Text by Joyell Nevins Photography by Charith Pelpola

Elephants have long fascinated mankind. These highly intelligent and gentle beasts have long been revered as spiritual symbols, but unfortunately, human greed and the opportunity to profit from them has resulted in much suffering and cruelty.

The elephant tourism industry in Southeast Asia has a dirty past (and sometimes present). Dreams of “The Jungle Book” aside, wild elephants do not let humans ride them or interact like they would with a pet or domestic animal. An elephants has to be broken first in a process commonly called the “training crush.”

As Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, senior wildlife and veterinary adviser at World Animal Protection, described, “The brutal truth is that breaking these animals’ spirit to the point that they allow humans to interact with them involves cruelty at every turn.” 

Baby elephants are captured in the wild and are then confined in a small wooden cage. While in the cage, they are shackled by chains or ropes. They are beaten with nail-laden bamboo sticks. They are bludgeoned with a bullhook. They are also deprived of food and water. Is their non-ending suffering worth your enjoyment?

The end result is to ‘crush’ the spirit of the animal–then they are sold for training in tourist sites, circus shows, or logging camps, where they are often worked to exhaustion. The pachyderms that have humans ride on them can have permanent back damage as well, for despite an elephant’s size, its back muscles are not designed for the weight of humans. World Animal Protection reported that among 3,000 elephants studied in Southeast Asian tourist venues from 2014 to 2016, 75 percent of those were living in unacceptable conditions

However, there is a growing number of people whose love for elephants eclipses any financial gain that they may receive. Throughout Southeast Asia, natives and transplants are rising up to rescue elephants from cruel conditions and place them in more natural environments. Here is a look at some of those centres that offer sanctuary and healing for overworked and neglected pachyderms.

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

One of the original rehabilitation centres, the park, and corresponding Save Elephant Foundation was started in the 1990s by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert. Since then, Elephant Nature Park has been involved in dozens of rescues, and now offers sponsorship programs for its herd. 

The park also houses wild dogs, cats, birds, and buffaloes. Their environmental impact extends into rainforest restoration with a tree planting programme–their goal is to plant 125 acres of new seedlings on the mountain surrounding the park.

Visits to Elephant Nature Park could include feeding and bathing the elephants, walking the dogs, or exploring the reserve. There are both tours to observe and opportunities to volunteer. You can even be a part of a sleepover in the midst of the elephant herd.

One of the park’s unique initiatives is its “Saddle Off’ programme. The programme is outreach-based, working alongside independent elephant owners in the Thai Lanna settlement. The park’s aim is to “foster understanding between elephants and owners and bring direct income to these families.”

Samui Elephant Sanctuary, Koh Samui, Thailand

The Elephant Nature Park has offshoots and affiliates in Cambodia, Myanmar, Phuket, and most recently, Koh Samui. Samui Elephant Sanctuary’s founder Wittaya Sala-Ngam had been working with the pachyderms for years but said he grew disturbed by the number of elephants dying in front of him from being overworked. Ngam realised that many more would die if their living conditions did not improve, and he reached out to Chailert.

Visitors to the sanctuary can help feed the elephants and observe them playing and interacting in a natural habitat without chains or shackles. What visitors can’t do, however, is bathe or ride the elephants. 

The Samui sanctuary believes that elephants love to socialise, bathe, splash around, and cover themselves in mud. But when people are crowded around them in the water, it is stressful for the animals and causes them to curbs their natural behaviour and instinct.

Samui Elephant Sanctuary, Koh Samui, Thailand

Samui’s site explains, “We want our elephants to enjoy their day as much as our guests, so by limiting human interaction, our guests stand back or sit quietly whilst observing the elephants from a distance–letting elephants simply be elephants.”

Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, Southern Shan State, Myanmar

While many rehabilitation centres rescue elephants from tourism arenas, Green Hill Valley focuses on the Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE) logging camps. Green Hill rescues disabled elephants and cares for retired ones from this industry. 

It is a family-owned organisation managed by husband and wife Htun Htun Wynn and Tin Win Maw, and Maw’s uncle, veterinarian Dr. Ba. Ba and Maw used to work firsthand with the MTE, and with Wynn, acquired their first disabled elephant in 2012. In 2018, Green Hill won the Myanmar Responsible Tourism Award for “Best Tourism Awareness Raising Project.”

At the camp, two daily tours are offered, where visitors can walk through the education centre, and then feed, bathe, and observe the elephants. Each visitor is also invited to plant one regional tree from Green Hill’s nursery to help advance its reforestation initiative. The camp wants to not only encourage forest recovery but also to educate the community about the risks of deforestation and why reforestation is important. 

MandaLao Sanctuary, Luang Prabang, Laos

Laos was once known as the “Land of One Million Elephants” or “Lan Xang” from stories of a days-long procession of the majestic beasts crossing the Mekong River from Luang Prabang. Even in the 1980s, reports put the number of elephants at approximately 4,000. Now, there are an estimated 800 left in the country, only 400 of which are thought to be in the wild. 

MandaLao sanctuary is one of the newest sanctuaries, opening in 2017, but it is introducing another element to the elephant rescue efforts. MandaLao is working with its elephants to reintroduce them back into the wild. 

Visitors can feed, bathe, and walk with the elephants among the sanctuary’s 80 hectares of land. Interested parties can also learn about Kit, an elephant who came to MandaLao when he was only 9-months-old. 

Kit is being trained under a new positive reinforcement method, pioneered by project director Prasop Tipprasert. Tippasert has worked with elephants for over three decades, serving at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre and National Park Service

Rather than being removed from his mother, caged, and prodded, Kit has stayed with his mother and been raised using only positive reinforcement. As owner Michael Vogler put it, there are no hooks or tools to force the elephants to respond; it’s just “baskets and bananas.” 

While traveling through Southeast Asia, be a responsible tourist and an ethical elephant observer. Avoid riding on elephants, or patronising places that use chains or hooks to control their animals. Instead, visit the aforementioned shackle-free sanctuaries and organisations like them to help usher in a new future of elephant care.

It just takes one person to make a difference, so please do your part to ensure these gentle giants don’t have to suffer for your entertainment.