Encountering Elephants, Ethically.

(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.

Maerim Elephant Sanctuary suitcase six
Sarah at the Maerim elephant sanctuary, petting an elephant that’s stealing some pumpkin from her satchel.

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.

Marie and Sarah at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary.
Marie and Sarah at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary.

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.

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8 thoughts on “Encountering Elephants, Ethically.”

  • It’s such a magical experience to be in the presence of elephants. I did a similar experience in Chiang Mai, at Patara Elephant Farm, it did include a short bare back ride which was incredible though I’m not sure if I would do it again or not. I think conservation groups like this are the better of two evils – tourists are going to want to see these animals no matter what but at least if they can do it in a less harmful way with less impact on the elephants I think that’s better than trying to stop the practice altogether yet.

    • I agree! Expecting everyone to get on board and give up animal encounters all together is unrealistic. I think people gain compassion for these creatures through interacting with them though, so I’m all for the places that do it right!

  • This is so important. As tourists, we really need to support ethical businesses, organizations, even accommodation. It’s true that money talks! And it’s the least we can do when we’re on other people’s turf. Elephant (mal)treatment is such an issue in Thailand.. It’s great to see articles like this spreading the knowledge

  • This is amazing, thank you so much for sharing. Interacting with wild animals can be such a controversial thing, but it’s lovely to see organizations that are truly doing their best by their charges. I’m absolutely dying to meet some elephants, and I am definitely bookmarking this wonderful organization for when we’re in Thailand!

  • Thanks for sharing your experience. Sometimes it’s so easy to be ignorant as visitors and tourists, it’s nice to have a first-hand recommendation of a place that is doing good work.

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