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Alex Walker - Thailand Elephant  Sanctuary

The Elephant Sanctuary project in Thailand is one of our most popular, most enjoyable and most impactful both in the local community and on our volunteers. Alex Walker shares her experience...

1) Why did you choose this particular project?

Being a student studying Veterinary Medicine, I have always had a passion for animals. However, elephant conservation and elephant behaviour has always been a major interest for me. I decided to carry out this project for a little hands on experience and to help with my degree. I also wanted a little bit of inspiration towards an article that I will hopefully be writing for a veterinary magazine in the near future about elephant behaviour.

2) Which kind of work and activities did you do during your project?

There was quite a bit of physical work, such as banana tree cutting and walking etc. As well as the general feeding and care of the elephants. Swimming with them was an especially special experience! Other recreation excursions included rafting (glorified floating down a river, there weren’t many rapids), visiting beautiful waterfalls and hiking up a mountain and camping on its summit over night that overlooks the neighbouring village of Umphang.

3) How did the culture and people differ to home, and what were the locals like?

The Thai people were all extremely welcoming and friendly. Nothing was too much effort. Their culture is very respectful and they are always so polite.

4) What was the accommodation like?

The accommodation was great. Mosquito nets were provided and the beds were extremely comfortable. The family that we stayed with cooked great food and I was extremely pleased when they provided us with milk powder to put in our tea in the mornings (being English and all that!)

5) What were the staff and other volunteers like?

The staff were great! Everybody had a really good sense of humour and they were all enthusiastic to make our stay a memorable one. Our guide was brilliant, he spoke English really well and was always chatting! The other volunteers were equally friendly and they were just as enthusiastic about getting stuck in with the elephants as I was. As a result, I made some great friends and have some fantastic memories.

6) What was your most amazing moment or your best memory?

My favourite memory was swimming with the elephants, it was clear to see that they were enjoying the cool water as much as we were!

7) Do you feel the work you were doing was worthwhile?

In some ways yes and in some ways no. I feel that we could have had a bit of a more hands on approach with the elephants in that we seemed to do all of the fun jobs such as feeding and swimming etc. However, funding raised for this kind of eco-tourism was undeniably more beneficial for the elephants than that of the sometimes brutal and cruel practices of elephant tourism in some Thai cities, in which tourists would pay to give the elephants food. The elephants on this project were well looked after and I’m confident that they were easily consuming the natural 150-300kg of food per day. You could see that they thrived in their environment.

8) What sort of wildlife did you encounter?

Mainly elephants (obviously)

9) What were you hoping to learn while on project, and have you achieved those goals?

I was hoping to gain an insight into the natural life of an Asian elephant as well as gaining some invaluable skills working around large animals. I definitely achieved these goals and it was certainly nice to see that elephant related tourism did not necessarily have to be exploited in a cruel and undignified way. I also got to see Thailand off the beaten track through the eyes of a local, rather than the overpopulated westernized tourism regions.

10) Any tips and advice you might like to pass on to future volunteers?

Get stuck in! Don’t worry about how muddy you get! Make every effort to be polite and chatty with local people. Girls, avoid wearing clothes that are too revealing, it can be seen as disrespectful. Also… be sure to try out the smoothies from Umphang’s local coffee shop!

11) What do you have planned next?

At the moment, I plan to get through university and graduate in 18 months’ time. I would like to work for a year in an equine referral practice. After that, I have every intention to take a gap year and travel the world with one of my closest friends. I would like to maybe do some volunteer work for some veterinary charities, I would also like to work on a ranch in Australia or South America.

12) Anything else you would like to add?

Be prepared to travel long journeys in uncomfortable conditions (on the back of a truck). At the time I was sulking at these experiences… however, they are some of the funniest and fondest memories that I have. Take lots of pictures and write a blog!

By Alex Walker - Thailand Elephant Sanctuary Volunteer

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