Ask yourself the following question: What if you posted a photo of you and an elephant on Instagram, and someone pointed out to you that this place isn’t ethical. Would you delete the photo? Or would you act as if your nose is bleeding and put your own popularity above the life of an animal?
These days you can’t open Instagram or Facebook without being bombarded with so called “Influencers” and tourists posing with an elephant. They will hug their trunk to showcase “the magical connection” they have with this animal and of course quickly take a photo of this moment. Cause a photo of yourself and an elephant will definitely perform well on Social Media: #eyeroll.
Because of the rapid speed that these images are being shared the elephant tourism industry has sky rocketed over the past year. And for what? So people can help take care of these beautiful animals? No, all for the freaking sake of taking a selfie or scoring more likes on Social Media.
People are becoming more and more concerned with the fact that they want to get the perfect photo to share with their family and friends.
Because of this the actual well being of the elephant is pushed aside.
And I get it, the marketing of some of these elephant “sanctuaries” is so on point that you have no idea that what you’re contributing to is unethical. There was a time when I also didn’t realise the truth and it took me a while to really comprehend what was ethical and what wasn’t.
That’s why I want to point out the things you have to look out for when planning a trip to an elephant sanctuary.
How to Visit an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary
What should you pay attention to?
- The amount of daily tourists should be limited at an ethical sanctuary. In some places you can’t even just visit for a day. You will actually stay for a couple of days and contribute to the rehabilitation of the elephant.
- You won’t be able to go in close proximity to the elephant. An elephant sanctuary that actually tries to rehabilitate the elephants won’t allow direct contact without barriers. Why? You are there to see the elephants in their natural habitat. The elephants aren’t there for your entertainment! The only time when you can get a little closer is during ‘feeding time’.
- There will be no possibility to bathe with the elephants. Their individual mahout will shower them with water multiple times a day to keep their skin hydrated and clean.
- There will be no riding, no painting, no “breakfast with elephants”.
Imagine this – You’re taking a nice, relaxing bath, you have some scented candles around you and your favourite music is playing in the background. You feel happy and relaxed. Then all of a sudden, 20 people storm into your bathroom and one by one they climb into your tub and take photos with you. Not very relaxing is it?
And every human would absolutely protest against this! But not an elephant who has had it’s spirit broken. He will undergo it cause otherwise he/she knows they will get punished.
By now we all know that riding an elephant is a definite no-go and a lot of these so called “elephant sanctuaries” will play into that.
They will make you believe they are ethical, simply because they don’t offer rides.
But did you know that a lot of times the elephants that they use are shared? One place they represent as “ethical” and the other one is for the tourists that really don’t give a damn and still ride animals. So by contributing to one you’re also supporting the other one.
Once the tourists are gone the elephants are kept in captivity.
How do they break an elephant’s spirit?
It’s called ‘The Crush’, the actual breaking of the elephant’s spirit. What it actually means is ‘to divorce the baby elephant from it’s spirit’ or to ‘split the will’ of a baby elephant.
‘Crushing’, also known as Phajaan is a traditional Asian torture so that young elephants become submissive to humans.
What do they do exactly?
- The elephant is tortured until it is so full of fear of humans that it will do anything in it’s power to not be tortured again.
- It involves removing the calf from it’s mother at only 3 years old and a lot of times they aren’t reunited for over 15 years. Now you tell me you didn’t ugly cry when you saw Dumbo separated from it’s mother!
- These young calfs are often poached in the wild. So instead of spending their life in the jungle in freedom with their family, they are being captured so tourists can take a photo with them.
- To make it even worse: when a young elephant is poached their family is killed in front of the babies eyes. Leaving a trauma that lasts a lifetime.
- On average: 4 to 5 wild elephants are killed so one young elephant can be captured for tourism.
- Once the young elephant is captured it will be dragged to the campsite where then the ‘crushing’ takes place. These fragile elephants will be kept in small crates, their front and back legs bound with ropes in order for their limbs to be stretched.
- Repeatedly beaten with sharp metal and other tools, the helpless baby elephants will be constantly yelled and screamed at. They are stabbed, burned and beaten, as well as starved of food and deprived of water.
- Bull hooks (a tool used in most forms of elephant control) will be used to stab the animal’s head, slash the skin and tug the ears.
- This torture will last for weeks and most young elephants go through this when they are only 3 to 6 years old, sometimes even younger. They have no rest from physical torture and mental domination. Gradually, their spirits are broken, as their handlers achieve control.
- In the final stage of the Phajaan, the elephant’s mahout will bring the animal its first meal with water, and will be the one to ”release” the elephant and lead it away from the crate.
- After weeks of torture, mental and emotional abuse, loneliness, confusion and separation, the elephant sees this human figure as its saviour. This is just another stage of mental and emotional manipulation, of course, but it is how a particular mahout gains such immense control over its animal.
Beatings can continue regularly throughout the elephants’ life to remind them of their place. Some of these abused animals eventually snap from the strain of relentless torture, with 5% of captive elephants killing people!
It has been scientifically proven that an elephant will never forget this torment.
An easy list of things not to do
- Don’t ride an elephant
- Don’t bathe with an elephant – for an elephant to stay still in the water and not roll over as it would naturally do, what do you think they have to do? The answer is: Break it’s spirit!
- Don’t visit places were they offer photoshoots with elephants – An ethical place will focus on the rehabilitation of the elephant and will keep tourists at at least 100 meters distance!
- Don’t do a jungle walk with an elephant
- Don’t visit places that offer “Breakfast with elephants”.
Are there ethical elephant sanctuaries?
I live by the standard that no place where an animal is kept in captivity is ethical. However there are sanctuaries that are working towards the rehabilitation of the elephant.
What is rehabilitation?
During the process of rehabilitation they will try to release the elephant from it’s captive state of mind. The end goal is to introduce the elephant to a natural environment. One where there is no focus on contact with humans but rather with other elephants. This process requires a lot of time and a tremendous amount of money.
If you want a full list of more ethical sanctuaries where the life of the elephant is put first check this list.
My own experience
On my trip through Asia I had the pleasure of visiting Elephant Valley Thailand in Chiang Rai.
Elephant Valley Thailand is based on the wildly successful project Elephant Valley Cambodia. You can choose to visit for either half a day, stay for a few days or become a short-term volunteer.
The elephants are watched and monitored closely by their former mahouts but are able to roam the grounds free. As a visitor you are allowed to enter within their grounds but only joined by one of the well trained guides and at a safe distance (approximately 100 meters minimum).
During the night the elephants are chained simply because they otherwise would get lost. That’s how badly their mind gets affected by the breaking of their spirit. However, they can still roam and they are places together so no elephant spends the night alone.
Elephant Valley Thailand has a 3 phase plan to rehabilitate the elephants so that after being rescued and going through the process they will be able to live free in the wild.
What can you do during your visit?
You will be the lucky one to watch an elephant roam free in it’s natural habitat. You’ll see them walk together, play together and if you’re really lucky you’ll see them take a bath together. But no human interaction is involved.
The elephants can feed themselves throughout the entire day and twice a day a feeding moment occurs at the exact same spot. You can hand out bananas etc and will have a close encounter with the elephants.
Before entering the elephants area you will have to wash the soles of your shoes as to not drag in bacteria. (You see the big difference with “sanctuaries” where people bathe in the same water as an elephant and climb on top of it’s back?)
Also, before feeding the elephants you have to wash and disinfect your hands!
The elephants get the opportunity to bathe in their own private pool but they also get rinsed off and splashed with water by their own mahouts twice a day. As a visitor you will be able to see this process and you can’t imagine the happy noises that come from these elephants. It’s truly magical to watch.
What to take from this?
I hope this post convinces you to spread this message and gives you the courage to stand up to people that are not using their influence correctly.
It’s a tricky world out there, everyone’s afraid to step on each others toes.
But truly ask yourself: Is an elephants well being not way more important than if your post got to the explorer page?
If you’ve photoshopped yourself in an image with an elephant, at least put a full disclaimer in the beginning of your caption. Not somewhere hidden in the back where none of your followers will read it.
If you’ve posted a photo like this before: own up to it! No one is gonna look down on you for owning up to your mistakes and pointing them out. Delete the photo and educate your followers.
If you want to be an influencer: influence the right way! Don’t just make your followers eager to visit the same unethical place and copy your photo.
Tania M says
Reading this post made me cry. The abuse of these poor creatures is abhorrent. Thank you for writing such an honest and thought provoking piece. I’m proud to say I’ve never ridden an elephant.
Thank you so much for this feedback!
Thank you for writing about this! I’m a big-time animal lover and we really need to raise awareness about such topics!
Thank YOU for taking the time to read this article!
Eleanor Rickard says
Your post is beautifully written and very thoughtful. This is a cause that’s really close to my heart..it was heartbreaking to see elephants being ridden and mistreated all through south east asia. It’s great to realise there are elephant experiences that are ethical, and place the well being of the animals first. Thank you for such a beautiful post.
My absolute pleasure! I hope places like this will get the attention they actually deserve. I am so tired of the posing with an elephant photos.
So well written!! And this is all such important information, thank you so much for sharing! Admittedly, I’m terrified of elephants so I never looked into how to visit them ethically because…I wasn’t planning on visiting them at all haaha – but now I know where to point people when they have questions about it!
Thank you so much Kay!
Thank you for writing this. It was hard in Thailand to figure out which places were and were not ethical online because so few give enough information. Thank you for laying out so clearly exactly what to look for in an ethical sanctuary.
Thank you so much Christine!
This post brought a tear to my eye! I can’t believe are still riding elephants and bathing with them. Especially as there is so much information out there but obviously not enough. Thanks for the brutally honest post! I’ll be sharing it on all my social channels to spread the word!
Thank you so much for the support!!!
Winnie Cheche says
Totally agree with you on the advise given the influencers. They have to promote places that really respect wildlife welfare. But am still not okay with the chaining of the elephant at night part. If they want the elephants not to wander away, can’t they just have a huge enclosure for hosting the elephants during the night? Wildlife welfare does not include any chaining. (My thoughts)
They currently don’t have the room for that unfortunately. Building a facility like this takes up a lot of resources and they currently don’t have enough land to provide for such a situation. Hopefully they will in the future!
Katie and Gaurav says
This was so difficult to read, but thank you for writing this and trying to inform people of what’s really happening with these poor animals. Years ago we visited an ‘sanctuary’ in Sri Lanka and only found out later that the elephants weren’t being helped or rehabilitated at all. We still feel ashamed for not doing proper research and contributing to this abuse. It definitely has become a trend, and it’s so sad to see. Thanks again for this post, we’re definitely going to share it!
Great article and thank you so much for writing it!
It still doesn’t sit right with me though that the elephants original mahouts are with them in the sanctuary because surely they are still the same people that used to beat them and witness their abuse? :S
I am going to Thailand soon so will be doing SO much research into this!
Hi Holly! Yes I know. They slowly lower the presence of the mahout but in the beginning it is necessary. Accidents would happen otherwise
I agree with this. In my post I write about a very pleasant and loving elephant sanctuary in southern Thailand. It does not offer rides. The single elephant on property lives freely in the jungle sanctuary. He is very well taken care of and only accepts visitors by appointment. When you go there, you learn about the history of elephants, their special diets, and you get to bath him in his favorite watering hole. There is nothing unethical about it. Feel free to check it out for yourself!
Hi Whitney! I actually saw your post this morning! What concerns me is that it is possible for people to bathe with the elephant and that there is a clear photo of you riding it. Even that this is without a harness.
From the moment an elephant allows something like this they are doing nothing to promote any form of rehabilitation.
For an elephant to allow this they had to break it’s spirit which is a grueling process!
Please give my blog post a read about how you can recognise a true ethical elephant sanctuary!
Rhonda Albom says
Excellent article sharing really important information. The details really outline the issues, in much more details than I knew before. Thanks for this.
Thank you so much for reading Rhonda! And for your feedback!
Quite emotional. Yet the emotion is plainly for the welfare of the subject. Thanks for taking time to share this to us. Keep inspiring.
Thank you so much Elsa!
This post is so so important!
Thank you so much!
Navigation Junkie says
This brought tears to my eyes….humans really can be monsters, can’t they? Thanks for sharing on this difficult topic…I used to enjoy things like this that allow you to get so close to animals you normally wouldn’t be able to, but as I became more aware of the things that we taken place behind closed doors I became repulsed by it. I now avoid these at all costs.
I am so happy to hear that! Thank you for sharing!
thanks for the great information
It’s heartbreaking to know that people treat animals in this way! Thanks for sharing your tips on how to identify an ethical elephant sanctuary. Having never visited one before, it is useful to know what to look for to ensure we’re choosing somewhere that has the best interests of the elephants in mind.
Hannah | https://getlost.blog/
Thank you so much reading the entire post!
Thank you for sharing this important information Charlotte! I know I will be more careful next time I visit Thailand!
So happy to hear that Stéphanie! Thank you for reading x
This is such an important article and I have passed it on to friends to spread awareness. Thank you for being as insightful as ever!
Thank you so much for doing that Jen!!
Powerful post! Coming at a good time for me too… I leave for Chang Mai in a couple of weeks. It truly breaks my heart the lack of respect these beautiful creates get sometimes. Thank you for writing such a beautiful post.
Thank you so much for sharing Melissa! Will you be visiting Chiang Rai as well?
Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad says
This is so important, thank you for writing it!! I’m so glad ethical travel is becoming more and more prominent. I volunteered at Elephant Nature Park a few years ago and will still say it’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Interestingly, I’ve noticed a shift in what’s considered ethical since then, so for example we bathed the elephants. I still think it was OK, as they were careful to make sure the elephants were safe. We only ever bathed the same 3 elephants and two of them were blind and the other was heavily disabled. I also don’t think they let people do it any more, which possibly says that they’ve decided it’s not OK, although also one of those elephants has sadly died since, and I wonder if they only ever allowed it for those specific elephants for a reason. Anyway, I find it a really interesting topic, and I’m just glad that places like this exist… even if it’s a shame that unethical businesses are now portraying themselves as sanctuaries too.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience! Someone I know has booked a visit to Elephant Nature Park and in the itinerary it still stated that you are allowed to bathe with the elephants. I haven’t visited them myself so it’s always tough to say they’re not being truly ethical. They’re doing a better job than a lot of others that’s for sure. But my first choice will always be to support the ones that work towards the rehabilitation of the elephant 🙂
Hi, when I googled etical elephant sanctuarys “The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT)” was on the list. However, bathing and/or showering with the elephants was included in the list of activities. Is that okay or not? Definitely confused me !
Hi! I would say not, it’s better not to come in close contact with elephants
I think a lot of people just don’t know this and don’t see any harm in riding the animals. I won’t since i saw a movie about ‘crushing’ the elephants.
Hi Christophe! Thank you for reading my article! and yes so many people just don’t know any better, it’s awful what they do to these beautiful creatures
So beautifully written ! Each and every bit of it is true and thank you for providing the list of the ethical sanctuaries.
My absolute pleasure!
Sam - Reisbeesten.be says
Merci Sam! 🙂