Looking an elephant in the eye and stroking their leathery skin is an amazing experience that will remain with you for life. However, there has been growing debate on whether a visit to an elephant camp should be included on an Asian travel itinerary or not. Many different opinions have been voiced on the ethics of employing captive elephants as a tourism draw, with pros and cons being voiced across mainstream and social media.

Firstly, elephants are wild animals and ideally should not be in captivity.  But for centuries, people have domesticated elephants for transportation, labour and even warfare. During the last century, elephants in Thailand and Burma were mainly used by the logging industry which, ironically, led to a decline in the wild elephant habitats. In 1989, the Thai government banned logging. Thousands of elephants were abruptly thrown out of work along with their mahouts. With much of their natural habitat encroached upon, these elephants were herded into camps which struggled to raise funds and care for them properly.

There are camps that capitalise off their charges, training them to perform tricks and renting them out as entertainment at parties and events. We strongly advise against these activities and while we are not experts, these camps don’t match our objectives and values, and our guests agree. There are also camps that endeavour to provide their elephants the most natural and comfortable lifestyle possible in a sustainable environment. There is an important distinction between supporting sustainable, ethical jungle camps and parading atop pachyderms at beach clubs.

We believe it is up to our clients to make their own, informed decision, but we can recommend several elephant camps we believe are making elephant lives better. The Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp in Chiang Rai is one of them. John Roberts, a trustee of the International Trust for Nature Conservation, and director of this camp acknowledges “enlightened elephant camps are necessary in order to keep the 3,500 to 4,500 captive elephants in Thailand fed, watered and alive while we work on introducing the idea of having fewer captive elephants”. There are others in Northern Thailand that offer up-close experiences with elephants, but don’t permit riding, such as BLES run by Katherine Connor in Sukhothai, and Elephant Nature Park founded by Sangduen (Lek) Chailert in Chiang Mai. The main revenue for these camps come from visitors interested in learning more about the magnificent animals as well as donations.

The Thai people have a long shared history with these majestic creatures and the elephant remains the country’s national symbol. Elephants have long memories and big feet, you wouldn’t want to get into their bad books. So we say, support ethical elephant camps in any way you can, but be sure you are adding to the animals’ well-being and not encouraging more suffering.

If you need help determining the difference between the two, enquire here.