Happy Elephant Care Valley in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is truly putting the welfare of its elephants first by making the move to stop all contact between tourists and elephants.

With an ever-increasing demand by responsible tourists seeking ethical elephant experiences, the park is working with World Animal Protection, along with a coalition of pioneering travel groups such as G Adventures, Intrepid, Thomas Cook and many more, to change the way they manage and present their elephants to tourists.

“With the support of the world’s leading travel companies, this agreement is a significant milestone for World Animal Protection,” said Steve McIvor, CEO at World Animal Protection. “It will show that high-welfare venues for elephants can be commercially viable for elephant camp owners – encouraging them to value and care for their animals.”

Sadly, the majority of elephant venues in Thailand, and further afield in Southeast Asia, still offer elephant riding, feeding and other contact with humans, which requires inherently cruel training practices.

But times are changing. A worldwide study by KANTAR revealed that the number of people who think it’s okay to ride an elephant has dropped from 53% to 44% in only three years. It also reported that 80% of tourists would rather observe elephants in their natural habitat.

Tourists were previously granted full contact with the elephants at Happy Elephant Care Valley; until recently, the venue offered riding, bathing and feeding. The riding ceased following the presentation of a business case put together by the travel industry coalition, which showed the huge demand for a more elephant-friendly model. The camp is currently phasing out washing and feeding, and will transition to provide the elephants with an environment that gives them the freedom to wander around the grounds, enjoy mud and dust baths, graze, and bathe in the river — all while tourists observe these gentle giants from afar.

“Happy Elephant Care Valley is a groundbreaking development for both elephants and tourists,” McIvor said. “It will be a very real example of an attraction where tourists can see elephants behaving naturally and freely as part of a herd. It will demonstrate that elephant-friendly experiences are possible, without forcing cruel interactions with people.”

The coalition is working on this transition throughout the rest of 2018, and planning a grand re-opening of this newly positioned elephant-friendly park around the end of the year.