Animals Up Close: A Guide to Ethical Elephant Tourism

What could possibly be more amazing than an up-close experience with the gentle giants of the jungle? Elephants are an extremely popular tourist attraction in South East Asia but it's important to note: There's a right way to get the experience of a lifetime without causing a headache for the elephants or their owners.

Decorated elephant at the annual elephant festival in Jaipur, Rajasthan in India.


Decorated elephant at the annual elephant festival in Jaipur, Rajasthan in India.

Photo by: davidevison


Elephant tourism is a big source of income for families in Southeast Asia, but it can be difficult for tourists to tell if the animals in the often-unregulated camps, sanctuaries and refuges are well taken care of.

Elephants are trained and protected by experts called Mahouts, and the two form a very special bond that lasts a lifetime. Unfortunately, some businesses take advantage of the elephants and their trainers, and that's why it's important to know how to distinguish the places that truly care for elephants from the ones just trying to make a buck. Here are a few pointers to use in the field when searching for an ethical elephant experience.

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Photo by: Bartosz Hadyniak

Bartosz Hadyniak


When searching for a place to get an up-close elephant experience there are some good signs you should look for that indicate the elephants and their Mahouts are well taken care of.

1: The elephants have tons of space to roam.

Elephants need a lot of space with grass to roam around and most importantly, socialize. Thailand native, daughter of a Mahout, and Regional Coordinator with Growth International Volunteer Excursions, Ann Tidarat, explains that elephants depend on socialization with other elephants to thrive. Beware of places that don't give their elephants enough time to rest, relax and socialize with their peers.

2: The Mahouts are happy.

Happy Mahouts are a sign of happy elephants. Because of the close bond between the two, one’s mood is a good indicator of the other. If a Mahout appears tired or overworked, chances are the elephants are too.

3: The elephants have access to shade.

It is extremely important for elephants to have a place to find shade in their habitat because they are susceptible to sunburn. Overexposure to the sun could cause them to become dehydrated and they may even develop blisters on their back. If you can’t clearly see a place for the elephants to take shelter, steer clear.


There are several tell-tale signs that you should pay attention to when choosing a place to visit that can tip you off about whether they aren’t practicing ethical treatment of the elephants.

1: Places that call themselves "elephant sanctuaries"

Be wary of businesses with the word "sanctuary" in the title. According to Ann Tidarat, these places sometimes use words such as “sanctuary” or “refuge” in the title to make tourists believe the elephants are well cared for. Instead of relying on the title, check out the business in person first and speak to locals who are familiar with the place to be sure the elephants are not overworked and have enough space, shade and time to rest each day.

2: Elephants giving rides on concrete surfaces

Concrete is extremely hard on an elephants feet and joints, especially when they’re carrying a heavy load of people. It’s important to never ride elephants on concrete or allow them to carry multiple people at once. Walking on concrete too much can cause serious problems like cracks in the elephant’s foot pads.

3: Animals mocking human behavior

Friends of the Asian Elephant, an elephant hospital and recovery center, says they discourage Mahouts or trainers from teaching elephants human-like tricks such as painting or playing the drums due to its exploitative nature. You can learn more about Friends of the Asian Elephants and how to get involved here.

Is It Okay to Ride Elephants?

Asian elephant eating green grass and looking at camera, surface texture background, alive wild animal, travel in Koh Chang island, Thailand. Soft focus


Asian elephant eating green grass and looking at camera, surface texture background, alive wild animal, travel in Koh Chang island, Thailand. Soft focus

Photo by: sonatali


There's a fierce debate about whether it's okay to ride elephants. Ann Tidarat says she believes that riding is not a direct danger to the elephants, but it is important to consider other factors when checking out places that offer elephant rides. Even though humans may seem small compared to elephants, when they carry around heavy loads for too long without enough time to rest, it can cause a lot of stress and exhaustion. Elephants should never be allowed to give rides across concrete surfaces, and they should always be provided with shade, food and water. Elephants can consume between 600 and 800 pounds of food per day and drink up to 50 gallons of water, so make sure the place you choose is able to provide this. If you are still uncomfortable with riding an elephant, there are many places that allow tourists to splash in the river and play with the elephants without riding them.

Is Mahout Training Bad for Elephants?

Some animal activists are understandably concerned about the tactics used by Mahouts when it comes to training elephants, but locals agree, the training is a symbiotic benefit for both the elephants and their handlers. Without proper training, Ann Tidarat says these giants of the jungle could find themselves in a bad situation after destroying crops or accidentally wreaking havoc on local villages. Proper training and care ensure that elephants and humans can live together peacefully. Mahouts and their elephants have been an integral part of South East Asian culture for thousands of years, and many locals say this is the best way to be sure these gentle giants will be able to thrive in their communities.

Some Places to Check Out

An eco-tourist reaching out to caress an Asian elephant calf - Thailand


An eco-tourist reaching out to caress an Asian elephant calf - Thailand

Photo by: Yuri_Arcurs


There are plenty of great places out there to get the elephant experience you’ve always dreamed of. Here are some of the most ethical places to visit according to PETA and other animal rights organizations.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary - Baan Tuek, Thailand

Friends of the Asian Elephant - Lampang, Thailand

Elephantastic - Jaipur, India

Elephant Valley Project - Mondulkiri, Cambodia

If you are interested in traveling as a volunteer with GIVE, click here.

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