Thinking about visiting an Elephant sanctuary in Thailand (or anywhere else)? You definitely should, but before you make a decision on where to go, make sure you know a bit about why these reserves exist in the first place, and which ones are truly doing their part to rehabilitate elephants.
What are Elephant Sanctuaries and Why Do they Exist?
Training Elephants for Circuses, Tourism and Work
Unfortunately, elephants have been used for a variety of manual labor for many generations. In Thailand, especially, they have been used for logging - carrying small logs for many miles on land or through water for the teak industry. Around the world, but also in Thailand, elephants have been known for their great tricks and shows in circuses, elephant trekking (where tourists and circus-goers can ride elephants), and many other tasks where wild elephants have been tamed and trained to do as humans please.
To do these tasks, elephants are “trained” starting from childhood, and the cruel process can take up to 20 years. The initial stage of this training process is called “breaking the spirit,” or “Phajaan” and begins right when the elephant is taken from its mother, usually around age 3 to 6. The small elephants are kept in small cages with their feet bound, where they are beaten and yelled at for weeks on end, all so the humans can establish dominance. If you are brave, you can watch a YouTube video documenting some of this process, or this photo by Brent Lewin, who won the Science/Natural History Award of Excellence for the photo, but again, as a warning, these may be very disturbing to watch or view.
It is at this point that the elephant’s keeper, or the mahout, comes in to act as the elephant’s savior, freeing the elephant from the cage and bringing a bowl of water and food (the first it may have seen in weeks). Being a mahout is an honor in this part of the world, and is usually passed down patrilineally, along with the ownership of the elephant. While it may seem that the mahout is saving the elephant at this time, this act is a form of mental manipulation; this is done specifically to form the bond between the mahout and the elephant, a type of trust the elephant gives the mahout for saving it. After this bond and trust is established, more torturous training is continued, usually specific to the task the elephant is desired to perform, whether that be logging, circus performances or trekking.
Mahouts and other people training the elephant use bullhooks, along with other torturous devices to beat the elephant into submission, which leave lasting scars on the elephants. The bullhooks are especially used on the elephants ears, tearing them permanently, something we witnessed when we visited an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. Logging and trekking both cause undue harm to elephants, putting pressure on their backs that aren’t meant to hold the weight of a human or pull the weight of logs for miles on end. This can result in severely broken limbs, sometimes beyond repair.
Why Elephant Sanctuaries Exist
This is where the good elephant sanctuaries come in. Elephants are revered animals, especially in Southeast Asia, despite all that I’ve written above, and many are going above and beyond to rescue and rehabilitate these amazing animals. We visited Elephant Nature Park, about an hour north of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Sanctuaries like this purchase elephants from circuses, logging and trekking camps for the sole purpose of giving them a safe and peaceful place to live, as well as rehabilitating them from whatever physical or mental wounds they may be suffering. While some take issue with the fact that these sanctuaries are purchasing the elephants, this is the only way to get the elephant out of its current situation, and many times, the only elephants they will sell are elderly, female elephants who can no longer perform or reproduce.
While captivity is never the ideal outcome for elephants, the good sanctuaries often-times act as a retirement home for elderly elephants who are so beaten, they truly may not be able to live on their own in the wild. The mahouts you will see in these sanctuaries truly have a special bond with the elephants - you will never see them carrying a bullhook or yelling at them. In fact, we saw many elephants more or less playing with, and hugging their mahouts.
How to choose a great elephant sanctuary
I won’t lie - when we were planning our trip to Thailand, we were immediately enthralled with the idea of visiting an elephant sanctuary to go on an elephant trek or to see the elephants paint. A quick google search of “elephant painting thailand” showed me this was not something I wanted to be apart of, and wonderful websites out there guided me to the Elephant Nature Park - one of the only sanctuaries in Thailand that truly lives up to its promises in rehabilitating elephants for the greater good of elephants, not tourists.
From our time at the Elephant Nature Park, we learned that there are, in fact, good sanctuaries, parks and reserves, and there are bad ones. Actually, on our drive in to the sanctuary, we could see others nearby, taking visitors on elephant treks, and we were quickly told that we would not be doing this because of the harm it poses to the elephants. In fact, once everyone was on the van in Chiang Mai until we arrived at the park, we watched a video all about what elephants go through in Thailand (pretty much everything I have detailed above), so you can imagine me, on the first day of our honeymoon, crying on the way to the park. Elephant Nature Park cares about its elephants and wants its visitors to, as well.
What to look for, or what to look out for
When you are planning your trip to an elephant sanctuary, keep a lookout for a few things:
How much will you be paying to go, and what will this money go towards? Granted, not all parks are honest about this exact detail, but you can glean some important information from it. At the Elephant Nature Park, we paid 1500 TBH per person for the Single Day Visit, which included transportation direct from our hostel and back, as well as a delicious lunch at the park. We knew that the excess profits from this would be going to caring for the elephants or rescuing (purchasing) elephants from danger.
Does the sanctuary provide any elephant “tricks?” By tricks, I mean elephant painting, elephant rides, handstands, literally anything that an elephant in the wild wouldn’t do. Just take two minutes to think about it, and if your answer is “no,” this is not a good place to go.
Are there baby elephants? This may seem like a weird question, but these sanctuaries should be focused on rescuing and rehabilitating already existing elephants, not on breeding new ones, especially into captivity. If you see a sanctuary that boasts a breeding program, this should be a major red flag.
Recommended Elephant sanctuaries in thailand
Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary - BLES currently has 14 elephants on 600 acres of land in Sukhothai, Thailand. You can adopt an elephant for 1000 TBH ($30) per month, or adopt another animal at their sanctuary for 720 TBH per month. BLES Mission Statement: “BLES strives to rescue and protect the elephants of Thailand from abuse and ultimate extinction. We provide a safe home where we focus on individual survival and relearning social skills.”
Elephant Nature Park - Dedicated to providing a safehaven for abused elephants, their mission statement includes all of the following: 1) Sanctuary for endangered species, 2) Rain Forest Restoration, 3) Cultural Preservation, 4) Visitors Education, 5) Act Independently (of pressure groups and political movements).
Elephant Hills - A bit of a departure from the previous two, Elephant Hills provides a “glamping” experience for its visitors, with natural encounters with the elephants, but you will definitely not be taking any elephant rides or witnessing any elephant handstands. Elephant Hills is located in Khao Sok.
Be sure to check out one of these three when planning your trip to Thailand!
Our day at Elephant Nature Park
To give you an idea of what it might be like to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary, I thought I would tell you a little bit about Jordan and my visit to ENP. This does not mean it’s how every sanctuary will operate it’s tours, but at the very least, you’ll know what it’s like to visit ENP!
8:00 am - Pick up
A van arrived at our hostel to pick us up, and we made our way around Chiang Mai to collect the other elephant sanctuary visitors. Once everyone was on the van, introductions were made, and soon after, the video about elephant training and torture began (cue: me crying).
9:15 am - Arrival to Elephant Nature Park
We arrived to Elephant Nature Park, perused the gift store, used the bathrooms and all met back up on a porch where we would later reconvene for lunch. At this time, though, we were going to have our first encounter with the elephants! We would be feeding them bananas, which they apparently loved. We were given instructions on how to do so, then let loose!
10:00 am - Tour of the park
Our guide brought us out into the park to meet some elephants, and just look at some others. He explained to us that while some were friendly and didn’t mind interacting with humans while they ate, others were still very traumatized and may not be so nice if we came close to them. He told us all of their stories, where they came from, how ENP was helping to rehabilitate them, who their friends were in the park - it was all very fascinating.
12 pm - Lunch
The people at the park had prepared an amazing Thai lunch for us, and this was our first real Thai meal of our trip, so we were very excited. I have no idea what we ate, but all of it was delicious and I would eat it all again, mainly because there were lots of noodles involved.
1:15 pm - Elephant Bath time
Our group was given little pales and a basket of bananas to take down to the river where we would give an elephant a bath. Once we had lured the elephant to us with the bananas (hey - I’d follow a basket of food, too), we all splashed the water from the river onto the elephant to wash the mud off of her skin. Great fun was had by all.
2:00 pm - Mud Bath Time
We followed the elephant up the river bank to a big ol’ mud pit (remember, we had just washed all of the mud off of her), where she and another elephant rolled around and got nice and muddied up again. We did learn, though, that this is an important practice - the mud keeps their skin warm and moist, and protects it from the sun, but it should be washed off daily because it does eventually dry their skin out.
2:30 - Play with the baby
While there shouldn’t be many babies at the sanctuary, sometimes there are a few, and we got to see one of them. We were warned not to get too close to it, as baby elephants are still elephants and could probably crush us should he decide to play with/sit on us.
3:00 pm - Head back home
This was the end of the day for us at ENP, so we all packed back into the van to head back to Chiang Mai.
Because of timing for the rest of our honeymoon, Jordan and I could only spend a portion of the day at ENP. They have several options available, all with different itineraries. Check out Adventure Abroad Await’s blog about ENP for what an overnight visit is like!
We learned so much about elephants, how gentle and amazing they are, and how tortured they are for our amusement. In the end, it’s up to you how you choose to spend your dollars; my goal is simply to inform you about your choices.