Responsible Wildlife tourism in SE Asia: The dos and the don’ts

While you may want to experience ‘exotic’ wildlife during your travels to Asia – there are certain things to be avoided at all costs and other organisations which you should whole-heartedly support. Here are some tips on enjoying Asian wildlife guilt-free and sustainably.

Let’s start with one experience that seems to be on all visitors to Asia’s list: Elephants.

DON’T

Now as fun as it may seem at first thought, do NOT, under any circumstance ride an elephant. Ever. It may seem harmless, you may ‘think well if I can ride a horse, why not an elephant?’ The simple answer is that elephants are broken in for riding in the most inhumane manner – enduring things that no living creature should ever have to endure – all in the name of human entertainment.

DO

So what should you rather do if you’d like to see one of these gentle giants up close and personal? Well, there are several reputable organisations which are focused on conservation and rehabilitation. Elephants are in sanctuaries and many have been rescued from tourist attractions and some are ex working animals – taken off the streets of Bangkok, out of riding camps or were involved in the logging industry. Visit Trunk Travel for ethical elephant experiences in Chiang Mai. Or if you’re in Cambodia, visit Kulen Elephant Forest near Siem Reap – home to retired elephants who can exist in peace.

DON’T

Another big no-no in SE Asia, yet which so many do, is posing to have your photo taken with a ‘cute’ or exotic animal, often being touted on beaches and in night markets. Someone approaches you carrying an adorable baby gibbon – thrusts it into your arms and snaps a polaroid picture of you holding it before you can say no, and then insists on a 200 baht payment – to buy food for the gibbon. Well truth be told, that baby gibbon was taken from its mother in the wild, its teeth are kept filed down and it is drugged. Birds of prey and colourful lizzards are other common victims of this lucrative trade.

DO

Rather visit the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Phuket, where gibbons which have been rescued from touts, or which have been injured on roads, electric cables or by dogs can live in their natural environment, after being treated by the project.

DON’T

Visit animal shows. There is no way to justify that it’s okay to watch a monkey in a tutu, playing a guitar while smoking a cigarette. Elephants should not have to do balancing acts, and tigers should not walk on tightropes. Just DON’T do it. The same applies to crocodile farms, aquariums where enclosures are so small the fish can barely turn around and tiger zoos – another popular ‘photo opportunity’ with a drugged up tiger.

DO

Support the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand which rehabilitates animals which have been exploited by the tourism industry or rescued from the illegal wildlife trade for pets and medicine.

DON’T

Visit the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, a few hours outside of Bangkok. There’s been a lot of controversy about this establishment – and on the surface, as it’s run by monks, all appears above board. But it’s not – as many a documentary has exposed. Care for the Wild CEO Philip Mansbridge, who visited the Tiger Temple personally to assess the claims and risks, said:

“If you think Tiger Temple is some kind of spiritual tiger sanctuary, it isn’t. If you think they rescue abused tigers, or that the tigers will be released into the wild, they won’t be. If you think that a tiger wants to live in a small bare cage, have a chain around its neck and have tourists sit on its back, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.”

DO

Visit the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity located near the famous temples of Angkor – the first nature conservation centre in Cambodia. The ACCB aims to contribute to the conservation of wildlife and biodiversity in Cambodia.

DON’T

Buy exotic insects set in resin or butterflies mounted in frames – these have not died naturally. They may look pretty – but you are supporting illegal wildlife trade. The same applies to crocodile or skate skin bags.

DON’T

Eat rare or endangered species or meat that is obtained in an inhumane manner. This includes shark fin soup and birds nest soup. Rather try local dishes made from sustainable farming and fishing.

DON’T

Feed fish with bread when snorkeling in order to see a feeding frenzy up close. Bread is not in their natural diet. If you must, rather feed them banana, as this is similar to their diet. When snorkeling, do not stand on coral! If you’re sailing your own boat, do not drop anchor on coral reefs.

There are so many more examples of both ethical and unethical wildlife tourism in SE Asia. But how do you know which you should avoid and which you should support? How do you see the dark side of an attraction, and not believe the sugar-coated versions that they are marketing?

Perhaps ask yourself a few questions before handing over your money to an unethical establishment. Question things to determine the real needs of that animal, and you’ll most likely get your answer:

· Are they fed their natural food?

· Should a nocturnal animal pose for photos in the daytime?

· Why does a wild predator let you pet it?

· How has the animal been trained to do the ‘humanlike’ acts it is performing?

· Where does the money we pay really go – to support the animals, or for profit?

· Were these animals bred for human amusement?

· What happens to these animals when they are no longer suitable to interact with tourists?

Do your research well before deciding how to part with your money, and enjoy your visit to SE Asia, knowing that you have not contributed to unethical wildlife tourism.

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