Ethical Elephant sanctuaries

Day after day around the world, countless elephants suffer a bleak existence in the name of tourism.

From living sad, unnatural lives in captivity to being worked to exhaustion and treated cruelly by handlers at elephant camps that offer rides to hordes of visitors each day throughout Asia, elephants experience inhumane lives that are supported knowingly or unknowingly by tourists.

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But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The non-profit World Animal Protection, long a leader in the effort to improve conditions for elephants around the globe, recently released an “elephant friendly tourist guide,” which should be essential reading for travelers and tour operators everywhere.

To begin with, as the guide critically notes – the best place to see elephants is in the wild where they are roaming free. There are plenty of places around the world to do this including parks throughout Kenya, such as Amboseli National Park.

Kenya in particular, with the extensive, unwavering support of rangers from Big Life Foundation, goes to great lengths to protect elephants so that they can still be observed in the wild. It’s also one of the few countries in Africa that does not allow trophy hunting and does not engage in the culling of elephants.

If you can’t make it to see elephants in their natural environment, then it’s important to do your homework and make sure you’re visiting a responsible venue, not a place that participates in the cruel and inhumane treatment of such incredible animals.

Wild elephant herds grazing in the wild in a national park in Sri Lanka

What does a responsible venue look like exactly?

As World Animal Protection makes clear – responsible venues are places that allow elephants to be elephants. In other words, they are places where elephants are not offering rides for entertainment or being forced to perform tricks like painting. None of these behaviors are natural for an elephant and in order to force an elephant to perform for tourists, it is subjected to a cruel torture process known as phajan or “the crush.”

Responsible elephant venues also make it a point to educate visitors about the complex needs of elephants.

And here’s another incredibly critical point to understand as a traveler: A venue may call itself a “sanctuary,” “rescue center” or “retirement home” for elephants, but don’t assume that means the venue is a higher welfare facility for the elephant. You still need to do your research before booking.

How to know if the venue is truly a higher welfare facility? World Animal Protection has compiled the following guidelines:

Is Touching Allowed?

Only visit venues where you can look, not touch. Elephants are wild animals that belong in the wild. If a venue allows you to get close enough to ride, bath or touch them, it’s because they’ve been cruelly trained.

Are the elephants behaving like elephants?

If the elephants in a venue are not allowed to freely move and express natural behavior, it’s not the place for you.

Elephants in the wild spend their days roaming long distances, grazing and socializing with other elephants, not confined in small enclosures or forced to perform.

Are there baby elephants there?

They might be cute, but if you can see or touch a baby elephant, especially without its mum, then the venue is not elephant-friendly.

Baby elephants are tourist magnets, but true elephant-friendly venues shouldn’t allow breeding. You shouldn’t be seeing young elephants, except for orphanages where babies are rescued from the wild.

Are the elephants and people safe?

Elephants should always be treated with kindness and respect, and hooks shouldn’t be used unless in a real emergency.

Being wild animals, captive elephants can be unpredictable and dangerous, especially if they’re being crowded. Many tourists and mahouts are injured and killed each year.

Even with all of the above guidelines from World Animal Protection, it can still be difficult to find a truly elephant-friendly venue. To make that task even easier for travelers, World Animal Protection has identified the following venues that offer the highest level of care for their elephants:



Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary

Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary

Elephant Valley Thailand

Global Vision International

Mahouts Elephant Foundation


Elephant Valley Project


Tiger Tops Tharu lodge

The good news is that World Animal Protection’s campaign to educate travelers and improve the lives of elephants around the globe is starting to have an impact.

“Since World Animal Protection started working on its ‘Wildlife. Not Entertainers’ campaign five years ago, public acceptability of elephant rides has been in steep decline,” Ben Williamson, programs director for World Animal Protection US, told TravelPulse. “People have seen videos of ‘the crush’ and now know the horrors baby elephants endure when they’re taken from their mothers and chained and beaten and forced to give rides. As a result, sham sanctuaries out to make a quick buck now advertise feeding and bathing activities instead of rides. But these direct contact activities still require elephants to be put through the same cruel training.”

A seismic shift has begun to take place in the travel industry over the past five years, with at least 245 travel companies—including TUI, Intrepid, The Travel Corporation, G Adventures, DER Touristik Group, Thomas Cook Group, QYER, and EXO Travel all pledging to cease selling or promoting elephant rides, Williamson noted.

“But we’re not out of the woods yet,” he added. “The number of elephants in captivity has actually increased, not decreased. As dishonest elephant camps continue to find new ways to abuse elephants we must broaden our understanding of unacceptable direct contact activities. As the saying goes ‘if you can ride it, hug it, or take a selfie with any wildlife, chances are they’re being abused.”

If you’re looking for proactive ways to improve the welfare of elephants, then make it a point to help educate others about both good and bad elephant venues by leaving reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, thus becoming a part of the movement to create a better future for these magnificent animals.

In addition, you can help spread the word about how to identify a responsible venue by sharing World Animal Protection’s elephant-friendly checklist on social media.

Ultimately, as the World Animal Protection guide notes – we all have the power to change the world for elephants.

Be a part of the solution.