Inside An Elephant Sanctuary In Thailand

I had one thing on my agenda when traveling to Thailand and that was “ellys”. I must see all the ellys.

The V’s are huge animal lovers and to experience them in their natural habitat or sanctuary is always a consideration whenever we travel.

During our research, we discovered Elephants World, a sanctuary for elderly, disabled, sick, abused, rescued ellys. The majority of their elephants were born in the 1950’s & 60’s. The eldest in 1930 and their youngest, Spy, in 2011. To work with elephants that have been on this earth longer than I have was astonishing to me.


Here they are provided a safe haven for their final years. Due to their upbringing, they are no longer equipped to go back into the wild, but I appreciated Elephants Worlds approach to providing them as close to freedom as they can. Their motto, “We work for the elephants, and not them for us.” We learned a lot during our overnight stay that I find crucial to share.


History of Elephants in Thailand


Thailand once had around 100,000 elephants roaming its country. That number has decreased significantly for various reasons. The majority of the elephants, up until the ban of 1989, were used in the logging industry. They were labored, day in and out, moving heavy machinery. After the ban owners used them in the tourism industry. The cities would have elephants roaming the loud, busy streets. Chained all day for tourists to ride and take photos.


Thankfully, the Thai government does not allow elephants to be wandering the cities, but they are still able to be used at trekking camps outside of the city. There is no law to protect the conditions of the animals, as these camps are not providing freedom or sufficient meals.


You must do your research before deciding where to interact, and ultimately, pay to be with elephants. (THIS IS CRUCIAL)


Want to ride an elephant?

Did you know that the back is considered an elephants weakest point!? It’s built to hold a  maximum load of 100 kg. Typically the seats alone weigh 50 kg, plus the weight of the passengers. I have easily seen full families saddled for photo ops. How devastating for the elephant who gets stuck working 10+hours a day to near exhaustion.


At the sanctuary, many elephants are seen with dipping spines due to this experience. To properly ride an elephant you should be near his strongest point, the neck. Truthfully the only one who should ever ride an elephant is their Mahout, whom they are most comfortable with.


What is a mahout?

“Mahout” comes from the Hindi words mahaut meaning “elephant driver.” Historically, it was a profession for men who passed down the tradition—and the elephant—to their son. A mahout was once looked at a spiritual endeavor, but due to the growth of tourism, not all mahouts take on this responsibility as they should.  A mahout devotes its life to be a companion to its elephant. Their bond should be unparalleled being able to fully understand the elephant's emotions and conditions.


You may see Mahouts’ using the bullhook tool. This traditional tool serves to touch pressure points in order to direct the elephant and can be compared to a riding stick used with horses. It should never be used with the intention to harm the animal.


Astonishing Facts:

  1. An elephant's brain is like a human's brain in both structure and complexity, but much larger.  Researchers have found that elephants exhibit behaviors that reveal substantial intelligence, including grief, self-sacrifice, play, art, use of tools, and self-awareness.

  2. Elephants travel with their family and can recognize a member even after decades have passed. They reflect grief when one has passed and are the only animals outside of humans to hold funerals. They will stand in a circle of the loss and will frequent the burial spot.

  3. They use their trunks like arms using found objects to help with an itch they can’t reach, spraying dirt to protect their skin from the sun, or use tools like hold a brush to create abstract art.

  4. Perhaps one of the greatest signs of elephants' intelligence is the ability to recognize their reflection in a mirror. This is something that only a few of the most intelligent species can claim.

  5. They can problem solve. For instance, if you watch our video you will see young Spy gets his foot stuck in a tire and his foster mother, Touk-ka-ta, assists in helping him get out.



An Interesting story about the relationship of Spy & Touk-ka-ta.

When Spy arrived, it was clear that he is significantly younger than those present in the sanctuary. Spy needed guidance in order to grow into a fully intelligent elephant so a discussion was had. Not between the humans, but the elephants.


One morning Spy had a foster mother by his side. This elephant wasn’t that much older, in her early 20’s. She NEVER left Spy’s side, they ate, slept, walked, bathed together, but right before we arrived something had changed.

All of a sudden the mother was replaced by an elder elephant named Touk-ka-ta. It was made clear between the elephants that the former foster mother wasn’t wise enough or ready to take on the task of Spy. It appears they voted that Spy should be fostered by an elephant with more experience. And just like that, Touk-ka-ta and Spy were inseparable throughout each day. it was a beautiful thing to watch.


These sacred animals deserve to be protected. I ask you to always do your research before visiting any animal sanctuary. Provide to those that deserve to be provided for. Elephants aren’t considered to be very social animals, they prefer quiet and space. If you ever see an elephant heavily swaying back and forth that is due to being in a high-stress environment. Take action and let authorities know. These conditions have devastating effects, which can lead to uncommon or dangerous behavior.


Let’s Save the Elephants!

If you plan to visit Thailand we highly suggest the overnight stay at Elephants World for a truly hands on eperience.