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What Makes an Elephant Sanctuary Ethical?

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From their size and longevity to their incredible intelligence, complex social structures, and immovable loyalty to their families, elephants are amazing animals that are very much in a league of their own. It shouldn’t be a surprise to think, then, that a lot of people around the world would want to see one up close and personal – for the effort, it would be the chance of a lifetime. There are only so many after all. A place that would facilitate an encounter between a person and an elephant surely is a fantastic locale.

Only until recently, however, most people aren’t really aware of what happens to these animals behind the scenes. Before the tourists arrive and after they leave, one must realize that the elephants in some of these places are not being treated ethically. Awareness is slow-coming but a necessary part of preserving the future of these gentle giants.

Wildlife conservationists and activists alike agree that hundreds if not thousands of elephants are being systematically exploited and abused by mahouts or elephant trainers throughout Central and Southeast Asia as well as Africa. These animals are often tortured physically with chains and hooks, separated and confined away from other elephants, overworked under the burden of people, and improperly fed day in and day out, all in the name of making sweet tourism dollars. Only if ethical tourism is more profitable than exploitation, can we hope to free these elephants from this kind of abuse. It’s a good thing, then, that more and more people are learning of the horrors that elephants have to suffer at the hands of these abusive mahouts, which has resulted in the shrinking in the number of these mahouts and their elephant entertainment businesses.

ethical elephant sanctuary

But how would you, the tourist, be able to support the mahouts and elephant sanctuaries that do care about their elephants? What makes an elephant sanctuary ‘ethical’ in the first place? Is it just a matter of being nice to the elephants? I’ll give you the rundown of all of the important details.

What makes an elephant sanctuary ethical?

Natural lifestyle

One of the clearest indicators of an elephant sanctuary that prioritises the well-being of their animals is the lifestyle of the elephants. When you look up an elephant sanctuary, do you see them roaming around in a protected, open space? Or do you instead see the sanctuary offering elephant rides or showing the elephants performing tricks? Pens and cages, collars and saddles are all warning signs of abusive practices.

If you see evidence of the latter, avoid the ‘sanctuary’ as much as possible. Although it might be interesting to see elephants paint or even get the chance to ride one, elephants that perform this behaviour do so out of fear of their mahouts. Elephants are typically ‘trained’ through a process called phajaan in Thailand. Literally meaning “crushing”, this taming method subjects elephants to all manner of physical and psychological torture – beating them with sharp bullhooks, confining them to cramped spaces, and starving them – for several days to crush the spirits of the elephant, making them more submissive to humans.

what makes an elephant sanctuary ethical

Limited human-elephant interactions

Tying into the previous point, elephants are also social animals and live in families. They are not really good at dealing with the stress of dealing with humans constantly demanding their attention. Even non abusive treatment can be problematic for elephants. Although they are naturally calm creatures, they can panic when they come under stress. And much like how people get stressed when working with other people over an entire day, tourism elephants get stressed interacting with tourists day in and day out. And if people can get stressed out being with even 5 people a day, imagine the amount of stress the elephant has to go through when they have to interact with as many as 100 people a day.

Truly ethical elephant sanctuaries limit human-elephant interactions to a minimum to maintain the elephant’s calm lifestyle. In fact, most that are confirmed to be ethical elephant sanctuaries don’t allow the tourists to interact with the elephants at all. If you really want to get up close and personal with these elephants, however, there are other sanctuaries that allow you to do so, but these interactions should be limited. If you see that an elephant tour accommodates large numbers at a time, that is a huge red flag and the tour should be avoided.

ethical elephant sanctuary


Although it is not exactly something that tourists want to see, the fact of the matter is that elephant sanctuaries are not exactly the most affordable investment. Maintenance costs for these sanctuaries always run high as the money will be needed to maintain the health and well-being of the elephants. After all, elephants aren’t exactly light eaters, eating as much as 300 pounds of food in a single day.

What separates the truly good elephant sanctuaries from the bad ones, though, is honesty with the up-front costs. Yes, elephant tours in ethical sanctuaries might be a lot more expensive, but the money you spend will be sure to go directly to making sure the elephants you came to see stay healthy and happy. If you find that an elephant tour is a lot cheaper, it is likely that you will find the other red flags we’ve mentioned as well – these businesses are out to make money most of all, with the money going straight into their pockets with little (if any) concern for the elephants that work to make that money in the first place.

There are many ways you can do your part to promote responsible elephant tourism in both your community and abroad. You can spread the word on social media. You can go out and visit ethical elephant sanctuaries and directly support what they’re doing. Any and every voice of support to separate the good sanctuaries from the businesses parading as safe havens is important. The most important thing is to be aware of your choices and make the right one.

Author: Benjamin Barling is a marketing consultant with Trunk. Trunk is a responsible tourism agency, helping to create adventurous and memorable experiences for their clients.

Images – all images provided by Trunk Travel apart from the main image which was provided by Sebastian Jacobitz for “Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai”. For their use please contact them directly.

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