Responsible Travel in Thailand
Tourism can be a huge force for both good and bad. Unsustainable tourism is detrimental for the local people, environment and wildlife and erodes the culture you have travelled so far to experience.
Do a little research and you can avoid those tourist attractions and volunteering projects that are money making schemes with no benefit to host communities. Thailand offers some amazing, unique travel, and volunteering opportunities.
One of the most popular tourist activities is to visit, interact or volunteer to work with Thailand’s wildlife. Unfortunately there are no set animal welfare standards in Thailand and without proper research you may unwittingly be contributing to animal cruelty.
Animal Welfare in Thailand & Volunteering
As well as being a rewarding and often eye opening experience, volunteering is a great way to give back to the countries you are visiting, it can allow you to truly immerse yourself in another culture and really get to know the people who live there.
However there has been an increasing rise in ‘voluntourism’ – when tourists travel abroad and incorporate volunteering into their trip or vacation. Unfortunately, without proper research, many volunteers are not entirely aware of the situation they are entering and their positive intentions can often end up doing more harm than good.
Please think twice about visiting or volunteering at some animal attractions and ‘rescue centres’. Thailand has many animal attractions claiming to be of benefit to conservation, however, appearances may not always be what they seem. Insufficient animal welfare laws and a lack of proper enforcement means that some attractions market themselves as ‘sanctuaries’ to lure in unsuspecting tourists.
After the horrific closure of the Tiger Temple in June this year, where there was confirmation of animal cruelty and illegal wildlife trafficking, it is imperative to raise awareness about so called animal ‘attractions’ to help prevent these types of incidents occurring.
While this news may be grim, there are some fantastic organisations operating across Thailand who are trying their hardest to make a difference to animal welfare and conservation. We’ve listed these organisations (as well as some things to avoid) along with details on how you can get involved and make a difference too!
What to Avoid
One such attraction is the Tiger Kingdom – sadly this place has become increasingly popular with volunteers and tourists, whom may not be aware of the full facts. Indeed, before visiting or volunteering with any animals, equip yourself with some knowledge so that you aren’t contributing to something which actually is quite harmful to the animals in question.
Many visitors go on day tours from Chiang Mai to the Tiger Kingdom so that they can have their photo taken with a tiger – sadly however there are numerous reasons why you shouldn’t volunteer or visit here.
Cubs for example are often taken away from their mothers early purely to please the tourists, yet typically a cub should stay with their mother for two years. The anxiety experienced by both mother and cub is probably quite distressing – tigers are not social animals yet they have to face hundreds of visitors every day so that tourists can have that all important photo.
Tigers need exercise and should not be chained up – indeed they like to play, however there is little evidence of that here which means they are not getting the stimulation that they desperately need. Sadly this temple is all about the important tourists dollars – the best thing travellers can do is avoid visiting so they don’t contribute to the harm being caused to these magnificent creatures that belong in the wild!
Elephant rides & attractions
There are a large number of elephant attractions and trekking companies in Thailand, particularly in the North and South of the country. Unfortunately many elephants working in tourism in Thailand suffer. Elephants are too often tightly chained and can be left with heavy metal saddles on their backs for hours on end, even when stationery, with no riders, which, despite their thick skin, can cause painful sores. Lots of these elephants are also subjected to a metal bull-hook to keep them in line.
Elephant trekking is so popular in parts of Thailand such as Phuket you can’t help but notice them, you will more than likely see the elephants chained, bearing heavy, empty saddles and if you look into their eyes you can almost see the depression which is often characterised by rocking whilst their feet are chained. Unfortunately 3,800 of Thailand’s 5,000 endangered Asian elephants are in captivity (Care for the Wild), with most being used as tourist attractions in elephant camps, for trekking and in some questionable ‘sanctuaries’.
Whilst there are some brilliant elephant sanctuaries in Thailand these should also be researched before visiting. Some may market themselves as sanctuary’s but are actually only concerned with profit, not animal welfare. This is especially visible in places like Chiang Mai where Elephant tourism is literally everywhere. Many attractions have changed their names to use words such as ‘eco’ and ‘conservation’ but it is very important to do your research before considering to visit or volunteer at one of these places.
We’ve listed some great organisations to the right whose top priority is the welfare and conservation of Asian elephants along with details on how you can get involved and make a difference too!
Say no to Slow Loris selfies
Endangered animals like the Slow Loris suffer because of their cuteness. These beautiful creatures are captured from the wild and are subjected to having their teeth cut off or pulled out so they cannot bite tourists (Slow Loris have a dangerous toxic bite). Many die at this time from infection following the procedure.
Please do not support this kind of ‘tourist attraction’ often found in Southern Areas of Thailand, in particular Phuket. Say no to a Slow Loris selfie and report the handler to the tourist police.
Say no to 'Animal Performance'
Elephants performing circus tricks, monkeys dancing, dolphins doing tricks – these types of actions are unnatural and not what animals were put on this earth to do.
‘No animal ever chose to be in a circus. No animal willingly agreed to entertain crowds. No animal would choose to swap their natural habitat for a life of abuse, neglect and cruelty.’ – Animals Asia
Sadly there are many places in Thailand that use animals for human entertainment, including many zoos and safari parks. Be wary of these types of performances when you visit a place and instead why not opt to see these animals in their natural environment.
Thailand has a number of places where you can see wildlife outside of a cage, including Paddle Asia who run outdoor tours in Southern Thailand, or a visit to one of the reputable organisations listed on the right.
Join celebrities like Ricky Gervais and Alicia Silverstone in saying NO to Animal Performance Cruelty. Sign the Petition here.
They also educate people about animal cruelty and promote animal conservation. There are some amazing and rewarding volunteering opportunities here and they are currently running several different projects.
You can volunteer at WFFT and work with either Elephants, Bears or Primates. The minimum volunteer time is for one week, usually up to 6 weeks but you can increase this.
If you don’t have that much time but would still like to support the WFFT and learn about their conservation efforts then you can visit on a half or full day visitor programme.
If you want to find out more about what a day at the WFFT involves then read our blog post all about it.
Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is a unique project set in Chiang Mai province, Northern Thailand. Established in the 1990’s our aim has always been to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants. The park is located some 60km from the city, and has provided a sanctuary for dozens of distressed elephants from all over Thailand. – Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is set in a natural valley with beautiful scenery; surrounded by forested mountain the area ‘offers a timeless glimpse of rural life’
There are single day and overnight visiting options or you can volunteer for one or two weeks (maximum initial acceptance is two weeks). You can also volunteer at the parks dog rescue project again for one or two weeks. Find out more about visitng and volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park here.
Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary
BLES strives to rescue and protect the elephants of Thailand from abuse and ultimate extinction. We provide a safe home where we focus on individual survival and growth in numbers. BLES allows elephants to interact in a natural environment that encourages breeding. Additionally, we offer support and advice to local elephant owners who may lack sufficient funds to care for their animals. We are deeply committed to our village community and provide jobs and housing to several mahouts and their families – Boon Lotts Elephant Sanctuary
You can visit BLES but it’s best to book well in advance, they like to keep guest numbers small so visits can be booked up 6 months in advance. Most guests at BLES stay for 3 – 5 nights, the fee per guest, per night is 5,000 THB and includes pick-up and drop-off (from Ultraditt bus/train stations and Sukhothai airport) all meals, including meals at local restaurants; internet access; laundry service and unlimited elephant time.
Find out more about BLES here.
ElephantsWorld was founded in 2008 and is a sanctuary for sick, old, disabled, abused and rescued elephants, who will receive the rest and joy that they deserve. – ElephantsWorld 2014
ElephantsWorld offer 3 different programmes for visitors: a day programme, overnight programme and forest programme which lasts for 2 nights / 3 days. Find out more about visiting ElephantsWorld here.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project was founded in 1992 to save the gibbons and their rainforest habitat. Since 1992 the project has released over 30 gibbons back into the forest, including eight families that have reproduced young in the wild. They also help to rescue and rehabilitate other wildlife such as Slow Loris’.
The GRP is a unique animal welfare under the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation of Thailand, working to rehabilitate unwanted or confiscated gibbons from the pet trade and tourist industry and to reintroduce suitable candidates back to the wild. – The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project
You can visit the centre and support their work through donations, or even sponsor a gibbon of your own. The centre is also in need of regular volunteers. Find out more about volunteering here.
If you want to find out more about what a visit to GRP involves then read our blog post all about it.
BEES - Burm and Emily's Elephant Sanctuary
Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES) is a home for old,injured and retired elephants needing rest and/or permenant care. At BEES we give elephants a chance to live free and to just be elephants.BEES works to raise awareness and to join many others in the hope to bring an end to the suffering and exploitation of the elephants. – Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary (BEES)
Located just a short drive south-west of Chiang Mai, BEES is one of the regions small, yet ethical, elephant sanctuaries caring for old and retired elephants.
The organisation accepts volunteers through their volunteer program to assist with caring for the elephants and helping with property maintenance. However, guests can also help with English classes in the local community, tree planting programs and community based activities. BEES is a local family and community based project that supports sustainability and conservation.
Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation
GTAEF strongly believes that in an ideal world all elephants would be wild. This is unfortunately not the case, so until we reach that point, GTAEF aims to assist captive elephants, improving their lives and welfare, while also taking part in conservation and wild elephant programs to ensure the
survival of the wild herd. – The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is an organisation that works in cooperation with Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. The resort funds much of the costs of the foundation and by staying at the resort you are contributing to the day to day running of the camp, along with supporting the elephants.
Make the Best Choice!
Choosing the right volunteering experience that has the animal’s interest at heart is more rewarding in the long run. A little bit of research goes a very long way – why contribute to the suffering of animals through ill-advised volunteering jobs when there are some truly, remarkable and genuine experiences to had where you can make a positive difference to animal conservation!