(Most of the amazing photos of elephants in this post were taken by the fabulous Marie Richardson, who herself appears in the others that I took!)
The last stop in Thailand for Marie and I was a really special one. Elephants have long been one of my favorite animals and I really wanted to see them when I was in Thailand. That being said, I was very aware of their exploitation and didn’t want to contribute. I did a lot of research into different sanctuaries, reading all the reviews and blog posts and info on the issue I could find, and doing my best to assess if I would feel comfortable with any of the elephant encounters. We eventually decided on the Mae Rim elephant sanctuary and I’m so thankful to have come across it.
There were four elephants at Maerim, with maybe 12 people in our tour group. The elephants were rescued from places where they were performing manual labor everyday. We spent the first hour of our visit to the sanctuary watching an informational video about exploitative animal tourism and how it hurts elephants, learning why riding them is harmful. We probably only spent about an hour, maybe two, in contact with the elephants. Fortunately, in that time the whole group was respectful of the fact that they are living creatures that are to be protected and respected. Unlike many other places I’ve seen, people didn’t overcrowd and overwhelm the animals to get photos or touch them.
As a group, we gave the elephants love when it seemed appropriate but took breaks to talk with the staff and observe from a distance when it appeared they were losing interest in socializing. We had a chance to talk with a volunteer whom I believe was from France. Having spent several weeks at Maerim, she gave a fairly unbiased opinion of how the sanctuary operated as she wasn’t being paid and was there simply because she loved elephants too. The volunteer’s reports matched what we saw – rescued elephants that were now enjoying their days with lots of love from their mahouts.
We fed the elephants chunks of pumpkin that they happily snatched from our satchels and walked behind them across the property to their favorite shady spots, spending a few minutes splashing in the mud and watching them roll around, then toss sand over themselves as they exited the water. The elephants had loving relationships with their mahouts, and although the ellies were not related by blood (aside from two twins), the matriarch assumed a maternal roll over the younger elephants, standing on guard over the youngest baby as she laid on the ground. Afterward, we let the elephants be and spent our remaining time making noodle soup, swimming in the property pool, and chatting with the other guests.
At the Maerim elephant sanctuary there was no riding, there were no chains, and the elephants had agency to explore where they wanted. The experience was beautiful time spent with some magnificent, beautiful creatures that I’ll probably never forget. The issue of animal tourism is very complex and I’m not fully convinced that there are always right or perfect answers to the debates. However, I encourage everyone to do your own research into animal encounters. Learn how they protect the welfare of the animals they let you experience, and make your own informed decision on whether or not to partake.
If you’re interested in reading more about animal tourism, check out these articles:
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this rather controversial topic. Leave a comment below and let me know whether you agree that it’s possible to encounter elephants, ethically.