Last updated on August 25th, 2019

There’s a misconception that Thailand elephant sanctuaries are an ethical and responsible way to interact with these large, beautiful creatures even without the elephant riding. I thought the same and visited one.

The Elephant Riding Issue

elephant riding in Angkor Wat

Avoid the elephant riding up to Bakheng Mountain in Angkor Wat. The hike up the mountain to see the sunset is easy.

You probably know that elephant riding or multiday trekking is bad for elephants.

If you haven’t, let me break it down for you.

Elephant handlers break elephants physically and mentally for riding at a young age. They beat the elephants with a bullhook to listen to specific riding commands until their spirits break. This is the same way elephants are trained to perform tricks at a circus.

In addition, an elephant’s spine can’t support the weight of humans and a howdah (saddle). I can barely carry my 70-litre backpack for 30 minutes; imagine an elephant carrying a family of tourists.

In Thailand they still have elephant riding tours. In the Kualanamu airport in Sumatra, Indonesia, there is a big picture of a mahout riding an elephant in the baggage claim area. Elephant riding is still prominent in Southeast Asia.

I personally feel many elephant sanctuaries without riding – and other wildlife sanctuaries for this matter – are not sustainable and are for-profit.

Allow me to explain.

Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand

elephant sanctuary thailand

A rescued Asian elephant at a sanctuary in Thailand.

Originally, I wanted to see elephants in the wild around Chiang Mai, Thailand, because it’s the most natural, ethical, and adventurous way to see them. But I didn’t find any wildlife operators providing this service.

The Doi Inthanon National Park in Chiang Mai province no longer has elephants due to poaching and habitat loss.

But several hotels, hostels, and tour agencies promote elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. The marketing scheme is they state there is no hooking or riding.

I ended up visiting the Maerim Elephant Sanctuary in 2017. In retrospect, I should have travelled to another province in Thailand that had wild elephants in its national park such as the Kui Buri National Park.

There’s a confusing middle ground about sanctuaries.

First, humans aren’t supposed to interact with elephants.

Second, there’s nothing natural about feeding an elephant bananas or washing them in the river. If you tried to do this in the wild you’d be dead. Plus, it’s harder for elephants to be reintroduced into the wild. You should ask yourself before visiting an elephant sanctuary if the organization releases elephants back into the wild: many do not.

elephant eating thailand

Bunchu eating at the sanctuary.

I understand the sanctuaries need to raise money in order to operate. Of course, people will pay to have up-close selfies with an elephant. I did. I regret it now.

Remember that one of the main reasons the Asian elephants are endangered and treated cruelly is due to tourism and entertainment such as a circus or elephant riding camp in addition to habitat loss and poaching.

African elephants take most of the damage from the illegal ivory trade due to their bigger tusks. Also, Asian female elephants don’t have tusks whereas the African species do have them.

Volunteering at an Elephant Sanctuary

elephant sanctuary volunteer