Conservation | November 3, 2022

Elephant Conservation in Thailand: A Shade of Grey

Ashley Platz


This paper uses secondary research to explore if elephant sanctuaries are effective conservation efforts for the elephant population in Thailand rather than poorly framed ecotourism. The author defines ecotourism and explores how neoliberalism in ecotourism has evolved. The author examines why elephant camps exist in Thailand and how they are prepared, specifically in the instance of Elephant Nature Park. The author examines two bloggers’ perspectives and views on elephant sanctuaries’ positives and negatives. The solutions offered by elephant sanctuaries are imperfect, yet there is little other option for elephants raised in captivity at this time.

Elephant Conservation: A Shade of Grey

Elephant conservation in Thailand is a highly debated topic in the Western world. Some individuals advocate for no elephant parks at all, and that all elephants should be able to run free in the wild (Adnan, 2019). Sometimes other individuals advocate that elephant parks are the only way for domesticated elephants to survive (Adnan, 2019). With the complicated history of elephants as working animals in Thailand, as well as wild elephants being seen as a separate issue from domesticated elephants, there is no correct answer for the conservation of elephants (Duffy & Moore, 2011). The only correct answer is that all parties should be committed to advocating for the rights of elephants to the best of their abilities (Duffy & Moore, 2011).

It is necessary to look at the development of ecotourism to understand the effects of the elephant camp industry in Thailand. Ecotourism ties into the three pillars of sustainability with its attempts to make travelling more ethical. However, there are negatives to ecotourism, including the neo-liberalization of the industry. Next, this paper will look at why elephant camps exist in Thailand, and how Elephant National Park, an ethical elephant sanctuary, frames its mission to tourists and volunteers. This paper then examines two bloggers’ views on the subject. Elephant camps are a morally grey solution, but they might be the best solution for the conservation of the Thailand elephant population.

gray concrete road between green palm trees
Photo by cottonbro

Defining Ecotourism

According to Merriam-Webster (n. d.), the definition of ecotourism is “the practice of touring natural habitats in a manner meant to minimize ecological impact.” Osman et al. (2018) argue that ecotourism benefits the environment, society, culture, and economy of attraction areas and local communities, providing the best solution to the long run need to protect and promote local natural and cultural diversity (as cited in Tseng et al., 2019). Tseng et al. (2019) argue that ecotourism’s potential includes sustainable development results that incorporate suitable resource management and that the ability to generate ecotourism is based on environmental conservation and protection. But first, tourism locations must have facilities, services, and infrastructure to attract tourists (Tseng et al., 2019). This leads to the environment being modified to attract tourists, which can lead to environmental degradation or severe negative impacts on the environment (Tseng et al., 2019). However, rather than limitless tourist satisfaction, ecotourism’s main purpose is educating tourists and raising their environmental awareness (Tseng et al., 2019).

Vanderheiden and Sisson (2010) contend that the idea of ecotourism being environmentally sustainable, especially when considering the carbon footprint of air travel to ecotourist destinations, is impractical. They argue this form of tourism is incompatible with strong notions of environmental sustainability due to the sheer impact that long-distance travel contributes to global warming (Vanderheiden & Sisson, 2010). It is mentioned the local benefits must be considered against the global harm associated with exacerbated climate change when ecotourists travel great distances to engage in their otherwise low-impact travel (Vanderheiden & Sisson, 2010). Ecotourism might bring jobs but undermines autonomy, replicating colonial power relationships between ecotourists and those working in the ecotourism industry set up to serve them (Vanderheiden & Sisson, 2010). Vanderheiden and Sisson (2010) also mention ecotourism can objectify, demean, and violate the privacy of local indigenous peoples by featuring them as subjects of interest and that care must be taken in determining how local peoples are to be included within ecotourism products and services. However, like Tseng et al. (2019) mention, community participation is essential to achieving successful ecotourism because communities must take action to lead environmental management and natural resource management. The involvement of communities in the establishment and management of ecotourism encourages long-term natural resource sustainability and minimizes negative impacts on the environment due to human practices (Tseng et al., 2019). This involvement leads to increased interest in maintaining a sustainable environment for future generations.

Neo-liberalism and Ecotourism

Duffy (2015) states that tourism has recently been identified as a core component of the green economy, which refers to a shift to economic activities that are also ecologically beneficial. It is argued that the green economy has the potential to promote tourism further and thereby intensify neo-liberalism as well as producing sustainability, economic growth, and poverty reduction (Duffy, 2015). Tourism has been identified and promoted as a means of achieving economic growth that is environmentally sustainable or even environmentally beneficial (Duffy, 2015). However, focusing on individual initiatives such as ecolodges or nature-based experiences renders invisible the wider environmental effects of tourism (Duffy, 2015). Duffy (2015) argues ecotourism is a western construct deeply implicated in the expansion of global capitalism, including neo-liberalism.

One of the main processes through which nature can be reconfigured through tourism is via commodification. One of the core justifications for nature-based tourism is that nature can be conserved or saved because of its ‘market value’ (Duffy, 2015). Ecotourism intersects with ideas of ‘last chance to see’ tourism that captures and defines certain aspects of nature as deeply threatened and mobilizes arguments about scarcity (Duffy, 2015). It is promoted as an opportunity to witness (and consume) the demise of ecosystems, the extinction of species or even ecocide firsthand (Duffy, 2015). It is then sold as a new commodity; the experience that also intensifies, deepens, and extends neo-liberalism. These new sensory experiences can be sold repeatedly (Duffy, 2015).

The development of tourism in Thailand has fit neatly with the wider dynamics of neoliberalism (Duffy, 2013). Duffy (2013) defines neoliberalism as a specific form of capitalism centred on privatization, marketization deregulation, and various forms of re-regulation. Duffy (2013) argues that there is little difference between various forms of ‘alternative tourism’ (such as ecotourism) and mass tourism because, in the arena of tourism, nature is produced, reproduced, and redesigned as a tourist attraction. Through ecotourism, tour operators and conservation NGOs encourage visitors to seek out spectacular landscapes or rare wildlife (Duffy, 2013). Vanderheiden and Sisson (2010) argue that ecotourism offers a qualitatively different tourist experience, as well as a distinct set of impacts on local environments and people since less-developed countries, have the most to gain, environmentally and socially, from the responsible use of their natural endowments.

However, ecotourism promises to offer a unique mechanism for promoting social and environmental justice among poor and indigenous peoples residing near ecotourism destinations (Vanderheiden & Sisson, 2010). This is because offering culture as a key part of the tourism product is something unique (Duffy, 2013). It is the idea that rather than simply visiting hill communities for a short time, visitors can engage in homestays where they are invited to join in the ‘everyday life practices’ of members of the community (Duffy, 2013). The tourists who choose these kinds of homestay programs often also engage in elephant-based tourism activities (Duffy, 2013). This idea explains why there are elephant camps, to begin with.

people sitting inside bus
Photo by Thunyarat Klaiklang

Thailand Elephant Sanctuaries

Thailand is one of the few places where tourists have close personal interactions with elephants (Duffy & Moore, 2011). It has c. 3000 elephants, of which 2000 of them are privately owned working animals (Duffy & Moore, 2011). Since the 1989 logging ban, the promotion of elephant trekking as a tourist experience has become regarded as a potential answer for conservation (Duffy & Moore, 2011). The use of elephants in transportation, logging, and military campaigns guaranteed their economic importance, and as such, domesticated elephants fall under the Department of Livestock, Department of Transport, and the Forest Industry Organization (Duffy, 2013; Kontogeorgopoulos, 2009). Wild elephants are under the jurisdiction of the Department of National Parks or the Ministry of Environment (Duffy, 2013). Therefore, it is helpful to treat the two populations as separate as many conservation NGOs do (Duffy & Moore, 2011).

Although elephants have an important cultural status in Thailand, there were concerns—they would not be looked after once they were unable to earn a wage (Duffy & Moore, 2011). In Thailand, it is not feasible to simply move elephants out of the tourism industry and release them into the wild (Duffy & Moore, 2011). This is because captive working elephants are not always suitable for ‘re-wilding’: they are unable to adapt to the wild and there is insufficient space to accommodate them in existing national parks (Duffy & Moore, 2011). Duffy and Moore (2011) also state that locals assert captive working elephants are important in long-term elephant conservation in Thailand because without them, the long-term survival of Thailand’s elephants would be at risk. This is because Thailand could be left with a fragmented and non-viable wild population, while the much larger captive population dies off over time (Duffy & Moore, 2011). Therefore, many of those involved in elephant management in Thailand recognize that tourism is unlikely to provide a long-term solution, but it is currently the best option available (Duffy, 2015). Elephant Nature Park supports the framing of this point of view.

Lek Chailert interviews Elephant Nature Park’s founder | Youtube

How Elephant Nature Park Uses Framing in Its Conservation Efforts

Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is a sanctuary and elephant rescue centre established in the 1990s in the Chiang Mai province in Northern Thailand (Elephant Nature Park, n.d.). As of April 9, 2020, they currently have 90 elephants in their care, in part due to the global pandemic (Elephant Nature Park, 2020). ENP is a famous sanctuary among ecotourists, and many people have come to interact with the sanctuary’s elephants (Scott & Noakes, 2019). Ecotourism is defined as responsible travel to natural areas for conserving the environment and improving people’s welfare and may serve as a solution to conserve endangered Asian elephants and solve this deep-rooted and urgent social issue (Lin, 2012). According to Lin (2012), ecotourism is seen as a solution to endangered elephants by providing them with a natural habitat to live freely. ENP employs a cross-platform strategy for frame bridging and seeks to attract people who care about elephant conservation and ecotourism (Lin, 2012). These messages are communicated in a variety of ways.

ENP frames itself as a sanctuary where abused domesticated elephants can live and heal from their previous lives (Lin, 2012). The coverage of ENP on both national and international media spreads its message and increases its exposure to those who may be interested in supporting the cause (Lin, 2012). These framing messages facilitate the NGO’s growth and empower it to shape entrenched local elephant cultures (Lin, 2012). ENP utilizes multiple social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, to spread its message online; the online platform effectively bridges the frame of ecotourism elephant lovers and broadens the target base to ecotourists and environment conservationists (Lin, 2012). This leads to frame amplification, which occurs when users read ENP’s online organizational stories. The framing of user-generated content (UGC) messages tends to serve as effective motivational framing (Lin, 2012). ENP positions elephant ecotourism as a noble and best solution and the positive e-word of mouth helps convince people to believe in its cause and make contributions (Lin, 2012).

It takes time for ENP’s ecotourism elephant conservation education to get adopted in Thailand, but after years of efforts, the ENP now reaches out to an increasing number of Thai people (Lin, 2012). The ENP has consistently applied a coherent set of frames across platforms, one of which is explicitly identifying the endangerment of elephants as the problem (Lin, 2012). Only a few upper- and middle-class Thais supported elephant conservation due to media influence before ENP consistently started its education on elephant conservation (Lin, 2012). When dealing with locals, ENP takes a soft and discreet approach in line with Thai cultures to continue its elephant conservation work and change the host society gradually (Lin, 2012). ENP’s solutions to elephant conservation are discreet and gradual, befitting the local cultures and are being accepted (Lin, 2012). This leads to the process of intercultural transformation, where Thailand’s entrenched domesticated elephant culture is slowly changed by ENP’s ecotourism elephant conservation and practices (Lin, 2012).

Two Blog Posts: A Comparison

Scott and Noakes’ (2019) blog post is an in-depth look at the elephant tourism industry and why the industry exists. Their blog, South East Asia Backpacker, has existed in various print and digital forms since its establishment in 2008 (South East Asia Backpacker, n.d.). Their article recommends guaranteed ethical elephant sanctuaries around northern Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia as well as the cost and how to book. Scott and Noakes (2019) also ask the owners and employees of the elephant sanctuaries questions about topics such as whether the use of chains and bull-hooks were acceptable when interacting with elephants. Surprisingly, the experts agree that sometimes chaining elephants when sleeping is acceptable as well as the use of bull-hooks (Scott & Noakes, 2019). The experts argue that there are more accidents and deaths involving elephants when these measures are not used (Scott & Noakes, 2019). These opinions are in direct contrast with what Adnan believes.

Adnan (2019) posted an article on Medium about his time volunteering at an elephant sanctuary. He worked as a tour guide and answered tourists’ questions. He spent three weeks volunteering at the sanctuary before moving on. He believes that the use of bull-hooks on elephants is wrong and that even if the elephant is at a sanctuary, it is still in captivity. Adnan (2019) states he saw elephants being abused by the use of bull-hooks multiple times by their handlers and reported it to the manager. Adnan (2019) disagrees with the existence of sanctuaries and believes that the best place for elephants is in the wild; he fails to consider the impact of returning elephants to the wild, partially because there is not enough space. Overall, Adnan (2019) looks at the issue of elephant sanctuaries as an animal rights activist, and not as one who is concerned with the elephant’s welfare.


Elephant sanctuaries are a divisive topic. The contribution ecotourism has had to elephant conservation is one of the best solutions possible at the moment. Although ecotourism has become neo-liberalized, it is still an effective way for elephant conservation to occur. ENP has framed its mission in a way that makes it satisfying to both tourists and locals. Although Adnan (2019) and Scott and Noakes (2019) have differing views, their blog posts show that no solution will satisfy everyone’s preferences.

About the Author

Ashley Platz is a second-year Bachelor of Communication student at MacEwan University. She plans to focus on publishing and strategic communication. She loves to travel and when at home, she is usually either reading or talking to her cat.

Earth Common Journal

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