Volunteer Tourism involves tourists who volunteer through holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research into aspects of society and environment -Stephen Wearing
As mentioned, volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park was the most eye-opening, humbling and empowering experience of my life. It was so impactful that long after I came home, it still remained with me. For instance, as the Elephant Nature Park was the most memorable of my journey to Southeast Asia, every conversation had an underlying emphasize on animal rights and protection. In fact, today I find myself dedicated to the wellbeing of elephants but on a much broader scale, all animals, the environment and even social welfare.
A Different Form of Education
What is it about volunteer tourism that is so impactful? As it turns out, research from case studies at The Elephant Nature Park highlights how volunteer tourism offers a different type of learning opportunity that strengthens ones understanding of the species. This happens through actively participating in volunteer activities where one learns about the hardships elephants face but also what can be done to contribute to their livelihoods. This involves mundane actions like harvesting and planting elephant food and cleaning up their habitats. Most importantly however, it has a lot to do with spreading a more personal message of conservation. After all, by viewing the species eye-to-eye, in close proximity and in their natural environment, it has been shown to further influence one to support and address animal welfare issues. 1
Other research by Gray and Campbell highlight how volunteer ecotourism especially in a more natural, remote area promotes environmental education. For instance, the Elephant Nature Park often evokes off-grid practices that just so happens to conserve the environment whilst still sustaining the wellbeing of the locals. Volunteers begin to understand how hardships of impoverished villagers can still be mitigated through sustainable development like solar panels or through the creativity of being resourceful—like implementing elephant waste for fertilizer and poly-cultured fields! 2
On a much more global scale, this type of tourism also allows individuals to understand how social intricacies can produce detrimental effects on the perceptions of animals. In the case of the Elephant Nature Park, volunteering allows you to understand how viewing animals just as a means of capital often leads to extinction.
Researchers reiterate that the commodification of elephants in Thailand began centuries ago when elephants were domesticated through the Phajaan and used for the logging industry. Their research also highlights how when the practice was banned in the 1980s, many Thais and their elephants were out of work and now living in poverty. Having to resort to other means of income they used their elephants for street begging, circuses and other means of entertainment-trekking camps and riding. This usage meant that elephants were malnourished, abused and over-worked on the verge of death. Since there is no elephant conservation law in place, this domestication process continues to work alongside habitat loss and poaching in the decline of the elephant population.
Stabilizing and recovering species is complex and solutions are hard to attain. After all, there are many financial and social challenges to overcome. The only hope remains through organizations that implement an ecosystem-based approach. That is, addressing a conservation issue at a small-scale level through creating programs that give back to the animal but also to the locals nearby. 3
This involves bringing awareness to the underlying issues surrounding poverty to prevent habitat loss, poaching and domestication for entertainment. Evidently, the Elephant Nature Park fosters an opportunity for social change and development where volunteers also provide jobs to Thai nationals and Karen villagers that may struggle with acquiring a means of income in a remote area.
It also entails that animals can be seen in a different light. For instance, Jackie Abell explains how the superiority of humans when compared to animals just justifies the use of other living things as an economic commodity for pure human self-interest. A desire to help and work alongside animals breaks down that external view of nature creating common ground with animals. Essentially, once humans interact with an animal it often allows them to recognize and respect their natural ecology and their interests. In doing so, peace, coexistence and cooperation are bound to occur. 4
Onto a Global Scale
Furthermore, even when you stop volunteering, you still have a chance to impact others. Research also shows that an individual experience at the Elephant Nature Park allowed for others to be inspired to volunteer when travelling as well. Or, since this luxury is often unattainable, others expressed interest in also spreading awareness or donating money to animal sanctuaries and other welfare organizations nearby. This just goes to show that despite any barriers, there is always an alternative to alleviate the suffering of the species and the people involved. By bringing awareness to hardships, no matter how small the impact seems to be, eventually there is a possibility that it can influence others in mass to further aid in the mistreatment of animals and the factors that brought it to be.
- Rattan, J. K., Eagles, P. F. J., & Mair, H. L. (2012). Volunteer tourism: Its role in creating conservation awareness. Journal of Ecotourism, 11(1), 1-15.
- Gray, N. J., & Campbell, L. M. (2007). A decommodified experience? Exploring aesthetic, economic and ethical values for volunteer ecotourism in Costa Rica. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 15(5), 463-482.
- Morgan, M., Gifford, K., Babij, E., Crouse, D., Hornaday, K., & Klee, M. (2007). Overcoming challenges to species recovery. Endangered Species Update, 24(1).
- Abell, J. (2013). Volunteering to help conserve endangered species: An identity approach to Human–Animal relationships. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 23(2), 157-170.