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Ethical elephant sanctuaries in Asia: What makes it ethical and where to visit

When it comes to visiting wildlife sanctuaries, travellers these days plan their visits more sensibly — where they can witness animals in their true habitat sans chains and cages and engage with them without disturbing their peace. Ethical elephant sanctuaries are places that have dumped the saddles and ropes, forbidden riding and bathing, among many other activities that conflict with the animal’s purpose of roaming the wild and its well-being.

These sanctuaries ensure that the majestic beasts thrive in peaceful environs after having dealt with the rigours of the logging and tourism industries. In order to give them the life they deserve, places like Thailand’s Samui Elephant Sanctuary, Cambodia’s Elephant Valley Project and Laos’ Mandalao Elephant Conservation, among many others, offer unique experiences prioritising the gentle giants’ wellness.

As World Elephant Day falls on 12 August, take a look at some ethical elephant sanctuaries in Asia and learn about how they take care of these majestic beasts.

Samui Elephant Sanctuary (Thailand)

Ethical elephant sanctuaries
Image credit: Samui Elephant Sanctuary/Facebook

Claiming to be the first ethical sanctuaries for elephants on the island of Koh Samui in southern Thailand, it focuses on the well-being of these animals since 2018. Inspired by the works of elephant conservationist and founder of Save Elephant Foundation Lek Chailert, the sanctuary emphasises rescuing these majestic beasts from their arduous lives where they were subjected to long working hours in tourism and logging industries.

The large area of the island’s forested land offers a retirement home for elephants where they can roam, socialise, bathe and play in the mud. Visitors can feed and walk with elephants as well as watch them live a peaceful and dignified life in their natural habitat. Among the first to join the ‘Saddle Off’ programme, the Samui Elephant Sanctuary has a strict policy against riding, bathing or mud bathing, trunk hugging, elephant kisses, sitting on or lying on elephants, among other restrictions.

In 2020, the second Samui Elephant Sanctuary opened in Chaweng Noi with the support of its visitors as well as hard-working employees and volunteers. Winner of the Best Animal Welfare Award twice in a row by the country’s tourism authority and the United Kingdom, it has also won other recognitions, including the ‘Best Practice Elephant Venue’.

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Elephant Valley Project Mondulkiri (Cambodia)

Elephant Valley Project
Image credit: Elephant Valley Project Mondulkiri, Cambodia

Founded in 2007, the concept behind the 1,500-hectare sanctuary in Mondulkiri was to offer a home to injured and overworked elephants. With a goal to protect the remaining wild elephant population in Cambodia, Elephant Valley Project (EVP) aims to create a natural habitat that is devoid of stress for the Asian elephants, listed as endangered by IUCN, by focusing on the “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare”. These are freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury or disease, fear and distress and to be able to express natural behaviour.

Keeping in mind that a large extent of tourism negatively affects the well-being of an animal, EVP has certain treatment routines for its elephants as well as a programme for volunteers and visitors on how to interact with them. The sanctuary does not promote feeding, bathing, swimming or riding. However, the only people to ride the elephant bareback are trained mahouts who have forged a bond with each of these magnificent beasts after earning their respect.

The Elephant Valley Project does not only cater to the needs of its nine elephants but also creates employment opportunities for the locals by allowing them to bring their elephants and avail care facilities of the highest standards in the world while receiving monthly compensation and guidance on how to keep their land and resources safe.

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Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (Thailand)

Phuket-Elephant-Sanctuary
Image credit: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Jointly run by the sanctuary’s founder and CEO Montri Todtane and Lek Chailert — well-known elephant conservationist and the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation — Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is spread over 12 hectares of land and borders the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park. It was the first to introduce the concept of ethical elephant tourism and is more than an expansive retirement and rehabilitation home for the gentle giants.

One of the well-known ethical elephant sanctuaries in Asia, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary has numerous ponds, open fields and hillsides, making it the ideal place for the elephants to roam. It also offers many types of programmes to its visitors who can observe the animals going about their business like bathing, foraging and playing in the mud or pond. While guests can choose to stroll with the elephants and feed them fruits, the caretakers here maintain a strict vigilance keeping the animal’s well-being a top priority. However, the sanctuary, as a part of the ‘Saddle Off’ model, has several restrictions on activities like riding, hosting shows, bathing, trunk hugging, elephant kissing, sitting on or lying on the elephants, being loud or noisy or crowding around them.

Another unique way of experiencing the wild here is the 0.6-kilometre-long canopy walkway for a panoramic view of the lush green surroundings and the magnificent beasts from a height of 19.6-feet. With the latest addition to the herd — Sri Nual — in May 2020, there are 14 elephants housed here.

Click here to join their initiatives or join their volunteer programmes.

Elephant Nature Park (Thailand)

Elephant Nature Park
Image credit: Elephant Nature Park

Apart from rescuing and rehabilitating these endangered species, the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) aims to develop a sustainable ecosystem for these species as well as the humans living here. They plan to do so through several measures, including planting trees to restore rainforest, creating employment opportunities and encouraging the sale of local agricultural products.

Situated in Northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai province, ENP was launched in the 1990s. The sanctuary endeavours to eliminate swimming, riding and bathing, among many other restrictions under the ‘Saddle Off’ model. Along with restoring elephants to the natural environment where they have the freedom to be themselves, ENP also provides shelter to other rescued animals, including cats, dogs and buffaloes.

If you wish to turn your visit to the sanctuary into one of the most memorable experiences, choose from programmes like ‘Elephant Skywalk’, ‘Single-Day Visit’ and ‘Pamper a Pachyderm’ that offer long treks with elephants and you can watch them bathe, among many other activities.

Through projects such as ‘Journey to Freedom’ and ‘Elephant Nature Park’, you can also volunteer to learn about taking care of these mammals by using herbal treatments, preparing food for them and planting trees, among many other tasks. However, you must be over 12 years of age.

ENP has also won several awards by institutions such as the Smithsonian and has been featured in publications as well as documentaries. Its founder Lek Chailert had been recognised as the ‘Asian Hero of the Year’ by TIME magazine in 2005.

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Mandalao Elephant Conservation (Laos)

Mandalao Elephant Conservation
Image credit: Mandalao Elephant Conservation

Known as the “Land of One Million Elephants”, Laos documents the relationship between humans and these mammals over thousands of years. Through the passage of time and owing to the industrialisation of protected areas, illegal wildlife trade and habitat degradation, the population of these animals has dived and increased human-animal conflict. As a result, the number of elephants in Laos has reduced to less than 400.

However, engaged in interactive and educational practices, this place is one of Asia’s ethical elephant sanctuaries that believes in the idea that each of these mammals will one day live in its natural habitat – the wild. The sanctuary dwells on a unique concept of forging a bond between visitors and elephant tourism in the most natural and dignified way, prioritising these majestic beasts’ well-being.

At MandaLao, elephants within the age group of 4-60 years can be found. These have been rescued from the camps where they were subjected to low upkeep and logging duties. The sanctuary has taken up various measures to safeguard the existing herd, including discouraging riding and holding shows. They are also building genetic diversity in herds, patrolling the villages on the park’s borders to mitigate human-animal conflict and introducing the importance of economic and cultural benefits of conserving elephants in the international media.

As part of the tour, you can avail the ‘Therapeutic Trek’, where you will be accompanied by two of the gentle giants for a 2.5-kilometre round trip. If you wish to explore the depths of the woods, choose the ‘Inside the Hearts of Elephants’ where you will be served a Lao-style lunch in the forest before relaxing at the Tad Kuang Song waterfall. The ‘Communicating with Elephants’ tour allows you to make special treats for the elephants, which you can feed to them when they visit the banks of Nam Kahn river.

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Wildlife SOS (India)

Elephant Conservation and Care Centre
Image credit: Elephant Conservation and Care Centre

Wildlife SOS believes in the coexistence of humans and wildlife through welfare and conservation measures. Not only elephants, but it provides rehabilitation to many other species of animals such as bears, leopards and reptiles.

Among its several projects, those centred around the gentle giants are Mathura’s Elephant Conservation and Care Centre (ECCC), Haryana’s Elephant Rehabilitation Centre (ERC) and India’s first Elephant hospital in Uttar Pradesh. ECCC was launched in 2010, where it joined forces with the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department to provide shelter to elephants that have been abused, held captive and exploited.

Along with ECCC, the ERC, collaborating with the Haryana Forest Department since 2011, provides a secure place for rehabilitation to more than 25 elephants. The Elephant Hospital founded in 2018 is armed with a team of veterinarians and trained staff who look after wounded, socially isolated, malnourished and psychologically depressed elephants.

Along with participating in various advocacy campaigns, visitors and volunteers can join the Wildlife SOS team to learn how to stop inhumane practices like riding, animal abuse and skin trade.

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Tiger Tops Elephant Camp (Nepal)

ethical elephant sanctuaries_Tiger Tops
Image credit: Tiger Tops Elephant Camp

Launched in 1964 by Texans Toddy Lee Wynne and Herb Klein, this is one of Asia’s ethical elephant sanctuaries that began as a hunting lodge only to be sold to British adventurer Jim Edwards. It was then turned it into a wildlife viewing operation by Edwards, with the help of his partner Chuck McDougal.

Around 2016, the company stopped all elephant safaris and went on to build a unique ethical sanctuary — the first of its kind in the country. The camp’s objective is to create an educational interaction between humans and these magnificent beasts in the latter’s natural habitat. Focusing on the elephants’ well-being at all times, it has begun several initiatives advocating responsible tourism which is at the same time sustainable.

It’s approximately 7.2 hectares of land that houses spacious corrals where the elephants can exercise their innate behaviour, socialise and roam around. At its two outposts in Chitwan’s Tharu Lodge and the Karnali Lodge in Bardiya National Park — both in southern Nepal – visitors can tour the preserved jungles and observe these gentle giants along with other animals such as tigers, rhinos, crocodiles, leopards and deer.

Choose from a list of safaris, including jeep, walking and boat, or spend the entire day with elephants, which begins with mahouts collecting fodder for these beasts. Watch them bathe in the Narayani River in the afternoon and finally, follow the guides as they take the elephants to their resting areas for a good night’s sleep.

Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary (Indonesia)

ethical elephant sanctuaries_Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary
Image credit: The Pawsome Project

The sprawling campus of 600 hectares of the Barumun Nagari Wildlife Sanctuary is situated in North Sumatra’s Batu Naggar Village. It is Indonesia’s first and only elephant sanctuary which was set up in 2015 with six rescued elephants.

The sanctuary became an Indonesian Conservation Organisation in 2019 after it managed to provide optimal care to the mammals it had rescued. The sanctuary, licensed by the Indonesian Department of Environment and Forestry, shelters 12 rescued and critically endangered Sumatran elephants, of which three are bulls and nine are females, and 3 calves.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (Thailand)

Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary
Image credit: Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary – BLES/Facebook

Home to nine elephants, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) is a 218.5-hectare reserve built by Britisher Katherine Connor in the memory of Boon Lott (which means survivor in Thai), a baby elephant. The sanctuary, situated in the Sukhothai Province, is designated to house rescued and retired elephants.

Similar to all other ethical sanctuaries mentioned above, BLES does not support riding either as it endeavours to provide a peaceful place for elephants who have had to endure the cruelty of the tourism and logging industry. It acknowledges the psychological trauma that these mammals may be going through. This is why BLES feels the need for such sanctuaries.

You can participate in many activities while being amid the elephants. These include collecting food, strolling and observing them in the natural environment as they relearn how to be in the wild. BLES also assists the locals who cannot afford to look after their elephants. You can also offer your support through donations to various funds, sponsoring a mahout and volunteer work.

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The Elephant Freedom Project (Sri Lanka)

ethical elephant sanctuaries_EFP
Image credit: The Elephant Freedom Project

Located in Kegalle, The Elephant Freedom Project (EFP) aims to rescue elephants from captivity or from ending up at a riding place and give them a safe home. At the moment, this family-run outfit rents one elephant who has worked in the wood logging industry for years.

As one of the ethical elephant sanctuaries in Asia, EFP does not allow riding, ever. You can accompany the elephant on walks and since it is no mass tourists kind of a place, an advance booking is a must.

The owners of this project do declare on their website that, “One restriction is the elephant owner demanding that we chain his elephant at night. This is not out of ill intent but simply because he is afraid his elephant might get injured when walking in the enclosure during nighttime. The owner will only rent out his elephant on this condition, there is nothing we can do about this. If the Project doesn’t rent her, she will go back to an elephant riding place, something we really don’t want to happen. We hope for your understanding.”

Located in between Kandy and Colombo, EFP is a safe place for elephants rescued from captivity. Even though the sanctuary is amidst several places that offer elephant rides, it is trying to make a difference through its initiatives and providing refuge to elephants.

The family-run sanctuary in Kegalle offers various programmes for its guests who want to get up and close with the elephants.

(Main and featured images: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary)

Anurupa Sen
Having worked with some of India's top media houses and publishers, Anurupa found her passion in food, music and storytelling. Although she loves to explore all sorts of foods, the ambivert's fluffy pancakes, minced meat alfredo pasta and kosha mangsho are a hit among a close-knit group of friends. At other times, she is usually found perched on the sofa, kicking back with a cup of coffee and binge-watching light comedy.