Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Wanted: Kiwis to volunteer at elephant sanctuary

Inside the world of a Thailand elephant sanctuary on the banks of the River Kwai.

Wanted: Kiwi volunteers to care for elephants at a sanctuary in Thailand.

Founded by a Thai vet, ElephantsWorld, 32km from Kanchanaburi, functions as a retirement home for rescued, abused, old and sick elephants.

Australian Shauna Cotter, who started volunteering last month at a "ripe age of 61", said it's been "the most rewarding time" of her life.

Questions were once again raised on the ethics of using wild animals as entertainment when a 36-year-old tourist from Scotland was trampled to death by an elephant on the Thai holiday island of Koh Samui.

ElephantsWorld functions as a retirement home for rescued, abused, old and sick elephants. Photo / Supplied
ElephantsWorld functions as a retirement home for rescued, abused, old and sick elephants. Photo / Supplied

Cotter said she chose ElephantsWorld because the centre was one of the few that employed sustainable methods to keep tourists and the animals happy.

"We have 27 elephants that have been rescued from the logging, the begging and the trekking industries," she said.

"There is no trekking here, they're all free to live a wonderful life now ... but we really need volunteers here because ElephantsWorld can't function without them."

The centre runs a comprehensive volunteering programme, and volunteers help to gather or plant food in the fields, cook sticky rice for the older elephants and bathe them in the River Kwai.

The centre runs a comprehensive volunteering programme. Photo / Supplied
The centre runs a comprehensive volunteering programme. Photo / Supplied

Two Kiwis had recently been part of the centre's mahout (traditional carer) programme, where they were also taught elephant commands and how to interact ethnically with elephants.

"We could sure do with a lot more Kiwis here," Cotter said.

But Josh Ruhlman, 26, a volunteer mahout from the United States, warned that being a mahout is hard work and is not without danger.

"In reality you don't get a single day off during your time here, and we have had instances where a mahout is injured by an elephant," Ruhlman said.

There are estimated to be around 5000 elephants in Thailand, and about 4000 are held in captivity.

They are a big draw for tourists, but animal welfare experts claim this form of tourism was unsustainable and harmful for the elephants.

Mahout Jolene French said in an ideal world, all elephants should live in the wild.

"But this is never going to happen because there is not enough habitat to release them even if we wanted to," she said.

"Tourism is the only sustainable method and these elephants have to work and earn a living to be fed, unfortunately."

Children help to bathe the elephants at ElephantsWorld. Photo / Supplied
Children help to bathe the elephants at ElephantsWorld. Photo / Supplied

French said for many tourists, interacting or riding an elephant was an ultimate travel wish, but said people should do some research and visit only centres that employed sustainable methods.

A new welfare bill aimed at protecting south-east Asian elephants from abuse was introduced in Thailand last year.

Baby elephants, whether born in captivity or caught for the wild, are broken through a process called phajaan or "crushing" -- which the new law aims to abolish.

The process involves separating calves from their mothers, before being chained in a small space and are deprived of food and water, and repeatedly beaten.

French said a growing number of centres in Thailand were now finding a better balance in animal welfare and finding the tourist dollar.

These include ElephantsWorldorld, The Surin Project, Boon Lot's Elephant Sanctuary and the Elephant Nature Park.

The Elephant Asia Rescue and Survival Foundation list sanctuaries where people can interact ethically with elephants in Thailand.

- NZ Herald

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