Volunteering with Elephants in Thailand

Thailand is known for its elephants. The history in using elephants for purposes such as logging is rather bleak at the best of times. Wild elephants were captured and broken in order to domesticate them for work. In recent history, due to drastic deforestation of the country, logging has been outlawed. So what does this mean… 

Elephants that were captured, broken, and bred over generations have little purpose. Without logging and other work, mahouts (elephant owners) are left with little to no income to feed their domesticated animals. This has led to the elephant tourism industry that runs rampant through Thailand and other parts of South East Asia. 

Elephants eat approximately 500 pounds of food every day. To afford to feed them, the mahouts would take their elephants to the streets offering rides and photo opportunities to tourists in exchange for money. Studies show riding elephants is extremely cruel. Even though they are massive animals, they are not built to carry large platforms full of tourists. So what’s the solution?

(Harvesting bamboo to feed elephants.)

The Queen of Thailand recognized this problem and wanted to alleviate it to the best of her ability. In Surin there now exists a huge elephant village community. Here, mahouts can live with their elephants peacefully. They are provided housing, a monthly stipend, and food for their elephants in exchange for keeping them off the streets and out of the mainstream tourism industry. 

(Making elephant poo paper. The sales of this product go directly to feed elephants and make more poo! Recycling at its finest!)

This solution is not perfect but it’s a good start. Elephants are still chained when not being walked and the stipend rarely covers the required expenses. But, they are not being ridden by tourists, they are not walking through busy and frightening city streets, and they get the care they need. 

So, in steps programs like Bamboo. Bamboo is a voluntourism program dedicated to giving back. Volunteers spend time in the village helping with the elephants by walking them, bathing them (they love the water!), and helping grow and harvest food for them. The fees paid by volunteers is distributed to the mahouts that work with the program. 

(Sharing a vegan bond over leafy greens!)

In some respect, the elephants are still in the tourism industry. However, this is the best case scenario that can happen given the circumstances. Bamboo only works with mahouts that abide by their strict humane handling requirements. Volunteers provide money to have an appropriate, humane, and kind interaction with elephants that could never be released and this money goes to their direct care. 

In a perfect world, all wild animals would be in the wild, living their lives. But a perfect world we do not have. Bamboo takes on the responsibility to ensure these elephants are provided the best care possible with long term goals of getting elephants off chains if possible. 

(Spending time in the water with this 32 year old beauty. I enjoy my walks to the river with her!)

Over the past week I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the elephants interact with each other, feeding them sloppy watermelons, and learning their personalities. They are funny and intelligent beings that deserve our utmost respect and kindness.