World Elephant Day: 5 reasons to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary

We’re in love with elephants. I mean, how could you not be? They’re massive, incredibly intelligent, highly social, cuddly and cute! We might even have dreams about getting elephant hugs. How much fun would it be to get wrapped up in an elephant’s trunk (as long as it’s not damp and muddy)?

These kids know what I’m talking about || Image courtesy of Aquabumps. At Samui Elephant Sanctuary.

The thing is, though, that elephants have not been treated well by humans, both in the past and present. So, while we’d love for them to roam the world freely, it’s not always an option due to issues like deforestation, poaching and illegal logging. With the need to place elephants in habitats has come the rise of elephant tourism throughout Asia and Africa. While you could pop into any old tourist attraction to see our gorgeous friends, you should ensure you visit an ethical elephant sanctuary. Let us tell you the reasons why:

#1 You’re not breaking their backs (literally)

Riding elephants leads to chronic pain and injury. || Photo by Anaïs Buan on Unsplash

You’ve probably seen tons of images of people riding elephants and thought about how wonderful an experience it would be. Yeah, please erase that thought from your mind and never let it back in again. Although their frames are large, these gentle giants were never meant to carry large loads (that includes you, even if you’ve hit your goal weight). The weight of the harnesses, seating platforms, and humans can often be over 300 kilograms! To be ridden over and over by people degrades elephants’ spines and leads to chronic pain and broken backs. You wouldn’t want to contribute to an elephant’s suffering, would you?

An ethical elephant sanctuary will not be letting you get on top of its residents, keeping their elephants strong and healthy!

Read also: Kid-Friendly Activities in Samui

#2 The elephants get to spend time with their friends

There is a big reason [people] prisons use isolation cells as a punishment tactic – because we, as humans, need to socialise. Being cut off from other humans messes with us, and we tend to go a bit nutty without anyone else. Think Tom Hanks and his dear friend, Wilson the volleyball, in Cast Away.

Now apply that to elephants. They’re just a social as we are (if not more so) and are very emotional animals – they’re highly protective of their young and known to mourn their dead. Elephants love to spend time with other elephants. Ethical sanctuaries are going to ensure their elephants don’t go stir crazy. They let them play and display their natural behaviours. Other habitats might instead keep them separated and depressed.

#3 The elephants aren’t being abused

This is what an elephant should not look like! Separated, chained-up and beaten. || Image from Nat Geo Wild

To get elephants to “behave” around or perform for people, they are often beaten into submission. Tactics used to “break” elephants include being chained, being attacked with bullhooks or electrocuted via electric prods.

An ethical elephant sanctuary’s goal is to be as hands-off as is possible when it comes to raising the elephants. That means almost no interaction with staff or visitors except during feeding times – giving the elephants more ability to be themselves, i.e. happy.

Read also: 10 of Southeast Asia’s Most Incredible National Parks

#4 You get to spend time with them properly

Photo by Kym Ellis on Unsplash

The elephants at ethical sanctuaries will spend time with you because they choose to spend time with you. They’re intelligent creatures and will decide for themselves whether or not to interact with you. (Okay, sometimes they’re coming over because they know you have the good stuff, e.g. sugar cane and bananas.) But isn’t it way more rewarding to understand that they’ve chosen you as opposed to being forced to hang out with you?

It’s like knowing that you got asked out on a date with your dream guy/gal because they adore you and not because their parents pitied you and forced them to ask you out. It makes a difference.

#5 Your entry fees do more than just care for the elephants

Photo by Stage 7 Photography on Unsplash

Yes, elephants are very expensive to take care of, especially if they have ongoing medical issues. The costs of medicine, feeding the large appetites, paying staff and funding more elephant rescues are one of the few reasons visitors are accepted at ethical sanctuaries.

One of the other reasons is that it means humans aren’t tempted to spend time at less-than-savoury elephant establishments. When your hard-earned cash goes to an ethical sanctuary, it doesn’t go to a place where elephants are abused. Spending your money like this sends a message to governments that the world needs more ethical elephant sanctuaries. If enough of us do the right thing, then other animal tourism practices will go the way of the dark ages.

Where to find an ethical elephant sanctuary

Feeling motivated to see elephants the right way? There are several ethical sanctuaries in Thailand and Southeast Asia you can visit. These include, but are not limited to:

Koh Samui, Thailand:

Phuket, Thailand:

Chang Mai, Thailand:


For a complete list of ethical sanctuaries globally, view the Responsible Travel website.

Elisabeth Forsman

Our predictably unpredictable adventure nomad, Elisabeth is the yogi who wants it fast, the ultra-runner who prefers taking a hike, and the swimmer with a fear of lap pools. A consummate lover of all things outdoors, she’s on a perpetual quest to get those around her outside and moving.

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