Want to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand? Here’s how to find one, plus our experience at Krabi Elephant Shelter.
We totally get why visiting an elephant sanctuary is on your bucket list – it was on ours, too. And Thailand has long been known as a place where tourists can interact with elephants.
Though, thankfully, the days of riding them or watching them perform tricks are very much over. Selecting sanctuaries carefully is crucial to ensuring you get to enjoy an ethical experience.
But how do you find out which places are worth supporting? Read on to discover the tips for visiting an ethical sanctuary for elephants in Thailand, as well as our experience in Ao Nang, Krabi. Spoiler alert: it was wonderful.
About Thailand Elephants and the Dark Side of Elephant Tourism
The Asian elephant is the type found in Thailand. These gorgeous creatures live in forests and grasslands mainly in the north, but you can see them pretty much everywhere.
Sadly, Thailand has a long history of unethical elephant tourism practices. For centuries, elephants in Thailand were captured from the wild and brutally trained for use in the logging industry. When logging was banned in 1989, these poor little elephants and their babies were put to work in the tourism industry, providing rides and performing in shows for tourists.
The training process is cruel, involving separation from their mothers, confinement, beating, and starvation. To make elephants submit to giving rides and performing tricks, trainers use bullhooks – long, sharp metal hooks they dig into the soft part of the elephants’ skin behind their ears and other sensitive body parts.
Work elephants in Thailand often live in poor conditions, chained up for long hours each day. They are kept hungry and only fed when they obey commands from their trainer. Many exhibit signs of stress and psychological trauma from the abusive training and repetitive tourist activities.
How to Find an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand
Thankfully, it’s becoming easier to find ethical sanctuaries where elephants are well cared for. Here’s what to look for when searching for an elephant sanctuary in Thailand…
Choose a Sanctuary, Not a Camp
Steer clear of anywhere that offers elephant rides or other activities like painting or tightrope walking. These require training methods that are stressful and harmful to elephants.
Opt for a sanctuary, not a camp. Ethical sanctuaries focus on providing a natural environment for retired working elephants or those rescued from harsh conditions.
Though, it’s important to note that just because an elephant shelter is called a sanctuary, that does not automatically mean it’s ethical. You need to ensure that your elephant sanctuary does not offer harmful activities.
Look for Natural Habitats
The best sanctuaries have large, open habitats where elephants can roam freely. They provide bathing areas for elephants to play in the water and dirt mounds for rolling and dust baths.
Mahouts (elephant caretakers) use positive reinforcement only, never fear or pain, to manage the elephants. In some of the more unethical places, the guides will use hooks to control the elephants – this is a huge red flag.
Feeding Is Okay, Walking Is Not
Feeding elephants is an ethical way to interact with them when done properly. Hand-feeding allows elephants to approach you on their own terms – just be sure not to overfeed them. Mahouts know the proper amount of food each elephant needs.
However, avoid any place that lets tourists take elephants for walks. Elephants should walk at their own pace, not under human direction.
Consider the Mahouts
Well-informed mahouts who truly care for the elephants are key to an ethical sanctuary. They should have an intimate knowledge of each elephant and use gentle control methods only when necessary. Harsh training and discipline is a huge no-no.
Our Experience at Krabi Elephant Shelter
Visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand was high on our bucket list. And, we won’t lie, we were very nervous about picking somewhere that was 100% ethical. After hours spent researching places in and around Krabi, we booked tickets to Krabi Elephant Shelter through Get Your Guide.
Krabi Elephant Shelter houses just four retired elephants aged between 40-80 years old. We were very lucky as we visited at a time when no other groups were there. The elephants seemed perfectly content roaming free in their large, forested habitat.
Our mahout had over 30 years of experience caring for elephants. He taught us about each elephant under his care and described the shelter’s efforts to look after them – his knowledge was obvious through his gentle relationship with the elephants.
The elephants could walk freely around their large open habitat. No chains or restrictions. And visitors definitely cannot ride or walk them. This ethical treatment allows them to live a natural, unstressed life.
We chose to make the elephants some food, a rather stinky concoction of pellets, banana, rice, and oats. Once we mashed up the bananas and rolled the mix into sticky balls, we headed over to see the elephants in all their glory. We loved hand-feeding the protein balls and taking photos up close with these gentle giants.
Where Else to See Elephants in Thailand
Not staying in Krabi? There are a few places where you can see elephants ethically in Thailand – though you need to be careful. The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is a spot that we heard plenty of great things about during our trip. And, while we didn’t see elephants in Khao Sok, we would have opted to visit Elephant Hills should that have been on our itinerary.
In northern Thailand, Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park is a wonderful (and, more importantly, ethical) place to spot these graceful creatures. And, for city dwellers near Bangkok, the Wildlife Foundation Friends Thailand is a spot we recommend.