Tips for an Ethical Elephant Encounter

When you travel in Southeast Asia or South Africa you will likely notice a lot of elephant places that advertise opportunities for tourists to ride, play with and feed these enormous and intelligent creatures. Riding on the back of an elephant may be on your bucket list – after all who wouldn’t want such an unforgettable elephant encounter experience?

Elephant Encounter

However, the sad truth is that not every elephant sanctuary meets standards of ethical treatment and some of them overwork and mistreat the elephants. Southeast Asian nations such as Thailand do not have a lot of laws that protect elephants and regulate how they can be treated.

Unfortunately, many elephants are subjected to abuse in order to “train” them to perform for visitors. They are forced to work long hours and carry loads that are too heavy for their backs, such as two riders at a time in a metal seat. These elephants do not have access to healthy food, shade or water and they are often ill, malnourished and mentally traumatized.

Elephant Encounter

How to Experience a Healthy Elephant Encounter

However, there are a few sustainable and elephant friendly refuge centres in Southeast Asia and South Africa which are taking proper care of these gigantic beasts. So, how do you tell which ones are which before you book your tour? Here are some helpful tips:

  • A good sanctuary should limit the amount of visitors per day, as too many crowds will be stressful for the elephants.
  • Be wary of places that make the elephants perform a lot of tricks, such as dancing, painting, etc. These tricks don’t come naturally, so what kind of cruel training methods did the elephants have to endure?
  • A good sanctuary doesn’t require the elephants to work, it provides them with plenty of free time and space. The elephants should be living as freely as possible.
  • The size of the land is very important. Elephants need a lot of room to roam and should have access to a body of water.
  • Look out for elephant rides where the elephants are worked for up to 8 hours per day and carry more than one person on their back at a time. Although they might seem like powerful beasts, this is too much weight for them and will cause them strain.
  • Although a hook might be used in case of an emergency to control an elephant that is stampeding, a good sensitive and caring mahout (elephant trainer) should be able to handle the elephant most of the time without using a hook.
  • Small amounts of feeding, petting, bathing and photos is not harmful for some elephants as long as they are willing, but at a good sanctuary this interaction will be kept to a minimum and will not be forced.
Elephant Encounter

If you see a sanctuary where the elephants are unhappy, unhealthy or being abused – don’t support it by spending your tourist dollars there! Also, write about your elephant encounter experience on TripAdvisor to make the issues public and warn other travellers not to support the abuse.

About Kelly Dunning


A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word. She and her English boyfriend Lee run, packed full with travel guides, stories and inspiration for those who dream of travel. They have been location independent and travelling the world digital-nomad style for the last three years, with no address, no car and no fixed schedule.

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2 Responses

  1. Beyond Beaches: Best Places In Thailand | Go 4 Travel Blog

    […] intelligent creatures may be reduced to mere circus props. Therefore, it is important to choose an elephant experience that ethically supports, sustains, and takes care of its […]

  2. Avatar for Kelly Dunning

    Julia Hammond

    Good advice. I’ve also been told recently that to get elephants to tolerate the seat on their back, many are beaten or mistreated until they’ll accept it. So look for a sanctuary that, if it offers rides, does so bareback or on blankets and limits the ride to a very short distance.


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