Volunteer with elephants - Studying Asian elephants in the hills of northern Thailand to increase their welfare and conservation
This expedition will take you to the tropical highlands and Himalayan foothills in the shadow of Thailand’s tallest peak (Doi Inthanon at 2,565 m). There you will conduct close-encounter behavioural and other studies on Asian elephants to make an important contribution to elephant conservation in Thailand. Our study elephant herd lives in the forested area surrounding a remote hill tribe village, where the expedition is based in the community. The expedition will also work on general biodiversity monitoring, as well as education, capacity-building and incentive creation for local people, which are all vital if elephants are to have a future in Thailand living side-by-side with humans.
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Expedition contribution: £1680 (ca. €1890 | US$2210 | AU$2870) excluding flights per dates as shown. A £300 deposit is required and the balance is due four weeks before the expeditions starts. Base currency British pound sterling, see XE currency converter for other currencies. More about this contribution and where the money goes.
Dates & meeting point: 12 - 20 Nov 2018 (9 days). Other dates. Participants can join for multiple slots (within the periods specified). The meeting point is the city of Chiang Mai and participants have to organise their own travel there. More details on this and how to get to Chiang Mai are in the .
Weather expected during expedition
Tropical with daytime highs of about 25ºC, night time lows of about 10ºC and some rainfall.
The expedition will be based in a traditional Karen hill tribe village in a rural area. Sleeping will be in homestays in single, twin or double (for couples) accommodation and there is a central dining and meeting area for the expedition team in one of the local houses. Overall conditions are rustic with simple living quarters, squat toilets and bucket showers, but electricity and 3G mobile phone coverage.
Up to 10 team members + 1 local scientists + 1 expedition leader.
Skills & prerequisites required
None. You don't need to be a scientist or have any special qualifications - everyone can take part and there are no age limits whatsoever.
Fitness level required
Ability to walk about 5-15 km per day in both flat and steep mountainous rainforest terrain of up to 1,100 m altitude. Those of lower fitness level can monitor wildlife in flat terrain or concentrate on helping with community-based activities.
Team assembly point
Aims & objectives
(1) To monitor the behaviour of a semi-wild herd of Asian elephants
(2) To monitor the foraging patterns of elephants whilst free roaming in their natural habitat
(3) To monitor general biodiversity in the forests of northern Thailand
(4) To involve local people in Asian elephant conservation through education, capacity-building and the creation of economic benefits
(5) To generate guidelines for elephant care to increase elephant welfare in Thailand and South East Asia
Asian elephants are the largest living mammals in Asia and can be split into three subspecies; Elephas maximus maximus (Sri Lanka), Elephas maximus sumatranus (Sumatra) and Elephas maximus indicus (mainland Asia). They are listed as Endangered by the IUCN as the total population has declined by over 50% in the last 65-70 years. Asian elephants are threatened by poaching and habitat degradation, as well as fragmentation leading to human-elephant conflict. There are approximately 40,000 - 50,000 wild Asian elephants left worldwide, found in 13 countries in south and South East Asia.
The wild elephant population in Thailand is around 3,000 and there is a domestic population of approximately 3,500. In Thailand the elephant is a highly revered species. Captive elephants have been part of Thai culture for hundreds of years, both as work animals and sacred beings. After a ban of logging in 1989, many elephants in Thailand were out of work. Elephant owners turned to the tourism industry to continue to earn a living from their elephants. However, often elephants in the tourism industry are kept in inadequate conditions, worked to exhaustion and offered little or no veterinary care. Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (KSES) returns elephants from the tourism industry back to the forest to live in semi-wild conditions and studies them in order to create more opportunities and strategies to re-wild more elephants in the future.
It is only one of a handful of projects to do so and due to the dense forest habitat wild elephants live in, there are also very few studies on natural Asian elephant behaviour and social structure. KSES’s elephant herd presents an ideal opportunity to study the natural behaviour of semi-wild Asian elephants in safe and natural surroundings.
Asian elephant (Elephas maximus)
Other species found in the local forest include lar gibbons, red muntjac, Indian civets, flying squirrel, as well as a plethora of bird, reptile and amphibian species.
Hikes leave in the morning and can take one to two hours, depending on the location of the elephants in the forest or the location of your biodiversity transect. When working with elephants or on a biodiversity survey, data will be collected for a full or half day. Lunch (from a lunch pack, which you will prepare from a breakfast buffet) is usually eaten in the forest, and data collection can continue into the afternoon if necessary. If only half-day data collection is required, participants will return to the village after lunch and can then engage in local community interview and capacity-building activities, or try out activities such as weaving, Thai cooking, Thai massage and bamboo rafting (these activities are provided for a small charge of a few GBP extra by the local community as part of our incentive and income creation programme). In the evening, data will be entered into the expedition computer and there are talks on various aspects of the biology and conservation of elephants and other wildlife in Thailand. On the whole, the set-up of the expedition is very flexible so that you can participate depending on the weather conditions, your skills, fitness and how you feel on the day. Those unable to hike greater distances, can take part in biodiversity surveys closer to base, capacity building work or interviewing the local people.
Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand, is a country at the centre of the Indochinese peninsula. It is comprised of several distinct geographic regions. The north of the country is a mountainous area, the Thai highlands, with the highest point being Doi Inthanon in the Thanon Thong Chai Range at 2,565 m. The expedition will take place in the foothills of this mountain range, which is actually at the furthest reaches of the Himalayan arch.
The diversity of animals and plants in Thailand is truly stunning. This is partly due to Thailand’s geography: a land between two oceans on the Malaysian Peninsula, numerous islands, plains in the central part of the country, the vast Mekong river and mountains covered by jungles in the north.
It has been estimated that Thailand supports 18,000 species of plant, 6,000 insect species, 1,000 kinds of bird, and 300 species of mammal. Even so, it is difficult not to escape the conclusion that the kingdom's flora and fauna are heavily depleted, mainly due to logging of forests. As recently as 1950, over half the country's land area was forested. Today forest cover has been reduced by as much as 90% and barely a day goes by before yet another scandal with an environmental tinge is revealed in the newspapers. This concern for the environment though is comparatively recent, dating back to 1973. In that year, an army helicopter crashed, and as investigators picked over the wreckage they discovered not just the bodies of the crew and passengers, but also the corpses of several protected wild animals. It became clear that the human victims - prominent army officers - had been illegally hunting in the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. A public scandal ensued and the environmental movement in Thailand was born.
The expedition’s study site, was established in 2016 and comprises of highland and mountain tropical rainforest ecosystems. Slopes vary between 25% - 100% and the highest elevation is 1,100 m. The area our elephants roam in is around 14 square kilometres. The flora consists of sphagnum bog, moist and dense evergreen cloud forest, dry evergreen, pine, mixed deciduous teak and dipterocarp forests. The fauna includes lar gibbons, red muntjac, Indian civets, flying squirrel, as well as a plethora of bird, reptile and amphibian species. The area is based around a Karen hilltribe village with a population of 450 people. The Karen people are well known for their close relationship with elephants, their traditional clothing weaving and corn and rice agriculture.
Finally, the expedition assembly point Chiang Mai is the largest and most culturally significant city in Northern Thailand. It is the capital of Chiang Mai Province and was a former capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na. Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX) is Thailand's fourth largest airport and the city was one of two tourist destinations in Thailand on TripAdvisor's list of "25 Best Destinations in the World", so it is itself well worth a visit.
And finally (almost)
Our expeditions are not about playing the primitive, neither are we a military style 'boot-camp'. Our expedition leader and the local scientist will be by your side and we believe strongly that we get the best out of our expedition teams by making them comfortable, safe and well fed. You won’t be living in the lap of luxury, but we will do our best to make you feel comfortable and at home in your working environment, as this is the key to a well-balanced and successful expedition.
And finally (briefing)
For even more details such as activities, staff, accommodation, the assembly point and how to get there, and lots more, please access the expedition briefing by providing your full name and e-mail.
Biosphere Expeditions will never share these details with anyone.
Sign up to this expedition now
Results & achievements
Since this is a new expedition, there have not been any expedition-specific achievements yet. However, as an organisation Biosphere Expeditions has had a great many achievements on four continents. Also, scientific reports and publications for this expedition are on the reports & publications page. As far as we are aware, Biosphere Expeditions is the only organisation in the world that has a direct and transparent link between the work done by citizen scientists and an expedition report. Each expedition year is matched by an expedition report for that year, which deals with the two main areas that expedition participants contribute to: funding and data collection. Chapter 1 of each report, written by Biosphere Expeditions, reviews the expedition logistics and publishes an expedition budget, which shows in a clear and transparent way income and expenditure for each expedition and the percentage of income spent on the project. Chapter 2 onwards, written by the expedition scientist, shows who collected what data, how they were analysed, what the conclusions were, as well as the conservation recommendations and actions flowing from this, and what future expeditions should do. In this way, each expedition comes full circle for its participants.
Awards & accolades
Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has won the "Best Volunteering Organisation" category of the First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards.
Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple National Geographic awards and accolades such as "Best New Trip" and "Tours of a Lifetime".
Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple Travel+Leisure awards and accolades such as the "Conservation Award" category of Travel+Leisure's "Global Vision Awards" or "Best Adventure Outfitter" and "Best Save-the-Earth Trip" accolades.
> more awards & accolades
“Asian elephants are endangered and in a steep population decline due to poaching and habitat degradation, as well as fragmentation leading to human-elephant conflict. Captive elephants are often kept in inadequate conditions and little research has been done on wild animals living in dense forests. Support from Biosphere Expeditions to carry out research on natural elephant behaviour is therefore crucial and will benefit both captive and wild elephant populations.”
Kerri McCrea, local scientist, Thailand.
Since this is a new expedition, there are no testimonials available about it yet. But here are a few examples of what people have said about other expeditions:
"I was very sad to leave. My expectations regarding animals and the research work were 100% fulfilled, but the thing that made it extra special for me was the genuinely friendly and relaxed atmosphere between everyone on the expedition. The group gelled really well right from the start despite our very diverse ages, backgrounds and languages!"
"Very worthwhile work. This is an expedition for people who genuinely care about the creatures that they are studying. Thank you for helping me find Eric (a whale!) It was very special."
"It was one of my most exciting travels I've had for years. And perfectly planned! Thank you very much!"
Feedback from team members about their experiences and reasons for coming (on/from various expeditions).
“Thank you so much for the wonderful hospitality and brilliant experience. It was a real learning curve but I think we cracked it in the end!”
“A fantastic 2 weeks with good company. Thanks to everyone for making it both relaxing and enjoyable. I’ve learnt lots and seen some fantastic wildlife.”
“….absolutely brilliant – this has to be the best ever Biosphere experience! Very impressed by – well everything ……”
"Thanks for the wonderful time. It was even better than I hoped it was going to be. I’ll be back…”
“This expedition has been a great experience for me. I never thought I’d see and learn so much in just under 2 weeks.”
“Thanks everyone for making the last two weeks 2 weeks that I will never forget. It has been an amazing experience and everybody I have met have been the best…”
Expedition diary / blog
See what's gone on during past expeditions via the expedition diary and blog.
Frequently asked questions
What's the accommodation like and how do I get to the assembly point?
A description of the accommodation and some pictures are in the . All participants organise their own travel to the assembly point, which is an easy to find place in-country, and exact instructions on how to get there at what time are in the . > more
Is it just young people roughing it, i.e. will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?
A common misconception is that conservation expeditions are full of youngsters roughing it and boozing. With Biosphere Expeditions nothing could be further from the truth! Our typical participant is in his/her mid-30s to late 70s (average age 42.3, spread six months to 87 years). It is rare to have fewer than five nationalities, typically from Europe, North America and Australasia, on the expedition, all united by the common interest in wildlife, wilderness and conservation. If you would like details who is already signed up, then just get in touch. > more
Do I need special skills or fitness?
Apart from the ability to communicate in English and a diving qualification for our diving expeditions, there are no special skills (biological or otherwise) required to join our expeditions, and there are no age limits whatsoever. If you have special needs, please contact us to find out about the suitability of the experience of your choice. > more
How good does my English have to be?
If, with the help of a dictionary and a little patience, you can understand what we are talking about here, then don't worry - you'll be fine.
Will I be safe?
Yes. Although we are not in the business of controlling nature and expect you to take some responsibilities, safety is our top priority. Our three key watchwords are ‘safety, science, satisfaction’ - in that order. We always have emergency procedures and backup systems in place. Biosphere Expeditions has an excellent safety record with no serious accidents, long-lasting injuries or let alone deaths since its foundation in 1999. > more
Can people under 18 attend?
Yes, because there are no (upper or lower) age restrictions. With their parents' consent they can also come by themselves.
How do I sign up and when do I pay?
Signing up is easy: Use the and pay a deposit of £300; the full balance will be due four weeks before the start of the expedition. If you don't want to sign up online, you can also download paper forms to fax or snail-mail.
What's included and what's not included?
Once you have made it to the assembly point and we’re on our way, we pay for everything apart from the obvious such as personal souvenirs, luxury drinks, phone calls home, etc. (and in many places we go to there's no need for money anyway ;). Travel arrangements to the assembly point are for you to make and pay for. Additional costs may include passport, visa and airport fees, your personal gear and preparations, and travel insurance, but not much more. There are certainly no hidden fees from our end.
Where does my money go?
On average at least two-thirds of your contribution will benefit the project directly and locally, the rest will go towards administrative back-up, as well as researching and setting up new expeditions. Within six to twelve months after your expedition you will receive an expedition report with full details on how your expedition contribution was spent on running the expedition and supporting its research work. We can put as much as two-thirds into the project, because we are a non-profit/charitable research and conservation organisation, not a large scale tourism business, which means that we can keep expensive overhead costs to a minimum. We also do very little advertising and costly marketing, concentrating instead on press, media and research publication work. > more
> more FAQs and detailed answers in text and video format are on the FAQ page