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Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand: Should you visit them?

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Elephant sanctuaries in Thailand: Should you visit them?

When a friend once asked me about the saddest thing I had ever seen, I immediately replied, "the painting elephant." The elephant has a long history in Asia. Lord Ganesha, a Hindu god of beginnings, is depicted with an elephant head. In Southeast Asia, humans have been training elephants to combat and perform tasks for millennia. The villagers would capture elephant cubs from the jungles and teach them various tasks like transporting felled tree trunks from the forest. Those who trained elephants enhanced their status from mere laborers to business owners. Some families would even keep hundreds of elephants and rent them.

elephant painting

In the wild, female elephants stay within matriarchal family groups for all their lives, never straying far from their mothers. Male elephants leave the family groups when they reach puberty and often live alone. Some young males form temporary bachelor groups, migrating together until the beginning of the mating season, where they stray to look for a female herd. Asian elephants are significantly smaller than their African cousins. Roaming in the tropical jungles, they make pathways in densely forested habitats, giving passage for other animals, and trample herbaceous plants, allowing new seeds to grow. This role had earned them the nickname "ecosystem engineers" among animal lovers. Elephants are also known for their ability to dig holes with their tusks to find water underground during times of drought, helping many other organisms in the process. They are also one of the world's most intelligent mammals, ranking equal to dolphins in ethological experiments.

Asian wild elephants

The Asian elephant population has dropped by at least 50 percent in the last century. In the 19th century, over 100,000 elephants lived in Thailand alone. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, the entire population of elephants numbered roughly 100,000 across the Asian continent. Today, there are just 50,000 elephants in Asia, a third of which are living in captivity. Thailand itself has only around 3,000-4,000 elephants, of which about 2,700 are in captivity. The majority of them are enslaved by the local tourism industry that offers encounters with the elephants, including rides, forest strolls, and bathing. The most ridiculous of these services is the elephant painting a self-portrait. There is not a single elephant that would suddenly find a muse one day and paint on its own. Nor is there an elephant whose dream has led him to play football or perform acrobats. Elephants don't perform these stunts for prizes like bananas or peanuts. Their journey can be described as young cubs kidnapped in the forests of Burma, smuggled to Thailand, and taught abilities under constants torture and beatings only to earn money for their masters.

elephant playing soccer

Captive elephants are notoriously unable to conceive for unknown reasons. Thus, out of the 2,700 captive elephants in Thailand, only a few were born in captivity. Most of them were snatched from their mothers, who mourned after their lost cubs if they survived the ordeal. Many elephant farms present themselves as ethical sanctuaries, while they unethically kidnapped the elephant cubs and killed their mother in the process. The industry, which generates annual profits of about half a billion dollars, bombed in March 2020. The coronavirus stopped the international tourism industry overnight. The tourists, who had previously purchased millions of tickets to watch elephants dancing, drawing, exercising, and bathing, stopped coming.

elephant doing acrobat

As a result, since last spring, elephant caravans, accompanied by their trainers, have been returning to the jungles by the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. The trainers belonging to the minority groups in the area are the actual owners of the elephants who leased them to the sanctuaries. When the sanctuary owners were left to pay the elephants' expenses during the pandemic, they decided to send them back to the jungle. But it is not good news for the elephants. While the Asian elephant population has dwindled by about 50 percent in the last century, their living space has shrunk by 90 percent. Natural resources have diminished to the point that the forests can no longer support the entire elephant population. Thus, the elephants practically have no choice but to invade the agricultural lands of the poor villagers and devour their crops. We all know how the villagers react to this. Whether the elephant only filled his belly with a small portion of rice or claimed human lives, the villagers hunt them down in the act of revenge. If the wild elephants, who are naturally afraid of man, began to invade human spaces, how would the captive elephants find food in the wild? They will instantaneously turn to human settlements to eat sweet potato and fruits they are used to eating.

elephant in thailand

So, what will happen to the 2,700 elephants who are returning to the jungles? There is no simple answer to this question. What has been done cannot be reversed. The jungles that have been burned down and turned into agricultural fields can't return to their former state. The income generated before the global epidemic, both by sanctuary owners and the trainers, had already been spent. Although the elephants hardly breed in captivity, it is hard to persuade the villagers to stop capturing cubs so that the species won't face extinction. The cooperation between the minorities and the government can solve the problem, but they are already struggling to reduce poaching.

elephant sanctuary in thailand

Therefore, stopping the abuse of elephants is entirely in the hands of the tourists visiting Thailand and the tourism companies that send their travelers to elephant sanctuaries. These circus shows are not worth it. They don't comply with the wishes of either the travelers or the elephants. If you still want to encounter elephants, please make sure that the sanctuary you are visiting provides adequate care for their elephants. Also, please check if the activities it offers don't go beyond hiking and volunteering.


This unique Asia tribal private tour highlights the immense ethnic and cultural diversity of the rugged mountainous region of southern China, northern Vietnam, and northern Laos. The journey ventures through rarely visited areas of exceptional natural beauty, and includes some light hikes along breathtaking trails.

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