As more and more people travel to Thailand for its beaches, food, temples and culture, unfortunately as does the number of people who are unaware of the cruelty involved with riding elephants in Thailand or visiting elephant shows where they are forced to stand on their front legs and trunks, paint and “play” soccer.
However, the good news is that there are places in Thailand like Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai that are giving elephants the opportunity to live out their lives without abuse while fulfilling tourist demands for elephant interaction experiences.
Read more: World Animal Protection published a report on the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia. Click here for the PDF report. Many statistics referenced in this post have been sourced from the “Taken for a Ride” Research Report by WAP.
Now, there is a haven for elephants who have been subjected to years of abuse on the island of Koh Samui. Samui Elephant Sanctuary is the first elephant park in Koh Samui, offering no-riding elephant interaction experiences for visitors from all around the world. If you are visiting Koh Samui, check out Samui Elephant Sanctuary instead of one of the elephant riding camps on the island!
Looking for more ideas of fun things to do in Koh Samui? Check out my guide to planning a trip to Ang Thong Marine National Park!
The current state of elephant tourism in Thailand
Some quick background information first: the wild elephant population in Thailand is on the decline as a result of destruction of natural habitat, poaching and human-elephant conflict, with more elephants in captivity than wandering free (approximately 4,400 vs. somewhere between 2,000-3,200*). Those who are free run the risk of being killed and separated from their young, who are then subjected to the phajaan, or being enslaved themselves into the tourism or logging industries.
Many elephant interaction and show venues receive more than 1,000 visitors a day, with elephant welfare practically non-existent as the animals are required to continually give rides, perform and interact with tourists all day long. Here are some more numbers to shock you from the World Animal Protection organization: “In 2014, 36% of tourists stated that they had been on or planned to do an elephant ride; this translates to 8.9 million tourists having potentially sought out elephant rides in 2014.
In 2016 World Animal Protection repeated the survey. We found that 40% of tourists of the top 10 nationalities visiting Thailand stated that they had been on or were planning to do an elephant ride. This suggests a demand of up to 12.8 million elephant rides in Thailand.”
These numbers speak for themselves, and unfortunately elephant trekking in Koh Samui remains a popular activity for tourists. The good news is, with an increase in education and awareness there is some shift towards a rise in no-riding and ethical facilities. Samui Elephant Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park, along with several others, are leading the charge towards more ethical interaction experiences with these gentle pachyderms.
Interested in reading more about responsible and ethical tourism in Southeast Asia? Click here for 10 things you should know before you visit Southeast Asia!
What is Samui Elephant Sanctuary?
Samui Elephant Sanctuary is an ethical elephant sanctury in Koh Samui and is currently home to approximately 8 rescued elephants. It is one of the best places to visit in Koh Samui and it is located near Koh Samui airport. Its operation model was inspired by the Save Elephant Foundation (more information about their projects can be found here) that runs Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. The park was recently established with the aim of serving as a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants.
The elephants at Samui Elephant Sanctuary have been rescued from riding and trekking camps, the logging industry, circus shows or from street begging. As you can imagine, many arrive in poor physical and psychological condition as a result of the horrific abuse.
Since opening Samui Elephant Sanctuary in January 2018, the team has also opened Samui Elephant Haven, a “sister” project”, in August 2018. Samui Elephant Haven is currently home to 3 elephants and shares Samui Elephant Sanctuary’s objective of providing a home haven for rescued elephants.
Where to stay in Koh Samui
I usually stay at Villa Waimarie in Lipa Noi – it is my family’s timeshare property and is on one of the most pristine and uncrowded beaches in Koh Samui. The beachfront villa has 6 bedrooms, a tennis court, an indoor and outdoor lounge area, pool and amazing kitchen.
It’s a fantastic luxury villa in Koh Samui to book if you have a large group of people, and serves up the most incredible Thai food. Click here to check availability and rates for Villa Waimarie, or click here to see other highly rated hotels in Koh Samui!
Why visit Samui Elephant Sanctuary?
Elephants are incredible creatures, and the opportunity to interact with them and observe them is outrageously cool. While I do believe that there is no better place for elephants than in their natural habitat, the reality is that it is no longer possible for these particular elephants in Thailand for a number of reasons.
Additionally, elephants, though big, are actually not great at bearing weight and have sharp protrusions from their spine which make it painful for them to carry load (like people) on their backs. So if you are looking into taking part in an ethical elephant interaction experience in Thailand, I would recommend visiting and supporting a facility such as this one over a trekking camp or show.
Some food for thought: according to the World Animal Protection organization, “a true elephant-friendly venue is purely observational for visitors, where the safety of visitors and wellbeing of elephants is not affected by the need to constantly control the animals. The elephants would be managed in humane ways through the mahout who allows a maximum of freedom or through advanced ‘protected contact’ techniques.”
At Samui Elephant Sanctuary the elephants freely roam the premises and are supervised by their mahouts. Although the property is much smaller than some other elephant sanctuaries, the elephants get fed well, can wander around, receive the medical care that they need, and most importantly are not subjected to hauling tourists around on their backs or performing stunts and tricks for visitors’ amusement.
How to book a trip to Samui Elephant Sanctuary
Samui Elephant Sanctuary offers and easy online booking system that shows you which dates are available. You can either book the morning tour (9 AM to noon) or afternoon tour (2 to 5 PM). The experience set me back 3,000 THB (approx. 90 USD) and included transportation to/from the park and a vegetarian buffet. You can check out all of the different visit options here.
What to expect from your time at Samui Elephant Sanctuary
During your day at Samui Elephant Sanctuary you are picked up at 7-8 AM in the morning or 1-1:30 PM in an A/C van depending on which tour you choose. Once you arrive at the sanctuary, you will be given a quick briefing on the philosophy of the park, its history and code of conduct (don’t pick up food off the ground if you drop it – the elephants will think you’re taking their food!). When we visited in July, there were approximately 45 people visiting the park at the same time.
From here, the entire group is taken to a fenced area where you can feed watermelon chunks and banana pieces to 3-4 elephant residents. We stayed here for about 45 minutes and then were divided into groups of 15 and led through the different areas of the park and given the opportunity to observe the herds.
When we visited, a massive storm hit and we were led to an undercover area to continue feeding the elephants and watch them enjoy their mud baths. The staff handed out ponchos and we huddled under a thatched roof alongside the resident elephants and handed them banana after banana – did you know that elephants eat up to 300 KG of food each day?
If you have previously visited one of the sanctuaries in Chiang Mai, you should adjust your expectations before you visit Samui Elephant Sanctuary as the scale is much smaller. There are 8 elephants at this park (as opposed to dozens), and the grounds are not as sprawling as some of the parks in northern Thailand. The elephants do wander around relatively freely, are fed and treated well from what we can tell, and are not subjected to any riding or activities purely for tourists’ pleasure.
Like Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, you cannot bathe the elephants at Samui Elephant Sanctuary but you can observe the elephants bathe themselves. The length of the tours is also shorter (3 hours as opposed to half a day/full day/overnight) than many of the itineraries at other parks in Thailand. Some reviews comment on the fairly expensive entry price for Samui Elephant Sanctuary, and I understand where they are coming from – but if you’re going to spend money on an elephant interaction experience, don’t opt for a trekking camp just because it’s far cheaper. Make sure your tourism dollars go towards a facility that enables interaction with elephants without cruelty and bsue.
The fact is, there are only 30,000 or so Asian elephants left in the world, and visiting Samui Elephant Sanctuary is one way to interact ethically with elephants without contributing to animal cruelty and abuse. Before you decide to go elephant trekking in Koh Samui, please do your research and visit Koh Samui elephant sanctuary instead!
After the tour, you can enjoy the Thai buffet and sip a cup of tea before being transported back to your hotel. Ready to book your trip to the picturesque Koh Samui island? Click here to check availability and rates for Villa Waimarie, or click here to see other highly rated hotels in Koh Samui!
Have you visited Samui Elephant Sanctuary or can you recommend some other ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand? Let me know in the comments section below!
Interested in reading more about ethical elephant experiences around the world? Click here for more sanctuaries, orphanages and parks that you can visit!
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