One of Thailand’s most ethical elephant sanctuaries.
Is visiting an elephant sanctuary ethical? Sadly most so called sanctuaries in Thailand are not ethical, yet there are a couple of shelters which are trying their best to be as ethical as possible. One of these sanctuaries is the Elephant Valley Project in Chiang Rai.
Elephants are beautiful creatures. For many, no visit to Thailand is complete without meeting the grey gentle giants. Sadly, Thai elephants are an endangered species. There are around 4000 elephants in Thailand and only around 1000 are wild Thai elephants. The other 3000, classed as ‘domesticated’ elephants, work in logging or tourism. Many of these are abused and treated very poorly even in so called sanctuaries. This raises ethical questions. Many tourists want to see the elephants but without contributing to animal cruelty. Yet there are also many tourists who do not care about the conditions the elephants are being kept in or treated.
As long as there is a demand to see elephants up close, places will cater to tourists. Therefore, how do you pick a truly ethical sanctuary? Or can visiting elephants in captivity ever be classed as ethical?
Unfortunately, I believe that no sanctuary in the whole of Thailand could be classed as truly ethical.
Yet there are a few places in Thailand that truly are trying to do what is best for the elephants. Whilst none of them may be perfect yet, it could be seen as being ethical to help support them in their moral aims.
What is ethical?
One of the definitions of ethical is ‘avoiding activities or organizations that do harm to people or the environment’. I feel that the word ‘animal’ should be added as well. If we take that definition, then the Elephant Valley project in Chiang Rai is world-leading in shaping what an elephant sanctuary should look like.
The word ‘sanctuary’ is very loosely used in Thailand, and many so-called sanctuaries are more like zoos or circuses. Yet the Chiang Rai Elephant Valley centre, run by the award-winning Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia, adheres to strict ethical animal welfare standards. The Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia is a registered Cambodian NGO. They are said to lead the way when it comes to setting high ethical animal welfare standards in Southeast Asia. They put elephants first and the only experience they offer is ‘watching elephants being real elephants’.
The Elephant Valley project now has a new branch in Chiang Rai. We spent half a day at Elephant Valley Project Thailand. Whilst the Elephant Valley Project Thailand is by no means perfect it is certainly going in the right direction. We were happy that we had chosen to support this project during our visit to Thailand.
Getting to the Elephant Valley Project Thailand
A four by four truck picks you up from your accommodation and takes you just outside of the city to the Elephant Valley Sanctuary. We sit in the rickety truck and pick up other tourists from around Chiang Rai. A few more Brits, Canadians and Germans join us in the back of the truck. We drive through the city and head south. We pass the famous White Temple on our way.
As you arrive you treat your shoes with a solution ensuring you bring no foreign germs into the sanctuary.
We then sat down for tea and coffee whilst Jack, the owner, tells you about the work they have done, what they are doing and what their ultimate goal is. Jack used to work at the Cambodia Elephant Sanctuary. He now works at the sanctuary in Chiang Rai and is working on two more projects.
One of Jack’s projects is to establish a rehabilitation space and the other is to create an elephant safari. Jack’s ultimate goal is to create a safe and natural environment for elephants. He is would like to create an elephant safari where you ride around a protected jungle and with binoculars watch elephants from afar. This should be what we should be working towards. We should be minimising elephant’s contact with humans and allowing them just to live. We also need to them to be afraid of humans. As sad as this sounds, if elephants are afraid of humans, they will have a much better chance of survival.
A sanctuary should aim to put the needs of the animal above the desires of a consumer. Hearing Jack talk about the elephant safari and allowing elephants to just be elephants, we knew our money was going towards a good cause.
How is Elephant Valley different to other elephant centres?
Elephant Valley project is different to other elephant centres. For example, there is a limit as to how close you can be with the gorgeous creatures at Elephant Valley in Chiang Rai. Tourists are allowed just 5 minutes up close with the elephants. Many other so-called sanctuaries let tourists hike with the elephants and bathe them. This is neither natural nor enjoyable for the creature. At Elephant Valley sanctuary, there is no riding, playing or washing the elephants here. You are allowed to watch the elephants just being elephants.
We are introduced to our friendly guide. We are told to follow her instructions blindly as our safety depends on it. We begin our guide aroudn the sanctuary which is a very relaxing experience. We watch the elephants from afar. Our guide ensures that we are never too close to the elephants. We follow them from a safe distance and just watch them being elephants. There are different sections of the enclosure for them to wonder in and we follow them around. The elephant sanctuary in Thailand is much smaller than the one in Cambodia. Elephant Valley Thailand has 15 hectares and is 1% of the size of the sanctuary in Cambodia (which is about 1500 hectares). Yet Jack’s vision will see a much larger site in Thailand in the near future.
Elephant Valley has five elephants at present, a few used to be used in circuses and others in the logging industry. They have been obtained from locals who are given payment over several years to avoid them buying more elephants with the funds.
Our guide talks about the elephants, their needs and their personalities. She had a wonderful array of stories about their antics. It just goes to show that you do not need to bathe an elephant to get to know them.
We wander around for about an hour just watching these magnificent creatures.
Feeding the elephants
There is a very small window where tourists can get close to the elephants. At snack time, you are allowed to feed the elephants bananas for 5 minutes, allowing a little time up close with the elephants. This represents the fine balance of needing to gather funds for the elephant safari from tourists who want to see elephants up close vs allowing the elephants to avoid loud snappy happy tourists. Allowing tourists 5 minutes to meet the gentle giants helps gather required finances for a better future.
After we fed the animals, we were then given a delicious meal. There were a few vegetarian and a couple of vegan options for us. The food was a nice addition to some of the lovely vegan food in Chiang Rai. The whole set up was very peaceful as we could watch the elephants slowly plodding along whilst enjoying our meal.
Is Elephant Valley Project perfect?
Whilst the sanctuary is by no means perfect it is certainly going in the right direction. You could argue it would be more ethical to not visit a sanctuary at all. If you would like to support an elephant rehabilitation centre you could just donate without visiting. However, if you would like to see an elephant for yourself and want to support an organisation with high moral standards, it is a thoroughly wonderful experience seeing these majestic giants at the Elephant Valley Project. If you want to visit a fairly ethical sanctuary, consider visiting Elephant Valley when you go to Chiang Rai to support this fantastic venture.
If I can’t visit the Elephant Valley Project are there other reputable sanctuaries in Thailand?
If you cannot visit the Elephant valley project there are a few other reputable sanctuaries in Thailand. For example, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary ensures guest numbers are kept low as to minimise the impact on the elephants. If you would like to visit an elephant care home for elderly giants you can go to Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary. Burm and Emily’s elephant sanctuary offers a permanent home for old, retired and injured elephants. There is no bathing or riding here, you can watch them from afar and feed them for a few minutes. In the south there is a fairly ethical sanctuary on Koh Samui. Samui Elephant Haven offers observation and feeding whilst reinvesting the profits back into the sanctuary. There are a few ethical elephant experiences in Thailand just make sure you research before visiting.
Seeing an elephant sanctuary is on many Thailand backpacking itineraries. Chiang Rai is a great place to visit as a backpacker so why not add a visit to this great sanctuary to your trip?
What do you think? Would you visit Elephant valley project?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.