How volunteering with elephants turned into a dream job

Ever been caught staring out the window, wondering about taking a break and just going travelling? We’ve all been there, especially in those long Monday morning meetings: you know the ones where you’re not really sure what the meeting is about?

But have you ever thought that travel could change your Monday mornings? Well meet Ryan whose travel turned into a dream job working for the Save the Elephant Foundation:

How did you manage to get to be the Project Director of the ‘Save the Elephant Foundation’? You have a really interesting story that started off with some travelling through STA Travel?

In 2012, I decided to take a career break from my job in criminal justice and travel throughout the world, volunteering for animal welfare causes. Naturally, I was drawn to STA Travel to facilitate the planning of my trip, based on their reputation and the recommendation of many friends who had undertaken similar travel.

I explained to the Travel Expert that I wanted to volunteer with elephants, but only at a truly ethical sanctuary where the elephant’s welfare was paramount. Without hesitation, they recommended Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a rescue centre for elephants, dogs, cats and any animals in need.

I spent two weeks volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, helping to look after the rescued herd, which was a life-changing experience. It was during these two weeks that I met with world-renowned Asian elephant conservationist, Lek Chailert, who is the founder of Elephant Nature Park & Save Elephant Foundation. I immediately told Lek that I wanted to stay and work for her, which I am sure she had heard hundreds of times before. I returned to volunteer numerous times after this and I was invited to visit Myanmar with Lek to research the situation of Asian elephants there. Following this trip, Lek invited me to come to work with her, supporting her projects across Asia. A dream come true!

I’m sure a lot of people who are interested in elephant sanctuaries and potentially who would like to volunteer at one have heard some horror stories about how the animals are treated. How do you know that a sanctuary is a genuine sanctuary for elephants and is ethical to volunteer at?

Many elephant camps in Asia advertise themselves as a ‘sanctuary’, ‘rescue centre’ or ‘retirement home’, but this does not necessarily mean that these camps have passed any type of formal assessment. As such, it is important to do some research by reading newspaper articles on the subject and checking independent reviews and photographs posted by visitors on various elephant sanctuaries. Those interested in volunteering should make enquiries about the type of activities offered, the maximum size of the group visiting, what you would be doing with the elephants etc.

If it appears that the activities include unethical practices, tourists have the power to say ‘No’ and choose a genuinely ethical sanctuary instead. If tourists witness unethical practices while on an elephant tour, they should make others aware of this by posting reviews and using social media to get the message out.  

Why do we need these elephant sanctuaries; what are some of the problems facing elephants in the world?

Elephant tourism in Asia has traditionally relied on elephants being used for riding, street begging, and performing demeaning tricks for tourists. Elephants are often taken from their mothers at a very young age and then exposed to a traumatic process that instils an instinctive fear response so that they follow commands given by their mahouts (handlers). Metal bullhooks and other sharp objects are commonly used to coerce elephants into performing.

Traditionally, elephants are often kept on short chains without adequate shade, food, and water leading to dehydration and malnourishment. Most elephants suffer from both physical and psychological injuries as a result of this daily trauma.

Elephant riding can cause damage to an elephant’s spine over time and often doesn’t allow sufficient time for these colossal herbivores to consume sufficient amounts of food and water. This practice also causes significant psychological stress to elephants. In traditional forms of elephant tourism, instinctive behaviours such as socialising with other elephants, playing in the water and mud, and foraging in the jungle are not allowed to be expressed, causing tension and suffering.

True elephant sanctuaries offer a safe-haven for elephants where they do not work and can live a more natural life, free from abuse.

What benefits do the sanctuaries get out of volunteers willing to help?

Volunteers are the lifeblood of our sanctuary. They support us with our daily work to rescue and rehabilitate our elephants, which can include helping to prepare their food, carrying out the many necessary daily tasks of running a sanctuary, and even accompanying us on the truck during an elephant rescue!

Our goal is for volunteers to have direct experience with our work, and learn about the true plight of the Asian elephant. We want volunteers to leave us empowered with firsthand knowledge so that they can help educate others about elephant tourism – the good and the bad.  We rely on the outreach of our many international volunteers whose voices are heard around the world; to speak on the elephant’s behalf and for their greater good. It is the priority of all of our projects to educate tourists about the existence of animal cruelty and to encourage all to travel responsibly and with kindness.

What are some of the reasons that the elephants are in your sanctuary, and why aren’t they in the wild?

At Elephant Nature Park, we rescue elephants that are overworked and neglected, separated from their family, and handled as a commodity. Many are physically abused, maimed, and made to “work” long hours.

We rescue elephants that are most in need of medical care and rehabilitation. Many arrive at Elephant Nature Park blind, lame, and psychologically scarred from their previous experiences as working elephants. Around 70% of the elephants we rescue arrive with significant PTSD as a result of the abuse they previously endured, often for decades.

Wild Asian elephants are also under threat due to habitat loss, human-elephant conflict, and poaching for ivory and their body parts. Save Elephant Foundation is working with local communities to protect wild elephants through human-elephant conflict mitigation.

And finally Ryan, what’s been your most memorable moment working for Save the Elephant?

My most memorable moment was the first elephant rescue I joined.

When we arrived at the rescue location I saw Sri Nin on a short chain, unable to move, with no access to water and no shade from the blistering heat. She stood there alone, her eyes empty after more than 50 years of working in logging and providing rides to tourists who were probably unaware of the depth of her suffering. We hoped that she would sense that her life was about to change for the better.

We transported her to Samui Elephant Sanctuary, the first ethical sanctuary in Koh Samui, in the south of Thailand. As soon as she arrived, her demeanour immediately changed. She went straight to the mud pit, covering her body in mud and trumpeting loudly. It was the first time in 50 years she had been free of chains and was able to make her own decisions about what she wanted to do.

I will never forget the feeling of watching her enjoy her newfound freedom. But it was also a sobering moment to know how many other elephants are living in similar conditions and desperately need our help.

Ryan has such an amazing story to tell and his story doesn’t just have to be that, you too can go and take a break and volunteer with elephants and who knows what it could lead to…

So if you enjoyed Ryan’s story and you’re wondering why you should be volunteering with STA Travel. Here’s why:

We believe in exploring, not exploiting. It’s a sad truth that the most well-intentioned volunteer projects can be mismanaged, exploiting local communities for profit rather than helping. We will only work with projects that can prove they make a positive and lasting impact, meeting the needs of the host communities to ensure sustainability whilst also meeting the desires of travellers to make a genuine contribution. This is guaranteed by their acceptance and signature of our ‘STA Travel Volunteering Partner Checklist’ to confirm they adhere to current guidelines on ethical volunteering. STA Travel is affiliated with ABTA (Association of British Travel Agencies), WYSE Travel Confederation and has set up an industry-leading ‘STA Travel Animal Welfare Policy’.