For years, elephants have been used for countless activities and attractions, such as circuses, rides, and shows.
But now, travelers are seeking more ethical experiences.
No more chains, no more tricks; animal-friendly travel is on the rise, and it’s about time.
Elephant friendly travel
Elephants are arguably one of the most loved animals in the world – they’re emotionally complex, intelligent, gentle and empathetic.
With the growing popularity of ethical and animal-friendly holidays, more travelers are searching for destinations and activities that don’t harm animals, wildlife, or the environment.
World Animal Protection says while people love seeing animals while traveling, many of the tourist attractions containing elephants are inhumane.
“In order for these animals do ‘tricks’ for tourists, like the baby elephant that made headlines last week for being forced to ‘rave’, they have to undertake harsh training,” says Ben Pearson from World Animal Protection.
“Out of almost 3,000 elephants used for entertainment tourism in Asia alone, 77% live in cruel and severely inadequate conditions.
“As for riding elephants, it’s safe to assume that all riding, shows and washing is inhumane.
“For this act to be possible, elephants are denied their herd nature by being kept in captivity, taken from their mothers and families in the wild and many suffer from physical and psychological stress from obedience ‘training.”
Pearson says tourists should be researching higher-welfare venues where they aren’t in direct contact with the elephants.
“If you can ride or touch an elephant, or watch it perform, chances are the elephant has been subjected to cruel training and is living in poor conditions.”
The team at World Animal Protection has compiled a guide for travelers who are keen to see elephants on their next trip to Asia.
Five things for travelers to know
Not for entertainment
The biggest tip is to do your research before you travel to see if an elephant venue promotes the entertainment of elephants or not.
Genuine sanctuaries do not offer guests to ride elephants, ‘be-a-mahout’-activities, shows or any other inappropriate public interaction.
In fact, elephant-friendly locations should not offer any direct contact with the elephants.
Check for level of captivity
If you are thinking of visiting a park where elephants are quite enclosed then you should think again.
Elephant-friendly sanctuaries will always aim to provide relatively wild or semi-wild conditions for elephants to live during both day and night.
This is important so that the animals can engage in social interaction, form natural grouping, forage instinctively and allow for adequate movement.
Explore education offerings
Elephant cruelty is a massive problem, especially in underdeveloped countries.
A great way to spot an elephant-friendly venue is to check out their education offering.
Cruelty-free locations will always try and educate their visitors in an engaging way with the aim to raise awareness of animal welfare concerns such as elephant captivity, taking animals from the wild and inability to provide for their complex needs.
Elephant control and conditioning methods
If a venue treats their animals in an inhumane way in order to perform unnatural behaviour such as tricks, shows and painting they are partaking in animal cruelty.
Make sure you only visit venues where elephants are only handled humanely, where positive reinforcement is used whenever possible to manage elephants and ensure the safety of tourists, caretakers and animals.
Breeding in captivity A big red flag for spotting a venue where animal cruelty is engaged is whether or not their elephants breed whilst in captivity.
Sanctuaries dedicated to animal welfare will not engage in captive breeding as this will divert valuable resources and space away from rescuing other wild elephants that are in genuine need of rehabilitation.
Elephant sanctuaries doing the right thing
World Animal Protection has listed five animal-friendly elephant sanctuaries that need to be on every traveler’s itinerary:
Boon Lott’s Sanctuary, Thailand This sanctuary was founded by British woman Katherine Connor, in memory of an elephant she developed a close bond with Bon Lott.
The organisation seeks to rescue and protect elephants in Thailand from abuse and extinction.
Due to destruction of habitat and wildlife tourism, Thailand’s elephants are often unable to learn basic skills such as foraging, swimming, scratching and dust baths.
Through providing the animals with a safe home, the sanctuary hopes to develop these social and survival skills.
Founder Katherine Connor has been recognised by the International Fund for Animal Welfare for her work on the sanctuary.
Elephant Valley Project, Cambodia The Elephant Valley Project was launched in 2007 as a sanctuary to provide a home for injured and overworked elephants in Cambodia.
It’s currently the largest elephant sanctuary in Asia, covering over 1,500 hectares of forest, rivers, grasslands, and bamboo groves.
There are only 10 elephants at the sanctuary, giving them the space to roam freely in their natural habitat.
The sanctuary is focused on giving the animals their independence back, to develop their natural behaviours.
Volunteers and visitors are allowed limited interaction with elephants to ensure they are free to just be elephants.
MandaLao Elephant Conservation, Laos MandaLao is the first non-riding elephant sanctuary in Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
The sanctuary is currently home to eight adult female elephants and one two-year-old boy, who were rescued from riding venues and/or logging operations.
The elephants are free to roam with approximately 200 hectares of natural forest where they can also feed on wild vegetation.
MandaLao is focused on providing visitors with education on elephant welfare and conservation.
Many residents of the local villages are also involved with MandaLao – some are farmers who grow crops for the elephants to eat, or labourers who are helping to build new enclosures.
Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge, Nepal Tiger Tops is one of the first ethical elephant experiences in Nepal. The sanctuary is committed to conservation and sustainability, across all animal experiences.
At Tharu Lodge, visitors have the option to partake in the most natural and educational elephant encounter without compromising the wellbeing of these majestic animals.
Guests can join the elephants and their mahouts on their daily walk through the jungle, or watch from a distance as the elephants have a bath, play in the mud and socialise with each other – whilst enjoying a drink.
Elephant Transit Home, Sri Lanka The Elephant Transit Home was established by Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation in 1995, as a step towards protecting orphaned baby elephants until they could look after themselves when released back to the wild.
The sanctuary is located within the 33,000 hectares of Udawalawe National Park, with no boundaries so the elephants have the freedom to roam wherever they want.
This also means wild elephants sometimes visit the premises!
Since its establishment, the Elephant Transit Home has taken care of over 250 orphaned baby elephants before releasing them into the wild, and has been recognised as one of the best wild animal rehabilitation centres in the world.