Why Elephant Trekking Shouldn’t Be on Your Thailand Bucket List

October 19, 2018  •   3 min read


As the weather cools down in the western side of the world, many of us are dreaming of our next tropical destination. With Asia, particularly Thailand, being a popular choice for travelers during the winter months, the beaches, the culture, and the exotic animals beckon the most. While we encourage you as always to travel as sustainably as possible, one thing we urge you to take heed of is elephant trekking. There’s been quite a bit of a buzz about elephant trekking in recent years, but you might not have considered it until now. If you love animals, especially these gentle giants, here’s why elephant trekking shouldn’t be on your Thailand bucket list.


Taken at a Young Age

While we all like to paint a pretty picture in our head of mahouts and their elephant pets, the reality of elephant trekking for the tourism industry is a far cry from that. We do have to acknowledge that historically and traditionally, elephants and their mahouts have co-existed for centuries, with elephants often used for logging, warfare, transportation, farming and in cultural ceremonies. Today however, elephants for tourism is a completely different type of relationship.

Babies are taken from their mothers and families in the wild at a very young age. The demand in the tourism industry is so high that baby elephants have a very high sale value. The babies are illegally captured, which is traumatic not only for them, but for their mothers as well. With their ferocious protectiveness, the mothers who fight back are often killed.

Training begins right away for these young elephants, and they are often beaten and tied down until they submit to their trainers. Their spirits are broken and they are often depressed and emotionally vulnerable, not to mention completely traumatized.


Live in Cramped Quarters

Elephants live in matriarchal herds in the wild, and they graze and search for fresh vegetation. The jungle is their home and playground, and they are used to bathing in rivers, playing in the mud, and traveling long distances in a day. When in captivity, they live in cramped quarters and are often chained. They usually are kept in pens with concrete floors that are extremely damaging to their feet and legs. The lack of exercise combined with standing on concrete all day contributes to problems with their feet, arthritis, and back injuries, causing captive elephants to die decades before their normal lifespan.

Elephants in captivity are also denied nutritious food, adequate amounts of water, time with other elephants, and the freedom to roam. In poor places like Thailand, many elephants in captivity are denied veterinary care, forcing them to suffer while carrying humans on their backs all day.


Beware of Scams

Wild Animal Protection conducted a survey in 2014 that found that nearly 50 percent of travelers “pay for an animal experience because they love animals.” If tourists are made aware of the treatment these animals receive, they would be shocked to see how their actions contribute to their suffering.

With all the buzz in recent years about how bad elephant trekking really is, tour companies and attractions have followed where the money is – sanctuaries. With a growing number of tourists opting for elephant sanctuaries instead of trekking, Asian tour companies have jumped on this trend and elephant sanctuaries are popping up everywhere. While this may seem great, we have to be wary with which sanctuary we choose to support. Many tourists are duped into believing that all sanctuaries mean a happy home for elephants, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In an effort to keep making a profit, words like “rescue center”, “refuge”, “retirement facility” and “orphanage” are added to what was once a trekking site. The title may have changed, but often times, the elephants are still being abused and made to perform. They aren’t allowed their own freedom, but are required to follow their trainers’ commands to let people feed them, touch them, and bathe them.


What can you do?


When looking for an elephant sanctuary, make sure the basic needs of the animal are being met:

Food: They should be having access to food that is not just sugary and easy (watermelons, bananas and sugar cane are sweet treats for elephants, and they love them, but they don’t provide a full nutritious balance). Elephants should have access to a forested area where they can roam and forage on bamboo leaves, bark and grass. If this isn’t possible, the camp should provide them with a varied and healthy diet.

Water: Elephants need a lot of water, and their access to it should be easy and plentiful. Aside from just drinking it, they should have access to bathe in it, as this is really important for their well-being. Access to a river or large watering hole is something to look out for.

Interaction: Elephants are very social and emotional. An ethical sanctuary will give elephants time and freedom to socialize with each other, and display natural behaviours. As much as we might love them, interacting with humans isn’t their idea of socializing, so ensure the sanctuary allows them time away from humans too.

Space and Shade: In the heat of Thailand, elephants need access to shaded areas to cool down. These areas should not be made of concrete, but rather natural sheltered, grassy areas. Because of their size, they should have enough space to roam and move around. Sanctuaries next to large forested areas are ideal, as it gives them access to shade, food, and the ability to roam in their natural environment.

Mahouts: Traditionally, the relationship between mahouts and elephants have been close. Well-trained mahouts will have years of experience and will have formed a loving and respectful relationship with their elephant. Beware of mahouts who use any kind of force, intimidation tactics, and punishment.


Ethical Elephant Experiences:


Here are some ethical elephant experiences that you can participate in, guilt-free. The elephants are well cared for, loved, and treated respectfully and with their well-being in mind.


  1. Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
  2. The Surin Project, Baan Tha Klang
  3. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, North Thailand
  4. Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital, Chiang Mai
  5. Elephant Haven, Kanchanaburi
  6. Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai


You might also like: The Sustainable Guide to Bali


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