Elephant Conservation in Thailand: ARCC Spotlight Service Project

By Clarcie Howell, ARCC Staff

Efforts for elephant conservation in Thailand are growing as locals see that tourists can love and respect the animals with just a little education.

There is something mysteriously majestic and almost human about the earth’s largest land mammal: the human-like eyes, the muscular grandeur, the millions of wrinkles suggesting the wisdom of the ages. Elephants are unimaginably strong, immeasurably smart, and undeniably interesting, which is why no trip to Thailand is complete without an interaction with these creatures. This is why the spotlight service project of our Thailand: Elephant Experience trip focuses on conserving these incredible mammals by learning about and taking part in efforts to further elephant conservation in Thailand.

While elephants have been utilized by humans for thousands of years, they are still considered “captive” animals, rather than “domesticated.” A domesticated animal has been selectively bred for generations, but captive elephants are no different than their wild counterparts, and no less difficult to train. According to ARCC’s partners in Thailand, elephant training is a brutal process in which young elephants are taught to follow human commands through negative reinforcement, while confined in pits.

Around the world, conservationists know, and elephant camps are beginning to see, that holding elephants captive is not conducive to their well-being. Tourists, too, are beginning to see that the hooks and chains used to keep elephants in check at riding camps are inhumane, not to mention the kinds of accommodations given to elephants in zoos and circuses. This acknowledgement doesn’t present countries like Thailand with fewer issues. Thailand’s tourism industry has long depended on elephant camps that give rides to hundreds of tourists each day. This kind of elephant tourism depends on well-trained elephants that listen to their mahouts and walk around supporting humans worth 400 extra pounds on three or four trekking expeditions a day.

Attempts to release elephants back into the wild have not been successful. Furthermore, elephant camps are profitable and closing them would decimate Thailand’s tourism industry. In order to fulfill moral obligations, as well as maintain a business, some Thai elephant camps are transitioning roles and becoming “sanctuaries” for elephants previously used for trekking. Moreover, private companies are working toward elephant conservation by rescuing retired elephants from trekking camps.

About half of the elephants in Thailand are captive, and efforts for elephant conservation in Thailand also extend to protect wild elephants. All three ARCC programs in Thailand are able to work to protect both captive and wild elephants, and we are proud to work with partners who no longer ride elephants or breed them to keep in captivity. In northern Thailand, ARCC works with rescued animals of all kinds, facilitating a safe environment for its elephants and other animals, which includes reforestation and visitor education. In western Thailand, we are truly immersed in conservation efforts on private land — land designated as a safe passage for wild elephants to reach fresh water without conflict with neighboring farmers. Both places advocate for what is best for the future of elephant–human relations.

I’m sure that riding an elephant is an interesting and unique experience and I don’t blame anyone who has ever taken the opportunity to trek through the jungle aback an elephant. But, for the positive future relationships between humans and elephants, it is nice to see that so many elephant conservation camps in Thailand are changing to provide a better, daily quality of life for their elephants. From my encounters, I can say how wonderful the experience of feeding, bathing, and mud-fighting with an elephant is.

My first encounter with an elephant was in meeting Maemoon in northern Thailand, close to the small town of Pai. “Mae” means “mother” in Thai, and Maemoon is mother to many. Her and her daughter were rescued from a trekking camp and moved to their new home in Pai where they have the freedom to roam the property of a nature reserve, but are motivated to play with tourists who bring them bananas and melons, and their favorite dessert: pumpkin. To greet them, we walked through the river and up a path where they were waiting for us with their mahouts. I giggled as Maemoon took pumpkin out of my hand with her slightly wet, elongated snout. She never took her eyes off of me as I felt her rough trunk and inspected her giant, flapping ears. Later, in the river, she filled her trunk with water and dumped the entirety of it on my head. As her eyes roared with laughter, she rolled over into the current; a mother of five playing in the river like a child.

I was lucky again, on my next trip to Thailand, to introduce my ARCC Asia Gap Semester students to elephants at a sanctuary. I watched as students stood awestruck with their necks craned up, looking into the eyes of the elephants. One student said he’d read that elephants think humans are cute, in the same way humans think kittens are cute. Surely we were all cute, covered in mud with the elephants as they splashed into the mud pits we’d walked to. The students talked about their encounters as something magical, and are surely still telling stories about feeding and bathing elephants.

Efforts for elephant conservation in Thailand are growing as locals see that tourists can love and respect the animals with just a little education. Interacting with elephants is a truly unique experience. All of the students on my trip loved being a part of the conservation effort and, despite the draw of climbing aboard a giant, we knew it was enough to stand in the presence of one: to follow in the footsteps of elephants, to join them in a mud bath, to bathe in the river, and to empathize with a creature that is at once goliath, patient, and wise.


ARCC Programs offers three different summer adventure and service programs in Thailand and a Gap semester in Asia, and all of them include sections where students have the opportunity to volunteer with Elephants and learn more about the conservation efforts taking place in Thailand and across the world. Learn more about our summer trips to Thailand, Thailand: Elephant Experience, Thailand: Hill Tribe Impact and Southest Asia: Grassroots Initiatives; or our Gap Year Program in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia by calling us at 415-332-5075 or emailing us at