Whether it’s orangutans in Borneo or elephants in Thailand, there are plenty of ethical animal tourism options around the world that cater to animal lovers.
Second only to visiting Antarctica, polar bear enthusiasts can head to Canada to see these furry animals in their natural habitats. According to the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat website, “the habitat is both the largest, and the only human care facility in the world dedicated solely to polar bears. With seven hectares of pristine, natural environment categorized as sub-arctic, the habitat also features the world’s largest enclosed lake that provides an ice platform for up to seven months of the year.” Not to be mistaken with a zoo enclosure, the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat specializes in the research and care of Northern Ontario polar bears, which currently are facing a decline in population. Visiting guests can volunteer at the habitat, view the bears, and enjoy the on-premise museums and dining.
For a warmer destination, head south to Costa Rica, where Osa Conservation offers volunteers the chance to protect sea turtles. According to their website, “Osa Conservation’s mission is to conserve the globally significant terrestrial and marine biological diversity of the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica by implementing ecosystem stewardship, enhancing scientific understanding, providing education and training, and creating sustainable economic opportunities.” Osa Conservation runs various wildlife conservation projects with different species, including frogs, felines, and primates. Working with sea turtles may involve tasks like running the hatchery and tagging the animals.
Thailand used to be a prime destination to get up close and personal with tigers, until the famed Tiger Kingdom was revealed to be rife with scandal and abuse. Today, the place to view tigers ethically is India, specifically with Ranthambhore Nature Guides. The company started up in 2007 as a resource for visitors to explore India’s rich natural history and wildlife. You can enter their tiger reserve, where they keep an eye on all the local tigers and their last sightings.
Swimming with whale sharks should definitely be on your bucket list, but finding a way to do so in an ethical and environmentally sound way can be tricky. Enter Whale Shark México, a research center monitoring the migratory patterns of whale sharks in the Gulf of California. According to the website, “[Director and Researcher] Dení Ramírez Macías has been working closely with the Mexican government in its program to manage and conserve the whale sharks in Mexican waters. They have been training the tourist companies of La Paz in order to create a sustainable whale shark tourist activity.” Those keen on seeing whale sharks can join one of their research trips.
Upon arriving in Thailand, you’ll be greeted with a multitude of tourist programs offering elephant rides, circus events, elephant painting and other attractions. Unbeknown to many, riding elephants is cruel and causes these gentle giants unthinkable physical damage and mental abuse. Of the sea of animal tourism spectacles promoted, the right way to see elephants is with Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai.
Elephant Nature Park fights to save these poor animals by relocating them to a sanctuary in Northern Thailand where they can live out their days in peace. There is no riding, no tricks, no forced performances for the sake of selfies; rather, the park invites people to simply spend time with their elephants and feed them watermelons. Visitors have the option of a one-day visit, an overnight stay, or participating in a one-week volunteer project with either elephants or the dog or cat sanctuaries also located on the premises. Elephant Nature Park sets a stellar example for animal tourism and, one can only hope, points to the future of ethical animal tourism in Thailand.
Borneo is one of those far flung destinations one never imagines seeing in person; the sort of fog-covered jungle landscape that seems to exist only on the air waves of National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. Catching sight of that first orangutan is nothing short of magical. Unfortunately, the palm oil industry and deforestation is a constant threat to Borneo and its orangutans, but Tanjung Puting National Park is a sanctuary for local wildlife. My Orangutan Tours is a local company that takes visitors, by riverboat, into the park for a visit to Camp Leakey—an orangutan research center deep in the jungle. Along the way, you’ll spot wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys and many other animals.