Should I volunteer with elephants?
Volunteering with elephants is a once in a lifetime experience. It can be awe-inspiring, eye-opening and rewarding all at the same time. There will be certain moments that you’ll cherish for eternity.
So, yes. You should volunteer with elephants.
However, before jumping head first into the nearest elephant conservation park offered to you (once you’re in a country such as Thailand), there are some things you should know…
Why you should choose your experience wisely
Never ride an elephant
Biologically, elephants are not designed to be ridden. Despite having strong necks and shoulders, their backs are weaker and their spines in fact have upward bony protrusions that would cause significant pain if sat upon, even by the comparatively light weight of a human.
Never get pictures with elephants on the street
Furthermore, captive elephants – those exploited for the tourist trade – are kept in horrific conditions. They’re often separated from their mothers at birth, then tortured into submission with the use of hooks, beatings and cages. I’m not even joking – the treatment of certain elephants is simply disgusting. Thus, don’t go getting any ideas for a cool Instagram photo when you see an elephant on the street – its owner will almost certainly have treated it badly to make it behave so docile.
Some conservation parks are telling lies
The one activity that is seemingly humane towards elephants is volunteering with them in a conservation park. However, even that is not always a sure fire way to ensure the well being of these magnificent creatures. Many – yes, more than just a few – conservation parks will advertise themselves as “eco-friendly” (or some other fancy phrase) yet when you arrive they’ll be offering rides. Some parks will also be taming the elephants using inconspicuous metal hooks, in order to provide a safe environment for the tourists.
Help reduce the demand!
One easy thing we can do to help is simply avoid participating in the above activities; by reducing the demand for tourism related practices, we can help prevent any more elephants from becoming victims of torture and slavery.
So how can I find an ethical park?
Depending on where in the world you want to volunteer with elephants, do some prior research and read reviews from previous volunteers. See if you can find any awards or media coverage on the park that you have in mind. This article from Responsible Travel is a good place to start: www.responsibletravel.com.
The only example from their list that I can wholeheartedly endorse (because I visited myself) is Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I volunteered at ENP for 1 week. Here’s what you can expect…
What to expect as a volunteer at ENP
An average day
Morning – an early breakfast (7am) is followed by a busy morning of activities. Tasks include poop scooping, cleaning the elephants bedrooms, making their bed (loosening the compact soil to make it more comfortable) and feeding them.
Afternoon – take a break for lunch and then crack back on with more tasks. Such activities include tree planting, fence building and more poop scooping (this is never ending!). The afternoon is also bathing time for the elephants – help them by splashing their backs and sides with bucket loads of water (and be prepared to get wet)!
Evening – after enjoying dinner, there’s either time for another activity or some down time to spend with new friends. Some evening activities included informative presentations about elephant conservation, group games or dance performances by local people.
The food is 100% vegetarian and is freshly prepared on site each day. Meal times are served as a buffet style, allowing you to eat as much or as little as you want. You can try different dishes and get a taste of authentic Thai food.
Basic but functional. Large wooden rooms contain beds with mosquito nets. Shower rooms and bathrooms are in a separate building. If you book as a couple or small group then you’ll likely get a room to yourselves, otherwise expect to share with a few other people – much like a mini jungle dormitory!
Hands down the best moments are those spent interacting with the elephants. This is the main attraction and for good reason – it is totally unique and very rewarding. Be it washing the elephants, feeding them, walking with them, watching them play…it’s just the best!
Another part of the volunteering that I actually really enjoyed was the manual labour of cutting corn (to feed the elephants). Just putting in that hard graft for someone else – or in this case for an animal – was so refreshing and motivating. I guess the exhilaration of riding on the top of a truckload of corn also helped to make it a cool experience!
My personal favourite moment was stroking the trunk of a blind elephant called Jokia. I just felt some kind of connection with her, like a mutual respect and understanding. (If you don’t believe me, go volunteer with these magnificent creatures for a week – then you’ll see what I mean).
Read more: Why you really should visit Ayutthaya.
How much does it cost?
Volunteering at ENP isn’t quite free. It costs ฿12,000 (£290/US$380) for 1 week. However, this price includes all meals and accomodation, so essentially that’s where your money is going.
I’m all for the pure volunteering experiences where you simply offer your time and commitment at no monetary cost. However, the logistics of volunteering at a nature park in the middle of the jungle requires that you stay in-situ, hence the living expenses.
Also, volunteering at ENP is such a popular experience. If they let people in for free, the park would be overrun with volunteers and the project just wouldn’t be sustainable or even helpful for the elephants.
For more information about the week-long volunteer programme at ENP, click here.
I urge you think about your reasoning behind wanting to volunteer with elephants.
The reason I say this is because it will be whatever you make it.
If you really want some epic photos of yourself with elephants then…you’ll probably achieve that by volunteering at a conservation park.
However, if your main goal is to get stuck in, have a great time and do whatever it takes to care for these wonderful creatures…then you’ll undoubtedly come away with a once-in-a-lifetime experience and plenty of magical memories (AND, as a by-product of that, you’ll likely get some pretty kickass photos too)!
Do you see where I’m coming from? Go in with the right mindset and you’ll have an awesome time!
Also, Elephant Nature Park is highly recommended – go check them out! Here’s the link again to check out their website and book direct: www.elephantnaturepark.org