With any visit to South East Asia and Thailand in particular, tourists are bombarded with advertisements of elephant sanctuaries and organisations. How do you know that you are choosing the most ethical one that truly looks after its elephants? After all, an enjoyable visit means having a clear conscience. Ask these questions during your research and ensure that you feel good about your elephant visit.
Question 1: Where did the elephants come from?
Most elephant sanctuaries contain elephants rescued either from the logging industry, or from tourist attractions. This means that they were already ‘broken in’ by the original people that took them, often suffering from horrific abuse. Look for organisations that explain the story behind the sanctuary, the elephants, and how their lives have now been improved.
Question 2: Do they allow you to ride the elephants?
Firstly: don’t go with any company that puts a saddle on the elephant, as this can damage its back and many are left on for the entire day. If they provide rides, ensure they are bare-back with no more than 2 people per elephant. Make sure you are sitting behind its ears. Secondly: long treks can wear out the elephants, so a 15-20 minute walk, possibly with a break in the middle, is ideal.
Question 3: How do I interact with the elephant?
You do not need to be entertained by elephants painting pictures or performing tricks: this is not natural and these wonderful creatures are fascinating without having to entertain you. Choose a company that allows you to feed the elephants and/or bathe them. Or simply observe them from a distance and learn about them from your guide.
Question 4: Who looks after them?
Being surrounded constantly by different people can be confusing for elephants. Choose an organisation that states that they have one ‘mahout’ (elephant guide) per elephant. The mahout should create a special relationship with their elephant, built on mutual trust and respect. They should use only positive reinforcement to train their elephants.
Question 5: Do I have to pay extra for anything?
Elephant camps that charge extra for seeing a baby elephant, or that sell ivory goods and elephant paintings, are best avoided altogether.