What It’s Really Like to “Volunteer” at a Thai Elephant Sanctuary
I woke most mornings at sunrise – mainly because Thailand has a way of helping you get to the toilet in a hurry. I’d shuffle out of my bamboo shack, careful not to disturb my flatmates, and hop across the muddy track to use the western-modified, outdoor toilet. Then I’d walk up the hill to where the elephants were chained up. It had the best view of the valley and surrounding Thai jungle. As the mahouts would begin to rise, they’d peer sceptically towards me as I ventured closer to their elephants and said good morning.
A mahout is a caretaker who co-exists alongside their elephant, most often for life. This elephant-mahout pairing is an incredibly special bond and not just any man or elephant can be matched. The decision must be mutual, or there will never be an understanding of respect between them. It becomes a seamless and unbreakable bond.
The mahouts I met – some as young as 14 years old – were a cautious bunch. And, because I don’t speak Thai, they were downright elusive. At first, they were almost scary.
By dawn, the elephants had been up for hours and were anxiously waiting for more food, and to be untethered so they could visit one another. The first few mornings were hard. The cries of the elephants had me seriously questioning whether or not I was doing “the right thing”.
I spent a week in one of seven camps hidden amongst the valleys and hills surrounding the Chiang Mai area. Housed between the camps were approximately 60 elephants. There were five of us volunteers in the group. Our guides, Chai and Bee, were both young, handsome, local fellas in their mid-20s and were full of excitement and eagerness to get going on our adventure.
They taught us how to care for the elephants, as well as how and what to feed them, and before long, we even began facilitating the daily tourist groups that came to visit, feed and bathe them. We were briefing the visitors, answering their questions and educating them on safe practices around the elephants.
We also learned about the silver lining surrounding each camp. With their respective agreements, the elephants were being well cared for, and kept from damaging the crops or surrounding villages. On top of that, the sanctuaries were employing local mahouts and buying all of their elephant food from the local villagers, maximising the inedible potential of their annual crops.
It all seemed pretty legit, but I had to learn some challenging details too.
Even though these elephants are free from riding camps, horrific daily abuse, food and water deprivation, and they’re not chained and doing tricks in the streets, they still are not free. These animals will never be free. They will remain with their mahout for the rest of their lives.
These elephants also remain tethered on a 15-25 metre ankle chain at night, or anytime they can’t be closely monitored. There is no funding for walls, gates or fences to contain them or prevent them from destroying crops and private property. They are kept and cared for like any other domestic animal. This means that they cry out of boredom, hunger or anticipation when they are chained up.
The mahouts may seem rough with their elephants, and it was pretty confronting to watch them at times, but we had to be mindful and open to understanding the reasoning behind it. Elephants are notoriously cheeky, and if one is misbehaving, the mahouts need to quickly regain control of them for the safety of everyone around them, especially tourists who can easily be trampled or killed.
Sometimes, mahouts will forcefully push, pull, yell or tug an elephant by the ears. This is totally necessary and apparently painless, but it was extremely tough to bear in the beginning.
Most of the elephants used in the tourist industry have been horribly abused with bull-hooks and emotionally broken (a process known as phajaan) – in order to control them and have them respond to commands. In this elephant sanctuary, the mahouts no longer use hooks or weapons against the animal. Instead, the elephants are rewarded for their good behaviour with treats like fruit or corn.
As the volunteers, it was pretty basic living. We shared a large bamboo hut, slept on little floor-mattresses, were dirty most of the time, had cold showers, ate with the locals and faced a variety of different creepy crawlies on the daily. Thrilling, but not for the faint of heart.
We came prepared to work, but it was made clear that it wasn’t our primary focus. In all honesty, each guide is completely different, and therefore our experiences varied. One minute we were playing with elephants, next minute we’d be digging trenches in the midday sun. We quickly deduced that the most valuable contributions that we were making were our money and our Instagram posts.
Anyone who thinks they will go to Asia and simply volunteer with elephants will be sorely mistaken. Volunteering at an Elephant Sanctuary in Asia is voluntourism. They don’t actually need your help; they need your funding and for you to cast your social media net.
Currently, volunteering at a reliable elephant sanctuary or rescue site in South East Asia will run you between 300USD and 600USD per week depending on the location and package you choose. So where does your money go?
Paying to feed and look after elephants is the primary expense and it is costly. Elephants eat up to 400kgs of food per day, and have a human-like lifespan ranging from 50 – 100 years, not to mention their need for regular checkups and the occasional medical bill. Land is obviously one of the most challenging expenses, especially with the ever-increasing population of the parasite known as humankind. Affordable plots in Asia are much harder to come by. Each elephant also needs a mahout. Full stop. No question. Fair wages and contributions help elephants out of riding camps, illegal logging and performing on the streets of the big cities.
Sanctuaries and rescue centres also keep an ongoing fund for elephants in serious need of rescue. The funds are used to buy the elephants from a riding camp or to compensate owners. The amount runs anywhere between 10kUSD for an old or injured animal to 30kUSD for younger, healthier ones.
By day seven, I had bonded with an elephant: a beautiful, charismatic, loving creature named Too-Mé (roughly translated to “Stubby Tail”). I liked her style and she liked me. Her mahout didn’t speak English, but we too had developed a bond of trust and respect, and he continued to teach me every day.
Leaving felt impossible. I was complete in the mountains, and had come to create a safe and comfortable space within my voluntourism. Despite having more adventures in front of me, I mentally resisted, and in a sense, felt like I was abandoning what I had started there. I felt immense sadness of the thought of absconding beautiful Too-Mé. I felt that I was leaving my tribe, my village and my elephant. It was almost impossible to be excited about what was next.
Photos by the author