Animal cruelty has remained a contentious issue when it comes to wildlife tourism across the globe – and in particular, Southeast Asia. Behind those seemingly innocent Instagram shots of “tiger selfies”, elephant rides, and dancing macaques lurks the sinister truth about abuse, neglect and exploitation that is all too often overlooked. But while there is still a long way to go before governments choose to acknowledge the issue and lay down strict laws to protect Mother Earth’s creatures, there are some organisations that are doing things right. Take, for example, these five ethical wildlife destinations in the region which offer tourists the chance to encounter wildlife without disturbing the peace. By Sophie Pettit
RECOMMENDED: Did you know you can encounter plenty of wildlife right here in Hong Kong, too?
Ethical wildlife attractions to visit in Southeast Asia
Founded by acclaimed ‘Elephant Whisperer’ Lek Chailert, Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand is the perfect place to walk with nature’s gentle giants that have been rescued from unimaginable suffering by the hands of humans. The park currently homes 75 elephants from all over Thailand, many of which have previously been forced to perform in circus shows and carry tourists in camps. The park welcomes visitors from all corners of the globe to feed, bathe and walk alongside the herd within its 250 acres of open land, all the while learning about their past and the importance of the ‘saddle-off’ policy. They can even stay the night in a hut and spend extra time with the elephants, as well as countless cats and dogs that call the park home. If meeting elephants is on your travel ‘bucket list’, then this is an absolute must. Packages range from $600-$1,400.
If you love to monkey around then Semenggoh Nature Reserve in Borneo is just the ticket. Just a 30-minute drive from the city of Kuching, this 750-hectare forest is home to a thriving population of rescued and orphaned semi-wild orangutans. Guests can enter the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre to watch these adorable creatures swing high above the trees and feed them during morning and afternoon sessions. Visitors can also learn about the ape in the Orangutan Gallery, stroll around the Botanical Research Centre and get up close (but not too close) to crocodiles within a special enclosure. Due to the success of its 20-year-long conservation programme, the reserve has now expanded to Matang Wildlife Centre, however Semenggoh is still home to many a flying ape. $37; sarawaktourism.com.
Shark fin is sadly still a lucrative industry in Southeast Asia. The situation in Lombok in Indonesia is particularly severe, where an estimated 400 sharks are killed for their fins each day. The Dorsal Effect, however, hopes to change this by providing local fishermen in the area with an alternative career to shark fishing by creating environmentally-friendly job opportunities. Visitors to the island can choose to go snorkelling or beach-hopping for the day, safe in the knowledge that their dollars are going towards sustaining the local shark population. Half-day boat trip costs $780; full-day snorkelling and beach hopping trip ranges from $940 to $1,120; two-day cultural immersion and boat trip (inc one night’s homestay at a fish market) costs between $1,560 and $1,950; thedorsaleffect.com.
Just a stone’s throw away from the world-famous Angkor temples, ACCB is the first nature conservation centre in Cambodia which aims to support local wildlife and biodiversity. Most animals arriving at the centre have been rescued from zoos and unethical tourism companies, and are eventually released back into safe habitats once they are treated and self-sufficient. Endangered species may also enter the breeding programme to help recover extinct populations. Curious visitors can glimpse at a variety of vibrant species here, including the Pileated Gibbon, Silvered Langur, Leopard Cat, and Asian Palm Civet which are famously used to produce ‘kopi luwak’ coffee. The centre provides educational workshops and seminars to teach locals and tourists alike about wildlife conservation in Cambodia and develop attitudes that lead to greater awareness and respect for nature. The centre has also developed village-based tourism activities to generate income for local families, with a large proportion going towards the community as a whole. accb-cambodia.org.
Panda lovers will be in their element at this 247-acre conservation and research facility in the Sichuan Province of China. The Cheng Du Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is famous for the protection and breeding of endangered wild animals that are unique to China, including the treasured giant panda and red panda. The base was originally created to care for sick and hungry giant pandas that were rescued in the 1980s. Since those humble beginnings, the award-winning centre has successfully bred 261 healthy giant pandas, who have lived peacefully among the misty mountains and luscious bamboo. To date, more than 3.5 million tourists have visited the base annually to get closer to the rare creatures and observe them resting, eating and playing with each other. They have also enjoyed watching female pandas nurse their cubs in the nursery rooms. More recently, the ‘Panda Valley’ opened to the public, offering guests the chance to observe several giant pandas receive adaptive training to the wild and learn about pressing environmental issues both at the base and around the world. $60 per person; panda.org.cn.