In Asia, elephants are revered as deities, honored as symbols of royalty, and valued for their strength. African cultures admire the animals’ wisdom—some tribes even believe human chiefs are reincarnated as the graceful creatures. This revered status hasn’t protected them from Dickensian storylines on both continents, from habitat loss and poaching among wild elephants, to abuse and poor health care for captive beasts of burden.
This threatened status has only enhanced elephants' pull on travelers’ imaginations, earning encounters with them a spot on many visitors’ must-do lists. Here are a few places to experience the entrancing creatures:
Chiang Mai, Thailand
This northern Thai city has deep ties to elephants: A lucky white elephant determined in 1383, the location of Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. Today, it’s a hub for reputable parks, such as Thai Elephant Home and Elephant Nature Park both of which offer day visits and multi-day volunteer programs.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Once home to wild herds that grazed around the former capital city, today Luang Prabang is the locale of parks such as Elephant Village Sanctuary & Resort, where, as is common among Asian pachyderm havens, many of the rescues once worked in the logging industry. The Elephant Conservation Center hosts visitors and runs the country’s first hospital dedicated to the care of elephants injured in logging accidents.
Most elephant encounters on the African continent are with wild animals in preserves while on safari. However, Elephant Sanctuary has three locations in as many South African provinces: Plettenberg Bay, Hartbeespoortdam, and Hazyview. Thanks to the refuge’s positive-reinforcement training techniques, here, the kings of beasts are relaxed, and eager to walk hand-in-trunk with visitors.
Can you have an ethical elephant encounter?
This question causes contentious debate. Here are a few qualities to look for in reputable operators:
Look for places where you’ll interact with elephants doing natural behaviors—eating, walking, and bathing—and those where mahouts train with verbal commands and rewards such as fruit. Avoid those where the elephants are required to perform tricks, are chained, and are trained by mahouts using with sticks or hooks.
If you’re going to ride an elephant, sit just behind the ears just as the mahouts do. Tuck your feet high—it feels a little unnatural—so the elephant’s ears can move freely. Look for an outfitter where you ride bareback for short spurts of time.