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Tourism and Animals

Elephant Sanctuaries

A genuine elephant sanctuary takes in wild baby elephants that have been separated from their mothers or rescued animals, and cares for them until they can be returned to the wild. If the animals are unable to be returned to the wild, these centers care for them providing a natural-habitat environment.

Unfortunately, many people see an economic opportunity in exhibiting elephants calling their activities "orphanage" or "sanctuary" when they really are not. The animal welfare is the highest priority of any genuine wild animal rescue center, including elephants. Even If they include some tourist access, they will never use the animals for entertainment purposes and will always make their decisions for the benefit of the animals. Most of these centers do not allow contact between animals and visitors nor do they breed (except where necessary for the conservation of the species).

Most elephants used for rides, as well as those that can be found in fake elephant rescue centers, have been taken from the wild as baby calves and "domesticated" through brutally harsh methods called "breaking the spirit."

Many fake rescue centers allow touching the animals, under the supervision of a "mahout" (elephant trainer), who hopes to get a tip for this service. It is common to see the mahouts on site, carrying the ‘ankus’, the traditional elephant training tool. This long stick has sharp metal points at one end, which are used to control the elephant. It is this threat of pain that makes elephants trainable, and hence makes it possible to manage them. Injuries at the head of the animals and behind their ears are signs that they have been mistreated in an abusive and aggressive form with this stick.

In some pseudo-sanctuaries, visitors can watch how the baby elephants are being fed or even participate in the feeding process - against an extra fee. These baby elephants are not actual orphans rescued from the wild. They are usually separated from their mothers prematurely for these "shows".

There is no need to breed Asian elephants for re-introduction, as there are already many areas where the areas of habitat are straining to hold the wild populations living in them. It is now illegal to capture wild elephants for captivity in Sri Lanka, except in special circumstances, and it seems that this policy is followed in order to provide animals for the captive market, and quite possibly for institutions where the welfare of the animals cannot be guaranteed. Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and despite the longevity of the animals, no captive populations have ever been self-sustaining – new animals from wild populations have always been needed.

We often see chained elephants. Being very social animals, they get visibly distressed by not being able to follow the herd. Sometimes they are tied to trees by two or three limbs. This offers very limited opportunities for movement, and in some cases no access to clean water for much of the time spent restrained in this way. Let us remember that they need about 100l of water a day.

Musth is a condition experienced by adult male elephants, characterized by high levels of testosterone, which happens about once a year and lasts for a few weeks. During this time the animals experience increased sex drive and may roam longer distances than usual – a combination of behaviors that in the wild can lead to vital genetic dispersal. In captive elephants, however, the confinement and limitations on sexual activity can lead to aggression and destructive tendencies. For this reason, males are often tied up when in musth, which frustrates and distresses them further, making them even more difficult to manage and clearly compromises the welfare of the animals.

Breaking the elephant's spirit

To control these huge animals and make them submissive, they are usually deprived of food and water, are isolated from other elephants, chained, sleep deprived and stabbed with sticks that have sharp nails attached to them on sensitive areas such as their ears and eyes.

The pajaan is a centuries old Thai "training" (or "domestication" method) which unfortunately forms part of the Thai culture.

The purpose of this training is to "break the spirit" of the animals, to make them submissive and render them totally incapable of ever disobeying the orders of humans. This is achieved by separating baby elephants from their mothers (which alone is extremely traumatic), then placing them in small cages where they are tied so they can not move. The elephant is then beaten and stabbed repeatedly with sticks that have sharp nails attached to them. The beating goes on for several days.

The more the elephant struggles, the more severely it is beaten. As you know, elephants never forget so after the pajaan these giant creatures will forever be fearful of humans and always do what they’re told. In just 12 years in the Indian state of Kerala, some 1,000 elephants have died during their "training".

There is irrefutable graphical evidence of this process, as this video from National Geographic (Training Crush) and the photo report of the Magazine.

Learn more in this video produced by a Thai reporter about the problems of the elephants in the hands of tourism in her country.

Painting Elephants

It’s a myth that elephants are clever because they can paint. Please don’t think they are gifted or that it’s cute to watch this form of tourist ‘entertainment’. Here’s a few facts you need to know:

  • Elephants endure months of physical abuse to learn how to hold a paint brush, draw a straight line and paint flowers and leaves on trees.
  • For years they then paint the same repetitive painting over and over again, every single day, sometimes twice or three times a day.
  • When training an elephant to paint, a sharp metal bull hook or nail is used to guide the paintbrush.
  • When the elephant paints incorrectly they are beaten as punishment, often the hook is rammed into the elephants ear or they are hit on their head or trunk.
  • Look for scars or beatings on the top of an elephants head or trunk from metal bull hooks used to train elephants for human ‘entertainment’.

Information from EARS (Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation)

Pinewalla, Sri Lanka, a fake elephant sanctuary.

A report by The Born Free Foundation


Pinnewala Sanctuary is one of the most popular animal attractions of Sri Lanka. According to the Born Free Foundation, the welfare of the animals in this center is a cause for concern for many experts.
Pinnewala was founded in 1975 with five young elephants. There are now around 85 animals, ranging from those born at the facility - they have had over 50 live births, although not all are still resident at Pinnewala - to some estimated at 40 years old or more.


The animals spend the night in the main site, and in the mid-morning they are led down to the Maha Oya river, around 500 meters away, for a two hour bathing session. This walk takes them down the main street of town which is lined with gift shops, stalls, restaurants and other tourist facilities. During the bathing sessions tourists can watch the animals playing in the river and being washed by the keepers. More adventurous visitors are encouraged to touch the animals under the supervision of a mahout (elephant trainer), who expects a tip for this service.
At around noon the animals are led back through town to the main site, where they are left to graze for a few hours, supervised by staff, whilst tourists can watch from a distance. At this time the baby elephants are brought to a feeding shed where they are given milk from bottles whilst tourists watch and some can buy tickets to take part in the feeding. In the middle of the afternoon the elephants are led down to the river again for another bathing session, and a few hours later they are led back to the main site for the night. In the wild, elephants eat between 14 and 18 hours a day.
The elephants at Pinnewala are not kept permanently chained, but it is often possible to see individual animals chained, often in distressing circumstances, sometimes even during bathing. In one in particular case, an elephant was chained to a rock and was straining on the chain - visibly distressed by not being able to follow the herd. Back at the main site, several elephants could be seen tied to trees by two or three limbs.

The role of ‘sanctuary’ or ‘orphanage’ also conflicts with the stated policy of encouraging breeding at Pinnewala. Elephants do not breed well in captivity, and despite the longevity of the animals, no captive populations have ever been self-sustaining – new animals from wild populations have always been needed. In this context, Pinnewala has a very successful record of captive breeding. Nonetheless, two of the babies born at the facility in 2004 did not survive – one was born dead, and the other died when it was dashed on the ground by its mother shortly after the birth.


Avoid the Maesa Elephant Camp in Thailand

Worldwide recognized experts in protection of elephants indicate that this center is one of many centers abusing elephants for elephant rides or in degrading tourist attractions. Images broadcast on television show these magnificent animals being forced to play instruments, play football or even "paint" with their trunks. Always with their mahout "caretaker" close by holding an "ankus". This center is simply a commercial tourist attraction.

Elephant Transit Home in Sri Lanka, a genuine rescue center

The Born Free Foundation supports the Elephant Transit Home (ETH) in Udawalawe, in southern Sri Lanka. This facility takes in wild baby elephants that have been separated from their mothers, and care for them until they can be returned to the wild. They do not exhibit the animals and provide them with natural living conditions.

The young animals spend their days roaming freely in a section of the Udawalawe National Park, being observed at a distance by a few members of the ETH staff. They are fed at three hour intervals in a specially constructed feeding yard, and this is the only time that they can be seen by tourists, who watch from a viewing platform separated from the yard itself. At no point can the tourists have physical contact with the animals. The elephants are herded through the yard by staff who sometimes strike them with thin sticks which do not break the skin (and, judging by how often they are ignored, cause only minimal discomfort). The sight of feeding time is very popular with the locals and any tourists who visit as the animals are enthusiastic, relaxed and full of character.

Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary in Thailand, a genuine sanctuary

The Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuarycomes highly recommended by experts in elephant protection.BLES puts the well-being of elephants first. The name of the sanctuary, which means surviving in Thai, is dedicated to the first baby elephant that was rescued and whose story shows the struggle for the protection of an animal affected by both the tourism industry and the use of elephants for illegal logging. We invite you to meet her here.

Elephant Nature Park, a center that comes recommended

Our colleagues at YourtimeTravels, who have visited many of the elephant centers in Thailand, tell us that the Elephant Nature Park, is the only sanctuary they recommend in Thailand. They carry out an exceptional task, rescuing elephants and will never have them participate in entertainment programs.


Thailand. Wildlife Friends Foundation

Another organization that rescues abused elephants in Thailand. A recommended visit. More information here.

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