No trip to Thailand is complete without a visit to an “ethical” elephant sanctuary. Despite outward appearances, many of the sanctuaries are far less ethical than they proclaim. Read on how to spot the true ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, the plight of the Thai elephant and my personal experience in BLES Elephant Sanctuary.
Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand have become a bit of a heated topic. As realization slowly started setting it that riding elephants is in fact unequivocally linked to prolonged animal cruelty for said elephant, adventure-seeking travelers have started spending their funds on elephant sanctuaries instead.
The rising demand for a visit to an elephant sanctuary has meant a steady uptick in the offering available, with so-called “ethical” animal sanctuaries popping up left and right. The sad truth is that while many use the word “ethical” and flaunt the phrase “no-riding” in bold on their pamphlets, the majority of these sanctuaries are in fact far from ethical.
In my various visits to Thailand, I visited three elephant sanctuaries. Each of them had a slightly different approach, but one thing remained crystal clear: The elephants came first. The elephant sanctuaries I visited were Wildlife Friends Foundation (Southern Thailand), Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) near Sukhothai (Northern Thailand) and Elephant Valley near Chiang Rai (Northern Thailand).
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What does an ethical elephant sanctuary entail?
The animal organization PETA describes it as followed: “True sanctuaries never buy, sell, trade, breed, exploit, or profit from elephants. They never use bullhooks or punish elephants in other ways (even out of tourists’ sight), and they don’t force animals who naturally avoid humans into close contact with them. “
In short this means the welfare of the elephant is put first, not the visitor experience (or worse, profit). Visitors are mere spectators, comparable with going on a safari in Africa to spot wildlife. A distance with the elephants is maintained at all times.
Elephants are sociable animals, therefore an ethical animal sanctuary will ensure the animals have the companionship of their kin. Additional an ethical animal sanctuary provides the elephants with ample room to “be elephants”, i.e. to roam around, cool off with a swim and taking down a tree, or two. Read more on the PETA website
How to tell if an elephant sanctuary in Thailand is ethical?
Ethical elephant sanctuaries will enforce the aforementioned points to the letter. That means virtually no contact with elephants i.e. no bathing, no touching, no riding, no walking next to them (an elephant is not a domestic animal) and no photoshoots next to the animal.
If the elephant sanctuary happens to have younger elephants (as was the case with the Elephant Valley Sanctuary I visited up in Chiang Rai), they take the opportunity to “retrain” the elephants. A concrete example is to make sure these youngsters unlearn that food is provided by humans and in fact they can come by in through foraging in the forest. The aim of Elephant Valley Sanctuary is to release these younger elephants back into the wild one day.
A bit of background on the Thai Elephant
The plight of the Thai elephant is anything but black and white. Although it is very tempting to condemn any party seeking to inflict harm on these majestic creatures, it is worth getting the full picture first. Not all animal sanctuaries are unethical out of spite for the elephants.
Some are doing their best with the means they have, trying desperately to have a trickle of income to ensure their domestic elephant has enough food. This is typically the case for the smaller sanctuaries with one or two elephants. Please note, in no way am I condoning unethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand.
THAI ELEPHANTS ARE PROPERTY: Under Thai Law, Thai elephants are not considered wild animals. In fact, domestic Thai elephants are considered the property of the owner. Therefore removing an elephant from its owner in Thailand is akin to stealing.
THAI ELEPHANTS PROVIDED LIVELIHOOD: Until the ban on logging in 1989, the Thai elephants were used extensively for the hauling and stacking of heavy logs. After the ban, many families were “stuck” with their elephant(s) and no income to feed them.
ELEPHANTS EAT A LOT: Elephants can eat between 150 and 70 kg (330-375 lb.) of vegetation daily. 16 hours a day are spent feeding. Elephants need a wide variety of foods to be healthy: Grasses, small plants, fruits, roots, various tree barks and twigs.
ELEPHANTS GET VERY OLD: Asian elephants in the wild can live up to 70 years old, in captivity their lifespan is sadly much shorter averaging between 20 and 40 years old. Domestic elephants are passed down along the family (from parents to children) much like a beloved pet, or property.
THE NOTION OF ANIMAL WELFARE IS NOT THE SAME EVERYWHERE: We look at animal welfare through our cultural upbringing. What is considered unheard of for me (riding elephants) is not unheard of in other parts of the world.
My experience at the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES)
This article is a chronicle of my time at the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) in Sukothai, Northern Thailand. BLES is run by a lovely English woman, Katherine Connor, who has made it her life’s mission to provide a peaceful environment for elderly Thai elephants. I spent a lovely 5-days cleaning up elephant dung, cutting banana trees and taking walks in nature to spot the elephants from a distance.
Today, BLES is home to 12 elephants, 2 monkeys, many cats and dogs, and even a crocodile lovingly named Jerry. The animals rescued have often suffered emotional and physical abuse. Where others have given up or failed, Katherine persisted and has nursed the animals back to health. The focus of this blog post is the Thai elephants, but please take a look at the bottom of the article for more info on the BLES cat and dog sanctuary.
Note: Sadly when I went, I traveled without a camera to document the magic that is BLES. Therefore the images used were shot on my (very old) phone camera and are a bit grainy.
The first morning, my 5 fellow volunteers and I were treated to a veritable vegan feast for breakfast. As we munched on pancakes and fresh fruit, there was a rumbling noise all of a sudden. I turned around and to my surprise I saw three large elephants marching defiantly over our way.
These are the infamous gossip girls, Lotus, Wassana and Pang Dow, as I later learned. All through breakfast we could hear the ladies trumpeting, rumbling and squeaking. They too are having breakfast, with crunchy banana leaves. It seems they have a lot to talk about and live up to their name. Never in my life have I heard elephants make such noises: A variety of different squeaks and ruffling sounds.
The BLES house rules are very clear, no touching the elephants unless they seek out human interaction. With this in mind, I was a bit uneasy when Lotus decided to plop her trunk on the side of our breakfast hut. Does this constitute requesting human interaction?
After a nod from Katherine, I leaned over to touch Lotus’ trunk. Her trunk was leathery with a few hairs poking out left and right and a big wet nozzle at the end of it. This nozzle soon ends up on my face and hair as Lotus was equally curious about me. At first, this frightened me slightly but fright soon gave way for pure awe.
Unfortunately, our bonding moment is interrupted by feisty Wassana trying her very best to sneak off with the leftover fruit from the table. She has yet to catch on to the fact that being stealthy is hard when you are a 1Ton elephant.
After breakfast, volunteers, Katherine, and the gang of dogs customarily go on an elephant walk. On the morning walk, we walked around the luscious 700 ha property and listen to Katherine’s many stories. On the first day, we were introduced to the female elephants, Pang Noi and Pang Suai, and handsome Mr. Moo, a bull, who happened to be chomping on some delicious greenery in the forest. In the distance, we heard the gossip girls’ vociferous conversations on topics not befitting our ears.
Amidst the trees, we saw colorful pieces of cloth and people chilling out. Upon closer inspection, it was the Mahouts (elephant keepers). Each elephant has a dedicated Mahout hanging out in their hammock nearby. The beauty is these Mahouts are not here to keep the giants in check but rather to ensure they are ok and don’t wander off and hurt themselves. Their tools used here are not bullhooks and force but mutual respect and love.
We walked back to the breakfast hut, which also happened to be the location for lunch. While having lunch, Wassana strolls over and opened the tap which is located next to the hut. It did not take long for water to gush everywhere. Her Mahout, Phi Loy, stands close by grinning from ear to ear and shrugs. This is obviously a familiar scene in the Bles household.
In a move that reminds me very much of my own parents, Phi Loy fastidiously wiped away the grit and dirt around Wassanas eyes and trunk. Later during my stay, I witnessed Phi Loy and Wassana playing a game of hide-and-seek during their morning walk. Phi Loy walks away and hides behind a tree, and usually, Wassana comes marching around the path to find him.
This time around Wassana was too busy gossiping with her crew. Poor Phi Loy took his rejection in stride with his ever-present grin. There is clearly a very strong bond between these two and I feel very privileged to be allowed a peek into their day-to-day life.
Time to go home! After 5 days of staying at Bles, I was sad to leave but grateful to have partaken in this experience.
BLES is the most magical place on earth. A place built upon hard work and a dream to let elephants finally be free from abuse and be themselves. It is proof that one person is capable of making a difference.
What to expect when visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary
Please don’t come here expecting the animals to stand for selfies, to wait around to be washed, or for anything else. Come with an open mind, set your clock to elephant time and be prepared to be star struck. There is hope for a better future for the Thai elephants and it starts with us supporting organizations like Wildlife Friends Foundation (Southern Thailand), Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) near Sukothai (Northern Thailand) and Elephant Valley near Chiang Rai (Northern Thailand).
Read up on ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand
Elephant Care Unchained: A non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating cruelty and improving elephant welfare in their native countries.
PETA: People for the ethical treatment of animals
Responsible Thailand: Government website promoting responsible tourism in Thailand
WWF: “Living with elephants in Thailand” – Winter 2018 Magazine Edition
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING ASIA
Sustainable Tourism Tips & Tricks
One day guide to visiting Ayutthaya
Guide to temples in Sukhothai