Elephants are an integral part of Thailand’s history and culture, and a major drawcard for tourists – in fact, elephants have been employed in the tourism industry since the late 1980s, when logging was banned and mahouts and their families, elephants included, looked for new employment.
Attitudes towards training wild animals have changed considerably since the ‘80s, with animal welfare research highlighting that many of these activities are in fact cruel and demeaning to these intelligent creatures.
While the fascination with elephants still holds, in Thailand there is now huge a shift away from supporting elephant camps offering trekking and shows. Thailand has a growing number of wildlife sanctuaries where you can observe these gentle giants without riding them. At these sanctuaries, you can learn about their history, their welfare and in some places, volunteer to care for them.
One of the newest of these is the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket.
This sanctuary was founded through a partnership with Mr Montri Todtane, a Phuket elephant camp owner, conservationist Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation, and Louise Rogerson, founder of EARS Asia. Lek Chailert also founded Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
“We offer a retirement home for sick, injured, tired, or old elephants who have previously worked hard for tourism entertainment or in the logging industry.”
Here, visitors can feed, walk with, and observe the resident elephants as they roam throughout the sanctuary, socialise and bathe and cover themselves in lovely thick mud; as they would in the wild.
Nearby Phuket are two more great ethical elephant sanctuaries:
Phang Nga Elephant Park is run by a family that has looked after the elephants on their property for over 150 years. Here, visitors can bath, feed and ride the elephants bareback.
“We believe passionately in human-elephant interaction and educating of our visitors about the significance of the elephant in Thai culture. Many of our elephants were previously in the logging industry and they and their mahouts now enjoy a happy and fulfilling life with us.” phangngaelephantpark.com
Elephant Hills is an eco-resort and elephant sanctuary within the Khao Sok National Park, and provides transfers from Phuket for two to three-day ‘safari’.
Accommodation is in luxury safari-style tents, and the activities you can participate in here, which include cooking classes, rafting, hiking and learning how to prepare lunch for the resident elephants, will all teach you something about Thailand’s elephants, culture and ecology.