Volunteering with Elephants in Thailand

Gapforce is committed to responsible tourism and protecting animals who are impacted by the travel industry. However, some animal related activities, such as elephant rides, lead to suffering through cruel treatment and inhumane conditions. That is why Gapforce, as part of our Southeast Asia Explorer, supports only thoroughly vetted elephant sanctuaries which pass our strict animal welfare policies so participants can enjoy interaction with elephants free from abuse. Read on for more information on why it is so important to say no to elephant rides.

Elephant sanctuaries provide a vital home and refuge centre through proper care for elephants in desperate need. Developing and maintaining an animal sanctuary requires extensive knowledge about the life of elephants. But it is also just as important to understand what these elephants have endured in captivity. Animals living here may be suffering from illnesses or have been held illegally.  They may have been bound by physical restraints or forced to work in the entertainment industry.

Each year, millions of tourists come to Thailand seeking a chance to get up close and personal with Asian elephants.  This popular touristic attraction is surrounded with a dark cruelty that is often unfamiliar to travellers.  So, many keep flocking to Thailand in hopes of getting as close as possible to these mesmerizing mammals, close enough to touch, take photos or enjoy the entertainment of a show. This is understandable – they are impressive to look at, have a majestic and calm appearance and can be an appealing exotic experience. The problem with this is that it is unnatural to the elephants, and more and more travellers are believing these excursions are normal and acceptable tourist activity.  Worst of all, there is a façade covering up the cruelties within the Thailand elephant trade.

If we are honest with ourselves, it is obvious these incredibly intelligent animals belong in their natural environment, not under the rear end of tourists, eager to snap a quick selfie. Yet, most tourists remain obliviously unaware of the abuse elephants face from the methods used by trainers.

As World Animal Protection reports in their, “checking out of cruelty” report, it is necessary to break the will of an elephant first, in a very brutal way. And trainers have realized that this method is especially effective in young elephants, forcing separation with their mother. This separation is highly traumatizing – for both mother and baby. Elephants raised in such abusive environments face permanent stress, brought about by a fear of physical pain and a life outside their natural environment.  A lack of space to freely run around in and an insufficient supply of food and medical care increase the risk of illness.  Elephants are incredible social, and imprisoned life chained to a concrete floor leads to ongoing pain, solitude and fear for the sole purpose of entertaining customers.

Today, animal protection laws regulating elephant handling are insufficient.  It is therefore

a tragic fact that elephant trainers join this entertainment industry due to a lack of education and alternatives. To face this problem, it is important to support efforts geared toward removing elephants from this man-made life, and back to their natural roots.

For all you elephant lovers out there, there are opportunities to help without abuse. Several sanctuaries exist worldwide, including the sanctuary volunteers attend in Gapforce’s Thailand Adventure and Southeast Asia programs.  In these sanctuaries, elephants get the kind of support they need and natural surroundings. Volunteers may help with beneficial activities such as preparing and helping with feedings, monitoring behaviour and look for abnormalities, and maintaining the sanctuary to provide a healthy surrounding. Working here still makes it possible to see these animals, but in a natural distance far from hurt and cruelty. During the day, sanctuary elephants can usually be seen wandering around freely, by night they are brought back to the surrounding forests.  Sanctuaries often dive deeper into educational topics, such as the problematic and vicious cycle of trainers and tourists and steps to break away.

There are a number of ways to experience these majestic animals, and there is no problem wishing to encounter their beauty. Instead of hurting the elephants by paying for entertainment, think first about cruelty-free alternatives. Looking for where to start? The World Animal Protection has a great guideline: “If you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with the wild animal, the chances are it’s a cruel venue. Don’t go.”

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