It may seem exotic to visit Thailand and hop on the back of an elephant for the perfect Facebook profile pic. Or to hold a primate in the wild. But it's important to practice responsible tourism as you seek new experiences. Here, three companies that allow any animal-lover to immerse themselves in wildlife, all while still supporting the beloved creatures.
Elephant Nature Park, Thailand
The Asian elephant is an endangered species, with fewer than 25,000 left in the world. And while there are hundreds of places you can visit Asian elephants in Thailand, the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai is one of the few that puts the emphasis on the well being of the animals. Founder Lek Chailert opened the park in 1995 as a permanent home to the orphaned, injured, sick, and abused elephants in Thailand. There won't be any riding here, as many of these creatures are victims of the logging industry, poachers, and inhumane tourism practices. Instead, visitors spend the afternoon bathing the elephants, feeding them, and learning from the mahouts -- locals who care for the gentle giants.
Matang Wildlife Centre, Malaysia
The name orangutan comes from the words meaning “man of the forest” in the Malay language, where the animals have lived for thousands of years as the island’s most precious primate. There are about 40,000 Bornean orangutans left in the wild, making them an endangered species. Deforestation from the palm oil trade, poaching, and the illegal pet trade are all threats to these sweet creatures.
In order to repair the damage that humans have caused the orangutans, Matang Wildlife Centre has set up a rehabilitation program to usher them back into the wild. Orangutans that have been kept as pets, orphaned, taken from zoos, or injured are brought to Matang Wildlife Centre to heal and be taught how to climb trees, build nests, and exist on their own again. Visitors won’t get up close with orangutans and certainly won’t hold them, as it’s important for the creatures not to rely on humans for food. But by joining the Heart 2 Heart program, you can help clean up after them and prepare food for the orangutans that live at Matang. It’s not glamorous work, but you’ll be doing your part to ensure that the endangered species thrives.
Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Centre, Cambodia
Sun bears -- also called honey bears, moon bears, or Malayan bears -- are known for the light patch of fur on their chests resembling a sun and long tongues that they use to eat insects. They can be found in China, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and there are estimated to be less than 1,000 left in the wild, but scientists know very little about the species. As with other animals in Southeast Asia, the bears have been affected by deforestation and habitat loss, as well as been killed for their bile for medicinal purposes.
The bears have their own sanctuary at Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Centre, located two hours from Phnom Penh. Here, they have space to play around nearby habitats created for the rescued elephants, tigers, and animals brought in by Phnom Tamao. The emphasis is put on care for endangered species and education, rather than entertainment. The sun bears that have been rehabilitated are later released back into the wild at the centre’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Koh Kong province.