A shift in the focus of animal tourism has seen elephant havens replacing trekking, writes Deborah Dickson Smith

Elephants are an integral part of Thailand's history and culture. They are the country's national symbol, and they're also a major drawcard for tourists. In fact, since logging was banned in Thailand in the 1980s, elephants that were previously used in the industry were redeployed to tourism.

Their popularity for tourists grew quickly, with people flocking to the region to go elephant trekking and watch them perform in shows. These clever creatures have been taught to paint pictures for tourists, shoot basketballs through hoops and even play a game of football.

But attitudes towards training wild animals have changed considerably since the 1980s, with animal welfare research highlighting that many of these activities are in fact cruel and demeaning to these intelligent creatures. Circuses around the world have, one by one, started to close down — or at least drop performing animals from their repertoire.

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In 2016, wildlife advocacy group World Animal Protection called for an end to "irresponsible wildlife tourism" and listed its Top 10 cruellest animal tourism ventures, with riding an elephant topping the list.

While the fascination with elephants still holds, there is now a shift away from supporting elephant camps offering trekking and shows. Thailand has a growing number of wildlife sanctuaries where you can observe these gentle giants without riding them. At these sanctuaries, you can learn about their history, their welfare and in some places, volunteer to care for them. Here are a few good examples.

1. Elephant Nature Park — Chiang Mai

Located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, this rescue and rehabilitation centre provides sanctuary for more than 30 elephants, many of them victims of mistreatment. The park offers a wide range of programmes for visitors, from one-day visits to seven-day volunteer programmes.

On a single day visit, you'll learn how to care for elephants and simply watch them being elephants, interacting in their herd, playing with each other, and bathing in the river.
The park has a wonderful volunteer programme for those wanting a longer, more intimate experience and don't mind a bit or hard work, and there is even a programme for visiting veterinarian nurses and student vets.

The park is now assisting in other areas around Thailand and Cambodia transforming former elephant trekking camps into sanctuaries. Projects in Surin, Kanchanaburi and Cambodia all welcome volunteers to join in on programmes that range from a single day to a week.

2. Elephant Haven, Kanchanaburi

Under the tutelage of Lek Chailert from Elephant Nature Park, this sanctuary at Sai Yok, 130 kilometres west of Bangkok, was formerly an elephant trekking camp. Lek encouraged the owners to take the chains off, and Elephant Nature Park now assists the new park by organising day trips and overnight stays, where visitors can walk with elephants and watch them play in the mud and swim in the river.

Walking with Giants experience, Thailand for Ethical Elephants.
Walking with Giants experience, Thailand for Ethical Elephants.

3. Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, Chiang Rai

Located at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, this camp provides a home and employment for more than 30 former street elephants, mahouts and their families. Guests at the resort can help with the daily care of the elephants, helping to bathe them in the river, and take part in a forest trek with elephants, accompanied by a resident veterinarian or biologist.

4. Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, Phuket

This sanctuary was founded through a partnership with Mr Montri Todtane, a Phuket elephant camp owner, world-renowned elephant rescuer and conservationist Lek Chailert, founder of Save Elephant Foundation, and Louise Rogerson, founder of EARS Asia.
Here, visitors can feed, walk with, and observe the resident elephants as they roam throughout the sanctuary, socialise and bathe and cover themselves in lovely thick mud; as they would in the wild.

5. Phang Nga Elephant Park, Phang Nga

The family that runs this elephant park has a very close relationship with elephants, having looked after them at home and working in their fields for more than 150 years. They opened this park so they could keep the family's domesticated elephants and share a "very special experience with our visitors".

"We will not tolerate practises such as elephant dancing and circus tricks, and work hard to create public awareness and to help improve the care and wellbeing of Thailand's elephants," they say.

While tourists can ride the elephants at Phang Nga Elephant Park, it is always on the back of the neck as a mahout would, and not with a wooden saddle.

6. Elephant Hills, Khao Sok

This eco-resort and elephant sanctuary is within the Khao Sok National Park, on the Thai peninsula, with transfers available for two to three day 'safaris' from resort locations on both the east and west coast, including Phuket, Krabi, and Koh Samui.

Accommodation is in luxury safari-style tents, and the activities you can participate in here will all teach you something about Thailand's culture and ecology. This includes a presentation and film about the history and conservation of elephants, a cooking class, a cultural performance by kids from the local school (that the resort funds), a canoe safari and the Elephant Hills Elephant Experience where you'll learn how the animals are taken care of.

IF YOU GO
Getting there: Thai Airways flies direct from Auckland to Bangkok five times a week.