5 ethical elephant parks in Thailand

Get up close and personal with friendly beasts in parks where their humane treatment is a priority.

by Kristina Tate

Going to Thailand without seeing the elephants is like visiting Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower. With the rampant mistreatment of captive and wild elephants in the country, though, tourists face a moral dilemma. 

Until recently, the options for tourists to interact with elephants in ethically managed environments were few.  Happily, though, Thailand now boasts a number of refuges that not only provide humane treatment for rescued elephants, but also sustainable jobs for the mahouts (elephant tenders).

Now, what constitutes humane treatment is debated — some warn against riding elephants altogether, and there are plenty of ways to interact with the animals without riding them. Baan Chang Elephant Park takes the middle road in offering bareback rides where mahouts carefully divvy up the load to lighten the burden.  Also variable from park to park is the use of chains and bullhooks, a long hooked tool used to train and control the elephants.  Armed with the right information, you'll be able to have an unforgettable experience guided by your own moral lights.

Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary
304 Mu 5, Baan Na Ton Jan, Tambon Baan Tuek, Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai

BLES was founded by Katherine Connor, a British expat who rescued a baby elephant called Boon Lott (‘survivor’ in Thai), and dedicated her life to nurturing rescued and retired elephants. Although Boon Lott did not make it, the elephant sanctuary she founded in his name shortly after his passing has flourished. It has been recognized by many animal welfare groups, including International Fund for Animal Welfare. BLES is located outside the village of Baan Tuek, an hour from Sukhothai Airport.

Due to its remote location, BLES does not run day or half-day tours. Most visitors stay for several day excursions. Guests participate in everything from collecting elephant food from the jungle to maintaining herding areas and walking elephants to grazing grounds.

This park does not offer rides and does not employ bullhooks or chains to manage the elephants.

Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary
Elephant Nature Park
1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing, Chiang Mai

Founded in the 90s, Elephant Nature Park is Thailand’s most well-known elephant sanctuary. It has won multiple awards and is recognized by many traveling agencies. Elephant Nature Park is about 60kms from Chiang Mai and provides a natural, lush habitat for elephants, dogs, cats, water buffalo, and more. Elephant Nature Park functions much like Baan Chang minus the elephant rides.

Packages range from one day to overnight tours. Guests hear the elephants’ stories, participate in feedings and bathing, and walk with the elephants around the area.

This park does not offer rides and does not employ bullhooks or chains to manage the elephants.

Elephant Nature Park
Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand
108 Moo 6, Tha Mai Ruak, Phetchaburi

WFFT has multiple animal refuge centers accommodating all kinds of animals, including elephants, marine wildlife, bears, monkeys, and more. They run large campaigns against animal abuse all over Thailand. Located in Phetchaburi, just 30kms outside of Hua Hin district in Northern Thailand, WFFT rehabilitates rescued animals and, in many cases, re-releases them into the wild.

Guests learn about the conservation issues threatening Thailand’s elephants, walk and shower with the elephants, and  also assist volunteers during the feeding of over 400 rescued animals, including bears and monkeys. WFFT only runs day trips.

This park does not allow rides, limits the use of bullhooks, and prohibits chaining.

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand
90/9 Moo 4, Baan Nong Hoi, Amphoe Mueang, Tambon Wang Dong, Kanchanaburi

ElephantsWorld is a retirement home for sick, old, disabled, abused, illegal and street elephants. It operates a lot like Elephant Nature Park, but is smaller and less well-known. The centre's motto is: we work for the elephants, the elephants do not work for us. ElephantsWorld is 32kms from Kanchanaburi.

Guests gather or plant food in the fields, cook sticky rice for the elephants, and join for bath time, which can get rambunctious. Packages range from one day to overnight as well as a week to four-week package to become a mahout.

This park does not allow rides, but does employ bullhooks and chains.

Baan Chang Elephant Park
147/1 Rachadamnoen RD., Muang Chiangmai

Baan Chang is a non-profit organization funded exclusively by visitors and donations. The elephants live in a natural habitat, and the park is against training the elephants to perform tricks such as lifting a leg on command or standing on two legs. Baan Chang offers bareback rides for up to one hour. Located just outside of Chiang Mai, the park will organize convenient pickup and dropoff for visitors.

Packages range from half-day to two-day getaways, including meals and accommodation. Guests participate in activities ranging from learning about the elephants’ individual histories, to feeding and bathing the elephants.

This park offers rides and employs bullhooks and chains.

Baan Chang Elephant Park
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