Is Being in Captivity Unhealthy for Elephants?

Modern travellers are more informed than ever about ethical and moral issues in popular tourist destinations. In Thailand, this often involves questions about elephants in captivity.

As an ethical elephant sanctuary, we provide elephant activities in Phuket for guests from all over the world.

It’s not unusual for us to field questions like “is being in captivity unhealthy for elephants?”

Our sanctuary is a haven for elephants rescued from the cruelty and exploitation of the tourism industry, so we can tell you that there’s some nuance to this question. It’s not a black-and-white issue.

If you have any questions about our Phuket elephant experiences, please feel free to get in touch.

For now, though, let’s dive into the topic of captivity and the health of elephants.

Elephant in jungle

The Difference Between Captivity and a Sanctuary

Let’s start by clarifying the difference between what it is to be held in captivity and what it is to be in a sanctuary.

Yes, places that fall into either category do confine animals to a limited space.

However, sanctuaries, like the Phuket Nature Elephant Reserve, do not buy, sell, trade, or breed animals. Sanctuaries do not attempt to capture animals from the wild.

A sanctuary either takes care of animals that can no longer survive in their natural habitats or rescues them from cruelty and exploitation elsewhere.

The latter includes the elephant tourism industry in Thailand. This covers riding parks, circus shows, street begging, and the logging industry.

Couple feeding elephant

Generally speaking, elephants in this kind of captivity are overworked, abused, and malnourished. Young elephants are “trained” to have their spirits crushed, making them submissive to humans.

Because these animals often can’t return to the wild, sanctuaries that protect and care for them are the only viable option.

And that’s exactly who we are and what we do.

We prioritise the safety, comfort, well-being, and health of our elephants — and we always will.

This is why one of our most popular experiences is the Half-Day Elephant Care Adventure in Phuket.

Woman playing with elephant

How Ethical is the Elephant ‘Sanctuary’ You’re Visiting in Thailand?

Now that we know captivity related to circus shows, riding parks, street begging, and the logging industry is unhealthy for elephants, it’s important to note that some ‘sanctuaries’ are less obvious in their unethical practices.

The best way to assess on the spot whether a sanctuary is as ethical as they claim to be is by checking the conditions in which the elephants live and the activities on offer.

How do the Elephants Live?

It may not always be possible to see specific living conditions. However, just looking at the size of a place that offers elephant activities can help.

Living conditions that result in poor welfare include:

  • Restricted, cramped spaces
  • Minimal opportunity for exercise
  • Extended periods of confinement
  • Inappropriate or insufficient diet
  • Unsuitable climate
  • Exposure to abuse in handling

In the wild, elephants are highly sociable creatures, with herds sometimes reaching nearly 60 individual animals of all ages.

Elephants are also nomadic by nature and can walk up to 5.6 miles (9 km) in a day.

Put simply, if a ‘sanctuary’ you visit doesn’t look big enough to allow elephants adequate room to roam, or if elephants are kept isolated or in cramped conditions, it’s likely that their health and welfare aren’t a priority.

Also, look for signs of stress or mistreatment in elephant behaviour too. These include swaying, rocking, head-bobbing, or other repetitive movements.

Discover more about the importance of elephant conservation, and the broader aim behind ethical sanctuaries.

Elephant bathing in pool

What Elephant Activities are on Offer?

Looking at the activities and experiences provided by a ‘sanctuary’ is the easiest way to judge the authenticity of their ethical values.

The test is simple — any form of unnatural behaviour is a red flag.

But what is unnatural behaviour? Well, look out for:

  • Performing tricks
  • Prolonged bathing
  • Painting
  • Riding

To perform tricks and painting, an elephant must undergo training. In many cases, this is abusive and violent, causing physical and psychological harm.

And while bathing is a natural part of an elephant’s life, they absolutely shouldn’t spend all day in the water just to let tourists bathe them.

A lot of ‘sanctuaries’ will tie a rope around the elephant’s neck so they can pull them toward water and force them to lie down in it while visitors ‘help to wash them’. 

This is not normal or ethical. Clambering around in dung-infested, muddy water is 100% unhygienic and can lead to sickness.

To learn more about the realities of riding elephants, read our blog Should I Ride Elephants in Thailand?

Of course, one of the best ways to feel confident and comfortable about visiting an elephant sanctuary while in Phuket, or anywhere else in Thailand, is to carry out as much research as you can before your trip.

Lady feeding elephant

How is the Phuket Nature Elephant Reserve Ethical?

When talking about the ethical nature of elephant sanctuaries, we can only speak for ourselves.

Our site covers an area of 30 rai or 48,000 square metres. What’s more, we’re located in a lush jungle. These factors combined allow us to create a natural habitat for our elephants.

Our overnight shelters, where the elephants sleep at night, are a generous 20m x 10m, making them the biggest shelters in Phuket.

We have rescued all our animals from situations of neglect and exploitation.

With this in mind, we absolutely do not chain our elelphants or use bullhooks, not even after the ‘visitors have gone home’, like some so-called-sanctuaries do.

Our sole aim is to provide a peaceful environment for these incredible creatures, protecting them from harm for the rest of their lives.

And, of course, we’re always trying to find ways to save even more.

We aim to do this through tourism that aids conservation. We welcome you and other guests to engage with our elephants on their terms.

Our company invests the money raised through tourism into buying elephant food, providing veterinary care, supporting local Mahouts, and rescuing more elephants.

We are also always looking to use more land and build more infrastructure for our elephants to live on.

As a genuinely ethical elephant sanctuary, we are proud that our high standards earned Gold Star Accreditation from ACES (the Asian Captive Elephant Standards).

All of the above is what makes an elephant sanctuary ethical and worthy of your support.

You can be sure that while our elephants are kept in captivity, they are as healthy and happy as they possibly can be.

Learn more about Phuket’s most ethical elephant sanctuary.

Family hiking with elephant in jungle

Experience Our Ethical Elephant Activities in Phuket!

Are you ready to interact with rescued elephants in their natural habitat?

Browse our elephant activities in Phuket to find the perfect fit for your needs. We can also draw up private elephant experiences in Phuket for special events, team building, and more.

If you have any questions for us, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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