The Importance of Visiting Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries

Because elephants deserve all the love!

Photo by @Isis Petroni

*All embedded Instagram pictures in this article are from proven Ethical Sanctuaries*

If your Instagram feed is anything like ours, then you’ll have seen the photo dumps of people travelling Asia; tropical sandy beaches, delicious food, and of course – people posing with elephants.

One of the things that may be on your travel bucket list is to visit one of these elephant sanctuaries. And as tempting as it can sound, there’s something to ask yourself first. Is riding an elephant, or visiting a sanctuary, actually ethical?

While it can look like a truly magical experience, a large majority of the places in Thailand, Vietnam, and other countries across Asia are not as benevolent as they seem, and there is a lot of behind the scenes animal cruelty. Across the continent, there are over 3,800 captive elephants exploited for tourist entertainment in 357 camps.

Photo by @ Pixabay

Without prior research, it is difficult to see how unethical these places can be. Most tourists are oblivious, and unaware of the harm they bring to elephants themselves. But when tourists support these venues, they support the cruelty behind the scenes, and help the industry to thrive.

It’s not all doom and gloom though – there are some incredible, ethical sanctuaries out there that will allow you to experience elephants in a way that respects the beautiful creatures. And you can still get a gorgeous photo! Here’s a few things to look out for if you’ve got a visit to the elephants on the horizon.

1.Elephant rides are never ethical

While you may be thinking that elephants are enormous, and they wouldn’t even feel you sitting on them… that’s a little beside the point.

The practice of guided elephant rides is unethical at its core. The manner in which the elephants are ‘taught’ to carry people involves abuse. A World Animal Protection initiative in 2014 delved into the cruel conditions they often face, which includes serious beatings.

Thankfully, the issue had gotten a lot of media coverage in the last few years, so many travel companies have began to remove these experiences from their packages in an attempt to raise awareness amongst customers. Yay for progress!

2. No tricks or shows

It’s a tough reality to reckon with – we often see adorable videos of elephants posing for photos by lifting their trunks or sitting down, doing funny activities like painting.  But the reality is, elephants will not learn tricks without the use of physical abuse, which often involve using weapons like bull hooks to inflict pain.

Sanctuaries are supposed to be safe havens to retire animals from performing for human entertainment, so it’s good to note that if the place you want to visit is offering elephants tricks – it is not a sanctuary.

Elephants are beautiful creatures worthy of our respect, and if they’re being abused to make your photo better – is it really worth it?

3. Absolutely no bull hooks

Bull hooks are abusive, no matter what you are told. Handlers often use flowery and flippant language to justify their use. A common explanation is that the hook is simply an “extension of the human arm”. Let’s be real.

The hooks ensure the elephant behaves because the handlers use them on the sensitive parts of their bodies.

4. You shouldn’t be able to touch the elephants

We know, we know – they’re so sweet you just want to give them a little cuddle! But touching elephants is actually very stressful for the gentle giant.

The sanctuaries around the world which are renowned for their proper treatment of elephants operate on an observation-only model.

This means they do not allow visitors to have direct contact with the elephants, while still providing jobs and a valuable income to local people such as elephant keepers, known as mahouts.

5. Barriers and no chains

Elephants are not domestic animals, so you can’t trust them not to act unexpectedly.

Keep an eye out for places where your safety and the elephants’ safety is made a priority, and there is a fair amount of distance between yourself and the elephants. Safe sanctuaries will generally have barriers between you and the elephants.

Another alarm bell to watch out for? Chains. If an animal is chained up, it’s to restrict their movement as if they were in a circus, and a sure sign they’re being exploited for entertainment.

This one can be harder to determine because a lot of tourism operations will only chain their animals at nighttime, so make sure to do your own research before you go.

6. Shade, water and food

Elephants are just like you or me – they’ve got needs! A decent amount of shade, and as much water or food as they need should be provided by a sanctuary,

Elephants are large creatures, and shouldn’t look overly thin but full and healthy.

A tell tale sign that the ‘sanctuary’ are hiding malnourishment or abuse? The animals will be wearing clothes or covers.

7. No bathing or swimming

Unethical ‘sanctuaries’ often offer ‘softer’ interactions such as bathing and swimming, which seem to be less harmful – but this activity causes just as much suffering as elephant rides and shows.

World Animal Protection explains that whether taken from the wild or bred in captivity, all elephants used for close tourist contact such as bathing have undergone a traumatic training method known as the ‘crush’. This involves separating young elephant calves from their mother, keeping them in isolation, depriving them of food and water, and using beatings so they can be controlled by fear.

In a recent report it is shown that the number of venues offering elephant bathing and washing experiences in Thailand tripled in the past five years: from 50 venues in 2015 to 161 venues in 2020. We don’t know about you, but we like to shower in private – let the elephants do the same!

8. Do your own research

A quick Google search of the sanctuary you want to visit can help you to make a more informed decision.

Alongside the website of the company, make sure to check Tripadvisor and other travel forums to see what others had to say.

Ethical sanctuaries will also include information on where the elephants came from, and why they were rescued. Elephants can live to their sixties (phew!), so the sanctuaries should know details about their lives. Other info to note is where the elephants stay and sleep, and what activities are on offer for you.

Responsible Travel have a handy list of ethical and unethical places to see elephants around the world.

Now you can get travel planning for the trip of a lifetime, knowing that you’ll get to share a magical experience with these beautiful creatures in the right way!


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