Why, Where and How to Help Elephants in Thailand

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Calm eyes, firm posture, gentle movements and serene wisdom in their gaze. They are biggest land mammals on the earth and yet, how vulnerable they can become. So much attention they have and yet, there is so much care they still need. The Elephants.

Once you touch their pleasantly rough skin, you want to embrace them. The more time you spend with them and observe them, the more you understand why there are so many people who protect them and rescue them from those humans who misuse these incredibly intelligent, joyful but shy animal beings.

In 2013 over 27 million tourists crossed the Thai border. In 2013 Bangkok was reported as the most visited city in the world. The statistics look great from the business point of view. Tourist agencies have been growing at light speed over the last few years in Thailand. They compete fiercely with each other to offer the best deal and to attract foreigners with the most popular national highlights: massages, beaches and elephant rides. It is hard to imagine a person who has been to Thailand and has not experienced at least one of the mentioned ‘attractions’. Regarding the last one, rides on elephants are still in big demand all throughout the country.

Get informed

It is quite difficult to estimate the exact number, but more sources agree there are around 3500 Asian elephants left in Thailand. More than half of them are in captivity and used for business purposes. In the last century there were about 100.000 of them and when you consider current statistics, the situation of elephant extinction is more than alarming. The infamous elephant industry obviously does not help the whole situation at all.

Unfortunately, while picking an elephant camp for your holiday, you can run into an organisation that will tell you they breed and captivate elephants at their facility to ‘save them from extinction’. They will not even hide the most terrible methods to tame them and on the top of that they will assure you that the ways they treat the animals are normal and even necessary! Please, follow your own common sense and do not take these people at their word. Elephants, as all other animals including us, as humans, are living beings deserving compassion, love and respect.

Elephants in Thailand.
An elephant eating sugarcane at Erawan Elephant Paradise.

The majority of tourists are not knowledgeable about the distressing exploitation that happens to the elephants they enjoy rides on, and they often don’t wonder how it’s possible that an elephant plays soccer, paints a canvas, plays a musical instrument or pushes insanely heavy logs in the elephant shows.

It’s possible to train elephants to play soccer in 3-4 days. Can you imagine a human being to be able to do the same in such a short time? Hard, right? And not all of us are into sports. Now imagine how much severe training and torture an elephant has to live through to learn new tasks fast, to be obedient to the mahout (a person who trains and rides an elephant) and to not ‘disappoint’ him in bringing in thousands of tourists.

Silent tears

When you pay for your ticket to an elephant park, nobody will tell you how they have broken the spirit of the elephant just to make him/her submissive so you can ride it through a forest and take a selfie on the elephant’s back. Nobody will tell you that to do that the animal was probably stolen from his family when he was just 2-3 years old, that his parents were killed when they wanted to protect the baby, and he was given anesthetics so he would not defend himself. Nobody will mention that later on they tied the body of the elephant to the trees from both sides, chain the feet and hit it with a takaw (bullhook used for commanding the animals).

Nobody will ever tell you that the elephant you are riding had been subjected to severe sleep deprivation and starvation just to become a slave to his owner. And nobody will show you the wounds on his skin that is not that thick as people in riding camps will tell you (in some parts the skin can bleed from the bite of insect). Nobody will point at the blind eyes these animals have from the sharp lights on the street or in the circus. Sadly, this is the truth.

Elephants in Thailand.
The wet eye of an elephant.

If you want to have an idea in which conditions the captivated elephants live, have a look at these touching photos from Bren Lewin.

You as a traveler or just a person who cares about animal freedom can take action too, by following these very simple steps:

  •  Ignore elephant riding tours.
  • Do not support begging elephants on the streets by buying food for them or paying to take pictures with them.
  •  Donate.
  • Spread the word about points 1,2,3 and 4.

We have been in Thailand for almost five months and we have succeeded in doing the first three steps. Now it’s time to work on number 4 and mainly on the 5, i.e. to inform others.

Elephants in Thailand.
Kids feeding an elephant at Erawan Elephant Paradise.

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How we met rescued elephants

When we were staying in Udon Thani in February this year, we regularly saw and heard an elephant begging on the street, literally behind our guesthouse. We met him always in the evening on one of the craziest and busiest roads that we had a hard time crossing ourselves. He was walking apathetically among the bright lights of cars and honking motorbikes. He moved or stopped only when his mahout hit him with a stick or kicked his ear.

The first time we saw him we took a picture of him, which obviously, his mahout did not like. The other times we just passed by feeling sad looking at this scene.

By a very pleasant coincidence, around the same time we got a cruel glimpse into the life of this elephant in Udon Thani, it happened that a friend of ours, a photographer Greg Goodman put us in touch with the co-founder of Bring The Elephant Home – Antoinette van de Water.

The foundation focuses on a holistic picture of elephant welfare as well as education, restores their natural habitat, promotes eco-tourism and works on prevention and solving human-elephant conflicts. She was looking for volunteers who would be willing to spend three days in the forest and support their eco-tourism initiative that involved co-operation with three international schools from Bangkok.

Elephants in Thailand.
Discussion with the students at Erawan Elephant Paradise.

Apart from the help, we agreed to document the project with the international schools of Bangkok. There were 27 energetic kids from 13 different countries: Thailand, Cambodia, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, Canada, Korea, Japan, USA, Philippines, Pakistan and Poland. They came to take action and learn more about elephants, but also to re-create their habitat and protect the forest from the fire. It’s a small drop in the ocean, but we are confident it will bring more interest and awareness surrounding this topic.

Bring the Elephant Home

There are plenty of opportunities where you can get hands-on with rescued elephants, and one of them is to support Bring the Elephant Home (BTEH) project that promotes natural behaviour of elephants and re-creates their natural habitat.

For now, the foundation is working hard to establish a community based education centre in a human elephant conflict area in Kanchanaburi, a province in Western Thailand, with the help of local village communities who are already participating vigorously on the project of BTEH.
Apart from educating students and locals, the BTEH liberated two street elephants from begging and documented the whole process in their book.

They have organised running and biking tours to raise money for the centre. They have also been successful with their project Trees for Elephants.

Elephants in Thailand.
Planting banana trees at Erawan Elephant Paradise.

For more information about all the activities and possibilities to help them, please visit their homepage.

Volunteering in the Erawan Elephant Paradise

To give the students an opportunity to get close with elephants and learn about alternatives for these animals in captivity, BTEH is working together with Erawan Elephant Paradise, a new-born centre for rescued and retired elephants.

Erawan started its work six months ago, when the centre saved five elephants from the Sai Yok Elephant Camp, which is just across the road. Together with the animals a few of mahouts from the former camp have come, too. The great thing is that they were willing to change from the way they had been treating the elephants before and threw away their bullhooks once they walked in the Erawan.

Elephants in Thailand.
The students bathing with the elephants at Erawan Elephant Paradise.

Erawan is located in the forest near the river Kwai in the west part of Thailand, where the elephants go for a daily bath that they enjoy without chains, without strict commands and without riding seats on their backs.

You can volunteer here and help to prepare food for the elephants, bathe them, and plant banana trees or other plants on their small plantation.

Our visit to Erawan was the first ever contact with freed elephants and despite the fact that all of them were 45-65 years old, we could see their bright, happy faces while feeding and bathing them.

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Elephants in Thailand.
Gianni bathing with Sombat the elephant.

These are the moments the elephants love the most and once you see them getting pleasure and satisfaction from simple things, you feel intensely connected with them and you understand that there is much more behind human-elephant interactions than just riding them in the jungle or in the streets like in Ayutthaya, or feeding them with bananas while they are chained, behind fences.

Elephants in Thailand.
Feeding elephants at Erawan Elephant Paradise.

Help the Gentle Giants

Although feeding and bathing elephants at sanctuaries and parks creates memorable experiences, you can do much more to make their lives more pleasant and safe. While volunteering and documenting the project of BTEH, we witnessed how many things need to be done to make the elephants’ lives comfortable and how everything in nature is connected.

So what are the actions the kids and their teachers were involved in with us?

Making the Firebreaks

Elephants in Thailand.
Making the firebreaks with air blower pipe.

This is one of the crucial things to protect a forest from fire in the dry season. A firebreak is a 4 m wide vegetation gap, a border in the forest that you create by clearing it of weeds, branches and dry grass. Then, in case a fire bursts out, it stops or slows down at this border so the people from the villages have time to reach the forest and extinguish the fire.

Elephants in Thailand.
Making the firebreaks with brooms.

This activity demands good physical condition and some protection, too. All of us wore gloves and a facemask. To make the firebreak we used hoes, rakes, brooms, spades, bamboo sticks and an air blower pipe. It was hard yet effective work.

Building the Rock Check Dams

Elephants in Thailand.
Building rock check dams.

Dry season is tough, and not only for us people. When the rivers dry, the places where elephants come to refresh and drink disappear. To help them to cope with the heat and dryness, we made two dams. We created a wall about half meter wide on the river, made of a metal fence, into which we put stones and rocks.

Making Salt Lick Ponds

The quality of the deciduous bamboo forest, the natural habitat of elephants, is dropping. Thus, the important nutrition the animals need is being reduced, too. By making salt lick ponds, you supply the elephants with necessary minerals. We made two of them by digging deposits where we mixed salt and other minerals with soil.

Elephants in Thailand.
Making salt lick ponds.

We did not water the mass so that the minerals could stay on the surface longer and also, so that the soil doesn’t absorb them too deeply. This lets elephants be able to reach them more easily.

Helping with Seed Germination and Potting Seedlings

Another issue that goes hand in hand with frequent fires and deforestation is the enormous shortage of greenery. Elephants are pure vegetarians and eat over two hundreds of different species of plants and trees.

Elephants in Thailand.
A seed germinating.

Luckily there are special organisations and local communities who take action and plant new trees regularly. They collect the seeds for germination and later on, they pot seedlings, which we had the chance to do at the local community tree nursery in Baan Klang Pla Kod.

Elephants in Thailand.
Learning potting seedling.

All these activities were done within three days, and the effort of the children and their teachers was unbelievably profound. It was a big pleasure to meet Kerry Dyke, the project’s main coordinator who brings international schools together with Bring the Elephant Home foundation. Kerry is a man with an awesome, eco-caring personality and a ton of contagious, positive hyperactivity. He is involved in several ecology protecting projects; click here to read more about his current projects.

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We are very glad and extremely excited to have been a part of the hard but necessary work and we hope there will be more and more people who find it important to take action the same way as those 27 eager, curious and hard-working kids did.

The students and the tutors under a waterfall in Say Yok National Park.
The students and the tutors under a waterfall in Say Yok National Park.

Another important thing to mention is, that one of the most valuable parts of these kind of events are the discussions between the students and the leaders of the project about elephant welfare and conservation. Apart from physical work and joy with the elephants, the students are going to make presentations about what they have learned, and also to present their knowledge on a future conference for schools in Bangkok next year.

During three days, so many trees were planted, much of the forest has been saved, and more water and nutrition was provided to the mammals. We sincerely wish for more elephants to find their homes again.

Thanks to Antoinette van de Water, Tik, and the staff and volunteers of Erawan Elephant Paradise for giving us an opportunity to get a deeper insight into the elephants’ lives. Thank you to Kerry Dyke and all the children for having a great time!

Please, if you feel compelled to support the Bring the Elephant Home project, click here to learn more about your options how to help elephants in Thailand. They have been doing a great job, have greatly helped others in their efforts, and now they need our help to kick off their dream!

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38 thoughts on “Why, Where and How to Help Elephants in Thailand”

    1. Hi Lee,
      thanks for kind words and sharing your own photo adventure with elephants!

  1. I’ve never wanted to do elephant rides as a travel activity, for the reasons you mentioned, so thank you for bringing this to light. Reading about elephants being treated well at sanctuaries is also really positive — they are magnificent creatures that deserve respect.

    1. Hi Ming, happy to hear you share the same opinion. We wish more people are aware of the reality of elephant industry so they can act accordingly.

  2. Maria Falvey

    Great idea for travel – love that it teaches about the animals, environment and promotes true team work all in one fell swoop!

    1. Thank you , Maria. That’s true, all things you have mentioned make this kind of events very memorable!

  3. The Travel Sisters

    Great post! A lot of people don’t realize how elephants are treated at some elephant camps. We would love to volunteer with elephants one day. We’ll start by researching the places listed in this post.

    1. Thanks, Matilda and Patti. You can definitely find some interesting opportunities when you go through the list.
      All the best for you and looking forward to your report of experience with elephants!

  4. My best experiences of elephants were when I saw them in wild. What an adrenalin rush I had. They can be seen in one of many national parks in Thailand, like in Kaeng Krachan, Kui Buri and Khao Yai. In Kui Buri you can see them from the first day, there are many there, and they always visit saltlicks and ponds..




    1. Hi Gemma,
      sounds like a very exciting moment you had! Thanks for the links! We might check these places out once we are back in Thailand again.

  5. Thanks Ivana for sharing, it’s important to let people know how to help elephants. I spent a month at ENP in Thailand and learnt a lot about this wonderful creatures, so many facts that I didn’t know about and thanks to that amazing experience I can now be the one telling people and hoping they will tell to their friends, etc… Awareness is one of the way to help too! Thanks!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Franca,
      One month, wow! it’s so great to hear about other people’s positive experience. I can only imagine what a beautiful lesson it was for you.
      Happy travels to both of you 🙂

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Heather, unfortunately, we got information that Erawan, which BTEH co-operated with, is closed 🙁
      But BTEH still exists and works hard on different projects.
      Please, just contact them to get more details. If you have any problem, let us know so we can put you in touch with the head of the organization.
      Cheers and enjoy CM! It’s a great place 🙂

  6. Hi,

    I am really keen to volunteer for a week at Erawan but have found it really difficult to find contact information for them. Any advice on how to get in contact with them?


    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Mel,

      thanks for your interest to help the elephants. Unfortunately, Erawan had some difficulties with running the sanctuary and has been closed. We were waiting for an update from people involved but so far it looks they don’t accept volunteers for now. Please, contact Bring the Elephant Home Foundation. I know they need some volunteers occasionally.
      Or check these two websites to see if there are any current vacancies:
      Boon Lott’s: http://www.blesele.org/
      Surin Project: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/enp/en/21-surin-project-weekly-volunteer

      If you need any help, please, let us know. We’ll be happy yo help you.

  7. Awesome article on an issue that’s very close to my heart. I stayed at Boon Lott’s almost a year ago now and it completely changed the way I look at travel and tourism.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Sounds like a crucial travel moment for you, Katie. Wow, I’m happy to know someone who stayed at Boon Lott’s actually; one of our readers asked us some time ago whether we had any experience with them so now we know to whom she can ask for more info. By the way, can we find any article/s on Boon Loot’s on your blog? Would be great to educate ourselves too!

  8. I have been fooled once by this kind of animal exploitation tour and I promised myself not to do anything near that again.
    Gladly to meet this project, and sure I will help when in Thai this year.
    Thanks for sharing that!

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Ralph and very glad to hear you’re willing to help. The project of the foundation is indeed a great one and with a good cause. Please, contact us for more details if you need.

  9. Very interesting story. I recently read about elephant tourism in Thailand and how they use “The Crush” to sensitize and tame elephants so tourists can ride them. Very sad, but glad to see people are doing something to influence this type of abuse.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Yes, “breaking the spirit” of elephants is cruel and although the situation is changing very slowly in Thailand and southeast Asia in general, there are more and more camps that quit elephants rides. It’s a very long process though…

  10. Hi, great article. What about the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre at Lampung? How does that stack up? I’ve stayed there and thought it was quite good treatment, especially of injured elephants, like one with missing foot from landmine.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Claire, thanks for reading! The center in Lampang is just another touristy sanctuary. Yes, they take care about an elephant without a leg and they have an elephant hospital there. But at the same time, they offer elephant trekking and elephant show, which clearly demonstrates the way they treat elephants there. Any animal show doesn’t certainly support or represent their natural way of behaviour, therefore I wouldn’t recommend to visit the center.

  11. Hi,
    Very interesting and heartbreaking article. I’ve already been twice to Thailand and I’ve never seen any ‘carer’ hurt the elephants, but as you said, most of the times such behaviour is hidden to the traveller.
    Will be on Koh Lanta next week and was wondering which elephant ride stations are the best (i.e. least damaging to the elephants) to visit? I will be with my two very young kids (first time with whole family) and would like to show them the elephants. Will not be booking any tours, but just visiting the park. I understand the elephants might have been hurt when trained, but at least will opt for the least damaging, if you are aware of any.

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Keith,

      Thanks for reading and your concern about the elephant tourism. Yes, a carer strikes an elephant in front of the visitors very rarely. Regarding Koh Lanta, there’s no sanctuary around. I read there should be a riding camp which I highly recommend to give it a miss. If you want to show your kids a respectful way to interact with elephants, I suggest to head north and visit Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Enjoy the holiday!

  12. Hi,

    I am visiting Southern Thailand next week for a few weeks. I was curious if there are any responsible and genuine places to visit elephants? We plan on visiting and donating at many dog and cat animal welfares but was hoping for one for elephants, monkeys or any other animals? Thank you for your time.



    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Cameron,
      Unfortunately, we don’t know about any responsible sanctuary in Southern part of Thailand. So far, all camps we found online or heard about were involving riding the elephants. If you find any animals-friendly place, please, let us know so we can update the post. Enjoy the holidays!

  13. Sonja Wallin

    I want to do something for the poor elephants in Thailand. Is there some place I can report elephant abuse? I visited an elephant farm in Krabi and witnessed violence and maltreatment. Since there is the new animal law in Thailand I thougt there must be some place I can contact considering the abuse. Is there?

    Another question. Where can I donate for elephants?

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Sonja,
      So sad to hear about elephant abuse you’ve witnessed. I don’t know about any official authority where you can report it, but try to contact people from the Elephant Nature Park (http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/) and Bring The Elephant Home foundation (http://www.bring-the-elephant-home.org/help-bteh/donate/) for more advice. You can also donate to some great projects on the latter website.
      Thanks again for getting in touch with us and your eager will to help! Best of luck and let us know if you get more information regarding the report.

  14. I am looking into volunteer across seas for a period of time and a group called Bamboo by GVN has popped up showing work with elephant conservation. Do you know if they support helping elephants in the right environment?

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Megan,

      I’m afraid I won’t help out so much here. Never heard about the Bamboo group and when I tried to check their profile online, the website doesn’t work. Sorry.
      If you’re thinking to work with them, try to contact them directly and ask all questions that would help you to decide whether to partner with them or not, i.e. where the elephants come from, who is the staff that cares about them, do all elephants stay in the center or they “lend” them later to a riding camp… Anything that might concern you – just ask them directly 🙂 Their response will be the best indicator that helps you to decide. Best of luck!

  15. Thank you for such an insightful article. I am researching to go volunteer with elephants in central Thailand in March for a place that needs help with social media, blogging, etc.

    I will also be including this month long experience in my next book – to be published 2018.

    I do NOT want to end up at a ‘tourist sanctuary’!

    I prefer an NGO – if you have recommendations for the central Thailand area – I would be grateful.

    Thank you,

    1. Ivana Greslikova

      Hi Patty, we don’t have any experience with these NGOs directly, so we cannot guarantee their ethical approach to the animals, but you might want to check them out: Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, Wildlife Friends of Thailand, BEES Elephant Sanctuary, Elephants World. Good luck and let us know how it went so we can update the article with some info about any of them 🙂 Happy travels!

  16. Hi, I loved reading your article, it’s really very interesting. It’s really sad to know that something like that is happening with such lovely animals, but it’s more gratifying to know that there are people fighting for a better cause to help these animals.

  17. Fabiana Acevedo

    Hi, I was in Thailand and I saw all these, I know we have to create consciousness about was its happening but we have to do more, we have to change the law that isnt protecting them, the santuaries exist cause the gobernment dont give any money and the rescued elephants needs food, medicines, atention, etc.
    Is there any organization thats its trying to change the law I really wanna help with that.
    do you have any page of knowing of that?

    Best regards


  18. If we had read this before visiting Thailand, we would have skipped riding an elephant. We toured the sanctuary and saw a few things that were quite disturbing. For instance, we saw where they chained the elephants at night and the awful stick that mahouts carry and use to control the elephants. Up close, these gentle giants are so loving and they deserve a better life than being a slave and circus act. We plan to return to Thailand one day to wash, feed and take care of an elephant. Once you’ve gazed into their eyes, you can’t help but feel for them.

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