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Thailand’s Elephants 4 Things You Should Know

Thailand’s Elephants: 4 Things You Should Know

Elephants are holy animals in Buddhism. Thais also highly value them for their historical use in wars, help in transporting goods, and their crucial role in the Thai tourism industry. 

Thailand’s elephants (Elephas maximus) are a great help to the country’s economy, but they are endangered and often receive abuse. This unethical treatment and their use in illegal logging and tourism have led to untoward incidents.

Read on to learn more about the elephants in Thailand, their issues, and how you could help improve their lives.

A Brief Fact Dive Into the Elephants of Thailand

A Brief Fact Dive Into the Elephants of Thailand

The species of elephant living in Thailand is called the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). 

As of 2019 (2562 B.E.), around 3,000 elephants live in the wild, while approximately 4,000 are in captivity. Elephants in Thailand had more significant numbers in the earlier part of the last century.

The Importance of Elephants in Thai Culture

The Importance of Elephants in Thai Culture

It’s not surprising to learn that elephants are an integral part of Thai culture, given the following facts:

  • The elephant is an essential animal in the Buddhist religion. It’s believed that Buddha was reincarnated several times into one — Buddha’s mother even dreamt of receiving a lotus flower from a white elephant on the eve of his birth.
  • The Thai Royal Family owns all wild elephants. In fact, in royal history, the number of elephants a ruler owns symbolises how great their status was.
  • White elephants are the most important of all elephants. They’re considered the most sacred of all these creatures and can’t work or be bred, so only the King can own them — His Majesty, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, owned up to 21.  
  • Elephants were historically used as war elephants. Ancient Thai military gained the upper hand in battles due to their elephants’ strength and immense size. 
  • Elephants, as symbols, are everywhere in Thailand. The white elephant is on the country’s national flag until 1917 (2460 B.E.), on old coins, and on current government emblems — modern Thai art and architecture feature elephants, too.
  • The elephant symbolises strength, loyalty, royalty, longevity, and luck. Now, that’s a long list of good things these lovely creatures stand for.
  • The Thai elephant was proclaimed Thailand’s national animal in 2001 (2544 B.E.). It’s one of the three national symbols proclaimed that day, together with the golden shower (Cassia fistula Linn.) and the Sala Thai.

Thailand’s National Elephant Day

Thailand’s National Elephant Day

As one way to care for the Asian elephant, Thailand celebrates National Elephant Day on March 13th of every year. In the Thai language, the day is called “Wan Chang Thai” (วันช้างไทย), or literally, “Thai Elephant Day.”

This observance was started in 1998 (2541 B.E.) by the Thai government as a reminder to the Thai people that elephants are to be celebrated, are culturally and economically significant, and must be protected.

A typical Thai Elephant Day celebration includes elephant buffets (tons of fruits and vegetables), monks blessing elephants with holy water, elephant parades, and exhibitions about elephant facts for kids and adults.

And when you’re in the spirit of Thai Elephant Day, you may want to donate to different elephant conservation organisations and sanctuaries we’ll list later in this post.

4 Things You Should Know about Elephants in Thailand

4 Things You Should Know about Elephants in Thailand

Although considered sacred in religion, the elephant is no stranger to issues such as deforestation, a dwindling population, use in illegal activities, unethical or inhumane treatment, and accidents incited by enraged members of their population.

1. Elephants in Thailand are an endangered species.

Elephants in Thailand are an endangered species.

Thai elephants commonly live along the mountainous area bordering Myanmar and some southern regions. 

These elephants need about 100 sq km (around 25,000 acres) of grazing area to ensure that they’re getting sufficient food. They consume about 300 lbs (140 kg) of grass and fresh fruit daily.

However, increasing deforestation in areas it inhabits threatens elephants’ survival in Thailand. Therefore, a lack of forested regions equals a consistent lack of food for these gentle giants.

Because of this, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the Asian elephant endangered

Given this status and the historical and cultural importance of elephants in Thailand, there are around 69 protected areas dedicated to protecting and conserving them.

2. Illegal logging activities use elephants.

Illegal logging activities use elephants.

Elephants have long been beasts of burden in Thailand. They carried many people and goods and even fought wars throughout the centuries.

In the latter part of the 20th century, elephants have been an essential part of the logging industry in Thailand and its neighbouring countries in Mainland Southeast Asia. Loggers used them to haul large teak logs out of the forests and into rivers. 

Although most elephant keepers or mahouts cared for their logging elephants, there were still some cases where elephants worked long hours in the woods without any rest to maximise revenue. 

Drugs have also reportedly been used on elephants to ensure they keep working.

The Thai government ultimately made logging in natural forests illegal in 1989 (2532 B.E.), a year after a string of deadly flash floods hit the country. 

However, despite the ban on commercial logging in natural forests, Thailand still has an illegal one that continues using elephants.

The use of elephants also changed from the logging industry to tourism with the logging ban. However, this change isn’t without any issues for the elephant. 

3. Many elephants receive unethical treatment.

Many elephants receive unethical treatment.

One of the critical issues ravaging Thai tourism today is the unethical treatment of elephants used in the tourism industry. 

The unethical practices begin at an elephant’s young age — the moment a wild elephant becomes captive. 

Baby elephants are forcibly taken from their herd (the adults are usually killed to fulfill this task). Then, these elephants go under a method called “phajaan” (also called an “elephant crush” or simply “crushing”) and are tamed into submission.

This is a painful, inhumane procedure to “break” or “crush” the elephant’s spirit and adapt it to domesticated life. An elephant is tied very restrictively onto poles or caged, then subjected to negative reinforcement techniques to make them tame enough.

Tamed elephants are usually seen in tourist areas doing shows, making elephant paintings, or giving rides.

However, the abuse doesn’t end after the crush. Mahouts consistently use an elephant goad (or bullhook) and chains on elephants to make them obey commands they’ve learned, which leads to continuous abuse and wounds that could become infected.

The living conditions of these elephants are also questionable. There are reports of elephants not being given enough food and water, chained, and kept in areas that could be too small or noisy — the complete opposite of forests, their natural habitat.

The Thai government has laws for animal welfare, but these have only been in place as recently as 2014 (2557 B.E.). Unfortunately, caring for the well-being of animals is not an important focus of Thai culture.

Although most elephant captors say that they’re treating their animals humanely, the truth is that we’ll never really know what they’re doing until we hear of unfortunate incidents of elephants going berserk and causing injury or worse, death.

4. There are many elephant riding accidents in Thailand.

There are many elephant riding accidents in Thailand.

The continuous practice of elephant crushing and other means of unethical treatment could and have risen to unfortunate events that have taken human lives, like elephant riding accidents.

Since elephants are one of the largest animals on earth, their sheer size and strength are no match for us puny humans. They are one of the most dangerous animals still being used in the tourism industry here and abroad.

Thus, it is not surprising to hear once in a while about accidents where an elephant got angry and attacked its mahout, tourists, or unknowing bystanders. Unfortunately, these incidents don’t just happen seldom; most go unreported if the victim is only a local.

Male elephants in their “musth” or high-testosterone period are the usual culprits in these events, with their aggressive behaviour. Although these elephants need isolation, some mahouts still make these animals work even in this state, leading to more danger.

The elephants involved in these incidents also often get “back to business” afterward, even if the incidents they were involved in resulted in deaths.

Examples of these riding incidents over the years include:

  • A Chinese tour guide trampled to death by an elephant allegedly provoked by a misbehaving tourist in 2017 (2560 B.E.). Witnesses attribute the incident to the mahout seen hitting the elephant multiple times before the attack.
  • An elephant stabbed its handler with its tusk and threw two Scottish tourists off its back in 2016 (2559 B.E.). One of the tourists died in this incident after being trampled by the elephant, while the other ended up with injuries.
  • A new mahout was stabbed to death by an elephant who didn’t like him in 2015 (2558 B.E.). The elephant also ran away with three Chinese tourists on its back, but these three, at least, were rescued to safety.

Other non-riding but still elephant-tourism-related incidents include:

  • A British tourist trampled to death at a Thai elephant show in 2009 (2552 B.E.). The elephant reportedly got angry at the mahout of another elephant, hurled said mahout to the ground, and then attacked the audience.
  • A British nurse and her family were trampled by an enraged elephant in 2000 (2543 B.E.). The elephant got angry at its mahout during an “obedience display” and attacked the audience. Unfortunately, the nurse died.

We can go on, but we hope you understand how dangerous these otherwise calm and gentle giants can be, especially when abused and overworked. 

This fact leads us to answer a question that’s probably running through your head right now:

Why should we not ride on elephants in Thailand anymore?

Why should we not ride on elephants in Thailand anymore

We should not ride on elephants in Thailand anymore because doing so just incentivises their keepers to continue the abuse and unethical practices they are doing. Also, riding them is unnatural and can cause injury to the animal.

Continuous elephant rides mean steady revenue for the tourism industry and the people who make a living off of it. However, it also means that elephant abuse will continue since the ride demand never ends.

What you can do instead is to support initiatives and organisations that give sanctuary to elephants. Go instead to places like sanctuaries and rescue facilities that treat these gentle giants humanely, and interact with these elephants in more natural ways.

Our Picks for Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand 

Our Picks for Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand

The Thai government established the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (now called the National Elephant Institute) in the Lampang province in 1993 (2536 B.E.). 

It became the main government entity at the forefront of elephant conservation and sustainable tourism use.

Moreover, numerous private organisations have put forth initiatives, specifically sanctuaries, for the welfare and conservation of these gentle giants, which we’ll discuss further below.

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park
ADDRESSElephant Nature Park Office: 1 Ratmakka Road, Phra Sing, Chiang Mai, 50200
CONTACT DETAILSTel: (+66) (0) 53 272855, (0) 825573380
OPERATING HOURSMonday to Sunday, 7:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary in Chiang Mai, established in 1990 (2533 B.E.). They provide care, food, and shelter not only for rescued elephants and other species like buffaloes, horses, birds, cats, and dogs!

The elephants here are free to roam the forests and vast grasslands (not artificial!) and take a bath in the rivers and mud pits. We love how natural and refreshing this environment can be, especially for rescued animals.

Here’s a sneak peek at a day in the life of Navaan and his herd, just some of the elephants cared for by Elephant Nature Park:

It literally takes the whole village to care for the elephants here, because its staff is from the local community, and its supplies are from local producers. Its founder, Lek Chailert, was even hailed by Time Magazine as an Asian Hero of the Year in 2005 (2548 B.E.).

A typical visit here can either be a day tour or an overnight one. But if you’re up for the challenge, you can spend a week volunteering in the day-to-day maintenance of the park itself!

Phang Nga Elephant Park

Phang Nga Elephant Park
ADDRESS49/1 Moo 3 Tambon Thung Kha Ngok, Muang Phang Nga, Phang Nga, 82000
CONTACT DETAILSTel: (+66) 8 5351 5536, 6 2212 2414
Email: [email protected] 
OPERATING HOURSMonday to Sunday, 9:30 AM – 4:30 PM

Phang Nga Elephant Park north of Phuket is a small eco-park run by a family that has owned elephants for over 150 years. 

This family established the park in 2015 (2558 B.E.), intending to provide the elephants in their care with the “highest quality of life possible.”

The 200 rai (32-hectare) park is in a hillside near national nature reserves like the Ton Hin Lad Waterfall.

If you’re a tourist in the area, the elephant park’s best offerings are the Family Elephant Tour and the Elephant Care Experience. You can expect to see at least nine elephants in this park.

Here’s a video teasing what it’s all about:

The former is a four to five-hour tour where families can learn how elephant handlers take care of the elephants. On the other hand, the latter is a similar experience but more focused on individuals or couples.

After visiting this elephant park, you can check out Phang Nga Bay.

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary
ADDRESS304 Mu 5, Baan Na Ton Jan, Tambon Baan Tuek, Si Satchanalai, Sukhothai, 64130
CONTACT DETAILSEmail: [email protected] 

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) in the town of Sukhothai, north of Bangkok started with a British woman’s goal to save an ailing baby elephant called Boon Lott (“survivor” in Thai). 

This elephant was supposed to be separated from its mom and had to live with paralyzed hind legs after a bad fall. Unfortunately, little Boon Lott breathed his last in 2004 (2547 B.E.), but he has already experienced all the love and care he deserved.

In memory of this beloved elephant, the same British woman, Ms Catherine Connor, established a sanctuary for rescued elephants where they can roam free, forage, and otherwise live as naturally as possible.

Meet Lotus, one of the rescued elephants now living her best life in BLES here:

You can visit the sanctuary as a guest — take note that the sanctuary only accepts a limited number of people per day to not hamper with the natural environment. Make sure to book your stay at least one year or so in advance.

While waiting for your booking, you may also want to support the elephants here with monetary or in-kind donations.


ADDRESS52 Moo 4, Ban Nong Hoi, Amphoe Mueang, Tambon Wang Dong, Kanchanaburi 71190
CONTACT DETAILSEmail: [email protected] 

ElephantsWorld is another organisation focused on elephant conservation. Founded in 2008 (2551 B.E.), this sanctuary in the western town of Kanchanaburi, along the River Kwai started as a refuge for elderly elephants and ultimately grew into a world-famous.

There are currently over 30 elephants under its wing, with the oldest being about 93 years old. You can see how carefree and happy these elephants are in this video:

There are three options for people who want to visit ElephantsWorld. 

There’s a Day Program where guests can feed and bathe the elephants, an Overnight Program that will bring guests along on elephants’ walk into the forest, and a Forest Program which is a 3-day comprehensive experience.

If you’re up for the challenge, you can train on how to be a mahout for a week or up to a month!

Samui Elephant Sanctuary

Samui Elephant Sanctuary
ADDRESS108/52 Taweerat Pakdee Rd, Bo Put, Ko Samui District, Surat Thani 84320
CONTACT DETAILSTel: (+66) 095 269 8343
Email: [email protected]  
OPERATING HOURSMonday to Sunday, 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM

For rescued elephants in the east, the Samui Elephant Sanctuary (SES) might is a godsend. Established in 2018 (2561 B.E.), this sanctuary now has two different “branches”: a 15 rai (2.4 ha) area in Bophut, and 40 rai (6.4 ha) area in Chaweng Noi.

SES has taken in ageing elephants who have worked in tourism as riding and show elephants. There are at least ten elephants currently in its care.

Here’s a video showing a typical visit to the sanctuary from Traveltopia in YouTube:

Visitors can experience feeding the gentle giants in the designated feeding platforms, taking a walk with them in the forest, or watching them socialise with each other, forage and take mud baths from a distance.

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
ADDRESS100, Moo 2, Paklok, Phuket, 83110
CONTACT DETAILSTel: (+66) 76 529 099, 62 778 4111, 62 767 7111
Email: [email protected] 
OPERATING HOURSMonday to Sunday, 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM

This 30-acre (12-hectare) sanctuary was the first of its kind in Phuket. It was founded in 2016 (2559 B.E.) by an elephant riding camp owner who wanted to change the typical abusive approach towards elephants to a humane and compassionate one.

Prospective visitors can choose from various experiences and programs available here, like a day in the life of an Asian elephant, private tours, or even long-term volunteer programs.

The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is famous for its “hands-off” approach to visitors. For one, they do not include guests in the elephant bathing activities; guests can watch this unfold from afar in the comfort of a designated observation area.

Actual interactions between guests and the elephants are brief and are mostly only during the feeding part of the visit.

Moreover, the sanctuary opened a 600-metre (about 2,000-foot) canopy walkway in 2020 (2563 B.E.). Guests can walk all over the jungle and observe the elephants from a stunning bird’s eye view.

You can learn more about the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary here: 

Mae Sa Elephant Camp

Mae Sa Elephant Camp
ADDRESS101 Moo 9, Mae Ram, Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai 50180
CONTACT DETAILSTel: (+66) 5320-6247, 5320-6248
Email: [email protected]; [email protected] 
OPERATING HOURSMonday to Sunday, 9:30 AM – 4:30 PM

Mae Sa Elephant Camp opened its doors to tourists with six elephants on board in 1976 (2519 B.E.). It expanded its operations by adding an elephant nursery and an elephant care centre.

However, back then, this camp was typical; it used elephants for rides and shows. The founder’s eldest daughter transformed Mae Sa Elephant Camp into an ethically-run refuge for elephants in 2019 (2562 B.E.).

She merged the nursery and care centre into one place called The Chang, which is now home to elderly elephants. 

There is also The Chang Village, an organic farm. We’re not sure if they are already able to supply to leading health food stores, but with the continued success of this project, we’re sure that the village’s farm can reach new heights for the cause.

Here’s a video showing how the camp looks after the quite recent change in its overall animal philosophy:

Currently, there are around 78 elephants in this Mae Sa’s care. You can book a half-day or full-day trip, where you can learn about the physiological, medical, and day-to-day living knowledge of these gentle creatures.

Where can you donate to elephant welfare in Thailand? 

The number of organisations for elephant welfare is steadily increasing. You can donate to organisations like the Friends of the Asian Elephants, Wildlife Friends Foundation, The Care Project, and the Southern Thailand Elephant Foundation.

Here are some details about these groups to help you decide who and how to help:

Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital

Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital
ADDRESS295 Moo 6 Lampang-Chiangmai Road Viengtan Hangchatr Lampang 52190
CONTACT DETAILSTel: (+66) 81 914 6113
Email: [email protected] 
OPERATING HOURSMonday to Sunday, 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM

You read that right — Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) is not your typical animal hospital. It’s a hospital only for elephants, the first of its kind in the world, in the MaeYao National Reserve in Lampang in northern Thailand.

Starting in 1993 (2536 B.E.), its founder, Soraida Salwala, and her team have treated around 4,000 injured, abused, and sick elephants for free. 

It’s not unusual for them to deal with elephants injured from landmines, gunshots, or accidents from logging activities.

Here’s a trailer for a documentary about two of the most famous patients this hospital had, where you can see the FAE team at work:

The hospital is free to visit for elephant lovers, but only Thai veterinary students can do volunteer work in this facility. It’s highly encouraged to leave a donation to help the recovering elephants and the hospital itself.

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT)

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT)
ADDRESS108 Moo 6, Tambon Thamairuak, Amphoe Thayang, Phetchaburi 76130
CONTACT DETAILSTel: (+66) 032-706906
OPERATING HOURSMonday to Sunday, 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), founded in 2001 (2544 B.E.), is an NGO with several environmental projects related to wildlife and the forest conservation. One is an elephant refuge centre, considered the first chain-free sanctuary in Asia.

It also has a wildlife hospital staffed with veterinarians ready to help with sick or injured wild or domesticated animals. Check out this recap of WFFT’s Novermber 2022 (2565 B.E.) activities: 

If you’d like to help the elephants, you can donate any amount, volunteer personally in the refuge centre, or sponsor an elephant for up to five years at a time.

The Care Project Foundation

The Care Project Foundation
ADDRESS45, 41 Soi Ton kham 2, Tambon Tha Sala, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50000
CONTACT DETAILSEmail: [email protected]

The Care Project Foundation (TCPF) is another non-profit in Chiang Mai. What we love most about this organisation is that it helps not only abused and aging elephants but also uplifts the communities surrounding these giants for more lasting change.

Its three main projects are its elephant matriarch program for “retired” female elephants, a mobile elephant clinic that treats injured ones in remote parts of the country, and community outreach via clean-ups, mahout trainings, and donation of items in-kind.

Here’s a video showing how the matriarch program changed the life of Kaew Ta, one of the giants in TCPF’s care:

Southern Thailand Elephant Foundation

Southern Thailand Elephant Foundation
ADDRESS31 Warren Avenue, Richmond upon Thames, Surrey, TW10 5DZ, UK
CONTACT DETAILSEmail: [email protected] 

If you’re a UK resident looking for an easy way to help ailing elephants, then you could check out the Southern Thailand Elephant Foundation (STEF). It’s a non-profit headquartered in Surrey. 

It gives free medical services to sick or injured elephants as well as help feed hungry elephants across southern Thailand. 

The COVID-19 pandemic posed a bigger challenge for all elephants all over Thailand. Because tourists couldn’t come, the elephants started to starve and die off — their mahouts had to find other means of livelihood, too.

Check out this promotional video of STEF Thailand for this cause, which tugged our heartstrings:

Aside from this, it also offers exciting programs: a two-week volunteer program for veterinary students and professionals, and an outreach and information campaign for Thai kids aged 6-12 years old.

Our Final Thoughts

Elephants are an important part of Thai culture, thus making them also indispensable from the typical Thai tourist trip. 

However, for the sake of these gentle giants, it’s best to stay away from elephant rides and shows and instead appreciate these creatures in their most natural environment.

FAQs on Elephants in Thailand

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