You’ve made the first step, you’ve decided to say no to riding elephants, and yes to visiting or volunteering with elephants in a sanctuary that promote health, freedom, and natural behaviour, now what? What should you know about being a volunteer? If you’re visiting for a day, how should you dress or behave? What are the unspoken rules for interacting with elephants in a sanctuary like Elephant Nature Park?
Spending a Day at Elephant Nature Park
If you don’t have time to spend a week or two volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, spending a day is an excellent way to learn a little more about Asian elephants, and to have an opportunity to interact with them in a way that is safe and healthy for the elephants.
What to Expect:
Your day will start with learning how to feed the elephants, walking around the park to see some of the elephants up close, take some photos, and standing in a river and bathing them by tossing buckets of water onto their back. It is a truly amazing experience, a day that you will, without a doubt, never forget. In fact, you will most likely leave the park, eager to tell all your friends and family about it.
What NOT to Wear:
Generally, I wouldn’t write about what type of clothing to wear when visiting Elephant Nature Park, but after spending a few days there, observing day-trippers (one day visitors), I feel the need to write a little bit about how to dress when visiting the park.
As travellers, it’s important for us to respect local customs and cultures, and in Northern Thailand, walking around in a bikini top is not respectful, where the culture is more conservative than in the islands. Mahouts at Elephant Nature Park is generally Burmese, a culture that is even more conservative than Thai culture. When visiting the park, wear shorts and a t-shirt, even when bathing the elephants, and bring an extra pair of shorts and a t-shirt to change into after bathing the elephants.
How to Behave Around the Elephants:
Visiting a sanctuary like Elephant Nature Park is amazing, but it can also give us make us forget that the elephants that reside at the park are still wild animals.
Many of the elephants at Elephant Nature Park have been through the crush, their spirits have been broken, they have been tortured and abused in ways that we can never truly understand. Many of the elephants are well behaved, and those that do not like people have kept away from visitors; that being said there are a few things to remember when visiting the park:
- As tempting as it may be to hold an elephant’s trunk, please do not do it. Ever. An elephant’s trunk is extremely powerful – the trunk has over 150,000 muscle fascicles which are tiny bundles of muscles which help to control the eight major muscles on either side of the trunk – and if the elephant gets spooked or feels threatened, they will use their trunk to defend themselves.
- Do not over stimulate or crowd around an elephant. If somebody has their hand on an elephant, wait your turn. Elephants are sensitive creatures, and too much touching and stimulation can upset an elephant. Same for crowding around an elephant.
- Never stand in front of an elephant. Elephants are massive creatures, do not, ever, stand directly in from of them. If an elephant gets spooked and you’re standing in front of them, you will get crushed. Remember, these elephants may be in a secure environment, but they can still get spooked.
- You’re not an elephant whisperer. Many people forget that they are not an elephant whisperer and that when an elephant walks towards you, it is not giving you permission to touch them even more. Give the elephants space.
- Never kneel in front of an elephant. See #1 & #3 for the reasons why.
- Take a lot of photos, stand back and watch the love many of the mahouts show towards their elephants, watch the elephants play and interact with one another.
Long story made short, give elephants their space, show them some respect. Yes, mahouts are around and they will step in whenever their elephant appears to be upset, but one man can only do so much – and while he can control his elephant, if other elephants come to protect the one that feels threatened, things could get ugly.
Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park
Volunteering with Elephant Nature Park is an incredible experience; whether you volunteer for a week, two weeks, a month, or long-term, you will walk away with a greater understanding of the plight of Asian elephants, friendships that have been made through hours of shoveling poop or cutting corn or washing food or any other chore that may be tossed your way.
What to Expect:
Being a volunteer is hard work, and you will have plenty of opportunities to walk among the elephants and to interact with Lek (the woman created elephant nature park, a sanctuary for 65 elephants). Volunteering starts with a presentation and video about how elephants are put through the crush, it’s incredibly difficult to watch, but vitally important as you will gain a greater understanding of what the elephants have been through physically, emotionally, and mentally.
As a volunteer your duties/chores will vary depending on the needs of the park at the time of your visit; you may be washing and cutting food for the elephants, helping with the enrichment program, cleaning the enclosures when the elephants are roaming the park, building fences, watering mud pits, etc.
As a volunteer your meals are provided, which are vegetarian, so if you’re a carnivore you’ll want to be mentally prepared for that.
If you’re allergic to cats and or dogs, bring allergy meds as the park is also home to 540 dogs and roughly 300 cats. I carry toilet paper and baby wipes everywhere I go when I’m at the park.
What to Pack:
As mentioned above your duties/chores as a volunteer will vary. As you’ll be in the mountains in Northern Thailand, the nights can get cool, so be sure to pack long pants and a warm sweater to wear at night. You’ll also want to pack t-shirts and shorts. The park will give you a water bottle, so you don’t need to pack one. While you can do most things in flip flops, you may have opportunities to go on walks with Lek, so bring some comfortable running shoes as well. You will get very dirty, do not pack your favourite pieces of clothing as they will get ruined, quickly.
- Mosquito spray is necessary for Thailand. You can buy some for cheap at 7-eleven before leaving Chiang Mai.
- If you forget toiletries, don’t fret, there is a gift shop that sells many things – I was way too excited when I saw they now sell tampons!
- It’s also a good idea to bring cash as there are snacks and soda pop for sale, which, believe me, you will be buying during your stay.
- A camera, extra battery, and charging cables. You will have plenty of opportunities to observe and be around the elephants in ways that day-trippers do not. When you have an opportunity to go on a walk, do it and bring your camera with you.
- **Please, leave the bikini at home, it’s not appropriate attire for the park, no matter how hot it gets!
How to Behave as a Volunteer
Many of the behaviour suggestions (ok, all of them) mentioned above for day-trippers also apply to volunteers, along with a couple extras:
- Do not feed elephants without permission from their mahout. Never feed an elephant without checking with the mahout, and do not feed them things like banana peels with no bananas inside or other items of food that are not found in one of their food baskets. It seems silly to write this, but I’ve watched people do this.
- Never approach a lone elephant. Always approach a mahout, not an elephant. Elephants can be predictable, and you won’t necessarily know which elephant you’re approaching and what their story may be. It can be dangerous.
- Never visit an enclosure when elephants are inside. Just because an elephant is in its enclosure of the night, does not mean it’s safe to approach them. Elephants have quick reflexes and if one gets annoyed and tries to grab you with its trunk, you could get hurt. Please, do not ever, go to an elephant enclosure without a member of the staff from Elephant Nature Park. This also applies to the male elephant enclosure, Hope, in particular, loves to throw things outside of his enclosure. NEVER visit the male elephant enclosure without Elephant Nature Park staff.
- Give elephants their space, especially the 2-year-olds. Elephants are unpredictable, especially the babies (2-year-olds) like Yindee, Navaan, and Dok Mai. Yindee is a mischievous boy who loves to chase people, and while he is small in terms of an elephant, he’s still very heavy and quite tall (I’m 5’6 and he is as tall as I am ). He also moves very quickly!
Types of Volunteer Opportunities:
There are a few ways to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, while most want to be elephant volunteers, there are also opportunities to volunteer with the dog program, as well as positions for veterinary volunteers. Spaces fill up quickly, so be sure to apply early.
While Elephant Nature Park is the more popular choice, there are many other programs through the Save Elephant Foundation that accept volunteers: Surin project, Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia, Journey to Freedom. Read through the descriptions and find a project that fits.
A Cautionary Tale About Elephant Interaction
It happened in a matter of moments: a Thai man bent forward on the ground with a large female elephant crushing her trunk and head into his back as he curled up in the fetal position in a feeble attempt to protect himself from the force of her weight.The man had originally been hired to be a mahout (mahouts are companions and caregivers for elephants, some will develop a deep bond with their elephants), but he was not a good fit so they offered him a position as a gardener instead. Upon seeing the elephants walking towards the river the gardener stopped his work, wishing for a moment with her before she crossed the river. Within seconds he was on the ground and faring badly. Mahouts ran to stop the elephant and she ran off in a panic. At first, the man stood up but soon fell back to the ground, felled by his injuries. The next few moments were a rush of activity, with a long-term volunteer keeping him still on his back as the vet ran to grab a backboard, he was placed in the back of a pick-up truck and taken to the hospital.
A few hours later we learn that he didn’t have any broken bones, a miracle considering what we had witnessed, the aggression expressed in the elephants face, the force of her trunk and head.
What happened was not the elephant’s fault, nor was it the man’s. But it is worth recounting because elephant tourism and behaviour are often misunderstood.
Saree, a 10-year-old female (and not yet fully grown), had a horrifying life before coming to Elephant Nature Park, She was used in a circus where she was subjected to harsh training practices and subsequently performed as a street elephant. The life of a street elephant is filled with loud sounds and bright lights, and they are constantly touched and tugged and pulled, with drunk travellers thinking it’s funny to pour beer in their trunks. It is a torturous existence for an elephant, who is meant to live with their own kind in peace and quiet in the wilderness. Saree is adjusting to life at Elephant Nature Park, but she can be very unpredictable with people, and who can blame her after enduring years of torment. For this reason, visitors have kept away from Saree.
The Thai man, a gardener, didn’t fully understand Saree’s past, nor the unpredictable aggression she can display. He gave her a watermelon, which she ate, and most likely he took that as a sign that it would be okay to stand in front of her and stroke her trunk (the trunk has over 150,000 muscle fascial which are tiny bundles of muscles which help to control the eight major muscles on either side of the trunk). Her mahout, with whom she has a very good relationship, was trying to guide her back to the river. When the gardener turned to walk away, the mahout lets go of her trunk thinking all was fine, unfortunately, she was more upset than any of us anticipated and decided to go after the gardener.
Elephants, even those who reside at Elephant Nature Park, are wild animals, most of whom have endured horrors that you and I will never truly understand. The elephants that visitors are permitted to feed and take photographs with generally have a good temperament, but that doesn’t mean they will never get spooked or upset – and if we’re talking about baby elephants, they can suddenly decide to chase you simply because they feel like it. I know, I had to try to chase me in as many days! Yindee spotted me in the distance as I was trying to take his photo and when he broke out into a run I made a dash for the closest mahout, and Dok Mai was much closer and despite there being several mahouts within feet of her, she decided to dash towards me which sent me to speed walking around a pole. Baby elephants are cute, but they are mischievous and extremely heavy.
Sanctuaries like Elephant Nature Park are essential, the sanctuaries provide a safe and loving environment to elephants who have experienced abuse and torture, they provide medical care, and a chance to connect with other elephants and hopefully become part of a herd/family. At ENP the elephants are respected; Lek and her staff know the back story of each elephant, mahouts are carefully selected, family groups are kept together, the natural behaviour is encouraged, medical attention is provided for on a daily basis.
Why Should You Pay to Volunteer or Visit Elephant Nature Park?
There are many conversations about paying for volunteer experiences; Why should you pay to volunteer? How do you know your money is being used properly?
When looking for a volunteer experience, it’s important to read reviews and talk to other volunteers. As someone who has volunteered with Elephant Nature Park (ENP), and spent time visiting the park, it’s long-term volunteers, and founder, Lek Chailert, I can promise you that your money is being used wisely by ENP.
The money you pay for your volunteer position is used to pay for things like your food and bed, food and medical supplies for the elephants, dogs, and other animals at the park, and the overall operation of the park/sanctuary. To date, the park is home to 65 elephants, 540 dogs, 300+ cats, a herd of water buffalo, and some pigs.
Over the years Lek has made some remarkable progress in terms of animal rights in Thailand. When I was a volunteer in 2012 we travelled to Bangkok to do an animal protest, at that time the government was still doing raids trying to remove elephants from the park, and elephant trekking camps were cursing the existence of Elephant Nature Park. Three years later the raids have stopped, and elephant trekking camps are slowly hanging up the saddles and asking Lek to advise them on how to be more ethical and responsible in terms of elephant tourism.
Lek and Elephant Nature Park continue to make a positive impact on the elephant tourism industry in Thailand, something that would not be possible without all the hard work of paying volunteers and donations made to the Save Elephant Foundation (which oversees all of the elephant projects in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar).
When visiting an elephant sanctuary it’s easy to forget that the elephants are wild animals, that they have stories filled with pain and anguish. We watch videos or read stories about Lek and her special relationship with the elephants, and in some ways, we wish we could be her – surely if she can walk around a herd of elephants with ease, we can as well? That, however, is not the case; Lek has devoted her life to animal rights, she has worked with elephants for over twenty years, she shows them respect, love, and reverence – and we should strive to do the same.
Visit Elephant Nature Park, and if you have time to volunteer for a week I encourage you to do so as the lessons you will learn will change your life. Listen to your guides and volunteer coordinators, as well as the mahouts. Marvel at the majesty and beauty of the elephants as they roam around the park, take photos, share your experiences with your friends and family, and encourage them to remove elephant riding from their bucket list. But don’t forget that these animals not only have a past of abuse and reaction but that as with humans they can react abruptly when threatened, even if your intention is kind.
During my time in Thailand, I used the Lonely Planet guide, which was quite helpful in terms of the base planning – a good option for getting the basics together. Once that is done, I highly recommend speaking to locals and fellow travellers for up-to-date tips and advice.