years ago. Jedd and Michelle present some facts and details so you can make an informed decision.
My husband and I had the opportunity to visit our first elephant sanctuary in Thailand. We love seeing wild animals, especially elephants, but we really didn’t know much about them. Thanks to our expert hosts at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, we learned why not all elephant tours are created equal.
What’s the big deal about riding elephants?
Elephant attractions are extremely popular in SE Asia. As a result, many tour organizations exploit their elephants to increase profits.
Poor treatment of the animals is not always obvious from the outside. Elephant tours may slap on trendy catch phrases, like “sanctuary,” “conservation focused,” and “ethical,” but be aware. These terms have no certification or accountability to back them up.
How do you know which elephant tour to trust?
Over the past couple years, there has been a movement, led by prominent responsible tourism organizations, to ban the riding of elephants from their tour listings. This has become a new benchmark for weeding out unethical wildlife tours.
This movement has grown to the point where many savvy travelers equate elephant rides with exploitation. The truth, as with anything, is not so black and white.
A More Holistic Approach to Ethical Elephant Tours
The elephant sanctuary we visited, Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary, is one of the only places to see Asian elephants in their natural environment. The non-profit is deeply integrated with a Karen hill tribe village – a small community that have been “the elephant keepers” for generations.
We learned that the four elephants at Kindred Spirit each held “careers” at tourist camps before they were returned to the forest to graze in freedom. According to our tour leaders, an elephant can actually sustain a couple human riders on their back without problem.
The more pressing issue is how elephants are treated in captivity.
The process of “breaking” an elephant in order for it to be trainable can be extremely cruel. Once employed, working elephants to the point of exhaustion is not uncommon. Harmful restraining methods may be used in parts of the camp that tourists don’t see. Also, elephants are often made to perform activities that are completely unnatural to them, slowly degrading their instincts and affecting their wellbeing.
On top of all this, the purchase of elephants in countries like Thailand – regardless of whether it’s for tourism or for a rescue sanctuary – fuels the poaching of baby elephants across the border in Burma and Laos.
So although elephant riding has become the big buzz word in responsible travel circles, it’s important to remember the bigger picture.
What to look for in an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand (or anywhere)
The “Five Freedoms” of animal welfare are the things you can look for with any animal-related program to determine if the animals are being treated properly:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
- Freedom to express normal behavior
- Freedom from fear and distress
Here are some other tips on what to look for in an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand:
Restraining and chaining up elephants is sometimes necessary to keep them from foraging in peoples’ farms or to ensure they get proper veterinary care. You can be doubtful if you hear a sanctuary claims they “never” chain their elephants. However, restraining elephants from socializing and foraging for a long time – like whenever tourists aren’t present, for example – can be harmful.
Limited work hours
Elephant work hours should be minimal. By nature, an elephant spends pretty much all of its waking hours foraging, so any time at work cuts into this essential daily activity. More than a half day of work can hinder the elephant’s freedom to express normal behavior (see Freedom #4 above).
Speaking of normal behavior, elephants in the tourism industry are often trained to do some pretty abnormal things. Also, they’re intelligent animals that need mental stimulation. This means that repetitive activities with tourists can affect them. Even something seemingly beneficial, like getting a bath or being fed bananas can be problematic if it’s repeated multiple times a day, every day – all in order to give tourists a certain experience.
We hope this has shed some light on this topic so you are more informed of the issues and if you decide to pursue visiting an elephant sanctuary in Thailand.
For more posts about traveling to Thailand, you can find them here.