Tourism and Elephant Sanctuaries: Where Do We Draw the Line?

Is working in an elephant sanctuary an ethical tourist activity? In recent years, this question, and wildlife tourism as a whole has been hotly contested. There is much debate as to whether the industry is truly beneficial. Many oppose such operations, with the belief that we should not exploit wild animals for monetary gain. This concern is certainly a valid one. Still, others argue that these practices show poachers that animals are more valuable alive and in their natural environment. Respectfully, Discover Corps believes it’s possible to find a middle ground on this important issue. One that protects the health of wildlife foremost and appeases tourists second.

To do so, it’s important to understand how our presence impacts the natural environment, both positively and negatively. More specifically, careful consideration must be given to what flora and fauna we engage with, and how we do it. This and other complex issues regarding wildlife require thoughtful solutions. One option is sustainable travel, also known as ecotourism. This form of travel seeks to protect nature and wildlife worldwide and enhance the lives of local people. A great example of this brings us back to our original question about elephants. The fact that these gentle giants are a huge driver for Thailand tourism means you, as a traveler, will have many options to choose from to encounter the beautiful creatures. As such, here are a few important questions to ask yourself before traveling to Thailand for an elephant experience:

Am I supporting local companies?

When traveling consciously, the first step is to do your homework. Supporting the local economy is crucial – that means giving your business directly to locals. It might sound like common sense, but many establishments and attractions that are popular with tourists are often owned and operated by large foreign corporations who have the capital to start high volume operations. Doing business with them means that most, if not all, profits go into the pockets of people who don’t live in the country and who may not have a direct mission to protect the wildlife they own. Conversely, with careful research, you can identify locally-owned and operated companies that will allow your money to do more good. Remember this extends further than just the elephant sanctuary you visit. Ask yourself: Is your hotel run by a family or is it part of a chain? Are you having dinner at an authentic restaurant or one you could dine at back home? Questions like these are simple, but important to consider.

Should we do an elephant ride?

Riding an elephant is often a highly anticipated experience, but in reality, it’s very harmful to the animals. One ride itself doesn’t necessarily injure the elephants (they’re pretty massive creatures, after all), but it’s the abuse they endure during the process of “training” that is cruel. Plus, the long-term impact of constant rides can be detrimental to their health, both physically and mentally. Understanding this fact and taking action is the first step to protecting these majestic creatures. Your decision to not support these behaviors and the companies that promote them, does make a difference.

Ok, so what kind of Sanctuary should I support?

Selecting sanctuaries run by conservationists presents a better option. Many of these locations offer alternative experiences such as bathing and caring for the elephants. Travelers love getting up close with elephants, which can often lead to real friendships with the extremely intelligent mammals. Sanctuaries operating this way are beneficial for the well-being of the elephants, create a truly rewarding experience for visitors and provide a positive way for locals to make a living.

Responsible treatment of elephants makes all the difference

What’s the big picture here?

Thankfully, this awakening of sorts is occurring all over the world with Thailand leading the pack. Organizations and communities are learning the value and importance of wildlife goes far beyond the short-sighted view held many, including poachers and unethical companies. When done correctly, this business model can truly be sustainable for all (wildlife included). A perfect example is the countless wildlife safaris in operation for more than a century. They realized long ago that one hunted lion might generate a fair amount of income, but that same lion left alive is worth more than ten times the amount of generated revenue. In grasping this reality, tourism is in the process of being changed forever. This business format is more profitable for companies and clearly more beneficial for wild animals – especially endangered species.

For these reasons, Discover Corps proudly offers sustainable trips around the globe that support local wildlife sanctuaries. Help protect manatees in Belize, assist with dolphin research in Croatia, care for elephants in Thailand, and more. Learn the details of our Vacations with Purpose that focus on wildlife conservation and ethical treatment of animalshere.

A Few Ethical Options

Looking specifically for ethical elephant sanctuaries that do not allow riding? Check out our four Thailand trips with descriptions below: s

  • Thailand: Cultural Kaleidoscope – Enjoy a day caring for rescued elephants at a rescue center in the scenic Mae Taeng Valley.
  • Thailand: Elephants & Islands Expedition – Experience 3 days of feeding, bathing and walking elderly and abused elephants at a unique Elephant Sanctuary. Learn interesting facts about these elephants from the knowledgeable staff.
  • Thailand: The Baby Elephant Experience – Spend 3+ days caring for elephants at the Thai Elephant Nursery. Also, visit the Elephant Parade House in Chiang Mai and meet residents of the Lampang Government Elephant Conservation Center.
  • Thailand: Wildlife Safari – Travel to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Phuket for a day to learn about the threats elephants face in Thailand and how you can interact with them responsibly.

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