Warning! This post may contain cute baby elephants!

Somewhere in the Thai jungle a couple of hours from Chiang Mai, I’m knee deep in water, massaging mud into the rippled skin of a baby elephant. Just your average Wednesday afternoon, then. Maybe I’m imagining things, but I think I hear him sigh contentedly, and my heart melts. A chance to volunteer with elephants is high on most bucket lists, and now I can see why. I’m smitten.

An untold contribution

Given their history in Thailand, it is not arrogant to say that this is one lucky elephant. From protectors of the kingdom, instruments of war, to failsafe modes of transport. Elephants’ servitude has been passed down through generations.

More recently, elephants worked on logging farms, a cheap way to manage the heavy lifting involved in the industry. But in 1989, when the ban on logging came into effect, the once lucrative creatures became a huge financial burden on their mahouts, or masters. Feeding and caring for an out of work elephant was a huge expense most families couldn’t afford.

This was when elephants were forced centre stage in the Thai tourist industry. Former working animals were taught to do circus tricks, carry tourists on their backs or even paint pictures to provide a living for their owners. As the animals had to be more tame and docile than ever before to interact with tourists, discipline and punishment became harsher and more torturous.

The ethical elephant experience

With the advent of ethical tourism came an increased understanding of the dark side of elephant shows and they fell out of favour with Western tourists. In their place, elephant sanctuaries were created. As well as homes for retired elephants to live, they allow tourists to cherish these amazing animals like never before by contributing to their ongoing care.

Some argue that the right thing to do would be to release the animals into the wild. But deforestation has destroyed most of their habitat, meaning there isn’t anywhere in Thailand for the elephants to go any more. There is also the human cost to consider. Releasing these elephants would render thousands of mahouts unable to support their families.

Sanctuaries allow tourists to enjoy an ethical, intimate elephant experience, funding the elephants’ ongoing safety, comfort and freedom whilst also sustaining elephant-keeping communities. Most importantly, supporting elephant reserves sends the message loud and clear that mistreating elephants will damage profits. After all, there is nothing more powerful for eco-tourism than voting with your wallet.

As we end our day feeding and bathing the elephants, it’s clear that there’s much more to these animals than a few cheesy tourist tricks. To have the chance to show them the love and peace that will characterise the rest of their lives is heartwarming. And to receive unbridled affection in return? Well, that’s unforgettable.

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Big thanks go out to all our Instagram followers who shared their amazing elephant pictures with us!