Seeking an authentic wildlife volunteer experience? Look no further than these responsible elephant sanctuaries that offer a natural and ethical way to get up-close with these incredible creatures...
Elephant Nature Park, just north of Chiang Mai (Elephant Nature Park)
Elephant Nature Park is one of the best-known elephant conservation projects in Thailand. The centre was founded in 1995 and is located near Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s north. More than 35 elephants roam free here, and many of these have been saved from torturous camps that exploit elephants for tourism or logging purposes. The centre is also home to dogs, cats, and other rescued animals.
There are a few different ways to visit Elephant Nature Park, with both single day or overnight stays available. Stop by for the day to bathe in the river with the elephants and help at feeding time, or stay overnight to spend more time with these gorgeous animals. Longer volunteer placements are also available here.
One of the main issues around elephant abuse in Thailand is that the traditional trainers – mahouts – find it hard to make a living so feel forced to turn to unsustainable tourism for income. The Surin Project in Baan Tha Klang, northeast Thailand, works to reduce that problem, taking in the mahouts and their elephants to keep them off the streets.
Around 200 mahouts and elephants live in the centre; the mahouts are given employment and the elephants are free from chains. Volunteers are essential to the project’s survival and positions are available for a week or more, giving you plenty of time to get to know the culture of the mahouts and this valuable work.
Elephants enjoying a bathe at BLES (BLES)
With just three guest houses with space for two people each, Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) is a small, intimate affair. Guest numbers are intentionally kept low to ensure the quality of life for the small herd of elephants who live here, each of which have been rescued.
Most people stay at BLES for a handful of nights, spending their days walking elephants to grazing grounds, taking them for a swim in the river, or getting to know the village mahouts. This peaceful sanctuary is in the north of Thailand, near Sukhothai Airport, and places book up quickly – reserve well in advance.
As one of the only elephant hospitals in the world, the Friends of the Asian Elephant (FAE) Hospital is a special elephant experience in Thailand. The centre is located in Thailand’s northwest and is dedicated to treating and rehabilitating sick elephants. Many of these would have been left to die as facilities like this are extremely few and far between.
Visitors are welcome at the hospital, and here you can learn about how these professionals take care of injured elephants and treat their injuries. There’s not as much elephant contact as at other places because these elephants are vulnerable and in recovery, but seeing as it’s quite a leap from treating small domesticated animals, this makes a fascinating stop-off.
Elephants roaming through a jungle in Thailand (Dreamstime)
Formerly known as Sai Yoke Elephant Camp, the newly-named Elephant Haven is one of the most exciting elephant projects in Thailand. The name alteration came around as this place used to be the kind that kept elephants in chains, but the camp has recently changed its ways. Now, the elephants here roam free, without hooks or being put on show – a giant leap for elephants in Thailand.
This is just one of a handful of camps that are making changes in conjunction with Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai. You can either visit just for a single day or stay overnight, and here you’ll roam free with the elephants, walking with them through the jungle beside them, instead of on their backs.
A place for old, injured, or retired elephants, Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES) offers refuge to those elephants that have gone through years of logging or tourist trekking. The organisation is based a couple of hour’s drive south of Chiang Mai, in a valley surrounded by verdant greenery and beautiful mountains – just the kind of place where an elephant should spend its golden years.
The volunteer programs at BEES run from Monday to Sunday. Activities you can expect to get involved with here include bathing and feeding the elephants, walking them through the forest, and learning about their ways. Depending on the sanctuary’s needs, you can get stuck in with a few other things here too, such as cooking classes, joining a weaving club in the local village, or tree planting and conservation work.
Elephants at Elephant Hills
Set in beautiful Khao Sok National Park in southern Thailand, Elephant Hills is Thailand’s first luxury tented camp. The accommodation has taken inspiration from African safari camps, offering an immersive jungle experience where you can get right up-close to the nature found here.
Although you might not associate such luxury with responsible tourism, Elephant Hills is one of the few places that combines a plush stay and ethical way to interact with elephants. For this unique work, the business won the Thai Green Excellence Award for Animal Welfare in 2015. The camp is home to 11 elephants, and here it is strictly forbidden to ride them. Instead, guests can help bathe these gentle giants, plus feed them and watch them freely roam.
Main image: Group of elephants in Thailand (Shutterstock)