Volunteer Abroad

What to Know Before Volunteering with Elephants

Photo of Lola Mendez
Lola Méndez

Lola Méndez is a travel writer and full-time traveler. She is passionate about sustainable travel she seeks out ethical experiences that benefit local communities.

What to Know Before Volunteering with Elephants
Photo by Alanna, TruTravels Thailand Alum

Volunteering with elephants can have a huge impact on elephants and local communities in Africa and Asia. Wild elephants have been captured and removed from their natural habitats in order to work at tourist attractions, temples, and the logging industry. There are many projects around the globe working to conserve these endangered species, and they need your assistance to make the world a better place for elephants! Sadly, not every volunteer project working with elephants has a positive impact, so vetting organizations in advance is critical.

The work itself might not be a week's worth of snapping photos of baby elephants playing in a river. Volunteering in elephant conservation isn’t all leisurely walks through the jungle. Greenheart Travel program coordinator Megan shares that most volunteers at the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society (SLWCS) spend mornings "transecting." She explains that this means, "inspecting elephant poop to see what they've eaten.” In the afternoons, volunteers are perched in an open-air tree hut to “look out for elephants and record notes on their behavior." In short, if you want to volunteer with elephants you'd better be prepared for some less-than-glamorous work.

In this article, we’ve provided some insider tips on volunteering abroad with elephants in order to help you properly distinguish between ethical and unethical projects and help you prepare for volunteering with elephants abroad by talking about:

  • How these volunteer projects help elephants
  • What your day to day as a volunteer looks like
  • What to look for in a project
  • Helpful resources for finding a great project

How Volunteer Projects Abroad Help Elephants: What's the Cause?

What to Know Before Volunteering with Elephants: What's the Cause?
Photo by Randi, CIS Abroad Thailand Alum

Before setting out to volunteer with elephants you may assume that your volunteer role will mostly involve taking care of orphaned elephants whose parents had been killed by poachers. Or perhaps you thought that volunteering with elephants was limited to projects in elephant sanctuaries, rehabilitation centers, or orphanages. There are many volunteer opportunities in projects like those but elephant conservation is far more complex. Here are several reasons and ways to help elephants:

The Human-Elephant Conflict

Humans have long been migrating into elephant zones as a result of overpopulation, government relocation programs, and deforestation. Well, once the humans take over, elephants continue to go about their normal behavior of eating, sleeping, and living in the area. Wild elephants end up wreaking havoc on villages that have popped up seemingly overnight and tend to unintentionally destroy the crops and property, and have even killed people as they traverse across the land they live on. Humans then begin to fear the elephants and end up capturing, injuring, or killing the elephants to protect their homes, farmland, and children.

Most elephant conservation projects seek to educate local populations, preserve habitats, and keep elephants away from villages as a way to solve this problem. In Sri Lanka, national parks such as Udawalawe (which is home to over 400 wild elephants, including some tusked males) have shown surrounding villages how preserving the elephant’s natural habitat had led to job opportunities as many locals now work as jeep drivers or tour guides that take travelers into the park to watch wildlife.

Captive Elephants for Tourism

Elephants are majestic and people often want to see them up close, ride them, and play with them. Sadly, this means there are many elephants that are held captive and forced to work as tourist attractions. There are many unethical tourist traps that keep elephants unnecessarily in captivity and torture them in order to break them into being “safe” near humans. Training elephants to have human interaction involves abusive techniques which you can learn about on World Animal Protection.

Any conscious traveler knows to never ride an elephant, but some unsuspecting tourists get lured into phony elephant orphanages where elephants are kept in chains, bull-hooks are used, and elephants are forced to bathe at set times. Ravi, one of the founders of SLWCS, told us that some "elephant sanctuaries used to have a purpose, but they don't really need them anymore." Apparently, orphaned elephants had been taken in, but are never re-released into the wild, even though there’s plenty of natural habitat in Sri Lanka. A legitimate orphanage that lets tourists visit and observe baby elephants from a distance is the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home.

What Do You Do When You Volunteer With Elephants?

What to Know Before Volunteering with Elephants: What Do You Do
Photo by Michael, Travel for Teens Thailand Alum

There are a lot of creative initiatives that elephant conservation organizations are using to help end poaching, human-elephant conflicts, and preserve wild elephant populations in both Africa and Asia. If you volunteer with one of these projects, you'll likely work in one or more of these areas.

Education

Working in education as an elephant conservation volunteer usually means teaching local populations about elephants, the importance of wildlife conservation, and getting them involved in initiatives to preserve them. Getting the community on board is always an essential step in development projects.

Elephant Fences

One of the most basic things conservationists are trying to achieve with the human-elephant conflict is simply keeping elephants out of populated areas -- for everyone's protection, including the elephants. They do this by creating natural barriers, like fences from citrus plants or bees which has been noted to be successful in Africa and not-so-natural barriers such as mildly electric fences that surround Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka.

Preserving Elephant Habitats

Elephant habitat preservation means marking areas as reserves to prevent humans from building homes, tracking elephant behavior and routes to figure out where they usually hang out and keeping humans out of those areas, and petitioning for government support. This can also be anything from maintaining land to building projects.

Creating Alternative Means of Income Generation

In areas where elephant poaching is a problem, being a volunteer may mean giving local populations means to alternative ways of earning an income helps prevent locals from needing to poach in the first place. One example of this type of work is in training locals as tour guides or jeep drivers for elephant safaris in National Parks that are strictly regulated.

As a volunteer, you'd likely be working to achieve one of these initiatives which are best done as long-term projects.

Most activities for short-term volunteers revolve around data collection, observing elephant habitats, and recording their behavior. Regardless, the day to day of volunteering with elephants, particularly wild ones, might involve:

  • Assisting with field research
  • Marketing and fundraising
  • Observation and making notes of elephant behavior (i.e. counting elephants, making notes of days and times they appear at certain sites, etc.)
  • Building and repairing fences
  • Community development projects
  • Transecting (aka helping researchers with elephant poo)

What to Look For When Choosing an Elephant Conservation Program

What to Know Before Volunteering with Elephants: What to Look For
Photo by Saffy, Edge of Africa Alum

All too often, our concerns of cost and convenience come before responsible actions when we're figuring out which organization to volunteer with. Yes, you'll want to choose a program you can actually afford and show up for, but that should be secondary to considerations like reputation, the involvement of the host community, sustainability, and safety.

Also, keep in mind that some program providers are essentially just matching you with a local host organization. Therefore, it's important to read reviews of the program provider and organization on Go Overseas or other reputable consumer feedback forums. You want to make sure that both are reputable and have the buy-in of the local host community.

Ideally, the host organization will regularly involve local members and have a plan to sustainably run their project without the support of volunteers in the future. For grassroots organizations, this requires funding which is why it may be a bit costly to volunteer with elephants.

Be sure to ask what the program does to assure the safety of the volunteers. Though cute, elephants are still wild animals and are not always predictable. You'll want to be trained and know that you're with staff who are trained on safety precautions.

Related: 10 Things You Should Look for in a Volunteer Program

Helpful Resources for Volunteering with Elephants

What to Know Before Volunteering with Elephants: Resources
Photo by Samantha, Edge of Africa Alum

A few organizations with resources on elephant conservation and volunteering with elephants are listed here:

Volunteering with elephants is an honorable way to spend your time as you'll be a part of the effort to protect the largest land mammal on earth. Select a reputable project at a conservatory or sanctuary in Asia or Africa that has needs that match with your skill set in order to work towards removing elephants from the highly endangered species list.