5 signs to look for in an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand, Cambodia, and beyond – as featured on Yahoo Finance. See what it’s really like at the Chiang Rai elephant sanctuary, Elephant Valley Thailand, and Elephant Valley Project in Mondulkiri, Cambodia where ten elephants roam freely on 1500 hectares of forest.
In Southeast Asia there are as many as 13,000 Asian elephants are in captivity being used for tourism, logging, and transportation. A report by the World Animal Protection showed that 77% of elephants used in tourism within Asia are living in terrible conditions.
As an outsider, it might feel like the standard of the industry is improving. With information circulating about how harmful elephant camps can be, I thought the majority of tourists were starting to make more ethical choices. That we had evolved since the 2000s when it was considered normal have elephants rides and watch performances (I’ll be the first to admit that I regrettably rode an elephant in my younger days).
In reality, visits to elephant tourism venues in Thailand have risen by 30% since 2010 with many of these intelligent creatures still enduring poor conditions like being chained up, fed poor diets, receiving limited medical care, and sleeping on concrete floors. To make matters worse, there are businesses advertising themselves sanctuaries without having the elephants’ best care in mind. So for tourists seeking kinder alternatives, it can be difficult to distinguish an ethical elephant sanctuary.
While backpacking through Chiang Rai in 2018, I partnered with Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) to spread awareness about the current situation of elephant tourism and how visitors can choose a more ethical elephant sanctuary. Then in 2019, while my boyfriend Max and I were traveling in Cambodia, we got in touch with Elephant Valley Project (EVP) to make a video about their mission.
Update: Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, Elephant Valley Thailand is unfortunately closed. However, Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia is still operational.
Choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand and beyond
Currently, there are no standards or certifications for elephant sanctuaries in South East Asia, so this can make it confusing for even the most well-meaning tourist. EVP and EVT recommend that when choosing an ethical elephant sanctuary that it should meet the following “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare“:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst – Access to appropriate food and clean water.
- Freedom from discomfort – Appropriate environment with ease and freedom of movement.
- Freedom from pain, injury, or disease – Regular health checks for rapid diagnosis and treatment.
- Freedom to express natural behavior – Providing sufficient space, facilities, and social company.
- Freedom from fear and distress – Ability to seek privacy and absence of human-initiated contact.
EVP also provides a list of questions you can ask when considering an elephant sanctuary.
Elephant Valley Project
The Elephant Valley Project (EVP) started in Cambodia in 2006 as an ecotourism project of the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E.). ELIE is a local organization with the aim to improve the lives of captive elephants and conserve the natural habitat where wild elephants in the Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia.
Mondulkiri is where you will find the EVP sanctuary with over 15,000 hectares of forest for the ten elephants that live there. EVP’s motto is “let them roam free” by providing elephants with an environment that is as stress-free and natural as possible. By having such a large forest, the elephants have a lot of space to wander around.
Although I didn’t have a chance to make it to EVP, Max journeyed up to Mondulkiri to share his experience of two days of trekking through the wilderness, admiring these majestic creatures, and volunteering at the project.
Elephant Valley Thailand
Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT) opened in 2017, modeled on the same principals as Elephant Valley Project. This Chiang Rai elephant sanctuary has a goal to become one of the best places for elephants to live in Thailand and to set an example for elephant camps.
Like at EVP in Cambodia, EVT in Thailand puts the elephants first. This means that when visitors and volunteers arrive, they will only see the elephants doing things they would normally do in the wild such as grazing, eating, and swimming in peace. There are no tourists bathing or riding elephants..
My boyfriend, Max, and I visited on the full day “Elephant Experience” which included a full lunch, pick up and drop off at our hotel. Before partnering with EVT, I had researched a lot and read many rave reviews but I still had lots of questions. Our EVT guide, Kuang Pop, was very knowledgeable and had an answer for every one of them.
Education is a big part of the visitor program. Kuang Pop explained how the six elephants at EVT had come from the logging and tourism industries. It had taken them a period of time to adjust to a life of eating and roaming freely. They had made some friendships with each other but were still building a strong connection as a herd.
A day in the life of an elephant at Elephant Valley
Whether you come for a half-day (Elephant Lovers) or full-day (Elephant Experience) program, you will have a chance to see a day in the life of an elephant at Elephant Valley Thailand. The elephants have a natural routine of bathing, covering themselves dirt, and eating. As the elephants at EVT have spent their whole lives in captivity, when they arrive it can take a little time for them to adjust to their new independence.
I felt so privileged to be able to observe the elephants interacting with each other, rolling in the mud, and doing mischievous things like pulling down tree branches. We even witnessed a moment when one of the elephants got spooked by a sprinkler and trumpeted. The other elephants came running to protect her and stand by her side.
The full-day experience includes a Lanna-style lunch with water refills, tea, coffee, and bananas.
Volunteer at Elephant Valley Project
As part of your visit to EVP (in Mondulkiri, Cambodia) you can choose to help out with the care of the elephants and their habitat. This is a great option for anyone who has ever wanted to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand but doesn’t have a lot of time.
During our day at EVT, we were offered the choice to volunteer after lunch or continue to watch the elephants in their environment. One of the women in our group decided to help out and was thrilled by the experience. She went with the EVT workers to cut up food and when the mahouts hosed down the elephants.
Max and I stayed with Kuang Pop, relaxing on a pagoda in the field while watching the elephants play in the mud. A couple that arrived at lunch for the afternoon program were taken around by another guide then later we all came back together for the elephant feeding.
Feeding the elephants
Elephant Valley Thailand offers the chance to feed the elephants bananas and banana tree leaves. The portions are tiny compared to their daily intake (up to 136 kilograms or 300 pounds) and it’s the elephant’s choice if they want to take it. There is a wooden fence between volunteers and the elephant’s habitat. The elephant can decide whether to come and when they want to leave.
As part of their routine, the elephants are presented with the bananas or banana leaves once in the morning and in the afternoon. Kuang Pop told us of one tour operator bringing a group to the park that had asked for the times to be changed to fit in with the group’s schedule. Of course, she told them at EVT the elephants come first and they would not be forced to eat at a different time just to suit tourists.
Surprisingly, a couple of women in our group were unhappy that we kept a respectful and safe distance from the elephants. One complained loudly that she wanted to play with the elephants and that the experience was not like she expected. This shocked me because both the EVP and EVT websites are very clear about their mission to let elephants be elephants. Secondly. I thought that anyone who proclaimed to love these creatures would care more about their wellbeing than a selfie (don’t worry – you will get plenty of photo opportunities at feeding time).
Kuang Pop attempted to calmly explain to the women that it is not natural for humans to be close to elephants and that as the purpose of the sanctuary was to let them live as naturally as possible, we needed to let them have their personal space. In the end, the group decided to leave after lunch and were sent off with warm farewells. I don’t think I have ever seen a better example of face-to-face customer service than the way the EVT staff handled the situation.
Homestay at an elephant sanctuary
EVT also has an overnight option with Elephant Valley Homestay which includes all meals while there. The rooms at Elephant Valley Homestay even have views over the elephant habitat. The woman in our group who had spent the afternoon volunteering was staying that night and said for her, it was like a dream come true.
Even though I was only at EVT for just one day, watching the elephants moving around independently made me so happy. After our lunch, I was relaxing in a hammock and watching them walk by. So magical!
How you can help the elephants
EVT pledges that all proceeds from visitors to their elephant sanctuary in Chiang Rai go towards elephant care and conversation. If you aren’t able to visit EVT in Thailand or EVP in Cambodia but still want to help, then consider sponsoring one of the elephants at Elephant Valley Project.
In addition to making more ethical choices when it comes to elephant experiences, you can help to educate others by sharing articles like this one. The more people that demand kinder alternatives, the more likely the industry will change for the better.
Images by Maximiliano Brunetti.
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