Ethical Elephant Tourism

Update March 2017: A reader alerted me that Ran-Tong Save & Rescue Elephant Centre is now offering elephant rides. While I stand by my personal experience there, I can no longer recommend Ran-Tong in confidence. My suggestion is to check out Elephant Nature Park instead. 

When I was brainstorming what I wanted to do in Thailand, I knew there was no way in hell I would be one of those tourists photographed hugging a drugged-out tiger. Yes, tigers are awesome, but I refuse to knowingly partake in any sort of tourist attraction that mistreats or abuses animals.

Chiang Mai offers numerous entertainment options featuring animals. This includes everything from the Chiang Mai Zoo to Cat Cafés. The most popular attractions are Tiger Kingdom and the region’s several elephant camps.

While Tiger Kingdom claims they do not drug their tigers, I had no desire to see caged tigers. My mind was set after reading claims of abuse at the popular Thai Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi.

I knew I wanted to interact with elephants, but I wasn’t interested in riding them either. After hours of research and comparing options, I decided to book a tour with Ran-Tong Save & Rescue Elephant Centre.

Their website promises that their elephants aren’t abused in any manner, claiming their herd consists of elephants rescued from poor treatment. Still, I decided to discuss my concerns with the hostel owner – a gentle older man who operates his own dog rescue. He reassured me that the centre had a positive reputation for treating their elephants well.

I opted for the Baby Elephant Care Tour, which included a tour of the camp, feeding sessions, lunch, elephant treat making, and bathing the elephants. When I arrived at the camp, it was clear that the elephants had a lot of space to roam and were well cared for.

Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism Thailand

Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism ThailandWe started the day by offering the elephants sugar cane, which of course they loved. A lot of time was spent feeding and petting the younger elephants. Our guide shared the camp’s history and explained the older elephants’ sad backstories. At no point were the elephants forced to do any tricks, and they were allowed to wander away from the group as they pleased.

Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism Thailand

Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism Thailand
After a delicious Thai lunch, we all worked together to make treats for the elephants. This consisted of sticky rice, mango and diced sugar cane. The elephants were thrilled and kept poking their trunks around in hopes of seconds.

Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism Thailand
After their treat time was over, we headed over to the camp’s flowing stream to bathe the elephants. Watching the baby elephants spraying themselves (and subsequently everyone around) was adorable. Elephants roll around while they bathe, and it was a bit intimidating to be so close to the larger ones as they were doing so.

Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism Thailand Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism Thailand Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism Thailand

I went in having mixed feelings about doing an elephant tour, but I felt good about the experience afterwards. It was humbling to be so close to such large, majestic creatures. The camp appeared to care deeply about the welfare of the elephants, and the elephants seemed to love their caretakers in return.

After that day, I was left with the impression that elephants are gentle, intuitive animals; the thought of one being mistreated pains me. Unfortunately, elephants are generally not treated well within the Thai tourism industry.

This post by Matthew from Expert Vagabond discusses why you should not partake in elephant riding tours, and explains the cruel training process involved. Matthew raves about his experience at Elephant Nature Park, which sounded almost identical to my visit with Ron-Tong.

Cruelty-free Elephant Tourism Thailand

Originally, I hoped to do my tour with Elephant Nature Park, as they are lauded for their sustainable, elephant-friendly practices. Unfortunately, their tours were sold out well in advance. Based on my research, Ran-Tong seemed like a suitable alternative.

The elephants at Ran-Tong seemed happy and well cared for, so I think I made the right choice. I hope the Thai tourism industry will catch up, and do away with elephant paintings, among other cruel practices.

In the meantime, I urge you to reconsider riding an elephant (despite how many likes the photo will get on Instagram) and to seek out kinder elephant tours instead!

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  • Reply
    April 24, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    When I was in Thailand I was like you and didn’t want to partake in anything unethical or harmful for animals. I found the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary when I was looking for things to do and they actually use all the money they receive to rescue more elephants from camps and there is no riding whatsoever.

    • Reply
      April 24, 2015 at 9:33 pm

      That’s great, it seems like more people are becoming concerned about the Elephant’s treatment, and a lot of sanctuaries are following suit! I think Elephant Jungle Sanctuary was one of the options I looked at, but it was full at the time I wanted to go!

      Also, one of my majors was German so I love your blog name!

  • Reply
    April 26, 2015 at 10:42 am

    OMG! So amazing! Pinned this for my next trip to Thailand. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Reply
      April 26, 2015 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks Jamillah, I’m so glad you found it helpful!

  • Reply
    Stephanie Bounds
    August 5, 2015 at 9:00 pm

    Thanks so much for the great recommendation! I’m heading to Thailand in the fall and would love to meet an elephant without condoning their poor treatment. Glad to hear there are some positive options!

  • Reply
    February 20, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I was really excited to hear about this place, since even many elephant sanctuaries exploit the animals they are supposed to care for. But when I headed to their website, the homepage image was of 2 elephants being ridden by 2 people each. Really disappointing that I can’t seem to find anywhere that is legitimately a ‘sanctuary’.

    • Reply
      March 15, 2017 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Katie,

      Thanks for pointing this out to me. At the time of my visit, they didn’t offer elephant rides. I’m so disappointed to hear that has changed. I will change the article to reflect this. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you are able to find a good elephant sanctuary.

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