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The truth about Thailand's 'elephant sanctuaries'

A few years ago I travelled to Thailand because I am obsessed with animals and knew this would be the perfect way to get up close and personal with elephants. Unfortunately, the reality of most Thailand "elephant sanctuaries" really did disappoint me.

The pictures above are from google, the ones below are all mine.


The point of this blog post is to communicate that the conditions I thought the elephants were living in are very different from what a sanctuary should be. If you are looking for an ethical experience then you need to be super careful about which sanctuaries you are visiting. 

So we are clear, animal sanctuaries (to me) implies safety and freedom from abuse, owners, labour and performing. If you don’t know too much about elephant's history in Thailand, they are seen as a profitable commodity. Around 4000 elephants are held captive in Thailand and forced to perform for tourists in various ways, but the worst is elephant riding. OBVIOUSLY, elephants are wild animals and to become obedient they are tortured until they are mentally broken. I don’t want to go into detail about this because it only angers me, if you want to learn more click here.


Booking the Experience

The website sold me dreams and I genuinely believed that I was paying to help these mistreated animals and help the sanctuary save more elephants in the future. Every page was dedicated to emphasising that riding animals is forbidden and that they roamed free and happily, LOL. This was obviously aimed at more educated tourists who are boycotting the circuses and riding elephants.


This experience cost me 2500 Baht which is around £55 and it included:

*Pick up from my hotel

*Education about Asian elephants and the riding elephant issue

*Feeding elephants

*Playing with the elephants in the mud, swimming with them and bathing them

*A traditional Thai lunch

*Drop off back to my hotel

*OH AND A FREE KAFTAN


Naive me was reading all of this thinking what a #Bargain !


What was Wrong with the Experience?

1. Mud Jungle

Look at this picture - so green, so grassy, so great. From the pictures and videos I had seen I expected a similar setting at the Phuket sanctuary, especially the elephants roaming free part.

I arrived and saw a brown, dried up camp site with the elephants waiting for us in a wooden pen. Why were the elephants not roaming around the "jungle" free? Fair enough they needed somewhere to keep them for when the tourists arrived but it just felt very zoo-like. NOW, it might be that further away from the camp there is a jungle where elephants can roam free but from first impressions, it was basically a stage area.

2. The Owners

When I arrived there were many people in the sanctuary sitting outside their homes. They were eventually called over and the elephants all seemed to have an allocated keeper. I know that may not seem unusual, but each person seemed very territorial, almost as if they owned the elephants. I spoke to another tourist and voiced how weird it was and she explained to me that a lot of elephants are loaned to sanctuaries by circus owners and others in the trade. After hearing that everything was tainted and it got worse. BY THE WAY just in case you think I am being over the top, they also used command words to make the elephants lift tourists with their trunks and give kisses. Is this elephants in their natural habitat?

3. Swaying

There were elephants of all ages at the sanctuary and I noticed the older elephants swayed from side to side a lot. I am not an elephant expert but they just seemed so unhappy. After researching, I learnt that elephants in captivity display various signs when they are mentally distressed. If these elephants were so comfortable and free why would they be doing this? Before you ask, YES I did ask when the elephants were saved and the older elephants had been there for years (assuming they were telling the truth). Why are they still mentally distressed?

4. Anxious Mama Elephant

There was one elephant in particular that never left the pen. They told us she was a mother of one of the baby elephants we met during feeding time. We walked past the pen and her baby was playing in the mud bath. She was very distressed and began to sway faster and more aggressively. I understand baby elephants are cute and stirs massive excitement amongst the tourists but I didn't think it was fair on the mother or the baby. Elephants are social creatures and protective over their young, how could the people working at the sanctuary not consider this?

5. Forced to Bathe

Finally, many of the people working at the sanctuary/ owners pushed the elephants into the mud bath and manoeuvred them to lay down in the water. Why would you need to force an animal to do anything in a SANCTUARY? WHY? Because its not enjoyable when they do the same thing twice a day, 7 days a week. They are forced in there for our entertainment. One of the baby elephants wasn't even able to get back out and the owners/ sanctuary staff had to push him out.

I tried to enjoy the experience, and don't get me wrong I was so happy being so close to such beautiful animals but it felt so wrong. You know when you're doing something good, you get that warm and fuzzy feeling inside? I didn't get that, I felt so guilty because these elephants are not free.

THE POINT: If animal welfare bothers you too than please do your research before booking similar experiences. My intention was to help animals (whilst having a mind-blowing time myself) but I just subjected them to a new type of labor. I guess it is better for them to be worked this way than to be ridden (and maybe they are free to roam once all tourists have left) but choose the sanctuary wisely if you actually care.

Here is a link to find real sanctuaries and other ethical elephant experiences in Thailand.

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