Thinking about traveling to Asia — maybe somewhere like Thailand, Laos, or India — where you can experience an ethical elephant encounter? Well, sorry to break it to you but that so-called “sanctuary” or “elephant rescue center” isn’t ethical or responsible whatsoever if they offer bathing, up close feedings, or personal selfie opportunities. Here’s why.
In my humble opinion, there are few animals walking the world today that are as magical as an elephant.
Their gentle beauty and kind souls that you can almost see when looking into their big, beautiful eyes is captivating.
In a recent foreward written by Jane Goodall for the Elephants. Not Commodities. report by the World Animal Protection group, she’s describes an experience she had in Tanzania, which encapsulates the intelligence and complexity of these gentle giants perfectly.
“Elephants show great compassion for each other. As one wounded female lay dying the members of her group formed a close-knit group around her, stroking her body with gentle trunks, trying to help her to her feet. They stayed until she died. And returned next day to cover her body with branches and leaves.”
I genuinely teared up reading this.
Elephants are such complex animals with distinct personalities, deep emotions, and profound intellectual abilities we still have yet to understand.
So why the hell do humans take advantage and exploit this beautiful creature?
When it comes to elephant exploitation, things like circus shows and elephant riding come to mind… but up close bathing, feeding, and selfie opportunities still cause unnecessary suffering you might not be aware of.
Yet, this is exactly how so-called elephant “sanctuaries”, “rescue centers”, and “rehabilitation facilities” take advantage of well-meaning tourists who genuinely want to have a responsible and ethical elephant experience.
But let me be very clear about this — these up close and personal elephant encounters are completely cruel, unethical, and irresponsible.
I’ll tell you why.
Don’t forget to check out my big fat list of unethical animal experiences after reading this post! It’s crucial if you want to be a more responsible traveler.
WHY MOST ELEPHANT “SANCTUARIES” AREN’T ETHICAL
1. Constant Control Required
Though tourists are moving away from circus-style shows and elephant riding, many are swapping out those ridiculously torturous experiences for bathing and washing, up close feeding, or other close encounters…
Which, while on the surface these activities don’t sound exploitative, aren’t in the best interest of the actual elephant.
Think about it — elephants are giant creatures who could crush anything and anyone in a second. When you’re that close to an elephant, someone (namely the mahout) has to maintain constant control over the animal.
How? Through either verbal or physical measures.
Many of these measures are established through incredibly cruel training methods early in the elephant’s life.
There’s a horrendous period called “the crush” in an elephant calf’s life. It’s days upon days of torture to ensure the calf’s precious bond with its mother is broken and its spirit diminished so that it learns to obey humans.
As the World Animal Protection report, Taken for a Ride, explained,
“…at mid-range bathing and washing venues, these
interactions are only possible through cruel early training to obey
commands. And at venues allowing direct interaction, mahouts
must remain in relatively close control of their elephants to protect
the visitors’ safety.”
2. Downtime Restraints
At night, elephants are often bound with heavy chains so tight they can barely move. This horrific chaining contributes to not only arthritis, but also musculoskeletal issues, as the chains cause deep, painful cuts on their legs.
Even worse, elephants are often chained on extremely hard surfaces, like concrete, stone, or hard-packed ground.
In a natural setting, elephants live and sleep on soft forest floors… which these hard surfaces bear no resemblance to.
This is a major reason why captive elephants often suffer from serious and debilitating medical issues. For instance, painful nail abscesses, foot infections, arthritis, and lameness.
This sad elephant I accidentally came across on the island of Koh Chang in Thailand broke my heart. It was chained up and was swaying from side to side, which is a sign of PTSD.
3. Up Close Contact
As a wild animal that under normal circumstances would avoid human interaction at all cost, being up close and personal with an elephant is irresponsible.
A true ethical elephant experience wouldn’t involve bathing, touching, hugging, swimming, intimate selfie opportunities, or close contact feeding sessions.
At a genuine elephant sanctuary, visitors don’t touch the animals, because these places exist for the sake of the elephants, not the tourists.
So, What Should You Look for in an Elephant Sanctuary?
There are a few key things to look for in a true elephant sanctuary.
Authentic and genuine elephant sanctuaries DO NOT…
- Allow visitors to touch or “play” with the elephants, or otherwise force the elephants into close, unwanted contact with humans. This means no bathing, hugging, kissing, swimming, selfies, or close feeding times.
- Sell or breed elephants. (Sometimes sanctuaries will buy elephants for a cheap price if necessary. However this often gives elephant sellers money to buy another elephant to raise, break, and sell to tourism so many focus on adopting or rescuing elephants.)
- Use bullhooks or any weapons. And they definitely don’t punish the elephants when tourists are out of sight.
If you’re thinking of visiting one that features any of these activities, best to try somewhere else because they’re not in it for the sake of helping the animals.
They’re in it for the money.
Authentic and genuine elephant sanctuaries DO…
- Ensure the animals have space to roam. Preferably natural space when they’re encouraged to be an elephant — knocking down trees, cooling off in ponds, foraging for food, and walking miles on end with other elephant friends.
- Provide other elephants to socialize with. Elephants love companionship; they’re a very social animal. Thus, it’s important sanctuaries provide a safe space for the elephants to interact with their own species.
- Let visitors view and admire from a distance. As mentioned above, true sanctuaries forbid close contact. They only allow visitors to view, admire, and simply observe the elephants from a good distance away.
There’s one incredible place in Thailand that comes to mind when I think of a truly ethical elephant sanctuary… Elephant Valley Thailand.
You can read more about this wildly awesome place here and learn about the impact they’re having on the elephants of Thailand (and Cambodia).
Even better, to get a really authentic experience, there’s always the option of going on a safari! Dan and I went on a jeep safari in Sri Lanka and we saw tons of wild elephants. It was spectacular!
All in all, if you’re traveling and are interested in having an elephant experience or encounter, it’s essential you choose the right place in order to be a responsible traveler.
Every single day, all around the world, elephants are being exploited.
Don’t be part of this problem — be part of the solution. Choose a truly ethical elephant sanctuary to ensure you make a positive impact.
Have you ever been to an elephant sanctuary? Or a place that called itself a “sanctuary” but in reality was the furthest thing from it? Or do you have an elephant sanctuary story to tell? Share in the comments below!
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