Volunteering with the Gentle Giants
Elephants World “Where we Work for the Elephants, and the Elephants Not for us”
A holiday with a difference. Sgt Muzzlewhite from Air Traffic Control at RAF Benson chose to the spend four weeks of her Christmas holiday volunteering at the Elephant World sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
When planning our holidays a lot of us pick somewhere sunny, with a beach to relax on and cocktails on tap. In December 2014 I picked a destination completely different from the norm for my four weeks of annual leave; Elephants World elephant sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
Our first day as volunteers, we experienced the day visitor programme. I was picked up at 0900 from my hotel and upon arrival at the sanctuary was greeted by the other volunteers. There followed a brief introduction to the sanctuary, information on why the elephants were there and a few mandatory safety points. The elephants at the sanctuary have all been rescued or donated, mainly from three sources in Thailand: logging, begging or trekking camps.
In the past elephants were used in the logging trade as they could get to places that vehicles couldn’t reach but, due to the poor conditions and treatment, the use of elephants in logging was outlawed in Thailand in 1989. This left the elephants and their mahouts with few places to go in order to make money to feed themselves and their families.
Some mahouts took to begging on the streets of big cities. What isn’t widely known though is that elephants feet are really sensitive and can feel vibrations up to 16km away, so the vibrations in the city are painful for them, and the hot concrete burns their feet.
Other mahouts tried to make money from the tourist trade. You will no doubt have seen pictures of elephants in trekking camps with seats on their backs being ridden by a couple of tourists. This is painful for the elephants as their back can only hold 100kg and the seat alone weighs 50kg. Add a person or two onto the seat and you are straight into the elephants discomfort zone. However, their necks are the powerhouse and can hold up to 500kg; this is where we as volunteers and some tourists would sit when riding them.
After this brief introduction, the visitors and I were taken to feed the 15 elephants in the sanctuary. A lot of elephants could be fed directly into their mouths and, just like us, some of them were very fussy with what they would eat. Their diet consisted of bananas, watermelons, cucumbers, yam beans, sweetcorn, pineapple, sweet potato and pumpkin.
Nine elephants at the sanctuary had lost their teeth and required a special diet of soft fruits and rice balls loaded with vitamins and calcium powder. It turned out that one of my jobs over the next four weeks would be to prepare the sticky rice every morning; by the end of four weeks I never wanted to see sticky rice again. Throughout the day the visitors would cook this rice, make it into balls and then feed the elephants.
For the rest of the day the visitors would accompany the elephants to the rivers and mud baths as they bathed. During the afternoon visitors and volunteers would gather further forage in the form of napa grass from the local area or banana trees donated by local farmers. Finally the elephants would take another bath and visitors would be allowed in the river with them and could sit on their necks and help to scrub them clean. After a tiring day the visitors would leave at 1600.
For all the following days as a volunteer our day would begin at 0800 when we would prepare the first fruit baskets for the elephants and then have a meeting to discuss our individual roles for that day. Jobs that we were given covered updating social media and responding to emails, guiding visitors, cleaning etc. We would work on these tasks from 1000 until 1600, and then have a volunteers meeting until 1800 when dinner would be served.
After the first night in the hotel our accommodation was at the sanctuary; I had visions of a shared room and having to traipse across fields to have a shower. It turned out to be a private room with en suite facilities. Granted the room was shared with cockroaches, frogs and other bugs, as well as rats being heard occasionally, but it could have been a lot worse. I did however have to ‘man-up’ mentally for the freezing cold shower every morning.
In the evenings our time was our own. There were a few days without electricity because there hadn’t been enough sun for the solar panels, but it didn’t matter; on these days we would light candles, the mahouts would play guitar and we would all sing along and play card games with a few bottles of beer. On other evenings, excursions were put on by the sanctuary to experience the local Thai life. We got to experience the River Kwai bridge festival and celebrate the King’s birthday with the locals, including sampling local delicacies such as worms and crickets.
Christmas was a day much like any other with visitors to guide. In the evening we got to try lots of different speciality Thai food, but I really missed not being able to have Christmas pudding with cream. On the 27th December the owners organised a secret Santa… which turned out not to be very secret as everyone bought a small gift, but then your name was picked out of a hat to present that gift to someone. Overall it was an enjoyable Christmas evening despite being away from home.
Volunteering for a month of my leave enriched my life and the clichés of coming back a new person and feeling fulfilled apply. I look forward to my next volunteer break. If you would like to know more, visit for a day or volunteer yourself please visit: www.elephantsworld.org.