Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Vietnam’s Only Ethical Elephant Tourism Encounter

Yok Don National Park ended their elephant rides, replacing those abusive practices with an elephant-friendly model that allows travelers to observe elephants naturally in the forest. 

Vietnam’s first ethical elephant tours

Considered Vietnam’s second largest national park, Yok Don protects a unique woodland ecosystem home to native species such as green peafowl, water buffalo, guar, hornbills, and even Asian elephants. Encompassing nearly 450 square miles, Yok Don is one of the country’s last protected areas for its dwindling population of Asian elephants, that has now fallen to less than 100 individuals.

The remaining wild elephant herds prefer undeveloped areas of the park and are far too secretive to be observed ethically by visitors. But Yok Don has become a trailblazer in creating Vietnam’s first ethical elephant tours, as they provide sanctuary for captive elephants to live naturally in the forest. Working alongside Animals Asia, a charity seeking to end animal cruelty throughout the continent, the park signed an agreement to end their elephant riding operations and instead create a tourism model around ethical practices with the support of the Olsen Animal Trust.

“It’s massively rewarding to see elephants take back control of their lives,” says Ryan Hockley elephant welfare advisor for Animals Asia. “Seeing just how quickly some elephants transition from life in tourism camps, where they had so little control, to receiving the freedom to live their lives again, is incredible. In just a few weeks sometimes they adjust to life in the forest by forming new relationships with other elephants, deciding when to rest and when to explore, eating when they want, bathing themselves, even self-medicating. Living as elephants should.”

Ryan Hockley, elephant welfare advisor for Animals Asia, Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.
Ryan Hockley, elephant welfare advisor for Animals Asia.

In 2018, when the park discontinued their elephant rides for tourists, its four elephants — one male and three females — were allowed to roam the forest under the watch of their mahouts. Elephants that used to be chained and forced to carry tourists for up to nine hours a day were now given back their freedom. They could choose to browse natural vegetation, wallow in the mud, socialize with each other, just simple behaving as elephants should. All the while their own mahout stay nearby to ensure the elephants are safe and to prevent them from wandering out of the park boundaries. After spending their entire lives working for tourists these elephants can finally make their own choices. Now their welfare comes first.

Two female Asian elephants walking the woodlands of Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.
Female rescued elephants H’Blu and Kham Phanh walking the woodlands of Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.

“Sure, it sounds pretty corny, but the forest takes care of the elephants,” says Hockley. “The mahouts, our staff, and the forestry department are just here to supervise and ensure their environment is healthy. Otherwise, the elephants take care of themselves. They have all the correct vegetation for a balanced diet, are able to walk on the best substrate for their feet, have access to fresh clean water, and the opportunity to self-medicate – treating themselves with natural remedies for anything from an upset stomach to aches and pains.”

Rescued Asian elephant eating bamboo in Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.
Kham Phanh eating bamboo in Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.

What is ethical elephant tourism?

Of course, the best place to experience elephants is to see them in the wild. Not in a zoo. Not performing in the circus. And certainly not while riding them. The most ethical option is to see them where they are free to roam and behave naturally. But for the over 3,000 captive elephants throughout Asia, the wild is a far-off place that many of these elephants cannot return to. Most captive elephants are still used for shows, rides, bathing experiences, or simply as photo props for selfies. World Animal Protection has reported that 63% of these 3,000 captive elephants are living in severely inadequate conditions.

“Nothing beats finding the most ethical sanctuary that is honest about their practices and working to better the lives of captive elephants,” says Danielle Carnahan, founder of The Call to Conserve and elephant welfare researcher. “But, always remember – YOU are what makes a venue either ethical or unethical, it all comes down to your choices as a tourist. Where you visit further encourages other elephant owners to make changes in order to attract travelers – this is where you create lasting ethical change!”

High-quality welfare in human care can be accomplished – where the elephant’s physical and emotional wellbeing is top priority. But the treatment of elephants in tourism is determined by consumer choice. Travelers have the power to change demand within the industry. Currently only 7% of captive elephants in Asia are living in observation only facilities, where they are allowed to live out their lives as naturally as possible with limited human interaction. By supporting ethical encounters, like watching elephants in their natural environment from a respectful distance, more elephants can be treated with respect – where they are allowed to just be elephants.

Rescued elephant with her mahout walking in Yok Don National Park.
Rescued elephant Bun Kham with her mahout walking in Yok Don National Park.

How to avoid elephant cruelty while traveling  

Identifying ethical elephant-friendly experiences from unethical ones is a challenge for tourists, especially since the industry is flooded with greenwashing buzzwords to fool customers. To better weed out the confusion look for these red flags to ensure you are supporting practices that offer quality care and welfare for elephants.

Red flags of elephant cruelty
  • If the elephants are not allowed to display natural behaviors and move freely.
  • If elephants are isolated, truly ethical facilities understand that elephants are extremely social animals and need to interact with other elephants.
  • If tourists can touch the elephants and have close contact – these practices can increase stress levels sometimes even causing repetitive stress behaviors.
  • Is the facility actively breeding elephants, true ethical destinations don’t allow breeding for captivity.
  • Any practices like performances, rides, interactive baths, or painting demonstrations are signs of cruel training to ensure the elephants comply for these tricks. 

For a list of vetted elephant-friendly facilities throughout Asia, use The Call the Conserve’s Ethical Elephant Facilities list which features organizations and experiences that provide ethical elephant experiences in Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Female Asian elephant in the forest of Yok Don National Park in Vietnam
Rescued Asian elephant H’Blu foraging in Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.

Captivity will never be perfect for elephants

“Wildlife sanctuaries do not mean the absence of stress or triggers,” says Carnahan. “It also does not mean the absence of control or rules. Some sanctuaries have mahouts ride elephants or sometimes use chains. While sanctuaries are usually the best environment for elephants – besides the wild – they are not perfect and they never will be. What works for one elephant won’t always work for another, remember that all animals are individuals, each with their own journey of recovery.”

Travelers have to consider what is good, better, and best in these complex situations. There is no perfect solution to captivity. Take the care provided in Yok Don National Park, even with endless freedom to roam the forest during the day, the elephants are tethered to a long drag chain each night to ensure they do not leave the park while the mahouts are away. No captive setting for elephants is entirely free from stressors. Even these rescued elephants that are treated with the utmost care and respect have some restrictions for their safety and the safety of the local community. While some might consider this practice to be cruel, the reality is these elephants are being providing world-class welfare that more elephants should be so lucky to experience.

Rescued Asian elephant exploring the forests of Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.
Rescued Asian elephant Y’Khun exploring the forests of Yok Don National Park, Vietnam.

Vietnam is leading the way for ethical elephant tourism

Compared to other Asian countries, Vietnam has a very small captive elephant population. Only around 30 individual elephants are used for tourism practices in the country, with a majority in the Dak Lak province of Vietnam’s central highlands. Animals Asia has been working with local elephant owners and the government for over a decade to help end elephant riding in Vietnam forever.

In 2021, Animals Asia and the government of Dak Lak signed a memorandum of understanding to end elephant riding and the use of elephants in tourism practices like festivals. Additionally, this agreement outlines the implementation of ethical, elephant-friendly tourism activities to replace those outdated practices. This official understanding means the Vietnamese government is in full support of Animals Asia work towards ending elephant exploitation in Vietnam.

“With the success of our work here in Yok Don, we are hoping that others will see this model and understand the benefits to elephant welfare along with the advantages it can provide elephant owners in supporting their livelihoods,” says Hockley. “We are looking to replicate this model across Vietnam and expanded Animals Asia’s work into the Dak Lak province. Here we can have the greatest impact where the highest number of captive elephants used in the tourism industry live. With the government’s support Vietnam is leading the world in ethical practices for elephant tourism.”

Additional resources

Leave a Comment