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Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries

Ideally, elephants would roam freely and not have to be kept in habitats, but sometimes that’s just not possible. Wild elephant populations across Southeast Asia are in decline due to issues like deforestation, poaching and the illegal logging industry. The few wild ones, too, are being taken from their habitats and forced to work in the booming tourism industry. In 2016, the organisation, World Animal Protection (WAP) ran a survey that found that approximately 40% of tourists to countries like Thailand had been on or were planning to embark on an elephant ride.

With the rise of elephant tourism, and an awakening in what is considered ethical vs non-ethical behaviour the industry is having to shift, but not necessarily for the better. Most tourists still don’t fully understand what constitutes ethical treatment. Taking advantage of this knowledge gap, many elephant parks advertise themselves as ethical sanctuaries but are not. In fact, a two-year-long study by WAP found that 77% of elephants in venues across areas of Southeast Asia were living in conditions that were “severely cruel” and “deeply concerning.” These conditions included being chained up when not performing, poor diets, and no interaction with other elephants.

This is not to say that you should stay away from elephants on your holiday entirely. Working with luxury villa management company and booking portal, The Luxe Nomad, we discovered what you should look out for to ensure you’re supporting an ethical sanctuary and what you get to experience when you attend one.


How to spot an ethical sanctuary

There are five things to look out for when choosing an elephant sanctuary to visit, and happily, you can find much of this information online and through reviews and photos. These five things are:

  • What kind of work are the elephants doing?
    If you have the chance to go for an elephant ride or perform in a show at a sanctuary, it’s not an ethical sanctuary. For elephants to be trained to perform or give rides they must be broken, which often includes being beaten with bullhooks or electric prods. 
    Their bodies are also not made to be ridden as their spines cannot support the weight of people and to do so can lead to permanent injury.
  • What are the elephants eating?
    Lots of elephant attractions will treat the elephants to sweets like watermelon, banana and sugar cane to keep them happy. True sanctuaries will, however, have plenty of forested areas where the elephants can roam free and eat things natural to their diets like bamboo, bark and grass. Look for these forested areas.
  • What is their access to water like?
    Beyond just drinking water, elephants need large bodies of water for their wellbeing. An ethical sanctuary will have a large water source whether a pool, lake or river that elephants can access to swim, bathe, play and cool down in.
    Some ethical sanctuaries will allow you to bathe with elephants, but there is some debate on whether this is ethical. There is a concern that the elephants you bathe with might have been forced to bathe at a time they would prefer not to. Use your best discretion when it comes to bathing with elephants.
  • How much interaction do they get with other elephants?
    Like humans, elephants are social creatures. It’s important that they be able to spend time with other elephants. An ethical sanctuary will allow elephants to have the freedom to be with one another and display their natural behaviours.
  • What are the mahouts like?
    The quality of the mahouts – those who work with and tend to elephants – and their actions towards the elephants are extremely important. An ethical sanctuary will have mahouts that treat the elephants with respect. Mahouts at unethical camps are more likely to punish the elephants and force them to adhere to certain behaviours whether its where to go and when to bathe or to perform

What you experience at an ethical sanctuary

No elephant rides, no painting shows, no performances, so what do you get to experience at an ethical sanctuary?

Most ethical sanctuaries not only offer tours that educate visitors about elephants and their importance, but they will allow you to get up close to and interact with them. At these sanctuaries you can feed them sweet treats like bananas, walk with them, and observe them as they forage for food, socialise and play with one another.

Some ethical sanctuaries have volunteer programs and offer camping trips where you can spend a few days observing and living alongside elephants who roam freely.

Ethical sanctuaries in Southeast Asia

There are several ethical sanctuaries in Southeast Asia. These include, but are not limited to:

Koh Samui, Thailand:

Phuket, Thailand:

Chang Mai, Thailand:


For a complete list of ethical sanctuaries globally, refer to the Responsible Travel website.