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. Before we left, I did a lot of research into different sanctuaries and sustainable attractions. I read all the reviews and blog posts and info on the issue I could find.
It’s hard to be sure about any attraction without visiting yourself, and somethings even then you can be wrong! Still, I did my best to assess if I was comfortable with any of the elephant encounter options. (For tips on avoiding unethical animal encounters, read 20 Tips for Sustainable Travel). We eventually decided on the Mae Rim elephant sanctuary and I’m so thankful to have come across it. Here’s my experience 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 other photos that I took.
Read this next: 20 Tips for Sustainable Travel
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. She spent several weeks at Maerim, and gave what I thought was a fairly unbiased opinion of how the sanctuary operated. (She received no money for her volunteering and volunteered 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.
Although the ellies were not related by blood (aside from two twins), the matriarch also 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 for a bit. Then, we spent our remaining time at Mae Rim making noodle soup, swimming in the property pool, and chatting with the other guests.
At the Maerim elephant sanctuary there was no riding or chains. 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 extraordinarily complex. As such, I’m not fully convinced that right or perfect answers to the debates even exist. However, I encourage everyone to do your own research into animal encounters. Learn how different centers protect the welfare of the animals they let you experience. Then, make your own informed decision on whether or not to partake.
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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 encountering elephants, ethically is truly possible.
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Read these next:
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Fair Trade: What’s It Got to Do With Travel?
Green Singapore: A City for the Eco-Conscious
Then head to the sustainability archives for more posts on responsible tourism and eco-friendly travel.
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