The ethical elephant experience

As we’ve discovered in previous articles, there are many and varied experiences that you can have with elephants in Asia. So, how do you find the ethical ones?

Let me step back for a minute and explain the history of the Asian elephant, once highly revered and domesticated for work and warfare. Far from the estimated population of hundreds of thousands of elephants centuries ago, according to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, it’s estimated that between only 25,000 and 32,000 Asian elephants are now left in the wild. Since 1986, the Asian elephant has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).

Today in Thailand, according to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), their numbers are between 3,500 to 5,000 and currently ‘the notion of extinction is no longer just a concern; it’s the new reality’.

In 1989, the tradition of using elephants in industry ended, mainly due to irresponsible over-logging. The collapse of the industry created huge problems for the mahouts who had to find a way to pay for the care and upkeep of their elephants.

As discussed in previous articles, elephants eat up to 200 kilograms a day and on hot days need about 200 litres of water. With the ban of logging, mahouts had to find other ways to support their huge charges. This is why mahouts began begging in the streets and turned to illegal logging and to tourism via trekking, rides or entertainment.

Along the Thai-Burma border illegal logging still occurs. It is a dangerous environment where landmines are still hidden, the risk of fines is always present and injury or death could be just around the corner. To get the most from the elephants, they are often given amphetamines to reduce their appetite and increase their work output. Not only does this take a horrific toll on the elephant, it’s also unsustainable and many elephants simply die of overwork and starvation.

The tourism industry may be a viable alternative but it can be a tricky one, because there is always a risk of exploitation when animals and commercialisation meet.

The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation says it ‘believes responsible elephant tourism can help to save the elephants throughout Asia but only if camps maintain the highest level of elephant care, food requirements, hygiene and environmental enrichment’.

So what does that involve?

Before I knew better, I rode an elephant. The experience of riding on the neck of an elephant and bathing an elephant were two experiences I’ll never forget. Immediately, the elephant became embedded in my heart. The experience of simply touching an elephant – Dr Andrew McLean says like horses, elephants liked to be stroked – and being close to one of these beautiful giants is just as amazing though.

There is divided opinion about riding elephants. It’s a debate that often goes back to cultural differences and economic realities. If we lived in an ideal world, then there would be no riding at all. Just to hang out with elephants is an amazing experience in itself. Elephants that are already domesticated need to be supported, however, and often this is done through riding. So if you want to do it as ethically as possible, then here are a few things to consider …

The least harmful experience for the elephant, and the best for you too, is to ride on its neck (behind the ears) NOT on a trekking chair which goes on the elephant’s back. A fully-grown elephant can carry up to 150 kilograms on its back, but when you consider the weight of two people, the chair (it’s called a Howdah or saddle and alone can weigh 100 kilograms or more) and the mahout (who rides on the neck) you can see how this starts to be a heavy burden on the elephant.

Watch out for operators at trekking camps who overwork their elephants and leave the chairs on all day, this is unacceptable. In addition to the weight, the elephants can also be at risk of developing sores from where the trekking chairs are positioned on their backs and where they are attached – usually under their tail and legs.

Elephants need stimulation, enrichment and the freedom to behave naturally, which they cannot get if they are forced to cart people around all day with a heavy load.  They need a gentle, minimal amount of exercise per day for their physical and mental health, but should not be overworked. Depending on the temperature and the terrain, elephants should not be made to walk at a brisk pace for more than four hours a day. They also need their rest time away from tourists. Interactions with elephants at camps should be restricted.

Another thing to look out for is the use of the bullhook. I would like to see no bullhook, but according to practices, when used properly by a mahout, a bullhook can be used to guide the elephant. Unfortunately, bullhooks are often misused and, if you see bloody wounds on an elephant’s head or under their armpits or inside their ears or mouth, it’s likely the elephant is being mistreated. As in my experience, you may be told it’s necessary and doesn’t hurt the elephant, but this is untrue.

When the elephant is not working, ensure that where it’s being kept has plenty of food and fresh water and is sheltered from the elements, as it can get very hot in many parts of Asia. Remember that elephants eat a lot and should spend between 14 to 18 hours a day eating. They should be provided with a balanced diet including fresh fruits (which they love). Feeding areas should be away from where elephants defecate and urinate. You wouldn’t like to stand in your excretions and neither do they.

Watching an elephant closely can give a good indication of its health and happiness. Healthy elephants move almost constantly; swishing their tail to keep annoyances like flies away and flapping their ears to cool themselves. If these actions are absent, it could be a sign of ill-health.

A sign of great disturbance, is when an elephant ‘rocks’. This is a movement where they sway from side to side continually, sometimes with their whole bodies and sometimes swinging their legs with the action. It’s distressing to see and, according to The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation, is ‘an indicator of deep stress, boredom and a lack of environmental enrichment and a sure sign of elephant cruelty that needs to be addressed’. Click here to see an example

Elemotion, a non-profit foundation educating the public to improve elephants’ lives, also claim that this rocking from side-to-side behaviour in elephants is not seen in the wild and elephant experts believe it is a sign of nervousness and stress.

The best place to visit elephants is in their natural environment, or as close to it as possible (which becomes more and more difficult as natural habitat is destroyed). You can, however, find these environments at camps or sanctuaries where there are places for the elephants to roam and feed away from tourists and where the needs of the elephants – not the tourists – come first. Look for camps with ‘low impact’ activities that are easy on the elephants but still provide an income to their mahouts.

One place where you can ride elephants in Thailand in an ethical environment is Baan Chang Elephant Park a relatively new elephant camp north of Chiang Mai.

The owner of this Park, Pom, worked as an elephant trekking guide but became increasingly upset at the long hours and amount of work the elephants were forced to do. So, he decided to use his savings and start his own elephant park offering a newer and gentler type of elephant activity called Elephant Mahout Training.

At Baan Chang Elephant Park visitors can learn what it’s like to be a mahout. They teach visitors about the importance of elephant care and husbandry including correct eating, sleeping, bathing and exercise. One method of providing gentle exercise for the elephants and an amazing learning experience for the visitor is to allow them to ride elephants naturally behind their ears without the use of a trekking chair.

At the Park, there are no elephants painting or being trained to perform tricks. The Park is also against separating baby elephants from their mother. They do, however, rescue and provide care for orphaned baby elephants. Ban Chang Elephant Park is currently home to 12 rescued elephants, most of which were formerly used in street begging.

In Laos, about one hour outside of Luang Prabang is the Elephant Park Project. In the very relaxed Laos, the elephants here have also been rescued from logging. The mahouts are gentle with them, and have little to no use of the bullhook and they are provided plenty of rest and bath time and feeding at night away from the camp.

Like the Baan Change Elephant Park, they provide a mahout experience. A couple of things aren’t perfect about the Elephant Park Project. Although the majority of riding is on the elephant’s neck, they still use some trekking chairs. If you visit, request that they don’t use it for you or your friends. The elephants visit a different part of the forest every night and they are chained, due to their close proximity to neighbouring villages. Although this is not an ideal practice, in this neck of the woods, it is necessary for the welfare of both the elephants and the villagers.

In Laos, the elephant population is now thought to be between only 500 to 1,000 – which is devastating. Two of the elephants at the Park, Mae Cot and Mae Boun Nam, are blind in one eye, in their 60s and the best of friends. I absolutely, without question, fell in love with both of these magnificent, gentle creatures – the grand old dames of the Elephant Park Project.

Mae Cot was such a sweetie and preferred to receive her bananas (that we lavished upon her and the others) via her mouth not her trunk. I also learnt pretty quickly that it was best to serve her from her ‘good eye’ side – which not only made sense, but gave her a good view of who to manipulate into providing more! She indeed remembered me every day and was such a sweet creature.

Mae Cot is the perfect example of the capacity of elephants to forgive humans for their abuse. She had a distinctive kink in her tail that was a result of a logging accident, as was her blind eye. After years of abuse, she now seems happy in her new home and was a clear favourite with the mahouts.

Two other parks that offer up-close experiences with elephants, but no riding, is BLES run by Katherine Connor and her team – mentioned in previous articles – and the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) an hour north of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Its founder Sangduen Lek Chailert, began her love affair with elephants early in her life, rescuing injured and mistreated elephants in 1992 and in 2003 established Elephant Nature Park. Lek is a true voice for Asian elephants and has been the subject of several documentaries. Among many accolades, she was named a Hero of Asia by Time Magazine in 2005 for her dedication to elephants.

ENP is home to 35 rescued elephants who are now free to roam, eat and play to their hearts’ content. They can wander down to the river for a splash or a roll in the mud or join in at feeding time at the visitors’ platform. Their elephants are free to choose their own family group and can have as much or as little human interaction as they choose.

If you would rather walk beside an elephant than ride on top of one, BLES and the ENP are the perfect places for an unforgettable up-close elephant experience.

Text: Lisa Louden

Please note: Although we love receiving direct messages, if you are contacting us for recommendations to other places or countries other than those listed here, unfortunately, at this stage, we are unable to do so. We would love to have the resources to compile a comprehensive list/map of places with ratings but unfortunately our website is funded and run by volunteers. We hope, however, to begin the search for independent sponsorship for this later in the year. You can help us by liking us on Facebook, so please, if you’ve found something here that has informed you or that you’ve shared with others, hook up with our Facebook page. Thanks so much!

Ethical interactions with elephants:
Elephant Park Project.
Baan Chang Elephant Park
Elephant Nature Park (ENP)
Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)

94 thoughts on “The ethical elephant experience”

  1. I have to tell everyone about the most unethical experience (my first) with elephants. Whilst in Bangkok for a few days, I had limited time to visit an elephant village. I had debated over and over with my family about riding an elephant and the ethical reasons. On reaching a decision to visit the place, as the elephants are revered animals in Asia and would otherwise but hunted and mistreated, my son (18) and myself went along – about an 1.5 hr out of Bangkok. This was the worst experience of my life.

    There was no interaction with the elephants and they were treated as though it was a production line how they made the elephants line up while tourists climbed on top of the seat. It was a 10 minutue ride around a small piece of land and water way. The mahout had a bullhook wich did not give a good impression. No-one spoke and gave information about the elephants only when you asked questions.

    It was clear that our 30 year female was not comfortable and kept stopping. She eventually reared and sounded her trunk and was clearly distressed. The mahout used the bullhook – hitting her on the head over and over again and used the decorative red cover they use to press firmly down to stop the blood.

    I have never been so distressted at witnessing such animal cruelty, exploitation and lack of care. I am trying to write to all sites available to share my views in order to warn other people about this place. I am surprised it is still running.

    The place is called Chang Puak Camp in Kanchanaburi Province of Thailand. Please do not go and tell everyone you can about this place.

  2. Hi,
    Thanks for good info. Do you know anything about “Elephant Jungle Sanctuary”? Or “Elephant Nature Camp”? There are so many.


  3. Thanks Sue for sharing your experience. That does indeed sound very distressing for the elephants (and the visitors). We do hope you will have another experience with elephants in a place where they are respected, adored and well cared for. Thanks for taking the time to help educate us all.

  4. Hi Mia, we agree, there are seemingly so many popping up now. We haven’t heard of these two. There’s Elephant Nature Park (not camp) a link is in the article and they have a good reputation in the industry. Let us know if you decide to visit and if so, what the conditions are like for elephants. Thanks so much for taking the time to seek out an ethical experience for elephants.

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  8. Anyone looking for humane elephant experience in South Thailand- there are NONE. The climate in South Thailand is completely wrong for the elephants and so any that are being kept in the South will be unhappy regardless of how they are treated.

    Recommendation: Hug Elephant near Chiangmai. The elephants are never chained up, they are allowed to roam free around the sanctuary all day, the mahouts train them using positive reinforcement (food) rather than bull hooks and whips, there is no riding and the elephants seem genuinely happy.

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  10. Please add “Patara Elephant Farm” in Chiang Mai to your list. They are dedicated to ethical practice, conservation and preservation and are absolutely wonderful!!! I had the best experience!

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  13. We recently wrote a blog about Elephant camps in Chiang Mai – . You do not come across such realities and practices unless you travel. But then, all you know of the problem – a pretty concerning one. No one provides a solution. Until you reach a genuine animal shelter. You know there is something different, something happy in the air. And the feeling is so overwhelming that it changes your perspective. You transcend beyond the smaller issues in your life and start thinking about the larger issues in our world. You start taking pains in the misery of other living beings. Travel changes lives by making one appreciate life better. I think this is one way to mitigate animal atrocities.

  14. I just clicked onto this blog post quite excited to read about some ethical elephant experiences, until I got to the section about Baan!! What a joke, either it has gone seriously downhill in the past three years and now mistreats the elephants or you let your naivety play through (I’m thinking the latter seen as you said yeah they sometimes still use chairs to trek when you had literally just mentioned how much damage it can do to the elephant)

    Very poor article – you should probably either update it or remove it!

  15. Hi Kara
    Thanks for your comment. Actually, we didn’t say that about Baan. We said they DIDN’T use chairs. If they’ve changed their policy we’d sure like to hear about it.
    We said that another park sometimes uses chairs and that if you wanted to visit that park we asked that people request NOT to use the chairs.
    Regards Adore Animals

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  17. Hi there!

    I’m heading to India in March and would love to volunteer at a similar organization, but I know there are a lot of places pretending to be ‘sanctuaries’ which are actually not. Could you recommend any parks or true sanctuaries in India that have the same ideals as the ones you mentioned in your article?

    It’d be most appreciated!

    Thank you,
    The Free-Spirited Foreigner

  18. I’m so glad I found you. I wonder if you are aware of a marvellous sanctuary just outside KL called Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary. It is a rescue organisation where you can learn about, feed and swim with (baby) elephants. It is about 1 hour from KL.

  19. Hi Heather
    Thanks so much for your email.
    Unfortunately, we are unable to recommend places without visiting them ourselves. Some people have listed recommendations in this comments section, and although we can’t recommend them, you can view their suggestions.
    We would love to have the resources to be able to compile a comprehensive list/map with ratings, but unfortunately our website is funded and run by volunteers. We hope, however, to begin the search for independent sponsorship for this later in the year.
    In the meantime, if you remember what to look for (as listed in our article) that will help. And please, if you find a place, share your experiences – that way we can all learn from one another.
    We hope you are able to find a suitable place – an ethical experience with elephants can be life-changing.
    Kindest regards
    Adore Animals

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  22. Today we visited the Namuang wildlife park on Koh Samui, that features Elephant rides. Being our first trip ever to South East Asia, we decided to take our 2 year old to see the elephants. We were absolutely shocked and disgusted of the treatment of these magnificent animals that were on display and decided to leave straight away. We were only there to show our son the elephants and made the decision beforehand not to ride one.

    I have read articles and watched documentaries in relation to cruelty to elephants and the signs of distress were evident today. The elephants were swaying from side to side as they stood, some chained by both their front legs and they did not look at ease with their surroundings. There was also the opportunity to feed the elephants and as stated, in the above article, that it is important to have where they eat and where they excrete separate. This was not the case at this elephant park. Yes there were shade cloths to protect from the sun but we didn’t see much water and the ground underneath was wet from urine and excrement, not the most ideal place for an elephant that was constrained to where it stood.

    Whilst I understand the importance of an income for less fortunate people in these regions, I also believe that these practices shouldn’t go unnoticed. I do hope that someone takes a interest in what is happening at this park and can correct their current practices. I for one want to pass onto my children the importance of respect and nurturing towards animals and that is why we decided to leave and not partake in any activities associated with the elephants. A selfie with a chained up elephant isn’t my idea of a cultural experience.


  24. The only ethical way to ride an elephant, is not to ride it at all.

    Even one of the worlds most leading experts on elephants, Gerai, will tell you that it harms them physcially.

    This set aside from the physical and mental abuse they are put through before they / in order to obey to humans. And what they suffer throughout from their living conditions.

    By riding on an elephant you put your money in stimulating this entertainment industry, stimulating the trade that captures or breeds, uses and abuses, these animals for entertainment. It is an industry that can continue to exist soley because we feed it with our money.

    It is not a matter of nobely supporting animals that are already in captivity. There are far better and more ethical ways of doing that. Look at the Surin project.

    And no…an elephant is not domesticated like a horse. People that claim things like are honestly simply very uneducated about what demostication and domesticated means. It is not the same as having been forced to live in captivity for a long time or having been bred from an animal that has. Please. Having mentioned that, there are, of cousre, also many animal welfare problems involved with the way we keep or ride horses unfortunately.

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  31. How far are you from the cruise terminal in Phuket please

    Thank you

    Ps if you are too far do you know of an ethical one not too far from cruise ship port

  32. Hi Jenny
    We do not have an elephant sanctuary or a centre. We only provide advice on what to look for in searching for an ethical elephant experience.

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  35. Wow, thanks for this article. Just cancelled myself out of a group trip to go elephant riding in Thailand – and I don’t believe the place is rather ethical judging from accounts I’ve seen of it online. Will be spreading this and encouraging the others to pull out of the trip, for the sake of these beautiful creatures and the extent of the mistreatment that supposedly goes on there 🙁 :/

  36. Would love to go to an elephant camp in Laos, but only want to go to a place that treats them right. Looking at 2, the Elephant Village and Elephant Camp, what would you recommend? On the Elephant Village website I saw a picture of an elephant with a chair and people riding in it, which I know is wrong, but you had recommended them. What do you know about Elephant Camp?L

  37. Vanessa Severino

    Hello – I will be traveling to Thailand in late Dec./Jan. this year and would love to visit an ethical protected camp/sanctuary for elephants. After reading the comments, it seems like all of the places are up north, is that right? Unfortunately, I will be in Bankok, Pattaya, and Phuket. Is it safe to assume I am not close to anything? Any feedback is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

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  41. Hello, I was considering visting Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
    However, my travel agency is suggesting Pattara Elephant Farm. Lots of websites say they are ethical but the do provide elephant riding on their bare backs.
    Please let me know your opinion.
    My family wants to go to Pattara but since they do have elephant rides, I’m not sure I want to support them.



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  43. Baan Chang Elephant Park is not ethical. Check out the reviews on Tripadvisor to see how they chain the elephants and mistreat them for tourism.

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