Are elephant sanctuaries ethical?

In the area around Chiang Mai, there are quite a lot of elephant sanctuaries with elephants saved from exploitation for tourism, farming or other. They claim themselves to be ethical and use that in their advertisement. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that all of them are as good as they say they are, and it is simply another form of exploitation. The problem is, how do you know which sanctuary is a good one, where elephants are treated with respect and given a good home?

First of all, for somebody (like me) who knows close to nothing about elephants, the first struggle is to know what it means to treat elephants well. Is riding them on bare back okay? Giving them directions by shouting or a tap on the side? Letting tourists touch them? Bathe with them? Hold their trunk for a picture? I have no idea what hurts the animal and what doesn’t, and those were things that I couldn’t even think of researching before visiting a sanctuary, because frankly, I hadn’t probably even seen an elephant in real life before and couldn’t even imagine what it was like to interact with one.

So I picked a sanctuary to visit according to the little knowledge I had and the research I could do. My criteria were that the elephants were rescues, tourists were not allowed to ride them and that the reviews and website overall gave me the image that the owners truly care for the animals. Also, the sanctuary I chose takes volunteers, which I thought to be a good sign because it proves some level of transparency. If they only take visitors who come during the day for a few hours, who knows what happens outside of that time frame.

Only when I arrived to the sanctuary and saw how elephants were handled and taken care of I could even start questioning more in detail what could be wrong or right. With my limited knowledge, I made some observations. On a general level, I felt that the elephants looked rather happy, there was quite a lot of space, the caretakers didn’t use sticks or hooks to guide them, and the animals were not afraid of us at all and were really comfortable having people around them. Maybe they were treating them with respect on some level in the way that they didn’t seem to be violent with them. But then again, how would I know even that.

It was a wonderful experience to see these magnificent animals from so close and I definitely appreciate them more than I used to now that I have seen them in real life. I was fascinated by their dexterity, their size, their way of moving, eating, everything. Still, at the same time, I felt somehow wrong during the whole visit. I was trying to see if the caretakers did anything suspicious and questioning what “ethical” really means in elephant sanctuaries. These animals were probably happier than they used to be in a circus or being hit with a hook to work, but was that enough? Were they really enjoying the rhythm of life they had in this kind of sanctuary?

I was torn between my amazement and difficulty to believe how great of an experience this was, and the uncertainty of what I put my money into. So after the visit I did some research on the topic, and in the end, it appeared quite simple: any place that makes elephants act in a way that is not natural to them is doing something wrong. With this definition, even allowing tourists to touch elephants or interact with them would be considered unethical, because elephants would not initiate interaction with humans in nature. I also read this eyeopening article by a person who had volunteered at a sanctuary and discovered their dark side through it. Basically, sanctuaries would only exist for tourism because they are such a big business, and it has nothing to do with the welfare of the animals.

I realised in the end of my visit that although the experiences of touching the elephants and bathing with them were quite unique, I wouldn’t have needed them to be amazed by these animals. I could have watched them live their life for a day, maybe fed them some sugar cane, and that would have been just as exciting and memorable. Sanctuaries are definitely doing more than is good to get tourists, and even if riding elephants or tricks have become quite unpopular in elephant tourism at least in Chiang Mai, they have been replaced with pictures holding the elephants trunk or taking baths with them.

I understand that if almost all sanctuaries advertise baths and petting, one that would run those out of their offer and act in a more ethical way would lose customers. It’s a tricky situation, as it’s true that a sanctuary could probably not continue existing without income from tourism, except if they find another way of getting sponsored. When even simply touching the animals, which seems quite harmless if the animal doesn’t seem to avoid your touch, isn’t that innocent after all, what should be done? The best way to observe elephants in the most ethical way possible would then be in reserves as the article explains. I believe that it is also possible to have sanctuaries, where elephants are still kept in a limited but big enough space for them to live, can exist and and be a solution. The only ways I see to make those sanctuaries more common is to raise the world’s awareness on ethical tourism (do as I say, not as I do in this situation, unfortunately), and change the legislation. Elephant riding attractions did change for the better to this kind of “petting sanctuaries” with changes in legislation and mindsets, so hopefully this is one stage on the way for truly ethical tourism in the future.

Now that I know better, I would have been completely happy with a sanctuary that doesn’t give the option of being so close to the elephants. I would have had a lighter heart knowing that I am for sure not doing them harm. I am grateful and happy about what I got to experience at the elephant sanctuary I went to. I definitely admire and appreciate elephants a lot more than before, and getting a shower in a river from an elephant is definitely an experience I will remember, but I couldn’t help but wonder all day if what happened there was okay or not. Hopefully you can make a better choice than I did if you ever have the possibility to visit a sanctuary or a reserve.

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2 thoughts on “Are elephant sanctuaries ethical?

  1. I did the same thing when I was in Chiang Mai. I pondered for ages about visiting an elephant sanctuary and did some research. We had similar criteria by the looks of it – I absolutely refused to go anywhere near one that did animal rides and this one also took on volunteers too.

    My experience was great! But like you, I had no idea what the animals were really feeling. They could go off if they wanted to (and be left alone), the guides seemed fantastic with them and they appeared pretty happy, but again, I’ve got no bloody clue. Next time, I’d deffo be happy just watching them – such magnificent animals! And because I did get to touch one, I was so surprised by how rough their skin was, got a cut on my leg from where one nicked me as it strode past, lol.

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    1. It’s so hard to know what’s okay and what is not when you don’t have enough information and don’t really even know where to start looking for some. Although those sanctuaries we went to are probably not the worst ones (no riding and such), it’s sad that they advertise themselves as something they’re probably not :/ but as you said, it was a beautiful experience to learn about elephants!

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