Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

The elephant is the national symbol of Thailand and incredibly important in Thai society with an estimate of over 3000 living in the wild, and a similar amount of elephants domesticated and working in the tourism industry.

The chance to interact or work with an elephant has always been a big draw card for visitors to Thailand, yet given what big business it is, over the years many elephants have found themselves exploited and even abused, as they worked around the clock to provide elephant rides and be available for that perfect elephant selfie.

Over the last years as animal right’s activists brought their wellbeing into focus, elephant sanctuaries have emerged, offering a feel good elephant encounter that allows you to interact with the animal, whilst actually supporting their wellbeing.

A well cared for elephant has room to roam and isn’t overworked by constantly performing in shows or giving endless rounds of rides. Here is a list of some ethical elephant sanctuaries where you can make memories whilst taking lessons from these gentle animals.

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai

Elephant Nature Park is located 60km from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and was established in the 1990’s with the express purpose of providing a sanctuary and rescue center for distressed elephants. The biggest elephant park in the region, it is an incredible place to watch the 30 resident elephants in their natural environment, socialising, playing and relaxed, making it hard to imagine that they were once subject to abuse.

Founded by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert who is at the forefront of elephant rights causes and who works tirelessly to raise international awareness and encouraging other countries in the region to follow her lead, as well as helping provide sustainable alternatives to local villages.

Offering single day and overnight visits as well as a volunteer program, the Elephant Nature Park’s duty of care is to all animals; elephants, cats, dogs, buffaloes and other rescued species too. Join their Pamper a Pachyderm project, where you feed the elephants before starting your elephant walk into the surrounding forests with the herd. With no riding, this special program is focused on taking your time and allowing the elephants to enjoy each moment of their freedom.

Elephant Hills, Khao Sok

Situated in Khao Sok National Park in Southern Thailand lies the luxurious elephant sanctuary known as Elephant Hills, which allows you to combine your elephant experience with luxury accommodation.

Offering two and four day nature soft adventure tours in and around the stunningly beautiful Khao Sok area, here you have the opportunity to bath, feed and walk with the gentle giants as you spend time in the jungle landscape that is their native home. Elephant Hills currently hosts 15 Asian elephants that were once living lives of abuse and inhumane treatment, but now wander around happy as can be.

Elephant Camp, Thailand’s first Luxury Tented camp’s design is inspired by South Africa’s safari style accommodation that the owner much admires, and is set within the Thai tropical forest, comprising of 35 tailor-made tents that have successfully been hosting guests for over 10 years. The floating Rainforest Camp, one of the world’s only luxury floating tented camps, was opened in 2011 and is situated on the emerald green waters of Cheow Larn Lake. Both will speak to your adventurous spirit.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, Phuket

This sustainable eco-tourism project has five locations throughout Thailand, but has its headquarters in Chiang Mai. Their mission is to promote the proper treatment of elephants and to educate visitors on the problems and implications of irresponsible tourism practices.

They house over 30 elephants, all of whom were victims of abuse and mistreatment, and all of whom can now enjoy full and free lives. A visit there includes a walk with your animal, and strictly no riding.

If you want an even more immersive experience, you can spend the night at the Karen village. The money raised from visits, volunteers and donations is primarily used for elephant rescue, food, veterinary care, infrastructure and land so that they can expand to receive more elephants.

Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai

This elephant sanctuary offers visitors the chance to ‘Own an Elephant for a Day’, which means personally taking care of one of these majestic beings. Tourists are trained how to approach an elephant, how to check their health, and how to communicate with the animals through spoken commands. It is a learning experience, and a humbling opportunity to become friends with one of nature’s most intelligent beings.

Adhering to their conservation philosophy “Extinction is Forever”, Patara Elephant Farm encourages people to try, at least once in their lives, to experience time with this very special and sacred animal that deserves to be protected.

About an Elephant Mahout

True mahouts, or elephant rider, with a love for their elephants will bond with them for life, creating a relationship unlike any other. A mahout’s skill is often passed down through the generations with boys going to work with their father and his elephant from a young age to learn the required skills and knowledge. Growing up in and around the forest helps new mahouts with their understanding of an elephant’s natural habitat, including learning what plants make up their diet.

Although this is still the case in many hill tribe villages, with the increased demand for elephant tourism some new mahouts only receive a couple of days training having never seen an elephant before, which means they may not invest the love, time and patience needed to gain a respectable rapport with the elephant and this can lead to problems in the working relationship and even in worse case scenarios, abuse.

Ethical Elephant Experience Guidelines

If your sanctuary visit allows for bathing with the elephant, walking with them or even the privilege of a hug, allow the animal to lead the way in indicating how much interaction they are comfortable with. Always remember you’re there for them, not the other way around.