The Asian elephant is a pulsing icon of Thailand’s booming tourism industry and it’s clearly evident wherever you look. From textile patterns that resemble elephants to tourism agencies that have elephants on their logos, these majestic creatures are one of the main highlights when visiting Thailand. With the rise in awareness of how unethical tourism works, plenty of tourists are starting to boycott elephant rides and street shows in an effort to promote ethical elephant interactions. If you’re one of the many travelers who wish to volunteer with elephants in Thailand, there are a couple of things you need to know first.

Today we’ll be taking a look at whether or not volunteering with elephants in Thailand is an ethical practice.

Understanding ethical questions that come with elephant volunteering

Volunteering with elephants can be a tricky proposition. There are elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that claim to be safe havens for elephants, but don’t employ ethical practices when taking care of the animals. Some of them are tourist traps and use the elephants only to draw in interest from uninformed travelers. But there are plenty of legitimate elephant sanctuaries in Thailand that offer volunteering programs for a good cause. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions to determine if they are worth volunteering for.

Here are some ethical questions to consider:

  • How are the animals kept? Are they confined in small cages with their feet chained? Or are they roaming freely in a controlled wildlife-like environment that resembles their natural habitat?
  • Does the sanctuary offer volunteering programs that won’t affect the local community’s job opportunities?
  • Are the volunteers accompanied by mahouts or elephant keepers at all times? Will training be provided before interacting with the elephants?
  • Do they spread awareness about unethical elephant tourism and show their support against elephant rides?
  • How are the elephants treated? Do they receive enough hygiene, food, and overall care?

Before volunteering, it’s crucial to conduct thorough research about their programs and how it can benefit the communities and wildlife you interact with. Read the reviews and look for feedback of other tourist experiences to see if the sanctuary you’re volunteering for has your best interest in helping rescued elephants. These questions will help you determine if you’re volunteering for a legitimate elephant sanctuary.

You want to participate in volunteering programs and elephant projects that help sustain the overall health and longevity of the animals. Expect to do more than just interact with the elephants. You’ll participate in activities such as preparing meals, cleaning up the sanctuary, doing community work, and teaching the locals about the dangers of unethical elephant tourism if you have the experience.

Common terminologies used as an elephant volunteer

There are plenty of jargons used in elephant volunteering and it can be quite easy to get them all mixed up. To avoid confusion, here are the common terminologies you’ll hear when you volunteer at elephant sanctuaries in Thailand.

  • Elephant reserve – Elephant reserves in Thailand mainly protect captive elephants and inform tourists about the harmful effects of unethical tourism practices. You can volunteer at an elephant reserve to help spread awareness about the plight of Asia’s captive elephants.
  • Elephant sanctuary – Elephant sanctuaries are the main refuge for elephants rescued from harmful tourism. It’s a place where the animals can rehabilitate and heal. Most of the animals in the sanctuary rely on human assistance since they are unable to return to the wild due to the suffering they received during captivity. Volunteers will work with mahouts and elephant keepers to attend to the different needs of the elephants and provide them with the best care possible.
  • Animal welfare volunteer programs – These are volunteer programs that are designed to inform tourists about the state of different animal populations. You’ll also get an up-close-and-personal interaction with the elephants, all while volunteering for work that improves their plight significantly.

  • Volunteer vacations – You’ll come across volunteer vacations when volunteering in Thailand, but it’s best to steer clear away from these as they tend to lean towards icky tourism.

So, is elephant volunteering good or bad?

There are a lot of positives to be had with elephant volunteering. As long as you do your research properly and stay away from faux elephant sanctuaries, you’ll be doing the elephant tourism in Thailand a huge favor. As a responsible traveler, it’s important to gather all the information you need to make wiser decisions and volunteering with elephants is a great alternative to unethical practices like elephant rides.


Volunteering with elephants in Thailand is an ethical form of tourism that tourists should definitely consider. This information will help you choose volunteering programs and sanctuaries that best support the plight of Asia’s captive elephants, all while promoting ethical elephant tourism to travelers looking to visit Thailand’s majestic creatures.