Want To Volunteer With Elephants? Read This First

Today, I am happy to share a guest post from the lovely Laurine Robb -Horning. I had the immeasurable pleasure of meeting Laurine in Chiang Mai, Thailand and the serendipitous friendship serves as a constant reminder to me that travel works in mysterious ways.


When Laurine and I met, I naturally gushed to her about the unbelievable beauty of the Elephant Nature Park but Laurine countered with a well informed point of view on why she wouldn’t be participating in any elephant tourism in Asia.

Regaling me with tales of meeting beautiful baby elephants in her homeland of South Africa, she held me captive with her tales of these creatures so full of life and happiness. However, she’s about to share with us the contrast she met when she ventured into the world of the Asian Elephant.


… So when I found myself in Laos a few years after with an opportunity to spend some more time with their Asian cousins, I jumped at it. After being assured that the company I went through was indeed eco-friendly, that the elephants were well and happy – having been ‘rescued’ from a life of logging – I set off only to be bitterly disappointed on arrival.

This smaller version of the animals I had fallen for in Africa, was chained under a thatch shelter and her eyes were hollow, empty, dark, dead. I didn’t trust this initial judgment though and bought some bananas and fed her and again was taken aback by the emptiness of her acceptance and devouring of them. Where was the connection? Where was the joy? “I must just be a silly tourist.” I chastised myself. “She’s an adult. She’s a different elephant. She doesn’t know me. She is allowed to be cold and distant.”

When the tour leader led me to a platform that gave me access to reach her back I recoiled at the chunky, weighty wooden bench across her back that they wanted me to sit on. I asked about it and he assured me she was strong, it would not hurt her. She’s an elephant right? “Of course she can manage it.” I told myself against the screaming in my head. So I tentatively put my foot out, onto her back and sat down on the bench… and immediately got up again and jumped off. In tears. I couldn’t do it. This seemed so wrong. So unnatural. So deeply, horribly… wrong.

One Big Happy Ele Family

The guide could not understand my tears and kept assuring me she was living a good life, so much better than logging. He did not believe the experience I had had in South Africa, he seriously thought I was making it up. He asked questions about how the mahouts in South Africa controlled their elephants and just could not accept the scene of playfulness and trust I described.

I am ashamed to admit that I did not follow my gut, listen to my voice and demand to be taken back to the town and have my money returned to me. This is what I wish I had done.

I have lied about it a couple of times in the retelling. But I didn’t do this. Instead, I walked alongside my elephant with her mahout while the other tourists rode theirs in front of me. When the time came for the elephant’s bath and I was offered to ride her bare backed – on her neck – I admit, with scarlet cheeks, that I accepted. This seemed more ‘natural’.

But through our walk toward the river, instead of connection and oneness, all I felt was foolish and sick each time the mahout hit his stick loudly on the ground in front of her to make her follow him – for my entertainment. I understood that for that stick on the ground to be enough for her to obey now, there had been a time before where pain was involved. Little did I know. I tried to make up for my inadequacy by sending her love and compassion and comfort and friendship all the while feeling worse about the situation and myself for being in it.

At the river, I quickly gathered that the experience was not for her enjoyment as she kept making her way out of the water and the mahout and guide shouted orders for her to stay in. I came off her back as soon as I could and told them I was happy for her to go wherever and do what she wanted.

ready to play at the river


The guide was getting irritable by now and explained that what she wanted was to go back (so shut up and let us do our job so you can get what you paid for). When I replied indignantly “Well then let her go back!” he shook his head at me, chalked me up to another crazy foreigner and we walked on back.

She was re-chained, the same dull blackness in her eyes, and I said goodbye to her, filled with sadness and helplessness and confusion and anger. Once again, I left an elephant interaction with the memory deeply etched into my being, although this time, it held scars and a conviction to never partake in any elephant tourism in Asia again.


So a year later, when I found myself in the north of Thailand for a few extra days, the last thing I considered whiling my days away on, was an “eco” elephant experience. I had learnt my lesson, thank you very much, and was not supporting more of that. But the owners of the Diva Guesthouse told me wonderful things about a sanctuary nearby where a small Thai woman, nicknamed ‘Lek’ (small), with a heart filled with love for the elephants of her country, rescued abused elephants and provided a home as natural as possible for them.

A trusted fellow traveller (Brandy) who I had connected with a few days before corroborated this, she knew someone who worked there, she had been herself, this place was legit eco-tourism and had to be seen. Visiting the park would be supporting the protection and care of the abused elephants of Thailand.

Still with some wariness, and clear demands of money back if it was in any way exploiting of these animals, I booked myself on a week-long paid volunteering experience at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, hoping this place was different.

The week was one of moments – of emotion, friendship, connection and of course, hard work. Unloading truck fulls of watermelon, pumpkin and bananas, in back-bending preparation of the eles’ meals. Mornings in steamy Thai sunshine heaving spades full of wet elephant poop, digging and planting trees, cutting and hauling corn and sugarcane – but hey, if a 5.2, unfit, skinny western woman can do it with a smile, it is not too hard.

This is interspersed with good laughter and food, tubing trips down the river and of course – elephants. Feeding them, walking with them and their mahouts, bathing them, falling asleep and rising to their rumbles; learning lots and lots about them and being touched deeply within by these animals and those who care so much for them.

beautiful, free, Faa Sai


The hardest part of the week is learning about the cruel way that every domesticated elephant in Asia is trained. We watched footage of a 3 year old elephant being taken from its mother, forced into and restrained in an enclosure just its size. Every time this baby, far too young to be away from its mother, puts up an ounce of a struggle, it is beaten and stabbed again and again in the most tender parts of its body while human voices shout at it.

Elephants usually rumble to communicate and trumpet when distressed, but the baby does something I have never heard of an elephant doing, it opens its mouth and screams. Over and over again. And each time it does, more abuse is given. This is a ritual spiritual ceremony in Asia, presided over by a shaman and called “the breaking of the spirit”. It is the only way these communities know how to ensure that the elephant will obey them and not destroy or harm anything in its life as a big animal.

Every elephant in Asia that can be ridden, fed, led around, play tricks or paint pictures, has gone through this and further horrifying abuse to learn the skills of their trade. Since logging has been banned in Thailand due to the erosion and flooding it causes, tourism is the way these elephants make their owners a living.

At Elephant Nature Park, not be confused with many others near them, Lek and her team are passionate about changing the fate of Asia’s elephants. They hope for a future where elephant tourism is similar to what I know in Africa, where people pay to see these animals living wild, in their natural habitat.

At the park’s current phase, each of the thirty something rescued elephants has their own mahout who works 12 hours a day. During that time, the elephants are free to walk around the park with those with whom they have formed a herd. Elephants hobbling along, crippled by forced breeding, befriend elephants blinded by their previous owners for disobedience, guiding their friend through the park.

The largest herd even has two babies and over-protective nannies. The elephants eat from the natural landscape as well as nutritious fruit and veg supplied by the centre. A river runs through the park where the animals swim and are given baths.

As the park is not as big a space as all these elephants would have in the wild, mahouts need to be able to guide their elephants away from those herds lest they get into altercations with neighbouring farms that they could pillage and destroy. At this point in the park’s development, the elephants in their herds return to their enclosures in the evenings.

what a smile


Strictly no aggression of any form is allowed on the part of the mahouts, they are taught to use only positive reinforcement – bucketfuls of the elephants’ favourite foods. The park is so serious about this that one mahout lost his final warning while I was there and was asked to leave for playfully teasing his elephant – offering her food and then taking it away – as without positive reinforcement the elephant is doomed to abusive relationships.

My emotions while at Elephant Nature Park were conflicting. On the one hand there is the sadness at the visible suffering these elephants have lived. All except the three youngest elephants (now four) have been through the brutal breaking of the spirit ceremony and further abuse in their working lives.

All around us were elephants whose eyes were cast down and without the openness and shine I have seen in Africa. They have scars, broken backs, crooked legs, blinded eyes, torn ears. But here they are in a place where humans have given them back life. They can form bonds with other elephants, learn to have relationships with humans based on love and trust instead of fear and live a life far freer and natural as any they have had.

They can be in families and enjoy walking, swimming, eating, playing, being together. Their future is even more optimistic: the Park is in the process of completing a safely enclosed area large enough for 5 of the oldest females and the two adult males – difficult to manage – to live apart from human interaction. Tourists and mahouts will watch only from accommodation and walkways built above. There is hope.

And also, there is Hope. He was the first baby of the park, now a young male elephant who has had only love and nurturing and positive reinforcement from humans. When Hope and his proud mahout come to the river, we tourists move up to the landing above to look on as this elephant, alive with spirit and life drinks, swims and then shows just how positive reinforcement can work – doing a few humourous tricks for the reward of bananas and watermelon.

boys on parade


The difference between Hope and his previously abused family is marked. He holds himself upright, moves with a perceived joy and zest, and makes eye-contact with deep, open, confident, sparkling eyes. He is the poster boy for the future that Elephant Nature Park is hoping for and working towards.

One night at the park, our group of volunteers was told that an elephant was dying. She had been in tremendous pain, was quite troubled for days and, in a sad visit with her earlier that day, Lek had asked her to find the place she wanted to rest and lie down. And she had. She couldn’t get up and her mahout and other beloved staff were sitting vigil with her. We could go too, we were offered.

When I voiced my concern about strangers hanging around her in her time of distress, I was explained that we were going not to gawk, but to honour her and to create a sacred space for her. And so I found myself sitting in the dark before this great beast, next to a usually gruff, practical, no-nonsense staff member now with tears glistening at the corners of her eyes.

We sat in silence, hearing only the laboured breathing of this animal and some conversation between staff about her condition and comfort. The two elephants that had formed a herd with her were left out of their enclosures for the night, their mahouts working overtime, so they could come say their goodbyes as they wanted. We sat and stood around, in respect and reverence, helping to create the space for her and those who loved her.

I found tears moving to my own eyes, not for the sadness of her passing or the pain of her life, but for the amazing, life-affirming gift that so few of us get and that this beautiful creature was readily given: to have those who love her around her, honouring her, loving her and being with her as she leaves this life.

Yes, Elephant Nature Park is different.

[quote] I’m so thankful to Laurine for sharing these experiences with us, courageously admitting to having ridden an elephant in the past, and her integrity and dedication to all life forms shown while traveling.

If you also enjoyed this piece, please share the article, visit the Save Elephant Foundation website, and make the choice to support ethical travel wherever your trips take you. [/quote]


Brandy Bell loves adventuring around the world. She's been a solo female traveler since 2006 and has visited over 25 countries, made countless international friends, and now writes to inspire you to travel in a sustainable and responsible way.

'Want To Volunteer With Elephants? Read This First' has 1 comment

  1. August 30, 2014 @ 3:04 pm Chantae

    It’s amazing to be able to virtually go along with Laurine on this journey… and so interesting to see that she had a gut feeling at the time of her first encounter with “saved elephants.” Reminds me of how today’s society is going against dolphins/orcas in captivity and how I used to ignorantly attend the shows. Now, knowing what I know, I refuse to. Hopefully elephant sanctuaries can experience this social change as well – with the real tourism going to legitimate sanctuaries instead of cruel elephant rides.


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