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Volunteering Experience - at one of the few Elephant sanctuary's in Thailand

I am just back from holiday where the kids and I went to Northern Thailand to volunteer at an elephant conservation camp. This is one of the few places in Thailand where elephants are safe and able to live an elephant’s life.

Clearly we are a family of ‘experiences’ and I wanted us to experience the challenges and joys of participating in a volunteering program as well as getting an understanding of how an individual can make a difference to a community.

In the process I learned a lot about volunteering, cruelty, passion and culture; and making a difference in a community – much of which is relevant far beyond the elephant park. Back to my elephant story.

When people travel to Thailand – most delight when they see a real life elephant. However, what most tourists don’t know is the brutality that all off these ‘tamed’ animals have experienced in their lives.

Most ‘Western’ travelers would be aghast at the pain inflicted on these animals… and if they knew they would simply not go on the trek or watch the elephants ‘perform’ in a show. Asking an elephant to paint –is not a natural thing…it is only achieved after years of brutality.

In less than 100 years the Asian elephants numbers have been reduced by as much as 100,000. When the Thai government banned logging of the rain forests the mid 80s – many of the working elephants lost their jobs – if elephants are not earning an income their owners cannot keep them.

It is reported that there may be as few as 3500 elephants left in Thailand – and most of these are in captivity – if they were to be returned to the wild there is simply not enough forest to support this population (Each elephant eats more than 100kg of food each day. Many elephants are completely malnourished because they are not fed properly in captivity.)

So many of the elephants are forced to perform for tourists to earn their keep…. unbeknownst to the traveler each of these elephants (during their juvenile lives) have had to endure days in a ‘crush’ – being tormented and mutilated by hooks until they are ‘broken’.

The videos we saw of elephants being ‘tamed’ where horrific – but there is no easy answer as Lek the founder of Elephant Nature Park has found. Whilst she provides refuge for 36 abused elephants and runs a successful volunteering program. (The kids and I delighted in feeding, washing and hanging out with these massive beasts)…. her program is a drop in the ocean. And to save an elephant is a very expensive exercise. Yet many Thai’s do not believe in the work Lek is doing…. with positive training and returning elephants to a herd. Elephants represent a livelihood for many Thai families – yet the daily cruelty is gut wrenching.

I wondered out loud “How can they allow this cruelty happen to the elephant which is considered a Thai national symbol?”My son responded “but look at what we do to the kangaroo Mum how is that different?”. Good point.

So I asked Lek – “what can we do?” – She said “to ban elephant ownership is not the answer. What we need are people to contact the travel writers, publishers and bloggers to let them know that the monkey, tiger, or elephant shows and activities in most countries are all facilitated through abuse toward animals… Urge them to give people the information so they can choose if they want to be a part of that.

She continued – “Lobby government, write letters, and agitate to change the law around animal cruelty. Elephants can still work and lead fulfilling lives, and they can be trained using positive reinforcement rather than cruelty. We have proven that over and over here. We can work (and play) side by side with an elephant without using force. It just takes longer, and costs a little more.”

This is a complex issue in a far away land. And I only had a small insight in the few days that I was there. But there is cruelty everyday here in Australia too and that is something we can do something about. (I guess that is why I am passionate about the role I play at Voiceless – even in a small capacity).

Activism alone will not change the world – it takes agitation, vision, leadership and passion. And laws do need to change, and society to see a different way forward.

And one person at a time we can make a difference – and make a fellow creature’s life a little more bearable. None of these issues are simple… but just because it has always been like that (I heard that elephants were being ‘broken’ more than 6500 years ago) does not mean that it is right – or that we can’t make a difference.

We can.

How are you going to make the world a better place this year? To provide support in your community – where your energy can make a difference. Let me know.


Reader Interactions


  1. Hi Naomi, I have only subscribed to your blog for two weeks and was impressed by your online v. offline retailing blog but just couldn’t seem to make that comment. Time is so valuable. However, this particular blog must not go unacknowledged. How excellent that you provided this opportunity for your children to be part of the social good. Not just donating money, but living the solution. Much harder, on so many dimensions.

    I am repositioning my husbands business at the moment which will focus on John Elkington’s Three Pillars of Sustainability. This is a mammoth job, but one which must be done for the very same reason you support Voiceless and The Elephant Conservation Park.

    To this end I have been reading “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good” by William Easterly and trying to decide what type of cause we should support. There are so many agencies, and it is difficult to shortlist. It is an insightfull and poignant read the nub of which is this – Find the change agents within the culture and help them innovate change. You can’t change everything, but you can change specific things.

    So this year, beside the repositioning, that’s what we are doing. We are not going to change the world, we are going to support a local change agent who demonstrates accountability and results in one area and we are going to help them to make a positive difference.

    And across the next 10 years we will not stop until we succeed. That’s what we are doing. Good luck with your journey this year.

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