ThailandWildlife Conservation

What is an Ethical Elephant Sanctuary?

By February 12, 2020 No Comments
Elephants freely graze in ethical elephant sanctuary

For nearly 5,000 years, elephants have been used for tourist riding, logging, shows, and circus activities around the world. In countries such as Bali, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, the elephant has become a renowned majestic cultural symbol, and the last few years have seen a significant spike in international concern for their welfare. As international tourism becomes more and more popular, animal welfare organizations have brought attention to the state of elephant sanctuaries around the globe. To find an ethical sanctuary during your travels, Lift Our Planet has compiled essential information about their history and operations.

Where are the elephants rescued from? 

Elephants in ethical sanctuaries are rescued from poachers and slavers who train the animals into work and performance through conditioning and use of force. The training method used by exploitive companies is called “training crush”, which is intended to crush the elephant’s spirit and force them to adopt a docile demeanor. They are frequently subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, and starvation as a means of conditioning.

Ethical elephant sanctuaries buy these gentle giants from their captors in order to provide them with a better quality of life. Once freed from chains and able to roam, conditioned elephants naturally maintain some of their previous training, but sanctuaries focus on keeping the elephants as comfortable and happy as possible.  Any sanctuary you visit should be able to detail each elephant’s history, including where they were rescued from. 

What makes a sanctuary ethical?

There are thousands of elephant sanctuaries around the world, but many of them are no different than the exploitive environment the elephants were rescued from. Any ethical sanctuary will ensure that the elephants are not ridden or forced to work and are free to exist as they do in their natural habitat.

The 5 Freedoms of Animal Welfare – the global standard – determine whether or not a rescue sanctuary is behaving ethically:

1. Freedom from hunger and thirst

To support their size, elephants eat approximately 300 lbs of food each day. While in captivity, they are often denied food or undernourished. Elephants must have direct access to their food supply without limitation. 

2. Freedom from discomfort

Exploited elephants are generally kept in small cages and pens in areas that do not properly accommodate their size and behaviors. While elephants may be confined to a general area with fencing, an ethical sanctuary will ensure that they have enough land to roam as naturally as possible.

3. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease

Elephant extortionists use a variety of painful tactics in training, often times resulting in injuries that remain untreated for days or weeks at a time. Ethical sanctuaries must have immediately accessible medical care available to treat injuries and disease and never use painful tactics when guiding.

4. Freedom to express normal and natural behavior

With ample space to roam, freedom to behave as they do in their natural habitat, an abundance of food, and free access to water for drinking and bathing, ethical sanctuaries must accommodate all of the elephants’ natural behaviors.

5. Freedom from fear and distress.

Elephants in the wild are rarely in contact with humans. As a result, elephants in confinement often experience distress and fear as a result of overexposure and overstimulation. Ethical sanctuaries limit human interaction to specific times of day to establish a routine and avoid distressing the elephants.


Why are sanctuaries open to the public?

Elephant tourism is on the rise, and some animal rights advocates question whether or not sanctuaries should be open to the public at all. Volunteer organizations from around the world partner with sanctuaries to raise awareness and donate labor, but the answer ultimately comes down to money. 

 Tourism funds sanctuaries’ ability to afford to rescue and provide ongoing care for the elephants. When buying an elephant out of slavery, rescuers often spend between $20,000 and $80,000. With ongoing food and care costs, allowing a safe amount of tourism allows conservationist professionals to maintain a steady income stream to support the elephants’ quality of life.  

While traveling abroad, volunteers can use these guidelines to determine whether the sanctuary they’re considering visiting is exploitive or ethical. Sanctuaries ensure that volunteers and tourists are trained on how to properly interact with elephants and focus on the long-term care and well being of the animals in their care.

Have you visited an ethical elephant sanctuary recently?
Share your experience with us in the comments below.


Lift Our Planet is proud of our commitment to ethical and sustainable conduct at home and abroad. While in Thailand, our volunteers spend their time in an ethical elephant sanctuary personally evaluated by a member of our team.

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