Conservation Internship with Elephants in Thailand

Hone your research skills in the forests of Northern Thailand on a project dedicated to the conservation of semi-wild elephant herds.

Durations:  24 weeks

Program information

Kick start your career on this internship in Thailand’s mountainous Chiang Mai region, where you will gain invaluable skills and experience to broaden your future career options. Teach English to community members, assist with biodiversity studies of the area including bird and reptile surveys, and contribute to monitoring the reintegration of elephants into the forest, which have been relieved from the tourism industry. Experience first hand the elephant’s in their natural forest habitat and observe their eating choices and interactions. Discover the unique Thai culture and lush mountains in this Northern region of Thailand.

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undefined 31 May 2022
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Included in your program

Make the most of our unique programs with these exclusively curated local adventure and wellness experiences.

Learn traditional Karen cooking

Connect with the Karen people's culture

Forage for forest medicine with a village elder

Visit Thailand's highest peak

Explore Thailand's elegant and mysterious waterfalls

See amazing biodiversity on a night trek

Take a sunrise hike up Two Tree Hill

Sleep under the stars alongside Asian elephants

Connect with our alumni
Want to connect with some of our past participants about their adventures? Get in touch with hundreds of friendly ambassadors all over the world who would be more than happy to answer any questions.
Testimonial bg

Rachel Rawles

05 Mar, 2019
Hi, my name is Rachel. I have recently spent 6 months doing an internship with GVI in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. This is the second project I have been on with GVI in the space of a year. I have also been on the Seychelles project on Curieuse Island. The Elephant Re-introduction project in Thailand is so much more than I expected it to be. Yes, you go there to spend time learning about one of the most magnificent animals on the planet, but what you get out of your stay in Huay Pakoot is so much more. If you completely submerge yourself into village life, you will enjoy your project a whole lot more and become a better person. I loved the fact that you had the opportunity to learn ‘Pakinyaw’, a Karen Hill Tribe language that is barely written and is slowly disappearing, as villagers are now understanding/speaking Thai. I have been home for 2 months now and I still find myself saying ‘me ma de moo moo’ (good night, sweet dreams) every night before bed. Going back to the elephants, every morning at 7:30 we would leave for elephant hikes. Depending on the time of year, either you would get transport to the elephants or you would walk, sometimes for up to 8 hours a day. We collect 3 types of data on hikes, these are welfare checks, activity budgets and behavioural data. Watching these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat is something you will never forget. As part of my internship I had to lead hikes, which made me really nervous as I’m so clumsy. But the staff were fantastic and gave me so much support and encouragement and made me really feel like I could do it. Which I did on lots of occasions! The internship program was really good, and consists of 3 aspects - Elephants, plant diversity and community. I absolutely loved my time Huay Pakoot. The staff, villagers, volunteers and elephants, make this trip so special. I would recommend it to anyone.

Alex Santiago

11 Oct, 2018
My name is Alex Santiago. I am the Bio-diversity intern for the Thailand Elephant Re-introduction Program. My main focus on the project is to identify and research the species living in Huay Pakoot. In this position my main roles include; leading bio-diversity hikes with volunteers documenting all species found, identifying species on all hikes, collecting and analyzing all data; as well as small individual projects I set myself. I find the bio-diversity project to be extremely important and exciting due to Northern Thailand mountain forests being under researched and undocumented. There is constant potential to discover new species, as well as find tracks and signs for known endangered species (such as the tiger or pangolin). In this role I have gained a much stronger skill set in relation to leadership and identification; also my knowledge of the forest ecosystem has increased with confidence. I have found this project well structured, allowing me freedom to work on existing projects (such as a Huay Pakoot animal field guide) or create my own. So far it has been an incredible experience and has cemented my aspirations to work in this field.

Alex Ocana

11 Oct, 2018
I graduated from Austin College in May of 2016 with majors in Biology and Spanish; at the time of my enrollment in the GVI Chiang Mai program, I was in the beginning stages of developing strong interests for international conservation. I had already participated in two international projects, and I was hopefully searching for a third to solidify my interests before applying to a graduate program. I worked for 6 weeks in Huay Pakoot, Thailand as a Short-Term Leadership Intern in the Asian Elephant reintroduction program – and I am so grateful for every moment of it! Life in the village was pleasantly simple. If cold showers, bugs in your bedroom, or dirt on most of your clothes sounds undesirable– I wouldn’t recommend this opportunity. I, however, found it to be a special kind of paradise. I lived with a wonderful family. They helped me learn more about the local culture and language, but, most importantly, their friendship was simply a comforting and unforgettable highlight of my time in Thailand. We always greeted each other with warm smiles, and as often as possible, my host mom would let me help her cook dinner. Additionally, I was able to meet, observe, and work closely with a small family of cheerful elephants. We spent week days tracking the elephants to perform health checks, collect data for various projects, or simply enjoy a day in their company. Our hikes ranged from 2 to 9 miles and always included some combination of the following: mud, sweat, monkeys, interesting insects, laughter, elephants, trips and falls, hot tea, great conversation, silence, rain, lunch breaks, sling-shot practice, fresh fruit, and other special treats. On most days, I also helped with a small-scale butterfly abundance/diversity study. I was deeply inspired by the other volunteers, staff members, and community members; we became great friends in a matter of weeks, and several taught me lessons and shared with me memories that I will carry near to my heart for many years to come. Some of my internship assignments included an informal conservation-related presentation, a project to involve other volunteers, and a wide range of other various leadership activities and lessons. One of my leadership projects was a letter campaign – an attempt at creative spread of knowledge and a way for volunteers to individually support the project’s ability to reach and educate a distant audience.

Vanessa Gravenstine

11 Oct, 2018
When I was an undergraduate student and I envisioned my life as an environmental scientist, I imagined I would be riding in some adventure-movie style Jeep chasing elephants in Africa. However, I soon found myself in graduate school working on an important project to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The internship and thesis that resulted from that work will hopefully reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. However, there are no elephants. I want to improve the world around me; I also want to live out as many of my dreams as possible. Through my participation with Global Vision International’s Elephant Conservation Internship, I was able to interact with a semi-wild herd of elephants in Thailand while pursuing my Masters of Science in environmental communication. By doing the six-week program, I gained valuable field experience which will look great on my resume and I had an amazing summer doing something I had always dreamed of doing. I also helped support a program which is bringing elephants to live in the forest where they belong, instead of in tourist camps. I flew to Thailand and after two full days of travel and an 11-hour time difference, I was transported to a remote village on a steep hillside. The village is called Huay Pakoot and the villagers are Karen people which is an ethnic minority in Thailand. The people are decedents of Burmese refugees, who used to grow opium but now grow mostly corn for animal feed. The people in that region have traditionally owned elephants for logging and warfare, but today the elephants are mostly taken to the city to work in tourist entertainment camps. Almost all of the camps treat these gentle and intelligent beings in an unethical manner, often keeping them awake for many hours, preventing proper socializing, and forcing them to participate in activities which damage their feet and spine. In addition, the Mahouts, the elephant care takers who are usually young boys, must leave their families and often get involved in unhealthy lifestyles in the city. In this small village, some of the families have chosen to work with Global Vision International (GVI) and return their elephants to the forest. They make their livelihood from volunteers who get to see, study, and learn from elephants in their natural habitat, a rare occurrence in Thailand where the number of domesticated elephants is three times larger than the number of wild elephants. The village has no stores other than a few families who sell candy, beer, and cigarettes from their home. The women weave clothes in traditional patterns, dresses in white for unmarried women and skirts in red or blue for married women. Pigs are kept in pens made from rough cut wood and chickens are kept in baskets woven from bamboo from the forest. Karen meals are cooked over an open flame and often include eating rats, frogs, and snails. However, for the volunteers they cook more palatable meals of rice, eggs, sausage and vegetables. Sometimes we were given treats like fried banana and mango. Every morning, I would wake up around 5am to a chorus of over 100 roosters screaming “coo coo kaa doo” in a strained and garbled voice. My host family had the most chickens in the village. The Mahouts of the village would lead us on steep and muddy hikes through a mix of humid jungle slopes and quickly eroding corn fields. After crossing streams and livestock fences, we would eventually see evidence of elephants nearby, broken bamboo branches stripped of their leaves, large round flat footprints on the hillside, or the faint sound of a distant rumble. Seeing my first elephant in the wild was a dream come true. I could barely believe it was real. One minute I was just walking in the forest, going for a hike, then almost out of nowhere came this amazing animal, so large and gentle, peaceful and friendly. It is difficult to think about the hardships they these animals most likely endured in tourist camps. Although they are powerful beasts, they are often too mild-tempered to lash out violently to escape. I loved when new volunteers arrived to the village. We would take them on their first hike and after a sweaty and exhausting walk out in the thick jungle, they would see an elephant, then another elephant, and soon a whole herd of five to seven elephants. When the elephants saw us, they would come forward, excited to greet us. We were scientists searching for giant beasts in a misty and mystical land. This was my elephant fantasy come true. The look of wonder and amazement, admiration and pure joy on a new volunteer’s face upon seeing their first elephant emerge from the jungle and come up close to touch us with its trunk, made the grueling hike all worth it. Once we found the elephants we would conduct health checks and collect behavioral data. We would also spend some time watching really fun behaviors like mothers interacting with their babies, mud baths, drinking water by sucking it up into their trunk and then bringing their trunk to their mouth, eating tree bark, using a branch as a fly swatter, and scratching up against a tree. As part of the GVI internship program I was given several educational presentations about elephant biology, as well as the history of elephants in the area. I got the opportunity to do my own research and presentation on a topic of my choice. I also practiced my leadership and teaching skills by guiding a biodiversity hike for the other volunteers. I came to Thailand to learn about elephant biology and deforestation, and to gain more field work and leadership experience, but what I didn’t expect was how much I would learn about myself by meeting people from all around the world. I got to know Thai and Karen people and I made friends with interns and volunteers from England, Australia, France, Belgium, Canada, China, and other parts of the United States. Living and interacting with people from such different backgrounds everyday helped me clarify my own thoughts, identity, and goals for the future. I was in awe of all the people who overcame obstacles such as language barriers, medical issues, financial troubles, and leaving their loved ones to come to this remote region of the world which was unknown to them. It became clear that there are things all of humanity has in common: generosity, laughter, courage, curiosity, fear, and apprehension. Despite our differences we can still enjoy food together, play with children, dance, and be kind to one another. The people in the village live a simple lifestyle, they work, and spend time with their families. In the United States, I would sometimes see or hear of someone doing something and I wanted to be part of it because I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity. This caused me to often get distracted from the things I care about most. In Thailand, I got to know the feeling of being confident in my personal intentions. In this state of mind, I felt less scattered when the people around me were doing different things. I began leading and teaching people, which I really enjoy. It made me think of what excuses I might have made up to hold me back in the past. Being so distant from the familiarity of my country, combined with the intensity of our daily hikes, and spending almost all my time outside in nature, I focused on how much strength I had in my own choices and my inner voice. I was reminded that I should try to confront challenges and questions by consulting my instincts and what I consider to be my truth. In the village, one of the main things that got me out of bed in the mornings (besides the roosters) was Root’s Coffee Shop. Root is a Mahout and he speaks the best English out of all the villagers. He knows the Karen language as well as Thai, and even tries to learn French from the Canadian, French and Belgian volunteers. A few months before I arrived in the village, he built a little shack on the hillside. It has a deck with tree stumps for chairs and a hammock that overlooks the mountains. It was such a dreamy spot, it made me want to open up a coffee shop of my own. There is always a picturesque fog nestled in the hills because the coffee shop is only open 6am to 7am, the hour before we leave for the elephant hikes. Many of the GVI staff, volunteers, and interns would meet there for a pick me up before the day’s hike. There is no running water so he brings water jugs to the shack where he makes coffee on a little espresso machine for 45 Thai Baht ($1.30), he also offers free green tea and cookies. Sometimes when he runs out of cookies he makes white bread and jam paninis. The coffee is grown by his cousin in a nearby village. Much of the forest in Northern Thailand has been destroyed due to slash and burn agriculture. Many of the hill tribe people grow corn using harsh pesticides and a method of farming which causes rivers of mud to pour down the hillside when it rains. The Asian Elephant is endangered, but if the population were to increase, there would not be enough forest to sustain them. Coffee is grown in the shade, under a canopy of trees. The forest does not have to be burned and the trees decrease erosion, reduce extreme temperatures, and improve soil quality reducing the need for heavy fertilizer application. It is also a more valuable cash crop than corn. Entrepreneurial projects like Root’s Coffee Shop can help people make money without the harsh environmental implications of the corn fields. I am still connected to Root on Facebook and I love getting updates on the elephants even though I’m no longer in the village. Now, back in the United States, I am reminded that we have a lot of choices here in how we live our lives. We have options for our food, housing, and lifestyle that are more difficult for people in other countries to obtain. I am also inspired by how one person can help a whole community move towards sustainability and how one organization can bring people together to learn and spread knowledge. In the future, I hope to work in conservation public education or citizen science. I want to empower people to reach out and get their hands dirty, to try something new, and to unite with others to improve our communities.

Kristina Jenkins

11 Oct, 2018
I began my journey with GVI Chiang Mai as a short term intern and got far more out of my stay than you could imagine. After spending two months on an internship I was offered a scholarship and extended my stay to a total of 10 months! This place has truly become a piece of my heart. The people are the kindest and most hard working people I’ve ever met. They welcome strangers into their homes like family and give people a true understanding of Karen culture. I loved to cook with my homestay mum. After spending long a day in the fields she would never mind if I asked her to let me help her cook. Teaching English didn’t come easy to me at first, but the more I got into it, the more I learned to love the people I was teaching and I looked forward to it each week. Even teaching grade one at school was a totally different experience to the UK. They were enthusiastic and enjoyed learning games we played to keep their attention! The project itself offers volunteers the chance to get up close to nature; walking through forests and rice fields on almost a daily basis and what do you see at the end of your journey an elephant or two! Getting a chance to study the behaviour of these fantastic animals truly opened doors for me in the conservation field and I look forward to the day I can return to my second home.

Victoria Ireland

11 Oct, 2018
During my time as a 3 month intern on project, I learnt and experienced more than I could have anticipated. I feel as though I really contributed to the great efforts of the program and helped towards making the project achieve the ultimate goal of; helping Asian elephants live a natural life as feasible. There is nothing more rewarding than hiking through the conservation forest with the mahouts (elephant keepers) in search of the elephants, and having them in clear vision and simply being able to sit and observe these majestic animals as you take data and watch them forage and interact within the herd. I got to observe the mesmerizing connection between the elephants and their mahouts, and witness how a relationship should be with these semi wild creatures. This means I can now inform and encourage other people about elephants natural behavior and how misleading and unsettling Thailand's tourist industry can be with regards to Asian elephants. Due to what I have learnt on the project, I can now confidently educate people about the 'better' tourist camps but ultimately advise people towards participating in projects such as this one, where both the community and elephants get to lead a higher quality of life. One of the most prominent aspects of this GVI project, is the positive impact it is having on the little village of 'Huay Pakoot'. By having westerners such as myself come to live in the village, it means that women like my home stay mum 'Suemon' can earn their own wage and not just rely on elephants or crops as their main source of income. I personally, developed a heartwarming relationship with Suemon, as I learnt the local language and she too, attempted to speak English. It is over whelming how accepting and welcoming the villagers are to us westerners, inviting us to geeju's (religious ceremonies) and allowing us to integrate so deeply into their way of life/culture. Despite having never taught or been interested in children's education, I participated in teaching English up at the school twice a week. This was something I thoroughly enjoyed and could visually see the benefits each week as the children picked up on the language. By learning English, it increases their job opportunities and means that they could then go on to study at university level outside of Huay Pakoot, pursuing a preferred career and thus steering away from the use of elephants as income; GVI's ultimate goal. If GVI can sustain the relationship the project has on the village, the future looks very bright! It means, hopefully, villagers will be encouraged to keep the elephants in the conservation forest as opposed to in tourist camps or within the logging industry. Ultimately, this means the outlook of the villagers will change, they can see that westerners would be more than happy and willing to see elephants behaving naturally in the forest, rather than shackled and abused within camps. This presents a much easier life for the villagers, meaning they get to stay at home with their families and still earn a decent, if not better wage than having to live in the city where the tourists stopover. Overall, I got to experience firsthand the slow but steady progression of changing Thailand's views and exploitation of their wildlife. I met some incredible people throughout my time on project, all of whom share the same vision and passion for animal welfare. Above all else, my time in Thailand has taught me that education is our greatest tool within the battle against conservation and it has inspired me to come home and share what I have learnt and encourage other people to participate in the many different projects that GVI host. Not just for the rewarding impact you having on the world, but simply for the amazing experience you won't get anywhere else!

Rosie Willmott

07 Sep, 2018
Hi! I’m Rosie Willmott and I am one of the six month interns here on the GVI Thai Elephant project in Chiang Mai province, Thailand, and have recently finished my A-level courses in Art, Photography and Biology. I took on this project to experience working with animals in the field first-hand, as conservation is an area I would like to specialize in. As an elephant intern I run health checks which are essential to monitor the herd’s overall well-being. Having never before worked with such large animals it is fascinating as well as educational to see them in a natural setting. In addition to working with the elephants on a daily basis I have taken on the biodiversity study which looks at the variety of flora and fauna that can be found in and around the village of Huay Pakoot. The ultimate aim of this study is to produce a small guide that can be used by future volunteers, staff and other tourists whilst out on hikes.

Murray Robertson

25 Nov, 2013
As an intern on this program I've had what I can genuinely say to be some of the best and most rewarding experiences of my life. Living and working closely with the Karen people of Huay Pakoot village, I've gained firm friends, learnt a great deal about Karen culture, helped the villagers sustain their environmentally sound traditional way of living, been involved with the education of the village children, and fallen in love with this remote, lush and stunningly beautiful part of Thailand.