My Experience Visiting an Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Today I have just found out that the Elephant Valley Thailand (EVT), an ethical elephant sanctuary in Chiang Rai is closing permanently. Because of COVID-19, they could not survive the loss of income. I am very sad because EVT is one of the very few truly ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Many sanctuaries in Northern Thailand market themselves as ethical, sustainable, and abuse-free. But the truth is it is just business for them. All they care about is profit.

Before I tell you how my experience was in EVT when I visited it in July last year, let me give you some facts first about elephant sanctuaries.

What is an Elephant Sanctuary

An elephant sanctuary is supposed to be a safe place for elephants to live. It is a place where elephants no longer need to work in order to feed themselves. They become real elephants again in their natural habitat. They are cared for, are made to roam freely, and get to be just elephants. This is a place where rescued elephants from circus-style attractions, logging industry, injured, or orphaned in the wild, can be brought. They are not being tortured, chained, and forced to perform or give rides.

It is costly to house, feed, and care for elephants. Elephants can spend an average of 16-18 hours per day eating, and they eat about 10% of their body weight in food every day. They also pay the mahouts of the elephants. A mahout is someone who takes care, ride, and command an elephant. To supplement their income these sanctuaries open their gates to tourists and volunteers.

How to Find a Real Ethical Elephant Sanctuary

Just because a facility or camp has the word sanctuary in its name does not mean they have the elephant’s best interest in mind. According to the World Animal Protection, if a venue allows you to get close enough to ride, bath, or touch them, it’s because they’ve been cruelly trained. So before booking a trip to an elephant sanctuary, do your research first. An interesting article I came across a few months ago is this one. It talks about the things they don’t tell you about elephant sanctuaries.

The Responsible Travel website made a list of the companies/camps to support. You can find that in this link.

Why You Shouldn’t Ride an Elephant

Riding an elephant is a very popular activity for tourists coming to Asia. However, these elephants are chained and tortured when being taught to carry people. Because they are large animals, they require an enormous amount of food. However, elephants in such camps are being starved and they are not given enough sleep to crush their spirit. This is to make them submissive to humans.

In addition, elephants carrying humans on their back experience stress and pain in their vertebrae, sometimes causing permanent spinal injuries. Also, the chair attached to their back rubs at their back causing blisters, which can become infected.

Why You Shouldn’t Bathe An Elephant

Many sanctuaries in Thailand advertise that you can bathe an elephant. I have seen several posts on Instagram with ladies clad in bikinis, bathing an elephant. However, this is stressful and not enjoyable for an elephant. An elephant prefers to lie down and enjoy themselves. With tourists surrounding them, they are forced to stay still.

Also, it is not safe for both the elephant and tourist to be together because tropical infection might be transmitted.  In addition, the water in the pool where you bathe an elephant is not clean because of the urine and fecal matter of an elephant. There is the risk of you getting a bacterial infection in the water.

Visiting Elephant Valley Thailand

I got to know about Elephant Valley Thailand because of a fellow backpacker I met in Myanmar. She told me it is an ethical elephant sanctuary because they don’t allow riding and bathing of elephants. So when I got to Chiang Rai, I decided to visit it. The cost of the half-day tour, 1,600 Baht (US$ 49.33) is way over my budget of US$ 20 a day. But I made an exception because I have always wanted to see an elephant that is not in a zoo. The half-day tour comes with lunch and drinks included as well as city center pick-up and drop-off.

On that tour, I met two American ladies. We had a little chat and they said they researched a lot before deciding to do the tour with EVT. They traveled all the way from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai just for the tour. Knowing that Chiang Mai has a lot of elephant sanctuaries but they chose EVT which is in Chiang Rai, I was assured that EVT is indeed ethical.

My Experience at Elephant Valley Thailand

When we arrived at EVT, we were given a brief introduction by our guide. We were told that EVT is a compact version of the Elephant Valley Project, an elephant sanctuary in Mondulkiri, Cambodia. It allows elephants to live natural lives in their natural habitat. EVT’s goal is to rehabilitate elephants and to successfully reintroduce them back to the wild. They want to teach the rescued elephants how to become elephants, as most of them were treated very badly that they have forgotten their natural behavior.

We were also instructed to stay 25 meters away from the elephants.

Observing the Elephants

After the brief introduction, we made our way to the fields where the elephants roam freely. We observed an elephant that’s new in the sanctuary. It is still very aggressive so a mahout is training it. While we were observing the elephant, our guide shares information about the elephant, how it was rescued, how it behaves, and general facts about elephants.

Elephant with a mahout

Next, we went to watch three female elephants swimming in their pool. It was so fun and very relaxing watching them. They even took a nap while submerged in the water.

After swimming, they went on to cover their body with dust then walked towards their drinking station. After that, they walked to their washing area. There their mahout bathed them. The mahout also brushed their body to make sure that the dust in their body was removed.

The elephants taking a nap

Drinking

Bath time

After taking a bath, it was feeding time for the elephants. The staff from EVT gave us a pile of bananas to feed the elephants. Each of us got to experience feeding them. After feeding them, it was our turn to eat. We returned to the human quarters where we were served our lunch.

Feeding time

I had a great time visiting EVT so it saddens me to know that they are closing permanently. It’s a good thing that the Elephant Valley Project in Cambodia is still open even though they are also experiencing the Covid-19 crisis. If you wish to support them, you could do so in this link.

References:

How ethical is the elephant ‘sanctuary’ you’re visiting?

How to Tell Real Elephant Sanctuaries From Abusive Exhibitors

Elephant sanctuaries which we do & don’t support

What They Don’t Tell You About Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

SANCTUARY ETHOS

 

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