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A disturbing image of an elephant with a deformed spine shows the brutal toll that tourist rides can have

  • Pictures of rescued elephants show the toll of the tourist trade on the hard-working animals.
  • Years of hard labor can deform their spines out of shape, causing pain.
  • Unlike horses, elephants were not bred to be ridden and tourist treks can cause irreversible damage.

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A picture of an elephant rescued after decades of hard labor shows the terrible toll tourist rides can take on the creatures.  

Elephants who carry tourists on treks in South Asian countries often end up with unnatural kinks in their backs. The rides can deform their spines from a normal dome-shaped appearance, according to the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT).

Pai Lin, the elephant shown on the left, was rescued after more than 25 years in the trekking industry. Now 71, she lives at the WFFT's sanctuary, where she can roam free. 

Boon Chuey, shown below, is another elephant whose spine was deformed by the tourist trade , per the WFFT. 

Elephants can spend decades of their long lives carrying tourists on a "howdah," a cast iron seat that is strapped to their backs with ropes. and blankets. 

The weight of the seat and passengers can irreversibly cave in and sink the animal's backs. Both Pai Lin and Boon Chuey still carry scars from the pressure points of the seats on their backs, per the WFFT.

"Pai Lin arrived at our sanctuary in 2006 after working in the Thai tourism industry," Edwin Wiek , director and founder of the WFFT, told CNN.

She could be forced to carry up to six tourists at a time, per CNN.

"She was given up by her previous owner who felt that she was too slow and always in pain and couldn't work well anymore," he said.

"It's important to understand that elephants, unlike horses, are not bred to be ridden. They are not domesticated animals and are taken from the wild and kept in awful conditions," said Wiek.

elephant with tourist

Is It Ever Okay to Ride Elephants While on Vacation? It’s Complicated...

By Ashlea Halpern

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp  Resort

Few subjects elicit more impassioned debate than elephant tourism. Organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and World Animal Protection have mounted influential media campaigns denouncing riding , where they show elephants as young as 18 to 24 months old being chained up and beaten with bullhooks. Large tour operators like STA Travel , TUI Group , G Adventures , and Intrepid Travel have responded in kind, eliminating trekking and elephant shows from their itineraries. In 2016, TripAdvisor banned ticket sales to tourist attractions offering physical encounters (riding, petting, swimming, and so on) with captive wild animals and endangered species, elephants included. Although the travel site made exceptions for educational, scientific, and conservation-related experiences, the sea change was clear: Elephant riding, once a bucket-list activity for many North American and European travelers visiting Southeast Asia, was rapidly falling out of favor. And that’s where things get tricky.

The relationship between Asian elephants and humans dates back four millennia. The majestic and intelligent creatures have been used for logging, in ceremonial celebrations, as royal status symbols, and as vehicles of war. For most of those 4,000 years, elephants were captured in the jungles and “broken” by mahouts, or trainers. At present, 3,783 Asian elephants are estimated to live in captivity in Thailand alone—and the majority of them work in the tourism sector. Because it is now illegal to trap and traffic wild elephants in Thailand, some trekking camps breed elephants in captivity to maintain their populations.

Many would argue that every elephant should be wild and free. But even if you turned every elephant currently in captivity loose, there would be nowhere safe for all of them to go. Their natural habitats have been mostly destroyed; some captive elephants carry diseases that could harm wild populations; and besides, not all elephants get along—even in the jungle. Quarrels between three-ton beasts can be fatal. So it’s a sad reality that thousands of elephants live in captivity. Furthermore, a single elephant consumes 550 pounds of food a day and costs around $18,000 a year to support. Something has to pay their way and that something, for now anyway, is still tourism.

One group working to address these issues is the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group (ACEWG), a task force established in 2015 and comprising some of the world’s foremost elephant specialists, including scientists, conservationists, and camp managers from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute , Think Elephants International , Elephant Care International , and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF).

ACEWG’s goals are many, starting with the abolishment of the illegal capture and trade of elephants for commercial purposes. Group members have also devoted years to developing a minimum standard of welfare for captive elephants working in Southeast Asia’s tourism industry. The evolving criteria provide managers of trekking camps with science-based guidelines for humane elephant care. Importantly, it also outlines which activities are, and are not, acceptable for tourism and offers positive training and performance protocols for making those approved activities “behaviorally enriching” for the elephants. Any activity the group feels may cause pain or bring harm to the elephant—walking a tightrope, riding a bicycle, or doing headstands, for instance—has been prohibited.

As for elephant riding, the ACEWG notes that while veracious studies have not been conducted on elephants specifically, it is known that horses, dogs, and donkeys have a weight-carrying capacity of about 20-to-25 percent of their body weight. For a 6,600-pound elephant, that’s at least 1,320 pounds. “If the working hours are limited and the terrain is suitable, two people in a saddle (less than 10 percent of the elephant’s body weight) will not be an undue stressor for an elephant,” the organization reports. “The weight of one or two people without a saddle (less than 4 percent of body weight) would hardly be noticed.”

Despite the waning popularity of elephant riding among Western tourists, the demand for elephant rides in Thailand has surged in recent years, driven by an influx of Chinese tourists. “People are coming in on package tours, and they’re looking for the cheapest-possible experience,” says John Roberts, co-chair of the ACEWG and the director of Elephants and Conservation Activities for the GTAEF. “This is provided for them by exploitative camps that let people ride the elephants for 10-to-12 hours straight, with no rest during the day and no forest time at night. The situation is horrific, and yet these camps are growing massively. At the same time, people who do care about animal welfare are avoiding elephant riding altogether because they’ve been told it’s a bad idea. So camps that were doing good things, like allowing elephants to give rides just three or four hours a day and spending the rest of the time up in a forest, are going out of business. They can’t make enough money to keep their elephants, so they send them to the bad trekking camps a kilometer away.”

The GTAEF, which is supported by Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort and Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle , both in Chiang Rai, Thailand, strives to uphold the highest standard of care for its elephants. Guests are invited to join mahouts and veterinary specialists on long walks in the jungle and are permitted to sit on the neck of an elephant, sans saddle, with their feet behind its ears—a vantage point that Roberts believes is more educational because it’s the same position assumed by a mahout. Only the most sociable elephants are used for these close encounters, while elephants that don’t like strangers can simply join the camp’s “free-roaming pack.” Roberts is also a realist; he recognizes that most camps are not backed by luxury hotel chains and therefore rely on quantity over quality to pay their bills.

According to Roberts, boycotting elephant tourism is not a viable solution because it undermines camps that behave responsibly. Instead, he advocates for enforcing a minimum standard of care. “If you look at the wider picture of trying to look after 3,800 elephants, we need some form of mass tourism, and that’s going to be riding in the saddle. So the best thing [we can do] is try to help the camps that are offering that do it in a way that doesn’t harm the elephants.” The ACEWG is currently working with the independent not-for-profit sustainability auditors at Travelife to develop a welfare-minded certification system that will help travel agencies determine which tourism camps are operating the most humanely.

The bigger question then becomes, How do you convey better practices without insulting a millennia-old culture? “Mahouts have been looking after elephants longer than Christianity and Islam have existed,” Roberts notes. “And while it’s easier to control elephants through pain than it is through persuasion, there’s also a great deal of pride in the way mahouts do things. They learned skills from their fathers and grandfathers—and for many of them, this is the first time anyone is telling them, ‘Hey, some of what you learned from your grandfather is no longer applicable.’ It’s patronizing.”

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Roberts has worked closely with Asian elephants and their mahouts since 1999; he is deeply sensitive to the cultural issues surrounding these long traditions. Nearly half of the captive Asian elephants in Thailand are registered to five or six villages in the Surin province, and this is where the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation has focused much of its attention: by “renting” its elephants instead of buying them, it provides jobs to both mammal and mahout; by bringing in full-time veterinary care; and by working to improve the education of the village youth. (Roberts believes good schooling is key to teaching the children of mahouts that there are other career options besides elephant training.)

Roberts also has a theory that a lot of mahouts know their profession is coming to an end. “For thousands of years, we had captive elephants because there was a need for them,” Roberts says. “Tourism is not a need for captive elephants; it’s a thing to do with captive elephants to help them eat. These are the last cowboys.”

Give it a couple more generations and elephant tourism could phase itself out, but it’s not going to happen overnight, and that’s why the ACEWG was founded: to better the lives of the elephants currently working in trekking camps and to debate how to break what Roberts calls “this self-perpetuating cycle of purchasing, training, breeding, and keeping elephants in captivity.” To boil the issue down to a single question—To ride or not to ride?—misses the bigger picture; it’s like stamping out an ember when the whole house is on fire.

So what’s a conscientious traveler to do?

Start by choosing a camp that has been certified by the local government (in Thailand, that would be the Ministry of Tourism and Sports) and then drill deep on its policies and practices. Any camp worth its salt will be happy to answer questions. Ask how the camp acquires its elephants and what its policy is on breeding. (The last thing the world needs right now is more elephants being born into captivity.) Ask about the camp’s working conditions: Does it give the elephants ample forest time? Are they able to socialize in natural friendship groups and be away from humans? Is the camp providing enough food, water, shade, and exercise? Does the camp employ its own veterinarian or have an alliance with local camps to employ a specialist vet, or does it rely on free government vet care despite making a profit on tourism? And always inquire about the camp’s policies on training: Is it using positive reinforcement to control the elephants, and, if so, how does that work? If the camp claims it has a “no hooks, no chains” policy, ask how the mahouts control the elephants. If they say it’s through verbal commands, or simply “love,” ask how the camp handles potential emergencies that may arise—like when the elephant gets spooked by a snake or a bee or a drone. If it doesn’t have a good answer, you may be putting both yourself and the elephant in danger.

“Asking a lot of questions creates more work for the casual traveler, but, in the end, it’s important to get answers,” Roberts says. “Look deeply at what you’re doing and ensure that you’re finding a place that is, to the best of their ability, looking after the elephants well.”

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Thailand’s Tourism Rebound Puts Elephant Abuse in the Spotlight

As tourism picks up in Thailand, advocates raise concerns about treatment of its captive elephants.

Tourism’s Toll on Thai Elephants

Female elephants Thonpoon (age 23), Thong ma (age 55), and Somboon (age 53) graze at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand wildlife preserve in Phetchaburi, Thailand on May 26, 2022. With 13 mahouts, 87 workers, and 30 volunteers taking care of them, WFFT allows the elephants roam free during the day. (Paul Isidort/IWMF)

Paul Isidort | IWMF

Female elephants graze at the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand wildlife preserve in Phetchaburi, Thailand on May 26, 2022.

PHUKET, Thailand — On Phuket, a mountainous island in the far south of Thailand, a popular tourist attraction called Elephant Swims draws visitors who can sip mango smoothies as they watch waves crash around baby elephants near the shore. Tourists can pay as much as $70 for what’s billed as a once-in-a-lifetime photograph with an elephant, the camera capturing them as they sit perched atop the animal’s head or trunk.

Tourism is coming back to Thailand after two years of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and elephants are a popular tourist attraction. There are a little over 3,000 wild elephants in Thailand and as many as 3,800 in captivity – but experts say many of the latter are suffering.

Before the pandemic, the elephant tourism industry generated between $581 million to $770 million each year, according to a 2020 report by World Animal Protection , an international animal rights organization based in the United Kingdom. While countries such as Sri Lanka and India have come under criticism for the treatment of captive elephants, experts say that the situation is particularly dire in Thailand, which is home to nearly three-quarters of Asia’s elephants in the tourism industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic made conditions for captive elephants even worse, according to animal experts, who say when tourist dollars dried up, elephants went without food. It takes several hundred U.S. dollars a month to feed just one elephant.

“Before COVID, elephant tourism made huge amounts of money for Thai people,” says Nitipon Piwmow, a member of the Thai Parliament who is working to raise awareness of elephant abuse in Thailand. “Then everything stopped: No tourists, no income. But elephants have to eat, and with no income they were stuck in that situation for almost two years. I saw a lot of elephants die.”

Mohamed (who did not give his last name) from Dubai sat on an elephant's trunk at the Elephant Swims tourist attraction at Lucky Beach Tri Trang, Phuket, Thailand, after Ramadan on May 29, 2022. "I think it's good you come to a new place. You should do everything. It's a new experiance. I try everything -- horses, camels. This one is a new experience," he said. (Paul Isidort/IWMF)

Visitors are seen at the Elephant Swims tourist attraction in Phuket, Thailand on May 29, 2022.

Between 2010 and 2020, there was a 135% increase in the number of elephants living in the very worst of conditions in Thailand, according to the World Animal Protection report. One 2015 study found that 86% of the country’s captive elephants lived in inadequate conditions.

In Thailand , captive elephants are often forced to paint with their trunks on canvas, perform show tricks such as balancing on two feet while holding a hat, swim with tourists and carry them on their backs. But the tasks have consequences for the animals: Putting weight on an elephant’s back is harmful, for example, because their skin sits right on top of bone. Over time, this leaves their spines deformed, explains Best Atthakorn, who works with the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a nongovernmental organization working to rescue and rehabilitate abused animals.

At Elephant Swims, after the eight female elephants are done for the day, they climb back up a flight of winding stairs to their cages, where they are chained at the ankles. (Males are too aggressive for the job, explains the staff.)

Elephant Swims didn’t respond to requests to comment for this article after repeated attempts to contact them about the well-being of their elephants.

Thailand’s 2014 Animal Welfare Act protects wild elephants in the country, but captive elephants can be traded, bred and used in tourism. In fact, they have a long history of working in captivity, as the national symbol of fortune and royalty. Now, with tourists starting to come back as pandemic restrictions ease, elephant attractions have been eager to open again. One of the first to resume operations was Elephant Swims at Lucky Beach in southwest Phuket.

“If the elephants want to go swim by themselves and the people just go join them it is good,” says Atthakorn. “But if every time the tourists want to come to shower with the elephants and the mahout (elephant handler) has to use a hook to pull on their ear and bring them to the lake or the pool, I don’t think it is good at all.”  

To familiarize the elephants with humans, trainers often use what’s called the “crush method” which involves separating the baby from its mother, putting it in a cage and tying the elephant up so it is compliant enough to interact with humans.

“How can an elephant do those tricks? They have to train really hard, and this is not natural for the elephant,” Piwmow says. “That is abuse.”

Releasing captive elephants into the wild is illegal under Thai law and even elephants rescued from abuse must remain in captivity. Captive elephants also have learned to depend on humans and lack skills to survive in the wild, said Atthakorn, who noted that training an elephant often involves abuse.

“People use the hook to control the elephant and it is quite bad,” says Atthakorn. “Sometimes, they chain the elephants in the elephant camps and then when we rescue them here, it has already been a few years, but they still feel used to the chain.”

Asian elephants, which live in isolated pockets of South Asia and Southeast Asia, are classified as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Elephant sanctuaries have sprung up in order to protect them, becoming popular with international volunteers. These sanctuaries also welcome tourists, who provide the main source of income.

One of the first animal rescue centers, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, was founded in 2001 by Edwin Wiek, a Dutch citizen.

“Seeing how Thailand was treating wildlife in captivity, there were no options to bring animals to rescue centers,” says Wiek. “So, I decided to start one.”

The WFFT is in Phetchaburi, a province a few hours south of Bangkok. The center rescues hundreds of animals from abuse including gibbons (part of the ape family), tigers, pumas, otters, and even a chimpanzee who lived in a small cage in a school yard for 30 years. The WFFT is also home to an elephant refuge. With 13 mahouts taking care of them every day, the WFFT lets elephants roam free in a 44-acre enclosure. The sanctuary allows tourists to admire elephants close enough for a picture, but behind a tall fence.

“Ten years ago, nobody would question if feeding an elephant or touching the trunk is okay or not okay, but it is an issue now,” says Wiek.

On Phuket Island, about 15 miles from Elephant Swims, is the Green Elephant Sanctuary. Like WFFT, the Green Elephant Sanctuary works to rescue elephants from abuse, but it has a more relaxed take on tourist interaction. The elephant handlers, known as mahouts, let tourists hand feed the elephants, rub mud on their backs and wash them with buckets and long scrubbing brushes. Guides take groups of tourists to see where the elephants sleep, which is conveniently across from the hut of each elephant’s mahout. One elephant at the sanctuary was used to move timber in the logging industry and now has a mahout to take care of her every day.

“We check the elephants every day about how they feel,” says Montara Pomseranee, a Green Elephant Sanctuary tour guide. “If they are happy and normal they can do the tour, but if they are sick the vet can check them. We do not force elephants to do anything they do not want to do.”

The Green Elephant Sanctuary and the WFFT managed to survive the tourist dry spell even when donations went down. WFFT had money from big donors like “Tiger King’s” Carole Baskin and contacts Wiek kept from his past work in women’s fashion. In fact, during the pandemic, the WFFT managed to take in three new elephants from mahouts on Phuket’s Rawai Beach, says Wiek. (One of those elephants is Thung Ngern, meaning “bag of money.”) At Green Elephant, their Swiss founder, Urs Fehr , was able to provide funds for workers and elephants to eat.

With little support from government funds, it is support from interested tourists that keeps the elephant sanctuaries running, providing environments for the elephants that are relatively natural.

The goal is simple, according to Piwmow: “Let the elephants be elephants.”

This reporting was supported by the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation. Anna Lawattanatrakul contributed reporting .

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In Thailand, You Can Ride an Elephant. But Should You?

Interacting with the animals is one of the country’s major tourism draws, and a new organization is trying to make it more humane.

elephant with tourist

By Donald Frazier

More than half of Thailand’s 7,000 elephants live in captivity. It’s been that way ever since 1989, when the country suspended almost all of the commercial logging that had employed them for generations. Jobless elephants, often with their keepers, ended up on the streets, wandering across farmlands or taking shelter in dangerous spots like highway underpasses.

Today almost all of the captive animals work to entertain tourists, often in remote clearings, for small-scale operations with no more than 15 elephants, similar to roadside farms in the U.S. that have emerged as tourist destinations. Sometimes visitors simply wander among and feed the elephants. But many of the so-called elephant camps let visitors bathe with them and ride them. And larger, more touristy sites present displays that range from a few circus-style tricks to Vegas-like pageants with costumes, scripted narratives and light shows.

Travelers who want to see, encounter and maybe play with the region’s elephants face an agonizing question: How can they know if they are supporting the abuse of these emblematic animals?

Is elephant tourism abuse?

Several global organizations say that elephant tourism is inherently wrong, and should be phased out. “Animals do not exist for our entertainment,” said Delcianna Winders, a lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals , which was instrumental in the long-lasting, high-profile campaign that removed elephant acts from U.S. circuses in 2016.

Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, senior wildlife and veterinary adviser for World Animal Protection , said that any elephant tourism, no matter how well-intentioned, drives a market where abuse is inevitable. The group insists all elephants need to be on protected reservations, with minimal contact, often limited to observation, sometimes from afar.

But Dr. Janine Brown, chief elephant scientist for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Species Survival and a member of the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group , a consortium of the region’s scientists, veterinarians, conservationists and other experts, said that creating reserves for all the country’s elephants is not possible. “It’s impossible to give a specific number of square acres per elephant,” she said. “But whatever it is, it’s more than today’s Thailand can offer.”

Besides, it’s expensive to keep an elephant. Food can cost up to $38 per day, said John Roberts, head of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and a key mover of Thailand’s elephant-friendly tourism initiatives. Other expenses push the total to around $56 in a country where a family of four can eat for as little as $18 per day. Nobody has proposed another way to fund the upkeep of so many unemployed elephants and support thousands of keepers.

How can you know how a camp treats its elephants?

New understanding about how to handle Asian elephants , a global craving for ethical and sustainable travel, pressure from the rest of the world travel industry and the glare of negative publicity have driven improvement in the lives of Thailand’s elephants.

But tourists never really know what happens once the last bus heads back down the dusty road to Chiang Mai, the center of this trade. In a chaotic, competitive business with little regulation and lots of unreliable information, elephant-seekers have had few ways to find out whether a camp operator is abusing the animals once the tours depart.

In fact, some camps have found a clever workaround to the ban on riding imposed by some Western travel agencies. They will host one group in the morning that allows no riding, and another group in the afternoon that wants riding. After the first bus leaves and before the next one arrives, the camp will simply change its name.

Travel agencies do not provide much guidance. An aggressive publicity campaign, especially in Europe, has convinced many of them to boycott elephant camps that offer experiences like riding and bathing. Even top U.S. agencies don’t have the scientific expertise and the ability to operate in Thailand’s countryside it takes to tell a kindly camp from an abusive one.

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An ambitious new audit program, a first for Southeast Asia’s commercial elephant tourist sites, may have an answer. To gain certification through the new Captive Elephant Welfare Initiative , camp operators must submit to detailed, regular inspections on everything from the elephants’ diet and medical care to the training and salaries for mahouts, the local caretakers who often bond with an elephant for much of its life. It bars rough handling, and circuslike attractions such as shows where elephants ride giant tricycles or handle fireworks.

The new initiative was created by scientists belonging to the Asian Captive Elephant Working Group . A well-managed camp, the working group members say, is far less likely to run short of cash and overwork its elephants.

Who is grading the camps?

A group known as Travelife for Tour Operators, an Amsterdam-based ratings provider to travel agents in Europe, Australia and many other countries, is responsible for evaluating the camps, and certifying in-country tour operators, creating financial incentives for camps that treat elephants well.

Travelife has carved out a special niche in global travel for tourists who want to limit their impact on the environment and the places they visit, including the people and wildlife. According to Dr. David Fennell, a professor at Brock University, in Ontario, Canada, credible ratings companies like Travelife have become an “absolutely critical resource” to the fast-emerging “green” segment of the travel industry. “There’s a great deal of disinformation and ‘greenwashing’ on the internet. And Travelife has plenty of endorsements from solid, reputable players,” Dr. Fennell said.

Travelife dispatches expert field inspectors to check the sustainability practices of companies in green tourism, from hotels to tour buses. It’s especially sensitive to matters eco-minded tourists started noticing recently, like recycling, food waste and the treatment of workers, cultural sites and animals.

In Thailand, it has audited 20 elephant camps for compliance so far. It has also trained and certified 10 tour operators, the in-country ‘destination managers’ who assemble the packages that travel agencies sell to tourists. These companies are the centerpiece of the program: They make sure the camps treat elephants well and train workers, from business managers to stable hands, on best practices from the Captive Elephant Initiative. In return, they promise to send business only to these camps. Right now these camps include some of the largest and best known, such as Patara Elephant Farm and Maesa Elephant Camp .

Travelife’s program currently applies only to Thailand, the most popular destination for elephant tourism.

According to Niels Steeman, group director of marketing and e-commerce for Asian Trails, a leading tour operator and a supporter of the initiative, “this project will channel business through the supply chain to the camps that measure up to the new standards, and this will induce other camps to improve as well.

“This set of relationships gives it to them, and financially rewards the camps that take part,” he said.

Buffalo Tours, one of the 10 operators working with Travelife in Thailand, has sent more than 4,000 tourists to complying elephant camps so far this year, according to its marketing manager, Ewan Cluckie, and others report similar results. That number could grow as bigger companies like Royal Caribbean Cruise Line add Travelife-approved elephant tours as shore excursions.

What do the guidelines say?

Much of the 109-page checklist is devoted to basic health, based on scientists’ long study of working elephants’ proper diet, exercise and activity. For example, they need strenuous work such as rugged jungle treks in order to properly digest. Few of the people who run elephant camps have been professionally trained in how to care for them and have begun to rely on experts, often from the national university’s elephant center.

The guidelines include specific rules for riding elephants, restraining them with leg chains for limited periods of time, and for using the traditional bullhook that’s used to guide them and, in the wrong hands, to torment them. When it comes to riding the animals, for instance, under the Travelife standard the elephant is allowed to carry only 10 percent of its body weight with one or two riders, no saddle or a light one mounted over its shoulders, and in a natural setting that’s easy on an elephant’s feet, where it can forage along the way.

All of this stands in sharp contrast to the gruesome rides common in Thailand until a few years ago. Unscrupulous operators would overload elephants and march them in a circle over broken pavement for as long as 12 hours for busloads of tourists, arousing global outcry.

How can I find an approved camp?

Finding the approved camps could take some effort and patience for U.S. travelers. (Travelife doesn’t yet do business with U.S. travel agencies.) The camps generally don’t market themselves overseas, so Americans have to find them through Thailand’s 10 Travelife-certified tour operators. Few of them are set up for direct sales, leery of doing anything that travel agents might perceive as stealing their business.

But these companies can be valuable sources of information. Their names — the larger ones are Khiri Travel, Buffalo Tours and Exo Travel — appear on the Travelife site and that of program co-sponsor, the Pacific Asia Travel Association . Americans can contact them directly and simply ask how to find one of the Travelife elephant camps. Phone calls asking for the “ethical elephant visit” person work far better than emails — someone almost always speaks English. Most will connect a caller to the sustainability officer, often in the Bangkok office, who can make the right connections. A few operators such as Buffalo Tours will even directly book customers.

Is it possible to simply observe elephants with little direct contact?

Private operators all over Thailand offer this experience, many of them extensively reviewed online in crowdsourced platforms such as TripAdvisor . Many run what they call a ‘refuge’ or ‘sanctuary’ for elephants, and promote themselves as charitable organizations instead of for-profit businesses.

Standards of care differ wildly. With little or no transparency or state regulation it’s impossible to learn about the camp’s practices or the elephants’ welfare. (Under Thai law, elephants are considered farm animals.) The ubiquitous brochures in tourist hotels are famously unreliable. Few of the camps have been audited for animal welfare by Travelife or any other science-based organization. Some such as the well-known, popular Elephant Nature Park in Mae Taeng refuse even to be audited. (A spokesman did not reply to requests for information.)

World Animal Protection has surveyed a number of these camps and recommends several well-known sites in Thailand, including Mahouts Elephant Foundation near Chiang Mai, Wildlife Friends Foundation near Cham Am, Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary in Mae Chaem and the Travelife-approved Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Chiang Saen. (Oddly, some of these have offered the riding that WAP says it will not tolerate.)

One of the more appealing camps on the WAP list, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai, has become a model of sustainable practice for its 600 square acres of forested range and its rigorous objection to buying elephants, but especially for its reluctance to guide them with the bullhook. But elephants have killed mahouts over the last few years at camps where it is not in use, and experts say that many elephant-handlers feel the tool, though fearsome looking to Western tourists, has a calming effect on elephants who need to know who is boss, and it could have saved their lives.

Travelife has certified these destination management companies for offering humane elephant tourist sites, and for enforcing its standards for treatment and care. All telephone numbers are for the Southeast Asia main office unless otherwise specified.

ASIA DMC (84-24-373-3333; www.asiadmc.com )

Asian Trails (66-2-626-2000, Ext. 0; www.asiantrails.travel )

Buffalo Tours (66-2-245-6392, Ext. 0; U.S.: (844) 310-9883; www.buffalotours.com )

Destination Asia (66-2-127-5888; www.destination-asia.com )

Destination Services 66-2-245-1551, Ext. 0; www.destinationservices.com )

Diethelm Travel (66-2-782-7000, Ext. 0; www.diethelmtravel.com )

Easia Travel (84-243-933-1362; www.easia-travel.com )

EXO Travel (66-2-633-9060, Ext. 0; www.exotravel.com)

Go Vacation (66-2-267-1202; www.go-vacation.com )

Khiri Travel (66-2-968-6828; www.khiri.com

These elephant attractions in Thailand offer limited contact and high standards of care, according to World Animal Protection.

Mahouts Elephant Foundation ; www.mahouts.co.uk

Wildlife Friends Foundation ; www.thaielephantrefuge.org

Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary ; bees-elesanctuary.org

Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation ; www.helpingelephants.org

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary ; www.blesele.org

Donald Frazier writes on Southeast Asia for The New York Times, Forbes Asia and magazines in Hong Kong and Singapore, and has also written for National Geographic and the Washington Post.

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How to choose an ethical elephant experience in Thailand

Sarah Reid

Jan 21, 2022 • 9 min read

Chiang Mai, THAILAND - June 16, 2012: Adult and baby elephants eating sugar cane.

Adult and baby elephants eating sugar cane © hangingpixels / Shutterstock

Increased awareness of the harm that riding elephants can cause these remarkable animals saw Thailand ’s elephant tourism industry pivot to offer "gentler" interactions. Now, amid claims by animal welfare groups that all interactive experiences can be problematic, a growing number of global tour operators no longer include them on trips. So what options are left for travelers who want to experience Thailand’s elephants responsibly post-pandemic?

The evolution of Thailand’s elephant industry addresses the growing understanding that the nation’s long history of using elephants as beasts of burden, and the reverence of elephants in Thai culture, doesn't change the harm that is done to elephants by tourism today. 

The good news is that there are now alternatives to the exploitative elephant camps where elephants are forced to perform for tourists’ entertainment. Dotted around Thailand, particularly in the northern hills around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai , are a growing number of centers for rescued working elephants that offer a chance to encounter these incredible mammals – and help to pay for their upkeep – without causing them harm. Seeing elephants up close, while not too close, is an experience you'll remember for a lifetime, particularly if you have kids in tow.

Elephant trekking to Namuang Waterfall

Understanding elephant welfare issues in Thailand

There was a time when you could barely turn a corner in Thailand without seeing another billboard touting elephant rides or shows with elephants painting, balancing, or performing other circus stunts. However, that's now changed due to amendments to Thai law and because tourists have started to demand better welfare for captive elephants.

Thailand has been slow to legislate for the protection of elephants, but there have been improvements. Under Thai law, elephants are still classed as "working animals", but the new legislation will compel owners of captive elephants to provide DNA samples to the national elephant database and to register all new elephant births, allowing the authorities to better monitor the welfare of Thailand's estimated 3800 working elephants. 

There is still a long way to go, with a Chiang Mai University study published in 2021, for example, finding that more than half of elephants in Chiang Mai Thai tourist facilities have nervous tics that may reflect anxiety, frustration, or boredom.

A more effective lever pushing elephant camp operators to improve standards is growing consumer awareness of elephant welfare, buoyed by the campaigning of animal welfare groups such as NGO World Animal Protection, publishers of a helpful online guide to responsible elephant interactions.

Once seen as a harmless activity, riding in howdahs (elephant carriages) is now widely recognized to cause pain and spinal damage to elephants. Even "shoulder riding" – the traditional riding technique used by mahouts (traditional elephant drivers) – is now discouraged by animal welfare groups.

Then there's the issue of the methods used to train working elephants. Young elephants are typically caged, beaten, and goaded with metal bullhooks to persuade them to submit to carrying passengers or perform circus tricks. Even fully trained captive elephants are sometimes hobbled with chains to prevent them from escaping or harming tourists. 

Couple with backpack hiking in rainforest

The changing face of elephant tourism in Thailand

Following tourist backlash, many elephant camps have abandoned elephant rides and shows in favor of less intrusive ways to engage with elephants, such as bathing elephants in rivers and ponds, and feeding elephants. Many camps have abandoned chains entirely, allowing captive elephants to form their own family groups, in large, open enclosures. 

While this is a step forwards, some animal welfare groups encourage tourists to go further, avoiding experiences that involve direct contact with elephants because of the techniques used to train elephants to accept human interaction.

“There is still a certain element of control required for elephants to be in close contact with humans, whether it’s rides or elephant bathing,” explains Drinya Kenyon from World Animal Protection, adding that close contact with elephants also poses safety risks for tourists. “Even when elephants are under a high level of control, they can still be unpredictable.”

The global tourism industry is increasingly taking note. In 2019, ABTA , the UK’s largest travel association, updated its animal welfare guidelines to make it "unacceptable" for tour operators and travel agents (who adopt the guidelines) to offer tourists direct contact with elephants or feed elephants without a barrier. 

Since 2020, Intrepid Travel has only offered trips in Thailand that help support the elephants and mahouts impacted by its 2014 decision to stop selling elephant rides. Initiatives such as these have prompted Thailand’s elephant industry to pivot once again, with a growing number of camps now transitioning to offer observation-only elephant experiences.

Thai mother elephant and calf eating vegetation in the At the Elephant Village Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

The impact of COVID-19 on Thailand's elephants

There's a valid argument for not supporting interactive elephant tourism, but the situation is complex. Most captive elephants are unable to return to the wild, and they need to be fed, exercised, and given medical treatment, placing a huge financial burden on their owners.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the financial burden. By mid-2020, hundreds of captive elephants had been sold or abandoned, with owners unable to cover the cost of their upkeep due to the lack of tourist revenue. More than 85 elephant camps were closed, upwards of 5000 mahouts and other elephant camp staff lost their jobs, and some of the elephant centers that led the way in promoting good elephant welfare practice are now scraping by on bank loans and donations from concerned tourists. 

With many of Thailand’s elephants on the brink of starvation by mid-2021, leading conservationist Jane Goodall stepped in to launch the Foodbank: Battle For Survival campaign in collaboration with Save Elephant Foundation founder Lek Chailert – a meaningful way to support elephants until travelers can visit Thailand again.

However, World Animal Protection claims the pandemic highlights another important reason to avoid direct contact with elephants, with Global Head of Wildlife Research Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach pointing out that “about 70% of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases originate from wild animals and being in close proximity with humans elevates the risk of infection.”

The lack of tourists during the pandemic has also demonstrated the unsustainability of breeding elephants for tourism. Seeing an end to this practice is a key goal of a new bill for elephant protection World Animal Protection is currently working on it with a team of experts.

With tourists now returning to the Thai Kingdom following its reopening to vaccinated tourists in November 2021, it's more important than ever to use your tourist dollars to support the ethical treatment of captive elephants. Here are five examples of high-welfare elephant tourism ventures, where elephants can be admired in a sanctuary-style environment – the next best thing to viewing them in the wild. For more, see World Animal Protection’s elephant-friendly list .

An elephant drops dust from its trunk onto its back. It stands alone on a dirt track near a shelter

ChangChill, Chiang Mai

Opened in 2019 with support from World Animal Protection, ChangChill was the first elephant venue in the Chiang Mai area to fully transition from interactive elephant tourism to an observation-only model. Day visits begin with a jungle hike to observe ChangChill’s six female elephants moving around the hilly, jungle-covered property, an hour-and-a-half drive southwest of the city. In the afternoon, visitors relax on viewing platforms as the elephants socialize by a gurgling stream, with a guide on-hand to interpret their natural behavior. One-day visits including transfers from Chiang Mai and lunch cost 2500B (US$75).

Burm & Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES), Chiang Mai

After witnessing the hardships experienced by elephants working in tourist camps, Australian Emily McWilliam founded BEES with her Thai partner Burm Rinkaew in 2010. Visits to this lush sanctuary, a 2.5-hour drive southwest of central Chiang Mai, are structured like a mini-volunteering program, with lots of hiking to observe the natural behavior of elephants, in between helping out with elephant food preparation, construction tasks, planting trees, and other activities. BEES now has a "hands-off" policy, meaning visitors observe elephants but don't touch them. Costs start at 2500B (US$75) for a full-day visit with lunch (visiting with your own transport). Transfers are available for longer visits.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES), Sukhothai

BLES was founded in 2007 by Briton, Katherine Connor, who dedicated her life to nurturing rescued and retired elephants after encountering a courageous baby elephant called Boon Lott ("survivor" in Thai). Visitors to BLES, located outside the village of Baan Tuek, an hour’s drive north of Sukhothai airport, get involved in all aspects of sanctuary life, from collecting elephant food from the jungle to maintaining herding areas and grazing grounds. Overnight visits including transfers and all meals cost 6000B (US$178). Due to its remote location, BLES does not run single-day tours – most visitors stay for several days on individually-tailored itineraries.

A herd of elephants in a jungle setting. One is facing the camera and appears to be approaching

Following Giants, Ko Lanta

Also supported by World Animal Protection, Following Giants transitioned to an observation-only model in late 2019. On a day's visit to this lush Ko Lanta elephant venue, guests shadow elephants on a jungle walk and plant treats for the pachyderms to find while foraging. Those staying for the full-day program hike to a stunning cave and a waterfall, and share herbal drinks with the local mahouts . Full-day visits including transfers and lunch cost 3500B (US$105).

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket

In 2020, this center for retired logging elephants in north-eastern Phuket opened Thailand’s largest canopy walkway, from which visitors can observe elephants simply being elephants. While feeding is allowed on some programs (half-day tours from 3000B (US$90)), a barrier separates elephants and visitors during the activity. A 7-day volunteering program is also available (18,000B (US$535).

What to bring when visiting an elephant center

Elephant centers tend to be in hot, humid rural areas. Wear lightweight clothing (with long sleeves/trousers for overnight visits) and bring a sunhat, sunscreen, DEET-free insect repellent, some sturdy shoes, and swimwear if there is a waterhole on the property, plus a change of clothes in case you get muddy. 

Also bring drinking water, ideally filling your own bottle to avoid buying water in plastic bottles. Volunteers should expect basic facilities, usually simple accommodation blocks with mosquito nets, basic cooking facilities, Thai-style bathrooms, and (often) cold showers.

You may also like: Thailand's best beaches from peaceful paradises to parties The quickest, easiest and most affordable ways to get around in Thailand Jungle safaris, kayaking and bird-spotting at Thailand's top national parks

This article was first published November 2014 and updated January 2022

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Thailand’s Tourism Rebound Puts Elephant Abuse in the Spotlight

PHUKET, Thailand — On Phuket, a mountainous island in the far south of Thailand, a popular tourist attraction called Elephant Swims draws visitors who can sip mango smoothies as they watch waves crash around baby elephants near the shore. Tourists can pay as much as $70 for what’s billed as a once-in-a-lifetime photograph with an elephant, the camera capturing them as they sit perched atop the animal’s head or trunk.

Tourism is  coming back to Thailand  after two years of travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic – and elephants are a popular tourist attraction. There are a little over 3,000  wild elephants  in Thailand and as many as  3,800  in captivity – but experts say many of the latter are suffering.

Before the pandemic, the elephant tourism industry generated between $581 million to $770 million each year, according to a 2020  report  by  World Animal Protection , an international animal rights organization based in the United Kingdom. While countries such as  Sri Lanka  and  India  have come under criticism for the treatment of captive elephants, experts say that the situation is particularly dire in Thailand, which is home to nearly three-quarters of Asia’s elephants in the tourism industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic made conditions for captive elephants even worse, according to animal experts, who say when tourist dollars dried up, elephants went without food. It takes several hundred U.S. dollars a month to feed just one elephant.

“Before COVID, elephant tourism made huge amounts of money for Thai people,” says Nitipon Piwmow, a member of the Thai Parliament who is working to raise awareness of elephant abuse in Thailand. “Then everything stopped: No tourists, no income. But elephants have to eat, and with no income they were stuck in that situation for almost two years. I saw a lot of elephants die.”

Mohamed (who did not give his last name) from Dubai sat on an elephant's trunk at the Elephant Swims tourist attraction at Lucky Beach Tri Trang, Phuket, Thailand, after Ramadan on May 29, 2022. "I think it's good you come to a new place. You should do everything. It's a new experiance. I try everything -- horses, camels. This one is a new experience," he said. (Paul Isidort/IWMF)

Visitors are seen at the Elephant Swims tourist attraction in Phuket, Thailand on May 29, 2022.  (PAUL ISIDORT/IWMF)

Between 2010 and 2020, there was a 135% increase in the number of elephants living in the very worst of conditions in Thailand, according to the World Animal Protection report. One  2015 study  found that 86% of the country’s captive elephants lived in inadequate conditions.

In  Thailand , captive elephants are often forced to paint with their trunks on canvas, perform show tricks such as balancing on two feet while holding a hat, swim with tourists and carry them on their backs. But the tasks have consequences for the animals: Putting weight on an elephant’s back is harmful, for example, because their skin sits right on top of bone. Over time, this leaves their spines deformed, explains Best Atthakorn, who works with the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, a nongovernmental organization working to rescue and rehabilitate abused animals.

At Elephant Swims, after the eight female elephants are done for the day, they climb back up a flight of winding stairs to their cages, where they are chained at the ankles. (Males are too aggressive for the job, explains the staff.)

Elephant Swims didn’t respond to requests to comment for this article after repeated attempts to contact them about the well-being of their elephants.

Thailand’s 2014  Animal Welfare Act protects wild elephants in the country, but captive elephants can be traded, bred and used in tourism. In fact, they have a long history of working in captivity, as the national symbol of fortune and royalty. Now, with tourists starting to come back as pandemic restrictions ease, elephant attractions have been eager to open again. One of the first to resume operations was Elephant Swims at Lucky Beach in southwest Phuket.

“If the elephants want to go swim by themselves and the people just go join them it is good,” says Atthakorn. “But if every time the tourists want to come to shower with the elephants and the mahout (elephant handler) has to use a hook to pull on their ear and bring them to the lake or the pool, I don’t think it is good at all.”  

To familiarize the elephants with humans, trainers often use what’s called the “crush method” which involves separating the baby from its mother, putting it in a cage and tying the elephant up so it is compliant enough to interact with humans.

“How can an elephant do those tricks? They have to train really hard, and this is not natural for the elephant,” Piwmow says. “That is abuse.”

Releasing captive elephants into the wild is illegal under Thai law and even elephants rescued from abuse must remain in captivity. Captive elephants also have learned to depend on humans and lack skills to survive in the wild, said Atthakorn, who noted that training an elephant often involves abuse.

“People use the hook to control the elephant and it is quite bad,” says Atthakorn. “Sometimes, they chain the elephants in the elephant camps and then when we rescue them here, it has already been a few years, but they still feel used to the chain.”

Asian elephants, which live in isolated pockets of South Asia and Southeast Asia, are classified as  endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Elephant sanctuaries have sprung up in order to protect them, becoming popular with international volunteers. These sanctuaries also welcome tourists, who provide the main source of income.

One of the first animal rescue centers, Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, was founded in 2001 by Edwin Wiek, a Dutch citizen.

“Seeing how Thailand was treating wildlife in captivity, there were no options to bring animals to rescue centers,” says Wiek. “So, I decided to start one.”

The WFFT is in Phetchaburi, a province a few hours south of Bangkok. The center rescues hundreds of animals from abuse including gibbons (part of the ape family), tigers, pumas, otters, and even a chimpanzee who lived in a small cage in a school yard for 30 years. The WFFT is also home to an elephant refuge. With 13 mahouts taking care of them every day, the WFFT lets elephants roam free in a 44-acre enclosure. The sanctuary allows tourists to admire elephants close enough for a picture, but behind a tall fence.

“Ten years ago, nobody would question if feeding an elephant or touching the trunk is okay or not okay, but it is an issue now,” says Wiek.

On Phuket Island, about 15 miles from Elephant Swims, is the Green Elephant Sanctuary. Like WFFT, the Green Elephant Sanctuary works to rescue elephants from abuse, but it has a more relaxed take on tourist interaction. The elephant handlers, known as mahouts, let tourists hand feed the elephants, rub mud on their backs and wash them with buckets and long scrubbing brushes. Guides take groups of tourists to see where the elephants sleep, which is conveniently across from the hut of each elephant’s mahout. One elephant at the sanctuary was used to move timber in the logging industry and now has a mahout to take care of her every day.

“We check the elephants every day about how they feel,” says Montara Pomseranee, a Green Elephant Sanctuary tour guide. “If they are happy and normal they can do the tour, but if they are sick the vet can check them. We do not force elephants to do anything they do not want to do.”

The Green Elephant Sanctuary and the WFFT managed to survive the tourist dry spell even when donations went down. WFFT had money from big donors like “Tiger King’s” Carole Baskin and contacts Wiek kept from his past work in women’s fashion. In fact, during the pandemic, the WFFT managed to take in three new elephants from mahouts on Phuket’s Rawai Beach, says Wiek. (One of those elephants is Thung Ngern, meaning “bag of money.”) At Green Elephant, their Swiss founder,  Urs Fehr , was able to provide funds for workers and elephants to eat.

With little support from government funds, it is support from interested tourists that keeps the elephant sanctuaries running, providing environments for the elephants that are relatively natural.

The goal is simple, according to Piwmow: “Let the elephants be elephants.”

This reporting was supported by the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation. Anna Lawattanatrakul contributed reporting .

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Home » Responsible Travel » How to Stop Abuse in the Elephant Tourism Industry (2024)

How to Stop Abuse in the Elephant Tourism Industry (2024)

Millennium Elephant Foundation logo - an elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka

This guest post was authored by a veteran worker and environmentalist in Sri Lanka’s elephant tourism industry. Although the author has wished to remain anonymous, they have been instrumental in the incredible progress made for the welfare of domesticated elephants in Sri Lanka over the last 6 years.

The post has been given a little TBB snazz, but otherwise, the message remains the same: be good to the beasties.

No animal should ever be used for the luxury of humans.  Not for transport, trophies, or symbols of status, and never for our entertainment. Yet throughout the elephant tourism industry, we see just that: the gross capitalisation and normalisation of elephant abuse.

Elephant tourism is a booming industry. It’s a match made in heaven— elephant plus tourist!  Tourists love elephants. Hell, everyone loves elephants!

Which is why we need to take care of them, right? The truth about elephant riding, training, and other cruelties that we see in the elephant tourism industry is that it’s not harmless. The industry is damaging the welfare and wellbeing of elephants.

And it’s our job as travellers, the target market, and sexy humans with even sexier moral compasses to know our role in stopping elephant abuse. The truth is that a sadly underwhelming amount of people understand the level of cruelty present in the elephant tourism industry.

That’s why we need to discuss ethical elephant tourism It’s not all bad—you just need to know the score. What the ugly underbelly of elephant tourism looks like and just how to scrub it clean.

Monk at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand patting a baby

What’s the Deal With Elephant Tourism?

The truth about elephant riding, the better alternatives of the elephant tourism industry, stop animal abuse and cruelty to elephants.

Look, the deal with elephant tourism is that it’s just the natural evolution of practices that have existed for a long, long time. Elephants have been domesticated in Asia since the 5 th century. However, if we’re using ancient rock paintings in India as historical sources, it’s possible that people training and riding elephants has been in practice since roughly 6000 B.C.

In Sri Lankan history, ancient Sinhalese kings captured and tamed elephants. Kings were gifted elephants which they kept at their palaces as status symbols, used for both transport and also on the battlefield.

As time passed, their use as mountable tanks declined (namely due to the presence of real tanks), but their use as status symbols persisted. Domesticated elephants represented wealth and fortune with many still in captivity today across Asia even living in temples in solitude as a status symbol.

Elephant cruelty and riding at Perahera religious festival in Sri Lanka

In many places in Asia—including Sri Lanka—it was still both legal and culturally acceptable to take elephants from the wild late into the 20th-century. While usually domesticated as a symbol of wealth, the ironic truth is that elephant ownership is often too pricey to manage. Historically, captured elephants have found themselves working in logging or tourism industries to generate revenue

Being one of the world’s largest mammals and a truly magnificent creature, people from all over the world have a passion for elephants and inevitably gravitate to the elephant tourism industry to chase that passion. Many popular destinations in Asia generate massive revenue from elephant tourism yearly often particularly seeking to ride on elephants.

And therein lies the problem.

Is there ethical elephant tourism?

The issue is that you’re mixing some truly lethal components—lucrative tourism industries, uneducated tourists, and a false sense of cultural and historical entitlement to elephant domestication. And at the end of all that are some truly deplorable examples of elephant cruelty.

The most damaging thing you can do as a tourist engaging with elephants is to not do your research. It’s certainly possible to engage with elephants as a tourist while minimising your impact on their welfare. There are even elephant sanctuaries and orphanages doing tremendous work that really do deserve your attention, time, and money.

Which is exactly why you need to do your research. Putting in the time and effort to find these amazing places of animal TLC is ethical elephant tourism. You’re making a choice to not only respect these magnificent beasts but also to demonstrate to the industry that bad practices will not be tolerated or patronised.

Stop Abuse in the Elephant Tourism

However, gleefully rushing headfirst into every glorified elephant farm that you find in your travels is not ethical. It’s not even intelligent. It’s a pure ‘dumb tourist’ move.

You’re making an active choice to disregard the welfare of both individual elephants and elephant populations as a whole. Which really begs the question… If you love elephants and want to experience them in your travels, why would you want to hurt them?

So before we get to HOW to be a responsible traveller , aware and making the right choices with elephants, let’s get one thing absolutely and indisputably clear…

DO NOT RIDE AN ELEPHANT EVER.

Not now, not later, not in the year 2066 where cyber-elephants with hover capabilities have been created for touristic pleasure. Never.

Is it wrong to ride elephants? Yes.

Is it ever ok to ride on an elephant? No.

Is riding elephants bad for the spine? Yes. Well… their spine, yes. Yours should be fine (unless the elephant is riding you).

YOU SHOULD NEVER-EVER-EVER RIDE AN ELEPHANT WEARING A HOWDAH. That’s the big fancy metal and wood seat covered with cushions, colours, and cloth for large groups to sit on. While it may look lovely in photos, underneath the howdah is a heavily chained elephant so tightly constricted that their ribcage and spine are crushed and gaping sores and abscesses form.

A man riding an elephant in India in a howdah

Some people might tell you that it’s ok to ride an elephant bareback. Those people are wrong.

Although not nearly as catastrophic as a howdah, it’s still bad for the elephant’s health. What’s more, is what’s happening while you’re riding that elephant. 

Whilst you’re enjoying the ride, this beautiful and intelligent creature has no quality of life at all. Repeatedly frog-marched on parade, every movement commanded, with no freedom whatsoever, the elephant is unable to do what it wants. Any wrong move on the elephant’s behalf and they are disciplined, instantly shouted down, and more often than not will receive a stab in the sensitive parts of their feet with the bullhook.

So, no, there is really no situation where it’s acceptable to ride on an elephant. It’s not natural, it’s not warranted, and, ultimately, there’s a question that not a lot of tourists ask about the elephants that serve as tourist attractions.

How are elephants trained?

Think of breaking a horse —the method used to train horses for riding and other activities—except so, so much worse. Much like a wild horse, an elephant is a wild animal. One that has no evolutionary sense of domestication or riding.

To be ridden, an elephant must be broken first. 

This is achieved by a method known as ‘elephant crushing’. In Southeast Asia, this process is beyond inhumane. Generally, an elephant—most likely a baby—is locked in a tiny cage and tied by all fours so it’s unable to move. 

Gradually, the cage is closed tighter and tighter while workers and villagers gather. They stab the elephant with bullhooks, scream abuse, throw stones, starve, and torture the elephant until it completely gives in and is willing to obey any commands given. Its wild spirit is crushed; its elephant nature is broken.

Once tamed the bullhook (or ankus as it’s known in Sri Lanka) becomes a constant reminder that the Elephant must obey the commands of the mahout (elephant handler). If you fall into the camp of people who believe that animals have feelings and consciousness, then it would be fair to assume that the elephant has gained some level of PTSD from the experience.

Stop Abuse in the Elephant Tourism

Many owners, mahouts, elephant safari managers, and other branches of the industry have now disavowed this process. Still, repeatedly we have seen instances of elephant crushing being used—even in secrecy.

And regardless, an elephant is not a horse. While horsing breaking and riding are already on a shaky moral footing, there are no gentle and ‘humane’ methods to train an elephant.

If an elephant is being ridden by tourists or doing tricks or painting portraits, ask yourself:

How was this elephant trained?

The Phajaan | Under the Crush

If you can do without the video evidence, I don’t blame you. In case you’d like to see, here’s a short video demonstrating how elephants are trained. This is a rough video to stomach: watch at your own peril.

Once you understand what’s happening behind the curatins, you start to examine institutions of elephant tourism very differently. Things aren’t always as innocent as they appear.

Now that we’ve established that it’s most definitely wrong to ride an elephant, what are the alternatives for tourists who do want to make the right choices? Well, there are lots! However, it does depend on how hands-off you feel the animal tourism industry should be.

The most important thing to get right is choosing a reputable organisation! Nine times out of ten, that’s going to be an elephant sanctuary.

What are elephant sanctuaries?

Elephant sanctuaries are home for elephants. Usually, they’re retired elephants who have reached the end of their careers in the logging and tourism industries. And, yes, that means they’ve been subjected to years of elephant abuse.

A non-working elephant is an expensive pet and generally not one valued by its captors. I worked for a period at an elephant sanctuary in Sri Lanka— Millennium Elephant Foundation . We took on elephants such as these.

They’re given a home, food, veterinary care, and just a general better quality-of-life. That’s the purported mission of most elephant sanctuaries in the world.

Elephant sanctuaries do give tourists a method with which to interact with elephants, however, no sanctuary worth their salt is going to do this unethically. Elephant riding, performing elephants, or demonstrations of an elephant working is not something you’ll find at an elephant sanctuary. If you do see any of that, then it’s not a true sanctuary and you should turn the other way.

Man being kissed by an elephant at a sanctuary in Thailand

And how do you find a good elephant sanctuary? Simple—you google it! Between Trip Advisor and Google reviews, their socials, backpacking blogs, and responsible travel resources, you should be able to scrounge up enough info to make an educated choice. If you can’t find the necessary details to establish them as a reputable organisation beyond a reasonable doubt, then just don’t go.

Because that’s the last detail to remember: there are countless phoney sanctuaries out there. There are heaps of places—little more than elephant camps wearing ethical sheeps’ clothing—who are putting their wealth before the health of their elephants. Tonnes of these places are pure tourist-scams sacrificing elephant welfare to make a quick buck.

Avoid these places at all costs. If it’s a choice between a cautious no and an unsure yes, always take the former.

And as the alternative to elephant riding, keep an eye out for these more humane types of elephant tourism.

Elephant Bathing

Stop Abuse in the Elephant Tourism

Just like washing your car, tenderly and affectionately, elephants are traditionally bathed by their mahouts. Is it necessary? No. Nor is it natural.

But the mentality is that much like an unwashed car or dog, an unclean elephant reflects a lack of care. The important question, however, is if it’s ethical.

It’s a grey area. Ultimately, frequent bathing and interaction with humans is unnatural. Elephants tend to bathe themselves at their own leisure; anything else is an entertainment factor and overwashing can be detrimental.

However, that doesn’t mean that the elephant doesn’t enjoy it. These are domesticated animals, accustomed to humans, and I’ve bathed enough elephants at this point in my life to know a happy elephant!

It’s a coconut husk as opposed to a wire brush, and the elephant gets to lie down in the river and get pampered like it’s a spa day! Wouldn’t you enjoy a regular swim with complimentary back-scrub?

How you feel about tourists bathing elephants is up to you. It’s worth noting that there are many elephant sanctuaries that DON’T provide this service to tourists in the feeling that it is unethical. There are also elephant sanctuaries that will chain the elephants up beneath the water for bath time: that is unethical.

Elephant bathing is one activity to consider. The presence of the activity doesn’t necessarily mark an abusive elephant sanctuary, however, it should be approached with caution.

Elephant Walks and Feeding

Mahout feeding an elephant - ethical interaction in the elephant tourism industry

This is easily the best option by far for interacting with captive elephants. An Elephant Walking Experience is what Millennium Elephant Foundation offers as a much more friendly-alternative to people riding elephants.

Most elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and across Asia will offer a chance to walk with the elephants and partake in feeding them as the primary means of tourist interaction. Any sanctuary that isn’t and is pushing other experiences over elephant walks likely shouldn’t be supported.

Hot tip! Did you know that the average elephant is able to walk up to nearly 200 kilometres in a day? Walking is a huge part (and very much a necessity) of their daily routine.

So, really, tourists are just joining in on the fun! The elephant is accompanied by their mahout as they enjoy their leisurely stroll and will receive some commands to avoid a renegade AWOL elephant situation. However, the elephants are much able to do them, grazing, stopping, reaching, sniffing, and exploring their natural environment.

Meanwhile, while the tourists are enjoying seeing the elephants exhibit natural behaviour (as opposed to riding them like a theme park attraction), they’ll receive aa up-close-and-personal experience feeding them fruits and learning all about the wonderful beasties.

It’s a much more natural experience for both the Elephant and the tourist. You still get AMAZING photos plus a much longer period of time with the Elephant. Meanwhile, the Elephant gets a change of scenery, free time to behave like an elephant, and enjoy the nature instead of rapidly being circled around the same route.

Volunteering With Elephants

Tourist volunteering at an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka

First and foremost, as with all things voluntourism , DO YOUR RESEARCH. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and often kind-hearted tourists can do just as much damage through volunteering as they can help. There are plenty of elephant orphanages scraping money from well-meaning tourists and using it to fund their centres of elephant cruelty.

However, travellers that do take the time to do their research and find ethical elephant sanctuaries will find work that is both dirty and laborious, but also very, very rewarding. Foreign influences can have a very positive input on the welfare of captive elephants and how they are kept. In fact, much of the scrutiny placed on elephant tourism and domestication in recent years is due to the influence of foreign tourism and volunteers.

For example, over the last 10 years, chains being used as a method of taming Elephants has been slowly removed from many establishments of elephant tourism in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. That’s an incredible benefit to the elephants in captivity and a huge and very positive change in the traditions of these cultures.

When volunteers are present (and, thus, bringing in revenue for sanctuaries), things like exercise, medication, and sanitary living conditions are closely monitored therefore bettering the overall welfare of the elephant’s life. The question is though, do volunteers have a positive impact on elephant tourism?

Personally, I would say yes. The income brought in by volunteers supports the costs to care for the elephants (including food and wages for the mahouts), and, of course, the level of care provided by a dedicated team of both mahouts and volunteers creates a wonderful environment for the elephants. I know from first-hand experience that the volunteer program at Millennium Elephant Foundation has had no shortage of amazing volunteers come through: people who have become like family for both us AND the elephants.

The number one thing to remember, however, is to research your ass off first!

Jeep Safaris

Stop Abuse in the Elephant Tourism

Personally, I don’t support jeep safaris. Safaris in Sri Lanka are plentiful, highly profitable, and many have a less-than-glowing reputation . They’re encroaching on natural habitats and doing a lot of damage in the process.

A lot of tourists book safaris as a means of seeing animals—including elephants—in the wild. I really implore travellers to avoid safaris, however, many take them all the same. Here’s what you need to keep in mind in case you do:  

  • Fill up your jeep – Do not book a jeep with only two people; we are already overcrowding the National Parks and adding unnecessary stress to the elephants’ home as it is. 
  • Do not litter – Anywhere, ever, at all, end of story. Leave no trace.  
  • Take the less-visited tracks – Not only will you have a better chance of seeing animals, but you’ll also experience fewer crowds and put less stress on the wildlife through the excess of safari-traffic. 
  • Avoid peak times – Again, be conscious regarding overcrowding and becoming a disturbance to the wildlife. 
  • CONTROL YOUR DRIVER – This is the most important thing! DO NOT let him speed. DO NOT let him block elephant/animal walkways and surround families or get too close to wildlife. A lot of drivers do this as they think it’s what tourists want and are shooting for a juicy tip at the end. However, it’s both scaring the wildlife and interrupting their natural migration routes, separating families wreaking havoc. Make it abundantly clear to your safari driver that the healthy tip only comes IF they behave ethically and follow the rules. 

Ultimately, if you are going to book a safari, please respect these guidelines. National parks are the only protected homes these beautiful animals have left. Let’s be kind all do our part to take care of their homes.

Or better yet, just don’t go on a safari.

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Well, now you know how to do elephant tourism ethically! It is a very sticky topic, but I hoped I’ve un-muddied the waters for you even just slightly.

The most crucial thing backpackers, travellers, and tourists can do to help stop elephant abuse is to stop giving it a market opportunity. Doing our research and examining institutions of the elephant tourism industry before funding them as visitors or volunteers DOES make a difference. Just look at the slow yet wide-sweeping changes we’ve seen employed in the elephant tourism industry over the last two decades.

The next most crucial thing is to not make the mistake of applying a ‘shoot ‘em all and let God sort them out’ mentality. There are numerous ethical elephant sanctuaries and other welfare institutions that rely on tourism to fund the good work that they do. Ignoring these places as a blanket method of ethics would only hurt a lot of elephants already in captivity.

Which is the final takeaway—only visit sanctuaries and orphanages rehoming domesticated elephant retirees. Any establishment training elephants for tourism is intrinsically not ethical. Do your research, find the right places, and have an elephant of a time!

And if you only learnt one thing from this article, let it be this:

Do not ever ride a fucking elephant.

A pair of elephants in a sanctuary in Southeast Asia cuddling

And for transparency’s sake, please know that some of the links in our content are affiliate links . That means that if you book your accommodation, buy your gear, or sort your insurance through our link, we earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you). That said, we only link to the gear we trust and never recommend services we don’t believe are up to scratch. Again, thank you!

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Travel + Leisure

Thailand's Famed Elephant Tourism Is Controversial — Here's How to Pick an Ethical Sanctuary

There are roughly 3,800 captive elephants in Thailand.

In Thailand , it’s very easy to encounter an elephant. Some sites allow quiet observation, as you admire the massive animals from afar. Other tourist venues offer activities like feeding, riding, or bathing with elephants. Many places toss around the term “ethical” when describing the encounters, but they often are not the sanctuaries they promote.

“Visiting an animal sanctuary while traveling can be a great way to support local animal welfare and conservation efforts, but you need to do your homework because there are many bogus sanctuaries operating that can lure in well-meaning and unsuspecting tourists,” Wendy Higgins, director of international media for Humane Society International , told Travel + Leisure .

An immediate red flag is if visitors can participate in any hands-on interactions with elephants such as playing with babies or taking elephant rides. Another warning sign is if the elephants perform in shows or demonstrations, like painting, Higgins said. “These are entirely unnatural displays for which the elephants will be forced to train, and there is no welfare benefit to the elephant whatsoever. A true sanctuary will never encourage or force any animal to interact with people, especially tourists.”

Elephant tourism has been an important part of Thailand’s economy for five decades. There are about 4,000 wild elephants in Thailand, reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) with an additional 3,800 elephants in captivity . The country is home to three-quarters of the captive elephants in Asia with a 70 percent increase in just a decade, according to a 2020 report from the non-profit World Animal Protection . Of the venues studied across Asia, the report found that 63 percent of elephants live in dire conditions at 208 locations and only 7 percent of elephants were kept in “high welfare” venues.

“When travelers visit Asia, particularly places like Thailand, they are focused on captive elephants because of opportunities to interact with them,” Nilanga Jayasinghe, a wildlife conservation manager at WWF, told T+L. “However, it's important to remember that there are also wild elephants in these places, and they are facing significant conservation challenges. There is direct value in keeping these elephants wild, living as elephants should live.”

Asian elephants are classified as endangered with their numbers decreasing by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUC) Red List , which tracks the conservation status and extinction risk of species. They have been threatened by conflict with humans, poaching, and illegal elephant trade. The main threat is habitat loss and fragmentation — where parts of their habitat are destroyed, leaving smaller, disconnected areas. “They live on the most populous continent on the planet alongside a burgeoning human population, so habitat loss is a significant threat,” said Jayasinghe.

"Unethical elephant facilities attract tourists because people love elephants and are delighted at the possibility of getting up close and personal. What they won't necessarily know is that the elephants are not willing participants in that encounter, and can suffer greatly for the tourist trade."

Wendy Higgins

In Thailand, captive elephants are classified as "beasts of burden" with few welfare protections. Thailand’s Cruelty Prevention and Welfare of Animals Act of 2014 was enacted to prevent animal cruelty and promote welfare but, until recently, there was little enforcement and little motivation to improve conditions.

Now, the livestock ministry, which has jurisdiction over captive elephants, is working to develop welfare standards and legal penalties to enforce the law, reports the Asian Elephant Specialist Group , a global network of specialists studying and monitoring the conservation of Asian elephants. And a Thailand-based independent welfare organization is performing welfare audits of tourist camps.

How to Tell if a Sanctuary Is Ethical

“As a general rule, a true sanctuary will allow you to look but not touch the elephants,” said Higgins. “A sanctuary will allow you to see elephants just being elephants in as near a wild setting as possible, and the tourist is a mere observer.”

Another pro-tip: research what is offered at an elephant tourist location and look at photos before visiting. These are some telltale signs that sanctuaries are not ethical:

  • Elephants are restrained, particularly chained by the foot.
  • Workers carry bullhooks. These are long poles with sharp hooks on the ends that have been used to control elephants.
  • The location offers elephant rides, elephant painting, or other interactive experiences, like feeding the elephants.
  • They engage in captive breeding to always have baby elephants on hand for tourists to pet or feed.

“Unethical elephant facilities attract tourists because people love elephants and are delighted at the possibility of getting up close and personal. What they won't necessarily know is that the elephants are not willing participants in that encounter, and can suffer greatly for the tourist trade,” said Higgins. 

“Visiting these establishments perpetuates a cycle of animal suffering in which the animals experience boredom, frustration, and even physical pain or fear. These places can also pose a danger to the human visitors in some cases because elephants are very large powerful animals whose behavior can be unpredictable in an overcrowded or stressful situation.” 

If you choose to visit a genuine elephant sanctuary, look for ones that give back to practical and local conservation efforts, Higgins suggested. “By supporting those sanctuaries that are doing things right, and promoting your visit on social media with a reminder that you chose it for its ethical practices, it's a great way to encourage other travelers to do the right thing too.” 

The WWF suggested visiting places like Kui Buri, Khao Yai, or Kaeng Krachan national parks where you can see elephants in the wild.

“It’s a much more enriching experience to go see them in the wild if you are visiting a country like Thailand, where you can experience them in all their majesty,” said WWF’s Jayasinghe. “You don’t have to touch or bathe an elephant to experience how amazing they are.”

Related: Why I'll Never Ride an Elephant — and You Shouldn't Either (Video)

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Laro - Ethical Wildlife Travels

Vietnam’s Only Ethical Elephant Tourism Encounter

Yok Don National Park ended their elephant rides, replacing those abusive practices with an elephant-friendly model that allows travelers to observe elephants naturally in the forest. 

Vietnam’s first ethical elephant tours

Considered Vietnam’s second largest national park, Yok Don protects a unique woodland ecosystem home to native species such as green peafowl, water buffalo, guar, hornbills, and even Asian elephants. Encompassing nearly 450 square miles, Yok Don is one of the country’s last protected areas for its dwindling population of Asian elephants, that has now fallen to less than 100 individuals.

The remaining wild elephant herds prefer undeveloped areas of the park and are far too secretive to be observed ethically by visitors. But Yok Don has become a trailblazer in creating Vietnam’s first ethical elephant tours, as they provide sanctuary for captive elephants to live naturally in the forest. Working alongside Animals Asia , a charity seeking to end animal cruelty throughout the continent, the park signed an agreement to end their elephant riding operations and instead create a tourism model around ethical practices with the support of the Olsen Animal Trust .

“It’s massively rewarding to see elephants take back control of their lives,” says Ryan Hockley elephant welfare advisor for Animals Asia. “Seeing just how quickly some elephants transition from life in tourism camps, where they had so little control, to receiving the freedom to live their lives again, is incredible. In just a few weeks sometimes they adjust to life in the forest by forming new relationships with other elephants, deciding when to rest and when to explore, eating when they want, bathing themselves, even self-medicating. Living as elephants should.”

Ryan Hockley, elephant welfare advisor for Animals Asia, Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.

In 2018, when the park discontinued their elephant rides for tourists, its four elephants — one male and three females — were allowed to roam the forest under the watch of their mahouts. Elephants that used to be chained and forced to carry tourists for up to nine hours a day were now given back their freedom. They could choose to browse natural vegetation, wallow in the mud, socialize with each other, just simple behaving as elephants should. All the while their own mahout stay nearby to ensure the elephants are safe and to prevent them from wandering out of the park boundaries. After spending their entire lives working for tourists these elephants can finally make their own choices. Now their welfare comes first.

Two female Asian elephants walking the woodlands of Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.

“Sure, it sounds pretty corny, but the forest takes care of the elephants,” says Hockley. “The mahouts, our staff, and the forestry department are just here to supervise and ensure their environment is healthy. Otherwise, the elephants take care of themselves. They have all the correct vegetation for a balanced diet, are able to walk on the best substrate for their feet, have access to fresh clean water, and the opportunity to self-medicate – treating themselves with natural remedies for anything from an upset stomach to aches and pains.”

Rescued Asian elephant eating bamboo in Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.

What is ethical elephant tourism?

Of course, the best place to experience elephants is to see them in the wild. Not in a zoo. Not performing in the circus. And certainly not while riding them. The most ethical option is to see them where they are free to roam and behave naturally. But for the over 3,000 captive elephants throughout Asia, the wild is a far-off place that many of these elephants cannot return to. Most captive elephants are still used for shows, rides, bathing experiences, or simply as photo props for selfies. World Animal Protection has reported that 63% of these 3,000 captive elephants are living in severely inadequate conditions.

“Nothing beats finding the most ethical sanctuary that is honest about their practices and working to better the lives of captive elephants,” says Danielle Carnahan, founder of The Call to Conserve and elephant welfare researcher. “But, always remember – YOU are what makes a venue either ethical or unethical, it all comes down to your choices as a tourist. Where you visit further encourages other elephant owners to make changes in order to attract travelers – this is where you create lasting ethical change!”

High-quality welfare in human care can be accomplished – where the elephant’s physical and emotional wellbeing is top priority. But the treatment of elephants in tourism is determined by consumer choice. Travelers have the power to change demand within the industry. Currently only 7% of captive elephants in Asia are living in observation only facilities, where they are allowed to live out their lives as naturally as possible with limited human interaction. By supporting ethical encounters, like watching elephants in their natural environment from a respectful distance, more elephants can be treated with respect – where they are allowed to just be elephants.

Rescued elephant with her mahout walking in Yok Don National Park.

How to avoid elephant cruelty while traveling  

Identifying ethical elephant-friendly experiences from unethical ones is a challenge for tourists, especially since the industry is flooded with greenwashing buzzwords to fool customers. To better weed out the confusion look for these red flags to ensure you are supporting practices that offer quality care and welfare for elephants.

Red flags of elephant cruelty

  • If the elephants are not allowed to display natural behaviors and move freely.
  • If elephants are isolated, truly ethical facilities understand that elephants are extremely social animals and need to interact with other elephants.
  • If tourists can touch the elephants and have close contact – these practices can increase stress levels sometimes even causing repetitive stress behaviors.
  • Is the facility actively breeding elephants, true ethical destinations don’t allow breeding for captivity.
  • Any practices like performances, rides, interactive baths, or painting demonstrations are signs of cruel training to ensure the elephants comply for these tricks. 

For a list of vetted elephant-friendly facilities throughout Asia, use The Call the Conserve’s Ethical Elephant Facilities list which features organizations and experiences that provide ethical elephant experiences in Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Female Asian elephant in the forest of Yok Don National Park in Vietnam

Captivity will never be perfect for elephants

“Wildlife sanctuaries do not mean the absence of stress or triggers,” says Carnahan. “It also does not mean the absence of control or rules. Some sanctuaries have mahouts ride elephants or sometimes use chains. While sanctuaries are usually the best environment for elephants – besides the wild – they are not perfect and they never will be. What works for one elephant won’t always work for another, remember that all animals are individuals, each with their own journey of recovery.”

Travelers have to consider what is good, better, and best in these complex situations. There is no perfect solution to captivity. Take the care provided in Yok Don National Park, even with endless freedom to roam the forest during the day, the elephants are tethered to a long drag chain each night to ensure they do not leave the park while the mahouts are away. No captive setting for elephants is entirely free from stressors. Even these rescued elephants that are treated with the utmost care and respect have some restrictions for their safety and the safety of the local community. While some might consider this practice to be cruel, the reality is these elephants are being providing world-class welfare that more elephants should be so lucky to experience.

Rescued Asian elephant exploring the forests of Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.

Vietnam is leading the way for ethical elephant tourism

Compared to other Asian countries, Vietnam has a very small captive elephant population. Only around 30 individual elephants are used for tourism practices in the country, with a majority in the Dak Lak province of Vietnam’s central highlands. Animals Asia has been working with local elephant owners and the government for over a decade to help end elephant riding in Vietnam forever.

In 2021, Animals Asia and the government of Dak Lak signed a memorandum of understanding to end elephant riding and the use of elephants in tourism practices like festivals. Additionally, this agreement outlines the implementation of ethical, elephant-friendly tourism activities to replace those outdated practices. This official understanding means the Vietnamese government is in full support of Animals Asia work towards ending elephant exploitation in Vietnam.

“With the success of our work here in Yok Don, we are hoping that others will see this model and understand the benefits to elephant welfare along with the advantages it can provide elephant owners in supporting their livelihoods,” says Hockley. “We are looking to replicate this model across Vietnam and expanded Animals Asia’s work into the Dak Lak province. Here we can have the greatest impact where the highest number of captive elephants used in the tourism industry live. With the government’s support Vietnam is leading the world in ethical practices for elephant tourism.”

Additional resources

  • How to Avoid Elephant Abuse While Traveling
  • Saving Vietnam’s Moon Bears
  • 5 Animal Attractions to AVOID in Vietnam

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Elephantastic Adventures: 10 Places to Hang Out with Elephants in India

Manish

India is a country where elephants have held a special place in society for centuries. These gentle giants are revered and respected, and their presence is celebrated in festivals and rituals across the country. For those looking to experience the magic of these magnificent animals up close, there are numerous places to hang out with elephants in India.

From wildlife reserves and sanctuaries to conservation projects and elephant camps, there are opportunities to learn about and interact with these amazing creatures in a responsible and sustainable way.

Whether you’re interested in elephant safaris, bathing and feeding sessions, or simply observing them in their natural habitat, there is something for everyone. Here are some of the top places to hang out with elephants in India.

Table of Contents

1. Kipling Camp, Kanha, Madhya Pradesh: A Wildlife Lodge with Tara, the Famous Elephant

2. wildlife s.o.s. elephant conservation and care center, mathura: a haven for abused elephants, 3. smiling tusker elephant camp, manas, assam: a community-led initiative for elephant welfare, 4. theppakadu elephant camp, mudumalai, tamil nadu: a historical center for elephant training and conservation, 5. singhbhum elephant reserve, jharkhand: a thrilling experience of witnessing elephants in their natural habitat, 6. mayurbhanj elephant reserve, odisha: exploring the beauty of an elephant haven, 7. dubare elephant camp, karnataka: a fascinating experience with gentle giants, 8. guruvayur elephant camp, kerala: a glimpse into temple-owned elephant sanctuary, 9. elephant junction, thekkady, kerala: an adventurous encounter with gentle giants, 10. elefantastic, jaipur, rajasthan: a personalized experience with gentle giants, the top places to hang out with elephants in india:.

Kanha National Park Madhya Pradesh

Located in the heart of the Kanha National Park, Kipling Camp is a wildlife lodge that offers a unique experience of living close to nature. One of the main attractions of this camp is Tara, one of India’s most famous elephants, who has been living here for over 35 years.

Visitors to Kipling Camp can take a walk with Tara every afternoon and assist her in bathing in the nearby river. This is a great opportunity to get up close with these gentle giants and learn about their daily routines.

Apart from spending time with Tara, Kipling Camp also offers other activities like nature walks, bird watching, and safaris in the Kanha National Park. The park is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including tigers, leopards, deer, and various species of birds. The safaris are conducted by experienced guides who are well-versed in the flora and fauna of the region.

Kipling Camp is an eco-friendly lodge that promotes sustainable tourism and conservation efforts. They have implemented several initiatives like rainwater harvesting, waste management, and the use of solar energy to reduce their carbon footprint. Read More: 9 Famous Wildlife National Parks in Madhya Pradesh

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Wildlife S.O.S. Elephant Conservation and Care Center, Mathura

Wildlife S.O.S. Elephant Conservation and Care Center in Mathura is a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating abused elephants in India. The center is home to over 20 elephants that have been rescued from various parts of the country.

Visitors to the center can visit, bathe, and feed the elephants as part of their experience. This is a great opportunity to learn about the elephants’ history and how they were rescued from abusive situations. The center also offers elephant rides, which are conducted in a humane and ethical manner.

Apart from interacting with the elephants, visitors can also learn about the conservation efforts undertaken by the center. Wildlife S.O.S. is committed to promoting awareness about the plight of elephants and their importance in the ecosystem. They have launched several campaigns to prevent the illegal trade of elephants and their body parts.

The center is also actively involved in community outreach programs and educational initiatives. They work with local schools and communities to promote conservation and animal welfare.

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Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp, Manas, Assam

Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp in Manas , Assam is a community-led initiative set up by local youths to provide employment opportunities for jobless elephants in the region. The camp is home to several elephants that were previously used for logging and other activities but were left without work after the ban on elephant logging in the region.

Visitors to the camp can interact with the elephants and learn about their care and conservation. The camp offers various activities like elephant bathing, feeding, and rides, which are conducted in a responsible and ethical manner. The camp also has a dedicated team of mahouts who are well-trained in the care and management of elephants.

Apart from providing employment opportunities for elephants, Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp also promotes eco-tourism and community development in the region. They have implemented several initiatives like waste management and rainwater harvesting to reduce their impact on the environment.

The camp is located in the Manas National Park, which is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, including tigers, rhinos, and various species of birds. Visitors to the camp can also take a safari in the national park to experience the natural beauty of the region. Read Also: Most Popular Wildlife National Parks in Northeast India .

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Theppakadu Elephant Camp, Mudumalai, Tamil Nadu

Theppakadu Elephant Camp in Mudumalai, Tamil Nadu , is the oldest elephant camp in Asia, founded almost 100 years ago. The camp serves as a training and housing center for elephants near the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. The camp has a rich history and is a significant center for elephant training and conservation.

Visitors to the camp can watch the elephants being fed and trained by their mahouts. The camp offers various activities like elephant rides, which take visitors through the sanctuary to witness the natural beauty of the region. The camp also has a museum that showcases the history and culture of elephants in India.

Apart from providing a great experience for visitors, Theppakadu Elephant Camp also contributes to the conservation and welfare of elephants. The camp has a dedicated team of veterinarians who provide medical care to the elephants. The camp also conducts several awareness programs and initiatives to promote elephant conservation.

The Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, where the camp is located, is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including elephants, tigers, leopards, and various species of birds. Visitors to the camp can take a safari in the sanctuary to witness the wildlife and natural beauty of the region. Also, read Top 10 National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries in Tamil Nadu .

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Singhbhum Elephant Reserve, Jharkhand

Singhbhum Elephant Reserve in Jharkhand is the first elephant reserve in India, covering a vast area of forested land. The reserve is home to numerous elephants that roam freely in their natural habitat, along with other wildlife such as sloth bears, barking deer, and reptiles. It is a thrilling experience to witness these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

The reserve is situated amidst the Dalma Hills, which provide a picturesque backdrop for elephant safaris. Visitors can take a safari through the reserve to witness the elephants and other wildlife up close. The reserve is also home to several waterfalls and streams, adding to the natural beauty of the region.

Apart from providing a great experience for visitors, the reserve also contributes to the conservation and welfare of elephants. The reserve has a dedicated team of forest officials and veterinarians who provide medical care to the elephants. The reserve also conducts several awareness programs and initiatives to promote elephant conservation.

Jharkhand is known for its tribal culture, and visitors to the reserve can witness the unique cultural traditions of the tribes living in the region. The reserve is also home to several ancient temples and historical sites that offer a glimpse into the rich history and culture of the region.

Mayurbhanj Elephant Reserve, Odisha

Mayurbhanj Elephant Reserve in Odisha is a beautiful area with a high population of elephants and varied fauna. The reserve is spread across several districts and provides a natural habitat for elephants, tigers, leopards, and several other animals. Visitors can admire the landscapes, waterfalls, and animals in this reserve.

The reserve is situated amidst lush green forests and hills, making it a perfect destination for eco-tourism. Visitors can take a safari through the reserve to witness the elephants and other wildlife up close. The reserve is also home to several ancient temples and historical sites that offer a glimpse into the rich history and culture of the region.

Mayurbhanj is known for its tribal culture, and visitors to the reserve can witness the unique cultural traditions of the tribes living in the region. The reserve is also home to several waterfalls, such as Barehipani and Joranda Falls, which offer a breathtaking view of the region’s natural beauty. Read Also: 7 Famous Wildlife Sanctuaries & National Parks in Odisha .

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Dubare Elephant Camp Karnataka

Dubare Elephant Camp in Karnataka is a popular place where you can watch the elephants being bathed and groomed by their mahouts. You can also ride the elephants and go on a safari through the nearby forests. The camp offers a unique experience of getting up close with the gentle giants and learning about their lifestyle.

The camp is located on the banks of the Kaveri River, surrounded by dense forests and hills. Visitors can enjoy a scenic boat ride on the river to reach the camp. Once there, they can participate in various activities such as feeding, bathing, and petting the elephants. The camp also offers elephant rides and guided walks through the forests.

The elephants at Dubare Elephant Camp are trained and cared for by experienced mahouts who have been working with the animals for generations. Visitors can interact with the mahouts and learn about the traditional methods of elephant training and management. The camp also conducts educational programs and initiatives to raise awareness about elephant conservation and welfare.

Apart from the elephants, the camp is also home to several other species of wildlife such as deer, peacocks, and wild boars. Visitors can go on a safari through the nearby forests and witness the animals in their natural habitat. The camp also offers a unique opportunity to explore the nearby Dubare Reserve Forest, which is home to several rare species of flora and fauna. Read Also: 5 Famous National Parks in Karnataka

Guruvayur Elephant Camp, Kerala

Guruvayur Elephant Camp in Kerala is a temple-owned sanctuary that houses more than 50 elephants. It is situated near the famous Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple and is an integral part of the temple’s rituals and festivals. Visitors can witness the elephants being fed and worshipped by devotees, offering a unique insight into the religious and cultural significance of elephants in Kerala.

The camp offers various activities for visitors, including elephant rides and feeding. Visitors can interact with the mahouts and learn about the daily routine of the elephants. They can also watch the elephants being bathed and groomed, a sight that is both fascinating and therapeutic.

The elephants at Guruvayur Elephant Camp are treated with utmost care and respect, as they are considered sacred by the temple and the people of Kerala. The mahouts are trained to use positive reinforcement techniques and avoid any form of physical punishment. The elephants are also given a balanced diet and regular veterinary care.

Apart from the elephants, the camp is also home to other animals such as deer, peacocks, and rabbits. Visitors can enjoy a leisurely walk through the lush greenery of the camp and witness the natural beauty of the surroundings. Read Also: 10 Most Famous Wildlife National Parks in Kerala .

Elephant Junction, Thekkady, Kerala

Located in the picturesque town of Thekkady in Kerala, Elephant Junction is a unique and thrilling destination for those who love to interact with elephants. The place offers various activities such as feeding, bathing, riding, and playing with elephants, making it an unforgettable experience for visitors.

At Elephant Junction, visitors can learn about the history and culture of elephants and their significance in Indian mythology. They can also witness the gentle giants being bathed and fed by their mahouts. The highlight of the visit is the elephant ride, where visitors can ride on the back of an elephant and explore the lush greenery and scenic beauty of the surrounding area.

The experience of riding on an elephant’s back is unlike any other, as visitors get to see the world from a different perspective. The elephant ride takes visitors through the forest and offers a unique opportunity to observe the flora and fauna of the region. The mahouts are experienced and trained to handle the elephants, ensuring the safety and comfort of both the visitors and the elephants.

Apart from the elephant ride, visitors can also enjoy a playful session with the elephants, where they can interact with the elephants and learn about their behavior and habits. Visitors can also witness the elephant painting, a unique and fascinating activity that showcases the intelligence and creativity of these gentle giants. Also, read 10 Best Things To Do In Thekkady, Kerala

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Elefantastic Farm Jaipur

Located in the Pink City of Jaipur , Elephantastic is a unique farm that offers a personalized experience with elephants. The farm is dedicated to the welfare and care of elephants and offers visitors a chance to interact with these gentle giants in a meaningful and memorable way.

At Elephantastic, visitors can spend time with the elephants and learn about their behavior and habits. Visitors can also feed the elephants with fruits and vegetables, and witness their playful and mischievous nature. One of the highlights of the visit is the painting session, where visitors can paint the elephants with natural colors and create unique and beautiful designs.

Apart from the painting session, visitors can also enjoy a bareback ride on the back of an elephant. The ride takes visitors through the beautiful countryside of Jaipur, offering stunning views of the surrounding area. The elephants are well-trained and experienced, ensuring a safe and comfortable ride for the visitors.

The visit to Elephantastic is not just about having fun with the elephants; it also emphasizes the welfare and care of the elephants. The farm follows ethical and sustainable practices and ensures that the elephants are treated with respect and love. The knowledgeable and experienced staff at Elephantastic are dedicated to the welfare of the elephants and provide visitors with valuable insights into the lives of these gentle giants. Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Visit Elefantastic Farm (Jaipur)

Conclusions: In conclusion, India is a country that celebrates its elephants and provides ample opportunities for people to interact with them. From wildlife sanctuaries to conservation projects, there are many places to hang out with elephants and learn about their care and conservation. By visiting these places, not only do you get to have a unique and enjoyable experience, but you also contribute to the well-being and protection of these magnificent animals. So, whether you are an animal lover, a nature enthusiast, or just looking for a different kind of adventure, spending time with elephants in India is an experience that you should not miss.

What is the best time of year to visit elephant reserves in India?

The best time to visit elephant reserves in India varies depending on the location, but generally, the winter months (November to February) offer the most comfortable temperatures for visitors. However, it is important to check with each specific reserve for their seasonal schedules and recommended visiting times.

Are there any opportunities to volunteer with elephants in India?

Yes, there are many opportunities to volunteer with elephants in India, particularly through conservation projects and elephant sanctuaries. These programs offer a chance to learn about and assist with the daily care and upkeep of the elephants in a responsible and sustainable way.

Can children participate in activities with elephants in India?

Yes, many elephant sanctuaries and camps in India offer family-friendly activities where children can interact with the elephants. However, it is important to check the age requirements and safety guidelines for each specific program.

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What I learned investigating the wildlife tourism industry

I traveled the world documenting unseen suffering. Here’s what you can do to respect animals during your travels.

Right away, Elephant Valley Thailand felt different. The property, nestled in the forest on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, a small city in northern Thailand, was the fifth elephant attraction I’d visited in a week. I’d seen shows where elephants kicked soccer balls and twirled hula hoops. I’d watched people ride on their backs and swing from their trunks. I’d peeked into the stalls to which elephants returned after working, where they’re chained by their ankles to posts.

But Elephant Valley was quiet. It was the first time all week that I’d seen elephants from a distance. One was bathing in a pond, alone. Another two were eating in the middle of a field. Wooden fences surrounded most of the fields—to keep us out, not them in, John Lee, a manager at Elephant Valley, told me. That’s what struck me most: No one was allowed to touch the animals. These were elephants being elephants. ( Here's why we're shining a light on wildlife tourism. )

Elephant Valley Thailand, home to five elephants that previously worked in trekking camps and the logging industry, is unlike most other elephant attractions in Thailand. Many of the country’s 3,800 captive elephants live in camps that offer up-close, interactive experiences that allow visitors to ride or bathe the animals or watch them perform in shows. The activities are a massive draw for travelers from around the world, part of a lucrative global industry that puts people together with exotic animals for once-in-a-lifetime encounters.

It’s what brought me to Thailand , a monthlong stop on a reporting trip for National Geographic magazine that took photographer Kirsten Luce and me to four continents over a year and a half. Our goal was simple: to look at the animals that entertain us and the people who seek them out. Those people are you and they’re me. I have a photo of myself at two years old, perched on an elephant’s back at a zoo in my hometown of Toronto , Canada. Eight years ago, on my honeymoon, I went swimming with captive manta rays in Mexico . But seven years later, while reporting the story, I found myself watching a group of tourists pass around a tiger cub after paying a couple of dollars to feed him a bottle of milk—and wondering if anyone else was questioning why he wasn’t with his mom.

It’s complicated. People love animals and naturally want to get close to them—and genuinely want to learn more about them too. It’s a desire that’s increasingly fueled by social media, where travelers share their experiences instantaneously. The reality that many tourists don’t see is that to stay in business, elephant interactions—and photo ops with tigers and swimming with manta rays—rely on a steady stream of working wild animals, all of which have been caught or bred or trained into submission.

Elephants Bathing in Chobe National Park

Animal: African elephant ( Loxodonta africana )

Average Life Span: Up to 70 years

Protection Status: Vulnerable

This image of an elephant herd bathing was taken near Kasane, in Chobe National Park . Chobe hosts one of Africa's largest concentrations of elephants, massive herds of which migrate seasonally between salt pans and floodplains.

Geography: The elephants shift seasonally from grasslands in the drier months (mid-April to October) to marshlands in the wetter months (November to early April). The region around the Chobe River is perhaps the best place in Botswana to spot them.

Best Time of Year to View: October is optimal for elephant viewing in the Chobe River area. Game viewing in Chobe is ideal during June and October because animals are drawn to permanent waterholes during the dry season.

Where to Stay: Situated within Chobe National Park, Chobe Game Lodge is a smart choice to kick back and scan for elephants from a large terrace overlooking the Chobe River.

Fun Facts: The largest land animals on Earth, African elephants are distinguishable from Asian elephants by their large, flapping ears (which look a bit like the African continent). The elephant's trunk is a powerful tool, containing some 100,000 different muscles. Botswana hosts the largest herds of free-roaming elephants in Africa.

And it’s all too easy to misread signs of suffering. Captive elephants sway their trunks back and forth—almost as if they’re dancing. In reality, it’s a sign of psychological distress. Sloths seem to love cuddling, but their hug is really just an attempt to cling to what feels to them like a tree trunk. Dolphins appear to be smiling but that’s the natural set of their mouths.

Travelers are increasingly recognizing that many animal tourist attractions may not be ethical. More and more backpackers are shunning elephant riding. ( Follow these tips for ethical animal encounters. )

The industry knows it. Dozens of properties in Thailand now call themselves “sanctuaries.” Many look a lot like Elephant Valley and boast five-star ratings on travel sites such as TripAdvisor . But Kirsten and I found that, unlike Elephant Valley, almost every one offers elephant bathing for visitors who wish to splash with an elephant in a river or mud pit. Often the bathing is repeated all day long. And only trained elephants will submit to baths.

Jack Highwood opened Elephant Valley in 2016. The 40-acre property is his second elephant sanctuary, following a much bigger one he established in Cambodia. He chose to go small with the Thai sanctuary, installing inexpensive wooden fencing and minimal infrastructure because he wanted to make the model as easy as possible for others to copy. It felt peaceful, several visitors at Elephant Valley told me. As if the elephants didn’t even know they were there.

While traveling the world, I spoke to tourists everywhere. In restaurants and hostels. At aquariums and monkey shows. I would often ask people if they prefer to have an up-close experience with an animal in captivity or observe it from afar in the wild. More often than not, they told me the latter. Yet captive encounters remain extremely popular. Maybe because an animal sighting is assured. Maybe because the animals seem happy, and it seems that your admission fee is going to contribute to someone’s paycheck. Maybe, perhaps most compelling of all, because it gives you a photograph—you, together with an exotic animal—that can go straight to your social media feed, where likes and comments are guaranteed.

Across the Pacific, on the North Shore of Oahu, in Hawaii , there’s a beach called Laniakea. People more commonly call it Turtle Beach, because sea turtles regularly come ashore. They’ll pick a spot and sleep in the sun, sometimes for hours at a time. Volunteers are there every day to keep people away from the animals. When a turtle emerges from the sea, the volunteers block off space for it with rope, giving the turtle ample room to relax in peace.

One weekday in September, I sat with dozens of tourists behind the rope and watched them watching a turtle. For the most part, people were respectful. A few asked why they couldn’t touch. It’s illegal to touch sea turtles in Hawaii, the volunteers explained. And it’s important to respect their space, they added. This is their beach too, after all.

It can be hard for most people to tell the difference between ethical and problematic wildlife experiences. There are many shades of gray. But you might follow a few simple guidelines :

Keep your distance. Seek experiences that offer observation of animals engaging in natural behaviors in natural environments.

Do your research. A highly rated place may not necessarily be humane. Read those one- and two-star reviews. It’s often in the pans that visitors chronicle animal welfare concerns.

Beware of buzzwords. A facility may use phrases on their website or promotional materials such as “gives back to conservation,” “rescue,” and “sanctuary,” but if it still offers extensive interaction, that may be a red flag.

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Watch: elephant topples tree in show of 'unparalleled strength’, share this article.

Safari guests in South Africa watched in awe recently as an elephant uprooted and toppled a fairly large tree.

“Unparalleled strength. He made it look so easy,” Tim Prettejohn, a guide for Dulini Lodge , described via Instagram .

Prettejohn’s footage shows the elephant shoving with its head and pushing three times before the tree toppled to the ground. The safari guests can be heard laughing in disbelief.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Tim Prettejohn (@timo_prettejohn)

Elephants are known to occasionally topple savanna trees in order to access their upper leaves. In fact, this type of browsing behavior is fairly common and has been described as destructive in parts of South Africa.

Dulini Lodge is within Sabi Sands Game Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park.

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Elephant Tours & Trips

TourRadar has collected the best Elephant trips. There are 50 adventures to choose from, visiting 17 different countries. Tours range in length between one day in length, and 58 days.

50 Elephant trips with 147 reviews

Okavango Experience Tour

  • Overland Truck
  • Christmas & New Year

Okavango Experience

"An excellent trip - only gripe is it was very hot with long drives in the truck and would benefit from aircon."

Sri Lanka Luxury Private Tour 2024 Tour

  • In-depth Cultural

Sri Lanka Luxury Private Tour 2024

"My tour with Sri Holidays was absolutely amazing!! Sama arranged everything for me and ensure that everything was spot on, he arranged lovely hotels and the car i traveled in was luxurious. Namal my tour leader was amazing, knowledgeable, kind and thoughtful. I really enjoyed my trip around Sri Lanka and got to see a lot in a week. i would definitely recommend Sri holidays! i also think that the tour radar platform worked really well for me- everything was in one place for me to see."

Volunteer Elephants Experiance with Jaipur Tour and Home Stay Indian Family 4 Days Tour

  • Volunteering
  • Active Adventure
  • Local Living

Volunteer Elephants Experiance with Jaipur Tour and Home Stay Indian Family 4 Days

"My trip to Jaipur couldn't have been better. Thanks to the program coordinator and his awesome team, thanks to the lovely guest family I was staying with and the most fun rikscha driver who brought me to all the fascinating places around pink city. The 3-day program was really intense but a hundred percent worth it. Whenever you'll face any challenge, the team from volunteering with India is happy to help you out. During my stay l always felt in good hands with this organisation and I really enjoyed the experience a lot. There is only one thing I regret - that I could not stayed longer ;)"

Private Sri Lanka Wildlife Tour 2024 Tour

Private Sri Lanka Wildlife Tour 2024

Chiang Mai & Elephant Experience Tour

Chiang Mai & Elephant Experience

"Once again the Intrepid guides were fantastic. Knowledgeable, helpful and friendly - experts in what they're there to do! However, I was disappointed with the package tour. It was a 3 day tour, but all up, guides assisted for a total of maybe a day and a half. Much of the time was spent self-exploring, which I don't mind, but to pay an amount for 3days seemed a bit extreme. The accommodation was lovely, perfect in fact, even though they were unaware of any of my tour details. I had to do a lot of extra research to ensure I was getting the most out of my time in Chiang Mai, with no suggestions of places to visit or how to get there from Intrepid. Love Intrepid, but could've done this one on my own."

Elephants of Sri Lanka - 15 Days Tour

Elephants of Sri Lanka - 15 Days

"Wild life Tour My husband and I used this company for our tailor made tour of Sri Lanka, in January 2019, with our Chauffer guide Ranjith. We had a wonderful time, with absolutely nothing to find fault with. We’d have no reservations in recommending anyone to use stelaranholidays! Don’t worry. They really care about their clients and will look after you in every way possible."

3-Day Kruger NP Elephant Point Safari Mid-Range Tour Tour

3-Day Kruger NP Elephant Point Safari Mid-Range Tour

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Garden Route and Addo (Gap, 8 Days) Tour

  • Wine tasting

Garden Route and Addo (Gap, 8 Days)

  • €100 deposit on some dates Some departure dates offer you the chance to book this tour with a lower deposit.

Addo, Lesotho & Drankensburg Experience 7Days/6 Nights ( Comfort) Tour

Addo, Lesotho & Drankensburg Experience 7Days/6 Nights ( Comfort)

Great African Expedition - 58 days Tour

  • Gorilla Trekking

Great African Expedition - 58 days

Great African Expedition (Accommodated) - 58 days Tour

Great African Expedition (Accommodated) - 58 days

Four Day Red Elephant Safari - Tsavo West and Amboseli Tour

Four Day Red Elephant Safari - Tsavo West and Amboseli

  • €99 deposit on some dates Some departure dates offer you the chance to book this tour with a lower deposit.

Independent Highlights of Cambodia & Thailand Tour

Independent Highlights of Cambodia & Thailand

Trekking Sri Lanka - 5 Days Tour

  • Hiking & Trekking

Trekking Sri Lanka - 5 Days

Southern Adventure | 12 Days Victoria Falls to JHB Tour

Southern Adventure | 12 Days Victoria Falls to JHB

Elephant tours & trips reviews.

"Amazing trip! Very memorable"
"We had a fantastic time with the elephants, helping to take care of them and make chapati for them. The programme is well organised, and the staff were lovely. The 5am tuk tuk ride to work was fun, even with the crazy traffic in India!! The host family we stayed with were very welcoming and the meals were lovely. The sightseeing tours in the tuk tuk in the afternoon were very informative and we had plenty of time to visit the forts and take photos. Elaine"
"Once again the Intrepid guides were fantastic. Knowledgeable, helpful and friendly - experts in what they're there to do! However, I was disappointed with the package tour. It was a 3 day tour, but all up, guides assisted for a total of maybe a day and a half. Much of the time was spent self-exploring, which I don't mind, but to pay an amount for 3days seemed a bit extreme. The accommodation was lovely, perfect in fact, even though they were unaware of any of my tour details. I had to do a lot of extra research to ensure I was getting the most out of my time in Chiang Mai, with no suggestions of places to visit or how to get there from Intrepid. Love Intrepid, but could've done this one on my own."

Destinations

  • Africa (16)
  • Southern Africa (19)
  • South East Asia (10)
  • Far East (10)
  • Indochina (10)
  • South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana (8)
  • Botswana and South Africa (8)

Top Countries

  • Sri Lanka (10)
  • Thailand (7)
  • Cambodia (1)
  • South Africa (6)
  • Botswana (5)
  • Namibia (1)
  • 7 Day Tours (8)
  • 10 Day Tours (6)
  • 2 Week Tours (10)
  • 3 Week Tours (5)

Starting from

  • from Negombo (6)

International Versions

  • Deutsch: Elefantentouren
  • Français: Circuits Éléphant
  • Español: Circuitos y viajes de Elefante
  • Nederlands: Olifant Rondreizen & Tours

What it takes to live near an elephant herd

As their numbers grow and their habitats shrink, indian elephants are having more run-ins with people.

O’VALLEY, India — All around this town in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the British Empire remade the land. Like a crazed plastic surgeon, it made incisions where there were none, dividing territories that had once been united. It grafted tea and cardamom and timber plantations onto the slopes of the Western Ghats, a thousand-mile mountain range lush with old rainforests. It transplanted whole communities in its effort to organize labor for its plantations.

But long before the British, there were elephants here. As the Empire transformed their terrain, they kept marching through it — as they still do, even as environmental damage and haphazard development degrade their ancient geographies. Over centuries, elephant herds establish distinct routes — or “corridors” — that run from feeding grounds to watering holes, and they pass this knowledge down to their young. “They walk 20 or 25 kilometers a day — their bodies need it. It’s like how we get up and run in the morning,” said M. S. Selvaraj, who leads an organization of farmers and workers in O’ Valley. “Sometimes you’ll see an elephant eat at a place, go somewhere else, and return after a year. They’re creatures of habit.”

That these wild elephants are still around, and that their numbers have improved since the 1970s , is a mark of success of a particular model of conservation: one in which elephants were sequestered from humans, to the point that communities were turned out of forested areas, however long they’d lived there. But as the population of elephants swelled, they required more of everything: more food, more water, more territory. Instead, they’re getting less. In recent years, hotter summers have dried up water bodies. During monsoon season, prolonged rainfall, thought to be triggered by climate change , has led to landslides. Deforestation, the sprawl of new settlements and construction projects have eaten into the elephants’ habitats and corridors. As a result, the animals are increasingly forced into conflict with the people living in the Ghats, leading to deaths on both sides, and destroying homes and livelihoods in places where people are already poor.

Dozens of elephant corridors across India face similar troubles, hampering governments and NGOs trying to protect the endangered Asian elephant. On average, a report from the Wildlife Trust of India found in 2017, a hundred elephants and 400 people die every year in such incidents; since then, a government statistic from 2020 suggests, the human fatalities have only increased. To curb these deaths, conservationists have to rethink the strategy of just strictly segregating human society from the wild. In a country like India, where rural communities rely on the forest’s resources and had learned long ago how to live alongside its animals, any solution needs to take the human residents and their ways of life into account, conservationists and local leaders say.

“We can’t take either the people or the elephants out,” says Ganesh Raghunathan, an ecologist who studies human-elephant interaction at the Nature Conservation Foundation. “The only way is to cohabit.”

An elephant corridor

In the Western Ghats, a range that spreads over 62,000 square miles and spills across six states in southern and western India, the elephants occupy a host of habitats: the moist, evergreen forests of the foothills; the dry, deciduous jungles above; and the rolling grasslands higher up still. One long-established elephant corridor runs northwest to southeast in the state of Tamil Nadu, from a town called Moyar to another called Masinagudi, through groves of acacias and red cedars. In this region, the British turned thousands of acres of jungle into coffee and tea plantations. (The British Museum still holds share certificates issued by the Moyar Coffee Company in the 1880s.) In the 1970s, the Indian government folded the corridor into a biosphere reserve. Nonetheless, over the following decades, roads cut through the area, the cattle of villagers strayed into the forests, and work on expanding a hydroelectric power project began. When the elephants found their foraging grounds annexed and their water holes paved over, some of them scattered in other directions — a few as far as O’ Valley, a couple of dozen miles southeast of Masinagudi, where Selvaraj lives.

Selvaraj himself is a product of colonial disruption. In the late 1700s, his ancestors had been forcibly relocated from elsewhere in Tamil Nadu to British tea plantations in central Sri Lanka, to work as indentured laborers. Only after the mid-1960s, when India and Sri Lanka signed a treaty, were several thousand of these families repatriated to India. Selvaraj arrived with his parents in 1979, as a teenager, and eventually settled near O’ Valley, in the misty, hilly district of Gudalur.

Three states converge in this part of India. Selvaraj can walk through the foothills, where it seems to be always raining in the jungles of shola trees, and then look up the slopes at the teak and myrtle forests that seasonally lose their leaves, and then peer further up at the grasslands occupied by bands of nimble Nilgiri tahr. These species are all native to the Ghats, but some — the teak, for example — have been cultivated with purpose, on British and then Indian estates. And while it wasn’t out of the ordinary to spot elephants in the wild, Selvaraj remembered, they strayed only rarely into the paths of people.

But as human development trespassed into elephant corridors, that changed. Over the past 15 or 20 years, Selvaraj said, illegal timber-logging mafias have ruined grazing grounds. There are new highways and railroads , unlicensed hotels and resorts , and unsanctioned mining spreading across the Western Ghats. The elephants were forced out of their old haunts and habits. “Now they come into O’ Valley and other villages as well,” he said, “and they see our paddy and jackfruit and banana, so of course they’re tempted to eat here.” It isn’t surprising at all, he pointed out, that when hungry elephants meet alarmed villagers, violence is a frequent outcome.

In the path of the elephant

In the summer of 2022, a 52-year-old man named Sri Nathan Sangili left his village of Selvapuram, in O’Valley, to go work on his tea garden — a tract he’d leased from someone else. Before setting out, his wife Yoga remembers, he called ahead to ask about elephant movements along his route and was reassured that there had been no sightings at all. Even so, in a forested spot near his tea garden, Sangili encountered an elephant and was killed. “A young boy followed the ringing of his phone to find his corpse lying there, where he’d been attacked,” Yoga said. “I’ve been crying so much my body has given up and my tears have dried up.”

Across these parts of the Western Ghats, tragic stories like Sangili’s have grown worryingly common; in O’Valley, his was the third such death in three months. Parameswaran Ganeshan, the owner of a grocery store in a village named Sirukundra, estimates that elephants have broken into his shop 50 times over the past two decades. Kunjalavi Moidhu, a 49-year-old father of two, watched an elephant wrap its trunk against his wife Mumtaj, slam her into a rock wall, and then trample upon her. In the village of Kannampalli, Rajan Chellan saw his home destroyed by an elephant a few years ago. He belongs to the community of Kattunayakars, one of several designated “tribes” that have shared the Western Ghats with its elephants and other wildlife for centuries. “We have always lived in the forest,” he says, “and have never seen [such attacks] happening in the past.”

To avoid encounters with elephants, people make adjustments that range from the inconvenient to the arduous. Farmers are choosing to stop planting jackfruit, mango and other crops that attract elephants. Villagers have taken to staying indoors after nightfall; workers demand electric fences around estates and plantations. Forest departments recruit the Malasar, an indigenous community with a long history of caring for elephants, to train captive elephants — called “kumkis” — to drive other rogue elephants away from human settlements. It’s a controversial practice — if not outright illegal, as some animal-rights activists argue .

Others take more low-key, pragmatic approaches. Authorities have erected warning beacons around the foothills, which shine red if an elephant is spotted in the vicinity, warning people to avoid the area. As part of a broader restoration campaign, the Nature Conservation Foundation is replenishing forests with a diversity of indigenous plants, including some species that elephants feed upon, and that have dwindled in recent years.

“The quality of the forest is more important than the size of the forest,” said Srinivasan Kashinathan, a conservation ecologist at NCF. “Even one acre can have much biodiversity, which can help with the conservation of elephants.”

NCF’s biologists collect seeds from the outskirts of forests or the sides of roads, to avoid disturbing the forest itself. Then they germinate the seeds in nurseries, often over periods as long as five years, before planting the saplings in chosen forest sites.

These tactics still fall short of the kind of action that Selvaraj wishes the government would take: cracking down on loggers or illegal builders, say, or being more circumspect about planning new highways. But they do acknowledge the importance of humans in this landscape, and leave space for their lives and work. Selvaraj bemoans the activists and policymakers who believe that the best way to protect wildlife is to move people further and further away — even if they’ve lived on their land for generations.

A true solution, he thinks, has to work for both humans and animals both. “The forests and the elephants,” he said, “can only be saved by its people.”

How winter storms stress San Luis Obispo County elephant seals in the midst of birthing season

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas Rookery, San Simeon, California.

SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY, Calif. — The late December morning rain left droplets on Christine Heinrichs’ glasses as she stood among a throng of tourists and watched dozens of elephant seals tussle and sleep on a beach just south of the Piedras Blancas Light Station.

Perched above the seals on a boardwalk viewpoint along Highway 1, Heinrichs pointed out newborn elephant seal pups nestled among their resting mothers, mature adult males fighting for dominance and breeding rights, and juveniles who had likely surrendered after earlier fights.

Heinrichs is one of many dedicated docents with Friends of the Elephant Seal, a nonprofit organization that works to protect and educate the public about the massive pinnipeds, which can grow to more than 4,000 pounds and 13 feet in length.

As she watched, a big wave rushed up the beach, slamming into many of the seals and causing mothers to call out to their pups, who likely hadn’t yet been alive long enough to build adequate blubber to withstand the cold water.

At the time, unusually high surf generated by a distant storm was causing massive and destructive waves to crash along California’s coast, inundating beaches and flooding streets along the shore.

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The ocean conditions were just one of the challenges facing the baby seals in their fight for survival. More of the youngsters won’t make it to adulthood than will, experts say.

That sight of cold waves battering newborn babies certainly isn’t pleasant, but Heinrichs was quick to put it into context: “They live in water the rest of the year. They’re adapted to this,” she said.

Indeed, the numbers bear that out.

The elephant seal population in San Luis Obispo County has been deemed a “conservation success” by researchers and experts who have carefully watched the animals recover from the brink of extinction.

The local population has grown so significantly from near zero in the early 1990s that it is now considered the largest United States mainland breeding population, according to Cal Poly biology professor Heather Liwanag, who studies the seals with a team of students in coordination with California State Parks and Friends of the Elephant Seal.

Roughly 22,000 elephant seals were counted in recent years on the beaches in the Piedras Blancas rookery, according to Liwanag.

“People had thought we made them go extinct,” Liwanag said. “But our population is really robust now.”

How elephant seal population recovered from near extinction

In the 1800s, hunting elephant seals for their blubber — used as fuel by humans — decimated the global population.

In 1922, the Mexican government prohibited elephant seal offspring hunting. Fifty years later, the United States prohibited harassment and hunting of the seals under the newly established Marine Mammal Protection Act.

That kickstarted recovery of the species in North America.

By the 1950s, elephant seals began to show up during the winter breeding and birthing season in the Channel Islands, although fewer than 200 were counted, according to research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, Point Blue Conservation Science and UC Santa Cruz.

The next decade, thousands of the mammals began populating the Channel Islands as well as showing up on Año Nuevo Island and later the South Farallon Islands off the San Francisco coast, the researchers found.

In 1992, one elephant seal was born at a beach near the Piedras Blancas Light Station, according to the researchers.

The next year, 54 births were counted. And by 2010, about 4,500 newborn elephant seals were counted during the winter season.

Today, the Channel Islands host the largest breeding population of elephant seals in North America, with Piedras Blancas coming in second, according to Liwanag.

Conservation work creates safe elephant seal viewing space

Careful conservation work by State Parks has helped the Piedras Blancas population thrive.

In 2006, a 1,700-foot-long boardwalk was constructed by State Parks just south of the lighthouse.

The boardwalk is accessible via Highway 1 and provides one of the only places in the world where humans can safely observe elephant seals at close distances without disturbing them. Informational signs and Friends of the Elephant Seal docents help educate the public on the behavior of seals.

From that boardwalk, people can see the trials and tribulation of the natural world up close.

“With the king tides, we saw some pups be washed out to sea,” said Katie Drexhage, a senior environmental scientist with State Parks. “It’s shocking to see, but it is something we can’t interfere with. Nature is brutal, and the elephant seals are tested.”

About 5,000 pups have been born each season in recent years at Piedras Blancas, Liwanag said.

“We estimate that more than half don’t make it,” she added.

The elephant seals that do survive the winter migrate away during the summer to feed. Females swim to the middle of the Pacific Ocean in search of deep-water fish, while males go north toward Alaska, Liwanag said.

Elephant seals expand range as population grows

Drexhage and Liwanag said they don’t believe the destructive storm events in late December and king tides in early January will have a devastating, population-wide impact on the elephants seals.

But it is something they are monitoring, especially as scientists predict human-caused climate change will make destructive surf events like the Central Coast experienced in late December more common.

“The elephant seals don’t come here in search of food,” Liwanag said. “They come for the space.”

Elephant seals need plenty of beach space to spread out, give birth and breed without crushing each other, Liwanag said.

If human development or rising sea levels shrinks that space, the mammals face a problem, she said.

As the Piedras Blancas elephant seal population has grown over the past 30 years, their range has expanded north and south along the Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve as seals search of beaches not so crowded with their relatives.

“It’s really important that people respect beach closures to protect the elephant seals,” said Robyn Chase, an interpretive manager for State Parks. “Human harassment can cause moms to leave their pups and cause those pups to starve.”

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