Over 30 million tourists flocked to Thailand in 2016. However, many of these eager explorers, unknowingly fuel a dark and cruel practice: animal tourism. While not all “sanctuaries” mistreat their animals, there are more than a few establishments that are unethical and abuse Thailand’s amazing wildlife, whether it be elephants, monkeys, or tigers. To ensure you have the most memorable yet ethical trip possible, here are the sanctuaries that are rescuing, rehabilitating, and in the end, saving animals’ lives.
Spending the day at Elephant Nature Park is truly an outstanding experience. Not a single aspect of the visitor’s day is neglected, from the informative ride to the sanctuary all the way to the delicious lunch buffet. Located in the mountainous terrain outside the city of Chiang Mai, visitors of this sanctuary are surrounded by rolling, green hills as well as, of course, the animals themselves. The sanctuary was founded in the 1990s; since then, the staff and volunteers have rescued dozens of elephants.
Elephants are not the only animals volunteers will come across at this sanctuary. In addition to these majestic beasts, Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for cats, dogs, buffaloes and animals. Visitors can choose to stay for a short park visit—฿2,500 (US$71), a single day visit—฿2,500 (US$71), or an overnight stay, consisting of two days and one night—฿5,800 (US$165). Children receive 50 percent off on all the packages offered. In addition to spending time with elephants, Elephant Nature Park offers different excursions to villages around Chiang Mai and additional volunteer packages which allow visitors to interact specifically with the animals who reside there. They also have a sister program in Kanchanaburi.
There are as many soi (street) dogs in Thailand as there are 7/11 convenience stores. All over the country, these abandoned pets roam the Kingdom, in search of food, shelter, and oftentimes, company. While the streets of Thailand have put many of these dogs perpetually on defense mode, others simply want to be rescued. That is where Rescue Paws comes in. This non-profit has been improving the lives of strays since they began in 2013 as a simple feeding program. They work tirelessly, and have the impressive numbers to prove it: 3,539 rabies and combo vaccinations, 741 sterilizations, 4,242 parasite treatments … the list goes on and on.
If Thailand’s wildlife is not necessarily your forte, then Rescue Paws is the sanctuary to visit. Some of the tasks that volunteers can expect to partake in include feeding runs around the city, maintenance of the clinic, keeping the organization’s social media pages up to date, and, of course, loving and caring for the stray dogs. Rescue Paws is located in Hua Hin, and the accommodation and facilities are not far from the beach. When volunteers are not caring for man’s best friend, they can explore the surrounding, stunning area. Volunteers can stay as little as 1-2 weeks (US$1,000), 2-4 weeks (US$1,550), 5-8 weeks (US$2,000) or 9-12 weeks (US$2,350).
Katherine Connor is behind Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, otherwise known as BLES. The tale behind the sanctuary is a sad one, with the main protagonist of the story being Boon Lott, meaning “survivor” in Thai. Boon Lott was a baby elephant who overcame an onslaught of obstacles. From almost being separated from his mother, to sustaining an injury that left his hind legs paralyzed, this young elephant did not go down without a fight. Even after Connor doing everything she could, Boon Lott eventually passed away, and Connor created BLES in his honor.
Providing relief to abused elephants, rehabilitating them, and offering support to local elephant owners, BLES is one elephant sanctuary working to improve the lives of elephants, as opposed to using them for their own, personal gain. Volunteer groups are kept small, as this benefits both the animals and the volunteers who set time aside to be part of what the sanctuary does. BLES is located in the central and historical province of Sukhothai. Participants pay ฿5,000 (US$142) a night, and this price includes all food, internet access, laundry service, and of course, all of the time spent with the elephants.
Rescued from the illegal pet trade and animal tourism industry, the gibbons which are part of the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project have seen better days. That being said, those who volunteer here will be part of the process of rehabilitating these animals and letting them back into their natural environment—the jungle.
Volunteers are needed, whether to assist with feeding the gibbons, monitoring their health, maintain the facilities, or observing gibbons who have already been released. Some volunteers are even lucky enough to witness the gibbons being let back into the wild. Volunteers stay in modest bungalows in a village just northeast of Phuket, where the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is located. The accommodation is homely at best, but it means volunteers form a tight community amongst one another. Meals are made locally by a Thai restaurant near the project, and there are vegetarian options available. When volunteers are not working towards bettering the lives of the gibbons, they are allowed to explore the stunning and popular island of Phuket.
Getting up close and personal with elephants is a dream of many travelers. At Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, visitors will be relieved to hear that they get the opportunity to do just that, but in a responsible way in which the animals are not exploited. The animals at WFFT have been ill-treated, neglected, and often are unable to go back into the wild because of the abuse they’ve received. In addition to helping these animals, one of the main goals of WFFT is to inform those people about things like the illegal animal trade, hunting, and overall educating people to stop the persecution of wildlife. One way in which visitors can do this is to book responsible tourism activities.
“We as individuals have a voice and money talks,” says Tom Taylor, assistant director of WFFT. “If all the tourists who came to Thailand each year visited ethical animal tourist attractions, such as WFFT, instead of giving money to unethical elephant camps, zoos or wild animals petting attractions, the demand for abusive animals attractions would be dramatically reduced.”
WFFT offers excursions which last a half-day—฿1,100 (US$31) per person, and full-day—฿1,600 (US$46) per person. This price is slightly lower for children. In addition to getting to spend quality and responsible time with the animals, this price also includes a Thai welcome drink and a large buffet, which has vegetarian options.