Officially recognized as an endangered species, there are only an estimated 3,000-4,000 Asian elephants left in Thailand, where they once numbered in the hundred thousands! Beloved by all, this majestic species has suffered from centuries of overhunting and destruction to their natural habitat.
Today, elephants are an icon of Thailand’s pulsing tourism industry. See, for example: Thai textile patterns, fountains throughout Bangkok, and the logo of nearly every tourism agency around the country. Riding atop these majestic creatures is the highlight of visiting Thailand for many global travelers.
For the elephants, this has been a blessing and curse of gigantic proportions. On one hand, tourism has brought attention to their cause, and drawn ethically-conscientious humans (like you!) to aid in that cause. It has generated new income for remote Thai villages with limited resources to draw on, and helped make Thailand a household name in tourism around the world.
On the other hand, being a tourism centerpiece has made the elephants of Thailand the subjects of routine abuse and exploitation for $$. Since you’re interested in ethical volunteering with elephants, you can probably imagine that walking around all day with a metal cage filled with humans strapped to your back is less than empowering. Elephants can enjoy human company, but the most popular opportunities for tourists to interact with them are not humane.
For those interested in volunteer work with elephants in Thailand, there are some prickly ethical questions to answer to. Unfortunately, many companies and organizations use the language of “volunteering” and “helping elephants,” but the end-game is not what it appears. Doing good for Thailand’s elephant population means thinking bigger (approximately 12,000 pounds bigger, if you catch my drift). Are you up to this mammoth tusk?
The landscape for volunteers to consider
Here are what international elephant volunteers are up against.
First: Understand the common terminology used as an elephant volunteer in Thailand
You’re ready to help elephants in Thailand, but there’s so much to consider, and so much vocab! What’s the difference between elephant sanctuary volunteer vacations and volunteering with a Thailand elephant reserve? Is there a difference? Well, we’ve got a crash course in all things elephant volunteer thailand jargon for you.
- Elephant reserve. There are many Thailand elephant reserves available for travelers to visit; their goal is to protect elephants and educate populations about the harm being done.
- Elephant sanctuary. Sanctuaries are places of refuge for elephants who were previously in captivity our used for tourism. It’s a place for rehabilitation, healing, calm, and safety for elephants. Elephant sanctuary volunteer “vacations” will involve working with professionals to address the unique needs of individual elephants, and give them all the TLC they need/deserve.
- Volunteer vacations. You probably shouldn’t do these, as they tend more towards icky tourism… Skip the vacay, and opt for meaningful travel as a volunteer instead.
- Voluntourism. Just. Don’t. (Seriously).
- Animal welfare volunteer programs. Volunteer programs designed to get those individuals who are concerned about different animal populations’ well-beings up-close with the work being done to improve their plight.
- ช้าง Cĥāng. The word for elephant in the Thai language. If you have trouble remembering, just think of your favorite local beer!
Next: Understand the ethical questions of volunteering with elephants
It’s a tricky world out there: right and wrong, good and evil. How does a well-intentioned volunteer ensure that their efforts do the good they intend? Are intentions even relephant when sweet elephants are suffering?
The devil is in the details when it comes to ethical volunteer work with elephants in Thailand. Important considerations include:
- The moo-lah: How are volunteer program fees allocated? Are they invested in local communities and elephant care or redirected to a cackling Mr. Moneybags?
- Qualifications: Are under-qualified volunteers given responsibilities they would never be back home? Are there trained supervisors on hand to ensure the elephants’ health is not inadvertently threatened by volunteers with limited experience? This doesn’t mean you need to be a licensed elephant vet to volunteer with elephants in Thailand—just make sure your work matches your skill level.
- Priori-tays: In their advertising and programming, what is most important? Are healthy, happy elephants front-and-center? Does the program focus on training you to care for elephants and support the organization, or is it all about you, the international volunteer? In a volunteer context, being all about you = not a good sign.
- Elephant treatment: Are smiley tourists posing on their homepage riding elephant in painful iron saddles? Is there due consideration for elephant hygiene, nutritious eating, and bonding time?
In short: if you want to volunteer with elephants in Thailand ethically, do your research!
So… is it good or bad?
Let’s address the elephant in the room: you want to know if volunteering with elephants is good or bad: Y/N? Like many wonderful, messy things in the world, the answer is “it’s complicated”. In the end, it’s up to you to vet organizations and decide if you think it is right given the program specifics.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. If your heart is in the right place in your approach to volunteer work with elephants in Thailand, you are sure to find a way to do good through your efforts. Starting by digging into the questions below to sort the good from the bad (and the ugly).
Questions to ask before you volunteer with elephants in Thailand
The #1 way to ensure your volunteer work with elephants in Thailand is ethical is to ask lots of questions! “Good” programs and “bad” programs may look similar at first glance. So how does one begin to weed out the unethical options, which are often even glossier and in-your-face than the ethical ones?
With a bit of digging, the red flags will pop out. One key indicator: the top priority – in marketing materials and in program scheduling – should be the elephants’ welfare, not entertaining tourists or improving your #selfie game. To find an organization that puts your volunteer labor to good use in the service of our dopey-eared friends, start by asking the right questions.
Example questions to ask the org include:
- What if I questioned whether you operate solely to earn profit. What would be your response? What proof or evidence can you show that proves the latter?
- Tell me about your strategies for keeping the animals mentally, emotionally, and physically safe. What plans do you have in place, and how do you hold your organization accountable to accomplishing these goals?
- If I called your organization a zoo, how would you convince me otherwise?
- Why have you chosen to seek outside help from foreigners rather than sourcing labor from within the local community? Are all local resources, including capable workers, exhausted?
Example questions to ask yourself include:
- Do I have a working knowledge of the country’s culture, politics, history, and economy?
- Do I understand the concept of “hero syndrome” and does it apply to me?
- Am I an asset or a necessity?
- What skills am I bringing to the table?
Read even more helpful questions to help you determine if you should volunteer at a Thailand elephant reserve.
8 organizations that can help you become an elephant volunteer in Thailand
Okay, so you’ve surveyed the facts and philosophical quandaries, you’ve asked questions until you were horse, and you’re ready to volunteer with elephants in Thailand. Here are eight programs (and three bonus freebies!) so you can help elephants in Thailand like a pro!
This program invites volunteers to live onsite at the 40-acre Elephant Forest Refuge outside of Chiang Rai. Primary responsibilities include planting grass and fruit trees for elephant snacks, feeding and bathing the elephants, observing weekly vet checks, and supporting the construction of the refuge. Volunteers love this program because of the exclusive focus on elephant well-being.
The classic volunteer with elephants in Thailand gig. Located in the little-known Thai village of Surin, this is an immersive, locally-driven program. Volunteers work with local communities and formerly neglected and abused elephants recovering from time in the tourism industry. Through the program, mahouts (elephant caretakers) are offered sustainable income-generating opportunities as alternatives to profitable - but devastating - alternatives to making money from the elephants they look after.
The goals of this program are the reintegration and conservation of wild elephants in their natural habitat. Volunteers work closely with a local Karen tribe outside of Chiang Mai to prepare formerly captive elephants to be reintroduced into the wild. During down time from your volunteer work with elephants in Thailand, there’s plenty of time to learn about the local cuisine and way of life.
Volunteering with elephants in Thailand through ELI means not only time with elephants, but also plenty of educational time for volunteers. Work at an established park with 70 elephants alongside 250 employees for 7:00 AM - 5:00 PM, Monday - Friday. After work, enjoy time with trainers, elephants, and other volunteers. Housing is in private cabins onsite, and Thai classes as well as tours of the city, market, and local temples are part of the package.
Make your summer break one you'll never forget! Join Volunteering Solutions in Bangkok for a couple weeks of absolutely Thai experiences, from exploring countless markets to trekking through the Khao Yai National Park and, of course, volunteering with elephants living with the mahout community folks. Relish in this ultimate tour that perfectly combines volunteering with travel in Thailand.
The Friends of Asia Foundation places volunteers at a popular park outside of Chiang Mai, where you will help elephants in Thailand alongside local staff. All volunteers begin with a three day orientation and safety course, where they learn about proper elephant care and handling. In their free time, volunteers can choose to study Thai and participate in local tours.
Lend a hand at a sanctuary for retired elephants, with plenty of quality elephant bonding time! Volunteers support the sanctuary by exercising, bathing, and feeding the elephants, as well as other tasks around the grounds such as garden maintenance. Activities like whitewater rafting are coordinated for volunteers during down time.
If you’re ready to get your hands dirty in service to 35 friendly elephants and the happy human community they live with, this program has your name on it. Volunteers live in homestays with local families, and work alongside local colleagues throughout the week. They also have the opportunity to join a team retreat in Surin to recharge after all their hard work.
Bonus! Volunteer with elephants in other countries
Love elephants but less enthused by Thailand or looking for something a bit more ‘the path less traveled’? Good news—the choices are bountiful! Whether you choose to get up close and personal with Indian elephants in Jaipur or support African elephant conservation efforts in Kenya, it’s sure to be an eleFANTASTIC time.
1. Volunteer Abroad India Jaipur Elephant Conservation Program
Volunteers are needed to support the efforts of an elephant conservation program in Northwest India. Responsibilities include feeding, cleaning the elephants and their homes, and massaging elephants’ heads and trimming their nails. This unique program offers volunteers an opportunity to get to know a local community and the elephants under their care on a more personal level. You’re responsible for your own flights to India, but the coordinators also handle volunteer housing and other in-country logistics.
2. South Africa Wildlife Conservation Volunteer
Lions, tigers, and bears – this program is the whole package! Work at a large game reserve dedicated to the conservation of Africa’s “Big Five” (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros), where volunteers assist with animal rehabilitation, maintenance of local vegetation, and income-generating safaris that keep the reserve afloat. During down time, the program coordinates excursions to historical sites and beaches in the region.
3. Kenya Elephants and African Wildlife Conservation
Contribute to elephant and wildlife conservation efforts in a truly in-the-field way when you join Frontier to hike mountains, camp in the bush, and travel between villages in Kenya. Run in collaboration with a local conservation association, volunteers assist with data collection, tracking, and monitoring of wildlife. Information collected is then compiled into reports to develop data-driven strategies to protect the ecosystem – human, animal, and environment.
[Save and compare elephant volunteer programs side-by-side with MyGoAbroad]
Overwhelmed by opportunities yet? Just think: elephants are just one chubby chunk of the animal kingdom! Once you’ve returned from your elephant volunteer Thailand trip, check out other animal volunteer programs to keep your volunteer service muscles strong.
The time for elephant volunteering is now
Go forth, noble traveler, and lend a hand to help elephants in Thailand (or around the world). They won’t soon forget your kindness and an elephant’s faithful, 100 percent.