Thailand is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. International travelers apply for a Thai visa and travel to the country for many reasons: one of the finest cuisines in the world, idyllic beaches, friendly locals, just to name a few.
Thailand is also home to lush jungles where a variety of rare and endangered animals live. Famously, tourists flock to wildlife centers and sanctuaries to observe the animals up close, take pictures, and spend time with them. Elephants are certainly among the most sought-after animals. However, so-called elephant sanctuaries and orphanages have often been exposed for unethical practices and animal exploitation.
This page is intended to help foreigners who wish to travel to Thailand find ethical organizations that work with elephants to volunteer with during their holiday.
Are Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand Ethical?
Elephants have long been used as a lucrative tourist attraction. It’s pretty common for tourists to take pictures riding and bathing elephants during their vacation in Thailand. These are almost always stressful experiences for the animals in captivity.
Although there is nothing wrong with observing the elephants from a distance, being in close contact with humans, carrying them on their back, and performing tricks are not natural behaviors for these animals. In order to “behave”, they need to be trained. Training methods often include chains, sticks, bull-hooks, and other unethical practices.
Many establishments brand themselves as “elephant sanctuaries” even though they don’t act in the best interest of the animals they host. It’s crucial that you do your research before visiting an elephant center in Thailand and make sure to only support ethical organizations.
What Are Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand?
In order to live stress-free, elephants need plenty of space, shade, and water. Ethical establishments will limit contact between animals and tourists. Some take care of wounded or orphaned elephants temporarily before reintroducing them into the wild. Others are natural reserves that provide a safe space for elephants to roam freely and undisturbed.
Here is a list of examples of ethical elephant organizations in Thailand:
- Elephant Nature Park. This is one of Thailand’s most famous elephant conservation projects. It hosts more than 30 elephants, many of which have been rescued from unethical camps.
- Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary. This is a very small rescue center where visitors can walk the elephants to grazing grounds or the river for a swim.
- Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital. One of the world’s few hospitals specialized in elephant care, this health center treats and rehabilitates sick animals.
- Elephant Hills. It’s rare to see luxury accommodation and ethical elephant practices combined. But here, tourists will be able to sleep in 5-star safari camps and help bathe, feed, and walk the animals.
How to Volunteer With Elephants in Thailand
Volunteering with elephants is not unethical per se. Many elephant centers run volunteer programs to educate tourists about elephant wellbeing. Don’t be surprised if they charge fees for joining the program or accommodation: ethical organizations will re-invest these funds in the local community and elephant preservation.
It all comes down to finding the right organization that meets your requirements (for example, in terms of length of stay, price, type of accommodation, etc) and really has the elephants’ wellbeing at heart.
The first step in your research should be taken online. As part of your travel plan (just as you book your plane tickets and check your Thai eVisa requirements) you should research elephant sanctuaries and reserves and check their website before you leave. If you see pictures of chained animals and tourists riding elephants, for example, you are looking at an unethical center.
However, it’s often hard to tell ethical structures from the ones that only exploit animals. Here is a list of questions to ask to Thai elephant establishments before deciding to work with them:
- What practices have you in place to keep the animals physically and mentally safe?
- Why are you accepting foreigners to come and help instead of hiring local labor?
- Do you charge fees? How are the fees invested?
- What are the elephant caretakers’ qualifications?