By Leann Copeland – 1 week volunteer
When I decided to travel South East Asia for 6 months a friend of mine suggested volunteering at an elephant sanctuary, knowing my love for animals and conservation. I was originally very sceptical as during several previous visits to Thailand I’d become very wary of organisations presenting themselves as ‘ethical’. Several travellers had told me how they’d spent time at elephant camps and found the treatment of the elephants not quite what they were expecting – the elephants being chained for most of the day and required to perform tricks and give rides to tourists.
My friend told me about Kindred Spirit Elephant sanctuary, a non-profit based in a village in Northern Thailand about four hours from Chiang Mai. They currently have four elephants which have previously worked in the tourist camps but are now free roaming in the forest surrounding the village. This sounded perfect as it would be a chance to see elephants in their natural environment.
After a couple of emails to the co-founder Kerri I signed up to do a week’s volunteering. Our group of five were met in Chiang Mai by Talia, one of the other workers on the project. We were given a brief of what our visit would entail and left the next morning for our journey to the project. We arrived at the village in the afternoon and were introduced to our friendly hosts who we would be living with for the next week.
The next morning we set off to find the elephants armed with a bag of bananas! We hiked through the beautiful forest for about an hour until we found them. The first time seeing them was amazing. The elephants are used to humans due to working in the tourist industry so came straight over to us to see what treats we had. It was really interesting seeing the dynamic and different personalities of the elephants. Three are related and have such a close bond. The oldest bull, Boon Rott, is the only one not from the same family and although interacts with the others seemed more than happy to hang out with the humans! We would spend the morning observing the elephants and collecting data, often having to hike up and down steep hills as they move around a lot.
Each day the hike was different as the elephants wouldn’t always be in the same place. It was such a wonderful experience seeing them just be elephants – foraging for food, bathing in the river and playing with each other – probably for the first time in their lives. This has been such a great experience and I feel I’ve learnt so much about the plight of captive elephants in Asia.