elephant nature park
Photo courtesy of Sadie Redinger

Just because an animal encounter is offered doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

This is especially true in Thailand, where tiger temple visits and elephant treks are sold daily to unsuspecting (and sometimes just plain apathetic) tourists.

On the bright side, there are organizations working to make things right in the wildlife tourism industry, like Elephant Nature Park (ENP), an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center in Northern Thailand.

We caught up with Sadie Redinger, a former ENP volunteer and creator of the responsible and adventure travel blog Eclectic Trekker, to learn more about ethical elephant tourism, what volunteering with elephants is like and how we can all work to save the wildlife.

1. There are many projects one can get involved in for volunteer work in Thailand. What drew you to the world of conservation and animal rights?

I’ve always had a soft spot for animals. Ever since I was a kid, I would watch nature shows and dream about when I might be able to see these animals in person. As we all know, the earth’s wildlife is in jeopardy. I kept seeing more and more programs about declining numbers of so many different animals and their ever-increasing struggle for survival. That’s when I decided to look for opportunities to help, which brought me to my first global volunteering placement at Elephant Nature Park.

2. What’s one thing many visitors to Thailand don’t understand about local elephant and wildlife tourism?

Most people who travel to Thailand or any area with animal attractions have no idea how abused the animals are. Elephant riding is huge in Thailand, and even though more people are learning about the dark truth behind it, there are still plenty of travelers who have no idea how bad it really is.

And it’s not just elephant riding; it’s elephant painting, any performance involving animal acts, tiger temples…the list goes on. All of these animals have either been poached out of the wild or bred in captivity, and they go through tremendous abuse to perform for humans.

3. What was a typical day like for you volunteering at Elephant Nature Park?

I was ENP four years ago, so things have changed a little bit, but the basic chores are still the same. We wake up early for breakfast at 7am. Then the morning chores start at 8am.

My first day there we had to clean out the old water from the mud pit and fill it up with fresh clean water. Let me tell you, it was so cold that early in the morning but once the mud fight broke out, I forgot all about it.

Other chores include cutting tall grasses or corn stalks for elephant snacks, unloading chopping, and distributing elephant food according to their specific diets, cleaning elephant poo out of the enclosures, and helping with construction around the sanctuary.

We would break for lunch around 11:30am and then start our afternoon chores at 1pm. We were usually done by 4pm and had the rest of the day to ourselves. We could get massages from the local women, go tubing down the river, or just sit and relax with a cold beer on the viewing platform.

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Sadie helping with the elephants at ENP

4. Was there anything, in particular, you saw or experienced that made you truly glad you were working to make positive changes in elephant tourism?

Every volunteer wants to see the positive impact they are having with a project. Hearing the terrible stories of the elephants at the sanctuary and seeing how happy they are now really shows how wonderful ENP is. I also worked with another one of ENP’s programs this last year called the Surin Project. It’s a smaller program with only 12 elephants at the current moment, but hopefully it will grow as word gets out.

While I was at the Surin Project, I saw plenty of abuse to the elephants in the village who were not in the program. The worst was seeing a large male being trained to give rides get stabbed in the head with a bull hook because he wasn’t following his mahouts orders. It was a terrible sight to see and even worse knowing that I couldn’t help him right then, but I was able to share his story on my blog.

Since I wrote up that post, I have had a few people tell me that they had no idea how abused elephants were, and that they would never ride one!

5. What was something that you wish you had known before arriving at the Elephant Nature Park that may have prepared you better?

Elephant Nature Park wants to make their volunteers feel as comfortable as possible, so there really wasn’t anything that I wish I would have known beforehand. I always try to make sure I know exactly what to bring and what the living conditions are like. I don’t mind roughing it, but I have volunteered with people who didn’t take the time to research where they would be going and what the living conditions were like. Needless to say they left early.

elephant nature park
Sadie volunteering with the elephants at ENP

6. What amazed you most about the animals you were working with?

There are so many things that have amazed me about the animals I have worked with, but one experience stands out the most. The first time I was at ENP an older male elephant passed away. I had seen elephants in the wild performing their own funeral for a fallen member of the herd on TV, but I wasn’t sure if the domesticated elephants would do the same.

The male passed away at 10:30 pm, and even though the herd had been put away for the night, they still knew when he was gone. Trumpeting from the elephants rang out across the sanctuary the minute he was gone. Then the next day they gathered around his grave and paid their respects. It was incredible to see how in tune they were with each other and to see the strong emotions these animals possess.

7. How do you go about vetting potential volunteer projects to make sure they’re truly responsible and in-line with what your ideals and goals?

Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions! Any volunteer project that is truly good should have nothing to hide from their volunteers. I have a list of questions that I run through when looking at a new project, including:

  • How are we benefiting the animals and environment? There are plenty of projects that claim to be for conservation, but in reality they are nothing more than a tourist trap. I want to know exactly how I am helping.
  • Where is the money going? They should be able to tell you exactly how the money is used in the program. The money being paid for a project should be going directly back into conservation.
  • What are other volunteers saying? I Google the program to try and find any kind of feedback about it. Facebook is a great place to find groups about different projects.
elephant nature park
Beautiful elephants at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

8. For someone looking to have a similar experience volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, how can they apply as well as prepare themselves for the program?

You can sign up to volunteer at Elephant Nature Park through their website, elephantnaturepark.com. They have volunteer programs that ranger from one day to one month, so there is something that will suit everyone’s time frame.

9. For those who can’t travel but still want to contribute to positive change efforts for wildlife in Thailand, how can they help?

There are plenty of other ways to contribute without actually traveling to Thailand. Money donations can be distributed throughout the whole sanctuary, and they are always in need of extra blankets and medical equipment for the animals.

Then there is the biggest contribution you can make which is talking about the program. Share videos. Tell people about ENP and the good they are doing. Word of mouth goes a long way.

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Elephants are not meant to paint for tourists. Photo: The Treasure/Shutterstock.

10. What are some simple ways travelers to Thailand can travel in a more responsible fashion in regards to wildlife tourism and conservation?

When in doubt, ask questions. If you are thinking about going to an attraction, research it a little bit and see what is being said about it. See if the animals are treated well. The majority of the time you are going to find they are not, and if you’re not sure, keep asking questions.

*All photos courtesy of Sadie Redinger unless otherwise noted. Featured image courtesy of AWenner/Shutterstock

Continue reading:

15 Best Vegan Resorts In Thailand

Should You Visit Thailand’s Long Neck Women Villages?

How To Have A Weaving Experience In Chiang Rai, Thailand

Wildlife Tourism In Thailand: An Elephant-Sized Controversy

6 Global Good Experiences To Have In Chiang Mai, Thailand

Exploring The Curative Paradise Of Pai, Thailand

elephant nature park
Sadie Redinger

About Sadie Redinger

Sadie has been traveling the world off and on for the last 7+years looking for new volunteer projects focused on animal and environmental conservation. Over the years she has worked on a reserve with the big 5 in South Africa, observed great whites, and helped fight the illegal wildlife trade, and that’s just the beginning. You can follow Sadie’s adventures on her blog, Eclectic Trekker, as well as through Facebook and Twitter.

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Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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