There’s a real danger elephants could be on the verge of extinction. Volunteering with elephants in Thailand could make the difference, but it must be done in the right way.

The elephant is a national symbol of Thailand and the connection between Thai people and elephants is a wonderful sight to behold. Mahouts – elephant keepers – start their professions as children and remain closely bonded to their elephants for life. The prevalence of mahouts in Thailand signifies the spiritual attachment the country has to these majestic creatures.

Yet societal changes and the impact of tourism has had a shocking effect on the elephant population in Thailand.

Elephants in Thailand: the issues

At the beginning of the 20th century, Thailand’s wild elephant population was estimated to be +300,000. A further 100,000 elephants were domesticated around this time. Nowadays, the number of wild elephants in Thailand is estimated to be below 1,000, while the number of domesticated elephants is around 2,700.

The number of wild elephants fell so dramatically due to a rapid increase in human populations and subsequent habitat loss, as well as poaching for ivory.

Domesticated elephants were traditionally used for transportation and in the logging industry during more recent times. However, when the Thai government banned logging in 1989, hundreds of elephants could no longer earn their keep. The cost of feeding elephants 200kg worth of food a day and other maintenance costs forced many mahouts to take their elephants to city streets to beg for money, causing great stress to the creatures.

Tourism has added more pressures, with elephants used for shows and rides. While it is possible to find a responsible elephant sanctuary in Thailand, many others use inhumane practices to try to attract tourists.

When it comes to volunteering with elephants in Thailand, there’s a great need for volunteers to help out, albeit in the right way.

Volunteer with elephants responsibly

The maintenance elephants require as well as the education needed to stop unethical elephant practices are two great reasons to volunteer with elephants in Thailand.

The first thing to check when looking for a responsible elephant volunteer project or elephant sanctuary in Thailand is whether or not elephant riding is permitted. The weight of carrying people plus a saddle or chair can be hugely damaging to an elephant’s back over time. If you’re not sure if an elephant is being ridden or not, look for sores on its back – a sure sign it’s been carrying a saddle or chair.

Checking elephants for wounds is another way to identify if an elephant is being mistreated. For example, wounds on an elephant’s head can signify the misuse of bullhooks. Elephants that rock from side to side are said to be highly stressed and are probably being mistreated – another sign of an unethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand.

The best elephant volunteering projects and elephant sanctuaries in Thailand ensure elephants are not overworked, while receiving some gentle exercise every day. They shouldn’t be made to walk fast for more than four hours per day. In addition, any elephant sanctuary in Thailand should ensure elephants have plenty of dedicated rest time away from tourists. After all, elephants thrive when they have the freedom to behave naturally.

Travel to Grow with elephants

Tourism – in the right way – can actually help to save Thai elephants. But this relies on visitors saying ‘no’ to unethical practices such as elephant rides, and saying ‘yes’ to learning more about elephants in ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and further afield. Volunteering with elephants can contribute greatly to this, bringing support and understanding about the best ways to help these amazing creatures.

Travel to Grow is proud to work with an elephant project that does not permit elephant riding. The elephant project we work with provides a sustainable way of life for mahouts and their elephants. Volunteers help to feed, water, muck out and walk the elephants, while being immersed in a traditional Thai elephant village. Our volunteers even learn how to make paper out of elephant dung! Sustainability in action is what it’s all about, tackling the survival of Thai elephants and related traditions from all angles.