How to have an Ethical Elephant Experience in Thailand

Feeding an elephant at a sanctuary in Chiang Mai Thailand

When in Thailand, elephants are a must-see that ranks high on almost everyone’s bucket list. But there’s a dark side to this seemingly all-fun tourist activity. 

By now, most of us have vehemently scratched “Ride and Elephant” off of our bucket list as the horrific behind-the-scenes treatment of the elephants has become, for the most part, exposed. Fortunately, there are plenty of alternative ways to see these beautiful creatures up close and personal in a safe, ethical way. But how do we know for sure that the place we’re visiting is indeed ethical? 

1. They don’t allow riding.

Some places that allow riding will try to advertise as using “no bull hooks and no chains”. Don’t let them trick you into thinking they are the ONE ethical elephant-riding business in Thailand. Even if that were true and no torture methods had been used, elephants – believe it or not – do not have the spines to support our weight day after day. The excessive weight slowly wears down the bone and tissue on their backs, and rough materials (I.e. If there is a chair for you to sit on) rub against their skin and cause painful lesions. 

2. The elephants are free to roam. 

Elephants are huge and thus, need a lot of space to wander. If you visit an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, the only fence you should see is a very low barrier used during feeding time, which prevents the elephant from stampeding whoever is holding the food. But beware, the elephants can be quite grabby! And those trunks are more powerful than they look.

Getting chased by a baby asian elephant in Chiang Mai over some delicious squash

3. The elephants have access to regular mud baths.

Elephants bathe in water like we do, but they also bathe in the mud! This may seem counterproductive but it’s crucial to their health. Rolling in the mud is not only soothing to their skin, it protects their skin from the hot sun. Think of it as “elephant sunscreen”. This is why you’ll often see elephants spraying mud or dirt on their backs as they’re walking along. 

An adult Asian elephant taking a mud bath in an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai

An adult Asian elephant taking a mud bath in an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai

4. The elephants have access to a large river, lake or pool.

Elephants are large, so it makes sense that they’d need an extra-large bathtub! Bath time is so important to an elephants physical and mental well-being. Not only do they need to stay clean just like we do, but they actually really enjoy soaking in the water! It’s like another play-time activity to them. Elephants roll around in the water, find a stick to grab with their trunk and sometimes even blow bubbles! Showers, if done properly, can be sufficient in cleaning the elephant, but they aren’t quite as beneficial as an hour of fun, relaxing soak time. 

A baby elephant getting a bath in Chiang Mai, Thailand

5. The elephants are lookin’ good.

A happy elephant is a healthy elephant and there are some easy indicators, even just at a glance, that an elephant is being treated well. A healthy elephant will have bright eyes and soft smooth skin – overly dry or even cracked skin can be a sign of improper care. Their tongue and the inside of their nostrils should be a nice, bright pink color.

Their movements and behavior can also determine how an elephant is feeling. Happy, healthy elephants are frequently flapping their ears and tail, adults do not sleep in the daytime, and they have a healthy, or perhaps extraordinary, appetite (300 pounds of food a day is quite impressive!).

A baby elephant in a sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Here are just a few places in Thailand where you can ethically interact with the elephants: 

 

Have more questions or your own comments about ethical elephant encounters in Thailand? Comment below or contact us! We’d love to hear from you. 

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