Many travelers dream about snapping a selfie with an elephant while on vacation in Thailand. Sadly, elephant tourism in the country is complex and often harmful to the animals—and riding, bathing with, and even photographing elephants can contribute to their suffering. There are an estimated 3,800 elephants living in captivity in Thailand—a sobering number considering there are only an estimated 3,000 living wild within the country’s jungles. But at a few trustworthy places across Thailand, you can get up close and personal with our long-trunked friends while knowing that they are being treated with dignity and respect.
Why travelers need to choose carefully
The organizations on this list shelter elephants who have endured a lifetime of abuse in both the tourism and logging trades. Elephants held in captivity experience low birth and fertility rates, so many in the tourist industry are kidnapped from their mothers in the wild. Those forced to entertain visitors—activities that may involve rides, bathing with guests, or being made to do tricks like painting self-portraits—are subjected to “the crush” where they are kept confined in tiny quarters, beaten, stabbed with bull hooks, and starved so they will learn to obey the commands of their mahout (elephant handler).
Before logging was officially banned in Thailand in 1989, elephants were used much like any other draft animal and helped loggers transport massive quantities of timber. Elephants working in the logging industry were often injured by falling trees and splintered stumps, abused by cruel mahouts, and sometimes overworked to the point of injury, miscarriage, or death. Once the new law was in place, many mahouts turned to tourism to keep up with the cost of maintaining their elephant. And although the practice of logging jungles was officially banned decades ago, illegal logging is an issue for the country, and elephants are still used to log.
Tourism once generated about $500 million a year for the Thai elephant trade, but the industry collapsed during COVID-19 and many animals met grisly fates or (hopefully) ended up at sanctuaries. Abuse and captivity are especially tragic considering that elephants possess the same mental capacity for self-recognition, language, and social awareness (and perhaps even more) as humans—zoo-psychosis is a real thing.
Sadly, there is no regulatory Thai agency that oversees the treatment of elephants, nor is there an official vetting process when it comes to evaluating the ethics of a sanctuary. But as a rule of thumb: The most ethical way to see elephants is to view them from afar in their natural habitat. The most humane sanctuaries will let the elephants be while giving them a safe place to live and a constant stream of food to eat that would be a part of their natural diet. So, if you ever see anyone riding an elephant, encouraging people to bathe with elephants, or making the animals do tricks, stay away. And keep in mind that the best way to love elephants is to support the preservation of their natural habitats and prevent deforestation. Though much is out of ordinary people’s hands, consider donating to NGOs like Conserve Natural Forests and avoiding products with palm oil in them.
Here are five elephant sanctuaries to consider on your next trip to Thailand:
1. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
In 2005, British animal activist Katherine Connor Connor rescued a baby elephant from the tourist trade, whom she named “Boon Lott” (which means “survivor” in Thai). Tragically, the elephant died in her arms following complications that arose after an accident left the two-year-old partially paralyzed. Determined to save other elephants trapped in the tourist trade, she founded Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, located in the village of Baan Tuek near the Myanmar border.
Today, the sanctuary focuses on rescuing elephants from the tourist and logging trades. Elephants at Boon Lott’s are given specialized care for ailments like amputated or injured feet (there are still thousands of landmines littering the Thai jungle) and are given free rein to roam the 540-acre reserve. Three teak guesthouses on the property sleep two each, but the sanctuary is popular so book far in advance. Travelers can walk with elephants to their grazing pastures, plant vegetation such as grass, bamboo, and vegetables for the pachyderms to munch on, and more.
2. Wildlife Friends Foundation
Tha Mai Ruak
In addition to being a refuge for retired and rescued elephants, Wildlife Friends Foundation is a fully equipped animal hospital and rescue center. Situated in the province of Tha Mai Ruak, this elephant sanctuary rehabilitates injured wild animals and releases them back into the wild; shelters abused and neglected animals, including elephants, monkeys, bears, and gibbons; provides high-quality veterinary care; and educates the public and locals about the perils of wildlife tourism and the illegal pet trade.
Visitors are allowed to view the elephants but rides and bathing are strictly prohibited. Day visits start at $48 per person, while half days are $33. The foundation conveniently offers lodging on the premises; prices start at around $100 a night. Wildlife Friends also relies on volunteers to help with such projects as restoring the local forest. If you’re down for a longer stay—and some hard labor that will improve the lives of Thai animals—this is a place to add to your list.
3. Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary
In 2009, Emily Rose McWilliam, who grew up in Australia, traveled to Thailand, where she encountered Indian elephants (the most common subspecies of Asian elephants found in Thailand) for the first time—and, sadly, the abuse they endure. In 2010, McWilliam, along with her partner, Burm Pornchai Rinkaew, who’s originally from Chiang Mai, made plans to create a retirement sanctuary for elderly elephants. One year later, the couple’s dream became a reality when they founded Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary.
Today, the couple take care of three female elephants who are free to roam and socialize across the property as they please. The elephants’ comfort is a top priority and no bathing, riding, or any other form of interacting with the elephants is allowed. Volunteers are welcome to help with various tasks around the sanctuary, like planting more greenery, but guests can book day or overnight visits as well. Lodgings are traditional Thai-style rooms, and northern Thai cuisine (a bit spicier than its southern counterpart thanks to Malay, Burmese, and Chinese influences) is served on site.
4. Mahouts Elephant Foundation
Mahouts Elephant Foundation is not a traditional Thai elephant sanctuary. Rather, this organization returns captive elephants to their natural, forested habitat on thousands of acres in northern Thailand. Founded in 2014 by the Blaine family—who are originally from the United Kingdom—Mahouts Elephant Foundation champions safari-style elephant interactions where tourists can view the majestic creatures at a safe and respectful distance.
Working in partnership with local indigenous Karen people, they’ve created a unique, ethical tourism experience and hope that other communities across Thailand will adopt a similar model. The foundation doesn’t offer traditional day visits, but Mahouts does have two night programs and a weeks stay for community volunteering.
5. Never Forget Elephant Foundation
Never Forget Elephant Foundation runs a program that is fairly similar to Mahouts Elephant Foundation. Rather than housing elephants in a sanctuary, Never Forget Elephant Foundation instead works to release captive elephants back into their natural habitat in the Thai jungles. In addition to working directly with pachyderms, the organization also prioritizes working with the local Karen Hill Tribe (famous for their weaving abilities) to help change their relationship with elephants in a way that offers long-term solutions for all parties involved.
NFEF offers guided hikes, yoga retreats, and overnight stays at its headquarters in northern Thailand. There are several traditional, Karen Hill Tribe–style bamboo huts on site that can house up to three people, as well as a garden and a full-service kitchen that serves plant-based meals.