Choosing the right elephant sanctuary in Thailand can be difficult with so much conflicting reviews out there. With so much abuse in animal tourism, it’s hard to know whether sanctuaries are helping, or merely contributing to the problem. Here is my honest review of Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
The elephant – Thailand’s resident celebrity, biggest culture identity and substantial source of economic income.
The elephant is clearly important to the Thai people, supplying business and tourism throughout the country. Yet, due to unknowing demand from tourists, these majestic giants are subject to animal abuse and their numbers are drastically decreasing.
In 1986, the Asian elephant became an endangered species. After a logging ban in 1989, most logging elephants ended up in the tourism industry. The elephant industry quickly flourished and gained popularity as more tourists flocked to South East Asia thanks to better communications and improved travel.
Elephant Tourism and “Ethical Travel”
Thanks to social media, the efforts of animal rights groups, and even celebrity endorsement (I’m talkin’ ‘bout you Angel Leo) it is now a well-known fact that elephant riding and tourism should be shunned.
What was once considered the “cool thing” to do when in Thailand, is now looked down upon and considered ignorant. I won’t go into the details of the abuse elephants have to endure in order to be trained. However I will link an article which I think sums up the topic appropriately. https://www.kohsamuisunset.com/elephants-in-thailand-need-to-know/
We all now know pictures a-top a chained elephant are no longer the “done thing”, with modern travellers now opting for the elephant sanctuary instead.
2018 has seen the newly coined phrase “ethical travel” come into play. More and more, holiday-makers want to have an ethical experience while travelling, and though Thailand is FILLED with elephant sanctuaries, it can be hard for even the most informed travellers to make the right decision.
Which Sanctuary to Pick?
So you’ve been through elephant ethics, you’ve read the blogs and seen the horrid videos online. Now it’s time to pick your sanctuary. But which one??
Though there are dozens of elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, actually very few parks that are officially registered as ethical sanctuaries:
The Happy Elephant Home
- Elephant Nature Park
- Phang Nga Elephant Park
- Elephant Hills Khao Sok
- Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)
- Patara Elephant Farm
- Elephant Jungle Sanctuary
For a while now, I had dreamed of going to BLES but there is a whopping year (if not more) waiting list, as this sanctuary is so legit it limits human contact severely with the elephants. This makes the waiting list extra long as only a small number of guests are allowed visit at a time.
If you are an organised traveller and can commit to a date over a year in advance, I would recommend BLES – follow them on Instagram to see the AMAZING work they do.
Elephant Nature Park was my second in line. I had watched the documentary on Netflix that features this sanctuary, Love & Bananas: An Elephant’s Story. I saw the amazing work they did here and knew we had to go.
Unfortunately, the pricing was a little bit out of our budget so I took to the drawing board again. We then found Elephant Jungle Sanctuary online and researched a little bit about their overnight trip.
Started in 2014 by concerned locals, EJS promotes elephant eco-tourism, leading by example and educating both locals and foreigners alike in ethical conduct.
The price seemed reasonable for two full days of elephant encounters with all meals included. For the full itinerary and to read about my full experience in EJS click here.
Overall Feel of EJS
I genuinely felt while at the sanctuary that all workers and mahouts cared for their elephants and were genuinely concerned for their well-being, at least for the sake of their wage from the sanctuary.
I’m under no illusion that all mahouts are saintly animal-lovers who sing lullabies to their elephants and rock them to sleep at night. It’s no secret the Thai locals see the elephants as a source of income, therefore it is in their interest to look out for them.
If you’ve read into elephant culture in Thailand, you’ll know that being a mahout is a family business. All mahouts have grown up around elephants. If you see an older mahout on your visit to a sanctuary, he most likely has worked in an elephant riding camp, and been involved in previous abuse. If you see younger mahouts, they most likely grew up watching their fathers using the bullhook on elephants.
Though not free, the elephants at least have food and veterinary care. While visiting EJS, we observed a vet giving shots to a sick elephant and then rummaging through his stool for a lab sample.
The elephants cannot be released back into the wild as they are now reliant on humans to feed them. This is not entirely true though, and studies have shown that elephant can regress back to their natural wildness and fend for themselves. It is actually in the sanctuaries’ best interests to keep the elephants on site, as more elephants equals more money.
While elephant welfare is high on the list, again I am under no illusion that this is purely for the animals. Sanctuaries are a money-making business, it’s sad but true. I battled with my conscience for a while on this one, but eventually my need for an elephant selfie got the better of me.
I hope in years to come I don’t look back on my time in EJS like we look back at elephant riding now and think, “Wow. How ignorant was I?” Only time will tell what way the tourism tide will flow.
Things That Could Be Improved On
In the wild, elephants roam around the forests and jungles near 20 kilometers a day in search of food and water. This keeps them moving and the exercise keeps them healthy and lean. In captivity, they are not able to maintain the same level of activity which leads to obesity, joint pains, and depression. Elephants in the wild live on average close to 70 years, but in captivity, this can be reduced by up to half!
It would be fantastic to see the elephants moved to bigger paddocks. They are kept in an area roughly the size of a football field, but I’m sure these sanctuaries feel tiny compared to the vast jungles of their ancestors.
Although the elephants are well-looked after, and have more than enough to eat, if I were to make one suggestion for the sanctuary, it would be to limit contact more with the elephants.
I know this is the biggest draw towards elephant sanctuaries, however I think for a more authentic experience, elephants should not be crowded by people all day long and allowed to do their own thing.
The only moment in the elephant experience which I did not enjoy was washing the elephants. This seemed a staged event, with the elephants all marching in single file to the river, clearly a routine they performed every day.
I would have been just as happy watching the elephants meander through the grounds in their own time, and not to the schedule of arriving tourists.
Things To Remember
Limit Photography – I’ve often said this when talking about wildlife – it’s important to give them space. As much as we all LOVE to get that much-coveted selfie with an elephant, it’s vital to step back and not be stuck up in the animal’s face all day.
Over the course of two days, we took plenty of snaps, but for the most part, we left our phones to the side, and just enjoyed our time with the elephants. It’s a great move for the animals, but also yourself too. Being camera-less means you are more in the moment and you also have your hands free to hold more bananas!
Respect the elephants – If the animals are not cooperating with your pictures, if they’re turning their back to you or walking away, it means they do not want to be around you, and that should just be respected.
Don’t pester the elephants, meaning no chasing them around, no swinging out of them and no sudden movements around them.
At the end of the day, captivity is captivity. We are living in a fairytale if we think these elephants are living their best lives. For these animals and many like them, they would only be truly happy free from human influence and living in the wild as nature intended.
I’ll admit, I had, and still do have reservations about elephant sanctuaries. They are merely a step up from zoos. However, elephant tourism has come a long, long way in Thailand, and at least this way, elephants aren’t being forced to perform tricks and carry tourists on their backs in the searing heat.
It is sad to see Thailand’s most prized possession being molded into a money-making racket in such an abusive way. If the Asian elephant has an hope of survival, Thailand must take action quickly.
On my recent visit to Sri Lanka, I saw how the country monetises elephants while still keeping them in the wild. Through the introduction of conservation parks and safari tours, elephants can maintain their freedom while the government still makes profit from the tourism generated from elephants.
If Thailand took a leaf out of Sri Lanka’s book, the Asian elephant might stand a chance.
If you are planning a trip to Thailand, why not check out my Thai Islands Itinerary here.