Kanta Elephant Sanctuary
Updated: Sep 11, 2019
When in Chiang Mai, Thailand, one must go play with elephants! It’s no surprise that elephants are kind of a big deal in Thailand. Chang, the Thai word for elephant, is the country’s national animal!
Thai people celebrate “the elephant’s incredible strength, durability, and longevity.” Elephants have been used throughout Thai history for transport of goods and people, as well as during war. Today, many of Thailand’s elephants reside in national parks and sanctuaries where they are safe from logging and poaching. To learn more about the history and symbolism of elephants in Thailand, check out this really cool article.
Elephant sanctuaries are, however, a tricky business. This is because many of them are not actually sanctuaries, but tourist traps that mistreat the elephants and use them just for the entertainment purposes. As travelers, it is on us to be aware of the industries we are supporting with our purchasing power. Short of not seeing the elephants at all, the least we can do is do our research to ensure we’re supporting ethical organizations that treat their animals well.
This can be complicated. Some good rules to follow in what to look for in an ethical elephant sanctuary are:
Do the animals have the “Five Freedoms of animal welfare:” Freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; freedom from fear and distress?
Does the organization let you ride the elephants? If so, it’s not ethical! Riding or sitting on their trunks are not good for them.
How long is your excursion? Is it taking a lot of “work” time for the elephants?
How much direct interaction are you going to have? Typically the less exposure, the more ethical the place.
Google, google, google, and check the reviews! If people felt skeevy about it, the internet will know.
That being said, also know that light restraints of the elephants always need to be available if they are going to be interacting with people. Ropes tied loosely around their necks are usually okay; chains with spikes, absolutely not.
In our experience, Kanta Elephant Sanctuary was a pretty good one. The rule there tended to be the elephants do what the elephants want. We booked a half-day excursion, of which only maybe half of the time was direct interaction with the elephants (usually feeding them). They wandered around as they wished, got in and out of the water as they wished, and eagerly took food from us as they wished. The only time their restraints were used was once when one of the elephants tried to join us in the food preparation hut (in which she was not going to fit, despite her best efforts), and once at the end when we got five minutes to take a posed picture.
The elephants here were happy elephants - curious and playful. And most of our time there was really spent watching them wander and graze. Most of the elephants at Kanta are retired or rescued logging elephants. They spend the majority of their days eating, as they have to intake between 200 and 600 pounds of food per day! They also only need to sleep for about four hours each day, which is a skill I would love to acquire.
Elephants have a very similar life-span to humans, with their life expectancy around 80 years. The youngest at Kanta was 5 years old, and she definitely had the personality of a 5 year old. She was energetic and playful, bugging the larger, older elephants and spraying the group of us with water when we got in the swimming hole with her.
We left feeling pretty good about the place we had given our money to (it has indeed made a couple Ethical Sanctuary lists). I would definitely recommend the half-day tour over the full-day, for both your schedule and the elephants’.
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