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Elephant Sanctuaries: Save Asian and African Elephants

by Michelle Sawyer and Deborah Mitchell
The Challenge

Elephant sanctuaries in Asia and Africa are working to reverse the dramatic decline that the elephant population has suffered over the last few decades. In the 1930s and 1940s, Africa was home for 3 to 5 million wild elephants. But when African elephants were listed as one of the world's most endangered species in 1989, less than one percent remained. The total number of wild African elephants now ranges between 470,000 and 690,000, according to the World Wildlife Fund, with most of the decline due to loss of habitat, poaching for their tusks, and human-elephant conflict--people killing elephants mostly because of crop damage or fear. Most of the remaining African elephants live in protected areas in Southern Africa.

Asian elephants face an even greater risk of extinction. Today, the World Wildlife Fund reports that the Asian elephant population has been reduced from more than 100,000 at the start of the 20th century to between 25,600 and 32,750 animals in the wild. Threats to Asian elephants come from several sources:

  • Loss of habitat, largely because of rapidly rising human populations and large industrial and commercial projects
  • Illegal hunting/poaching for both tusks and meat
  • Capture for domestic use, largely in the timber industry

Organizations like Save the Elephants and Elephant Nature Foundation are creating elephant sanctuaries, teaching locals about elephant protection and humane treatment, and promoting a better understanding of elephant conservation and management. If you think concern about elephants is confined to only Asia and Africa, you would be wrong. In the United States, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is the nation's largest natural refuge for Asian and African elephants that have come mostly from circuses and other parts of the entertainment industry.

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You can help elephant conservationists in Asia and Africa save and rehabilitate these intelligent, sensitive and majestic animals.

  • Global Vision International offers an elephant volunteer opportunity in Thailand that will allow you to learn about elephant behavior. Volunteers are paired with an elephant that they observe throughout their stay. Participants are also taught to understand the elephant's behavior and encouraged to bond with her. The minimum volunteer stay is one week, and opportunities are available throughout the year. Meals, accommodations, and required local transportation are included.
  • The Elephant Nature Park organization in Thailand allows volunteers several different opportunities, lasting from four to 14 days, that can involve bathing and feeding the elephants, building elephant shelters, and planting elephant food, among other tasks. Meals and rustic accommodations are provided with two-week stays. 
  • Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia is a grassroots effort to preserve and protect one million acres in Cambodia for elephants and other native animals and flora. Initially volunteer efforts are focusing on planting trees and preparing for the sanctuary. 
  • The LEO Project Foundation offers elephant conservation in Sri Lanka. Your two-week experience will include bathing the elephants, helping with elephant health care, maintaining the project site, setting up grazing locations and games for the elephants, assisting with the human elephant conflict project, and maybe even painting with the elephants. Meals, shared bungalow accommodations, and transportation to and from the airport are included. 
  • Elephant Haven is another sanctuary in Sri Lanka where volunteers can help with health checks on the elephants as well as perform tasks such as collecting and preparing food for the animals, cleaning elephant beds, bathing the elephants, and caring for the garden where fruits are grown for the elephants. Volunteers stay in an on-site bungalow, meals are provided, and there's a swimming pool on site as well. Stay one week or longer.
  • Tembe Elephant Park encourages volunteers to participate in its elephant conservation program near Durban, South Africa. During your stay, you will help monitor and record elephant behavior via webcam. Lions and leopards also are monitored at the Park. Meals, accommodations (cabins), and transportation in and around Tembe Park are included for about $350 per week.

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