Elephant conservation

There are few human-wildlife interactions that have faced as much scrutiny in recent years as our relationship with elephants. Since 2014, we along with a number of other ethical travel companies, have made a commitment to stop promoting elephant riding and other tourist-centric elephant ‘shows’ , concerned about the cruel ways elephants are initially tamed, and then controlled to comply with their mahout’s instructions. As many of these elephant experiences happen in so-called ‘sanctuaries’, which accept volunteers under the guise of conservation, choosing a responsible elephant conservation project is worth taking some time over.

But research your options and you’ll find a wealth of worthwhile projects do exist – both in sanctuaries caring for elephants rescued from exploitation and in the wild – taking you from Southeast Asia to Sri Lanka, to the South African savannah and the dusty, desert plains of Namibia.

Why elephant conservation?

The threats facing the world’s largest land animals are varied and immense, from poaching driven by the lucrative yet illegal worldwide trade in ivory, to tourism, which is taking elephants out of the wild in Southeast Asia for the express purpose of entertainment. With African elephants listed as vulnerable and Asian elephants as endangered on the IUCN red list, volunteers are needed to support ongoing research protecting wild elephant populations in cash-strapped national parks, or to provide vital support for the day-to-day running of rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries.

Where can I volunteer responsibly with elephants?

Cambodia

Projects in Cambodia are focussed on rescue centres, where elephants that have previously been put to work in forests, or in the tourism industry, can relax and recuperate away from continued human interaction. In one example volunteers work in a sanctuary set in a large area of mountainous forest where the elephants can roam freely. You can expect to be observing and recording elephant feeding behaviour, planting trees, harvesting banana and pineapple trees for elephant food and learning how to conduct simple elephant health checks.

Namibia

It is human neighbours, not incoming tourists that pose the biggest threat to Namibia’s desert-dwelling elephants. Where water is a scarce commodity and crops a valuable resource, farmers will defend these from elephant encroachment with deadly consequences. Based in remote camps, projects in Namibia focus on monitoring and observing wild elephant behaviour, as well as constructing elephant-proof water tanks and taking part in education projects in local schools. It’s a very community-focussed approach to conservation that is surprisingly family-friendly, with children aged eight years old and above welcome on some projects.

South Africa

South Africa offers a variety of elephant conservation projects both monitoring populations of wild elephants alongside permanent research scientists and in rescue centres that have welcomed elephants recovering from abuse at human hands, or from natural disasters and loss of habitat. Both offer an incredible opportunity to see African elephants roaming at least semi-wild – although conservation projects based in national parks and game reserves offer up close encounters with not only wild elephants, but also other priority species such as rhino, lions, cheetahs, leopards and buffalo.

Sri Lanka

Conservation projects in Sri Lanka focus on promoting the survival of Asian elephants in the wild – monitoring elephant populations and assessing and reducing human-elephant conflict in the remote and beautiful Wasgamuwa National Park. You can expect to be tracking elephants in the wild, setting up camera traps, monitoring behaviour and working with local communities to identify where conflicts with elephants lie. In the remote Sri Lankan villages you’ll visit, local culture – based on Buddhist teachings – advocates the notion of living harmoniously with nature and much of the work you’ll support revolves around strengthening and sustaining centuries-old cultural practices.

Thailand

In 2017 a report from World Animal Protection estimated that there has been a 30% increase in elephant entertainment venues in Thailand, despite ongoing conservation and education efforts – coinciding with a continued rise in international tourist arrivals. The quantity of elephant rescue centres, refuges and sanctuaries in Thailand can be bewildering, but we have worked hard to ensure the projects we promote are based in establishments which put elephant welfare first and foremost. This means no rides, no shows, no chains and no tourist entertainment. Instead you’ll be focussing on harvesting and preparing nutritious food, undertaking maintenance tasks and walking the elephants into the forest where they can bathe and roam at will. Alternatively you could be working in the heart of Thailand’s jungle-filled highlands, tracking and monitoring wild elephant movements with members of local Karen hill tribes.

Zimbabwe

You’ll experience life on a family cattle farm-turned game reserve in Zimbabwe, home to African elephants and endangered white rhinos. You’ll be preparing food, taking part in maintenance work, anti-poaching initiatives including removing snares, tracking and monitoring elephant and rhino behaviour and, crucially, working in local schools to deliver conservation education classes which aim to help children understand the value in keeping their iconic local wildlife alive.

Elephant conservation practicalities

Dusty, messy and often remote, elephant conservation projects immerse you in the pachyderm world – and while days off may offer the opportunity for a little bit of luxury, your day-to-day living standards will usually be quite basic. You can expect to share accommodation with other volunteers – sometimes in dormitory-style rooms and while bathroom facilities may be shared on a same-sex basis in most projects, you certainly won’t be enjoying an en suite. And along with your project work you will be expected to take your turn doing chores around camp – although whether you are required to cook will be dependent on the project. Some employ local cooks to provide food for volunteers, while others will adopt a rota system for DIY dinners.

The work across the projects available is varied, but whether you’re working in a sanctuary or out in the wild African bush you’ll need a decent level of fitness and to be prepared to be working outside in hot, humid conditions. In sanctuaries you need to be prepared for a lot of manual labour – cleaning pools, repairing fences, constructing enrichment activities, cutting, harvesting and preparing huge quantities of food, scrubbing the elephants down and making sure they have enough water. While on projects focussing on wild elephant research you can expect daily drives and walks tracking herds with radio sensors, noting GPS locations, setting camera traps, inputting data from sightings into the research computers as well as working in local schools and communities on engagement and education projects.

Our top Wildlife conservation Holiday

Elephant conservation volunteering in Namibia

Elephant conservation volunteering in Namibia

Elephant conservation volunteering in stunning Namibia

From £1139 14 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip can be tailor made throughout the year to suit your requirements
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If you'd like to chat about Wildlife conservation or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Can I bring the family?

Some elephant conservation projects are suitable for families, while others will only be open to adults. It depends on the sanctuary or reserve, the level of support in place and the type of work that needs to be done. Research projects with desert elephants in Namibia, for example, welcome young conservationists from eight years old, who can get involved with maintenance projects in local schools and patrols which monitor and note wild elephant behaviour. Some sanctuaries in Thailand allow teenagers aged 14 years and over to work with the elephants, preparing food and scrubbing the elephants down to keep them clean. In Sri Lanka, there are research projects which are open to children aged 10 years old and above. Your volunteer specialist will be able to advise as to which project will be best suited to your family, but ultimately you know your kids best – will they be happy in basic accommodation – or even remote desert camps where there’s nothing each evening but a campfire and stars?

What’s wrong with riding elephants?

Unlike some other working animals – horses, camels, donkeys for example – which have been bred for generations to be domesticated, elephants are born wild. Very wild. In fact, the majority of captive elephants working in tourism across Southeast Asia started their lives in the region’s dense forests. In order to submit to their human handlers – and be amenable to riding, to performing tricks or to working – all elephants must go through a process commonly known as ‘the crush’. This is a cruel training process for young elephants which focuses on restricting movement, isolating them from their mothers and other elephants and essentially beating them into submission. While you might not see signs of this when you travel, if you ride an elephant or support a sanctuary offering elephant ‘shows’ you can guarantee the intelligent, empathetic and sociable creatures you encounter will have endured this process earlier in their lives.
But not only is the process by which elephants are ‘tamed’ cruel, the lucrative tourist entertainment business is taking more and more elephants out of the wild. In Asia, where the elephant is now endangered across its range, no more than 45,000 Asian elephants remain in their natural environment, scattered across 13 countries in ever decreasing patches of land.
It is for these reasons that in 2014 here at Responsible Travel we stopped promoting any holidays which offer elephant riding as part of their itineraries, and why we won’t support any so-called sanctuary which permits its elephants to be ridden, or to provide entertainment for tourists. It’s as simple as this. You wouldn’t, as an animal-lover, purchase ivory, so why support a practice that ultimately could be just as damaging to wild elephant populations.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: USAID Biodiversity & Forestry] [South Africa: Frontierofficial] [Thailand: Lauren Gates] [What's wrong: Loic Furhoff]
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