India is known for its elephants, especially in states such as Kerala and Rajasthan. It's natural to want to spend time with them. However, many tourists find that they're disappointed with the experience, as they're shocked to discover that the elephants are commonly chained up (popular places including Dubare Elephant Camp in Karnataka and Guruvayur Elephant Camp in Kerala do unfortunately chain their elephants and make them perform).
There are a few ethical tourist-oriented places that focus on interaction with elephants, where the elephants are not mistreated. A positive alternative is to visit one of the rehabilitation centers that have been set up for the conservation and well being of elephants.
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Wildlife S.O.S. is a non-profit organization that works to protect and save wildlife in India. It provides medical treatment to injured and sick elephants that are forced to work in urban environments. It also facilitates the rescue of abused elephants, which are then placed in sanctuaries— the primary one being their Elephant Conservation and Care Center at Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. This center is rehabilitating more than 20 elephants, and tourists can visit the center as well as volunteer at it.
"Short" two hour visits are possible, in one of three-time slots per day that must be booked in advance. A two-hour visit will enable you to bathe and feed the elephants (note that they only go into the pool from March to October, when the weather is warmer), learn about their care, and tour the facility.
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Tara is one of India's most famous elephants and she lives a pampered retired life at Kipling Camp, a top wildlife lodge in Madhya Pradesh. The camp was set up in 1982 by a family of conservationists and she was given to them in 1989 by the late Mark Shand, who gently rode her across India and wrote about it in his epic tale Travels on my Elephant. Tara's name means "star" in Hindi, and she's definitely the star of the show at Kipling Camp. Guests return year after year just to spend time with her. She goes for a bath in the river every afternoon at 3 p.m., and you can walk with her and assist her.
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Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp, Manas, Assam
On the fringe of remote Manas National Park, a group of local youths has set up an elephant camp that aims to provide for jobless elephants. Assam, with its ancient tradition of working with elephants, has one of the largest populations of captive elephants in India. Demand for their services has dropped significantly in recent years though, forcing many of them to resort to begging for the cost of their upkeep.
Smiling Tusker Elephant Camp looks after the elephants and pays the owners a monthly remuneration. Encouragingly, it was recognized as a runner-up in the Sanctuary and Travel Operators for Tigers 2014 Wildlife Tourism Awards, in the Wildlife Tourism Related Community Initiative of the Year category.
Smiling Tusker consists of a Mahout Camp that reflects the lifestyle of mahouts (elephant handlers) and grass-cutters, an elephant feeding and resting area, an exhibition center, and a museum. As well as learning about Assam's elephant heritage, visitors can feed and bathe the elephants, walk with them, and stay in comfortable huts and tents there.
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One of the top attractions in Jaipur, Elefantastic is located in an elephant village near Amber Fort, where the owners of the city's working elephants reside with their animals. Owner Rahul, who's a fourth generation mahout, set it up especially to give tourists an opportunity to closely interact with elephants that are properly cared for. It's one of the rare places in India where the elephants are kept un-tethered. Out of the 24 gentle giants at Elefantastic, six have been rescued (including some that were made to perform in circuses).
Visitors can meet and feed the elephants, paint them with non-toxic colors, learn about their daily habits, go on a bareback ride, and wash them (not in winter though). Visitors also get to eat delicious home-cooked vegetarian food.
Something to keep in mind is that other businesses of this kind have started operating in Jaipur and their rates are considerably cheaper. However, the elephants are often chained, rented out, and not treated as well. The higher rates charged by Elefantastic reflect the higher standard of care that the elephants receive (apparently, it costs around 3,000 rupees per day to keep an elephant) and the small size of tourist groups.