Anyone who has traveled in Southeast Asia knows about the dime a dozen “elephant tours.” Touts advertise them on every street corner, “ride an elephant!” And the prices are low. But how humane are these tours? Sadly, not at all. These elephants are often kept on chains, whipped, abused, and are only there for the sake of tourist dollars. Studies have shown that elephant rides are quite harmful to these gentle creatures. They do not have strong backs, and the elephants are often starved and beaten (as part of their “training”) to carry unsuspecting tourists on their backs. Generally speaking, any company that offers elephant rides is most likely unethical.
I love animals. Seeing wildlife and native creatures is one of my favorite travel activities. But sadly, many countries exploit their local non-human residents for human tourist dollars. Bear shows in India and Japan, selfies with chained tigers in Southeast Asia, sea turtle handling in the Caribbean, donkey shows in Mexico, dolphin shows worldwide, and crocodile farms, also worldwide. These are just a few examples of unethical animal tourism.
The good news is, seeing animals in their native habitats can be done ethically and responsibly. Big game safaris at national parks in Sub Saharan Africa are a great way to see wildlife in the wild (nothing makes me happier than a Serengeti safari filled with big cats). Gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda is another example of responsible animal tourism. A visit to the Galapagos Islands is perhaps one of the most memorable ethical wildlife experiences. The entire chain of islands is protected space, and the Ecuadorian government takes conservation very seriously.
There are also quite a few “rescues” and “sanctuaries” out there. Just because a foundation claims to be one of the above, it does not automatically make it ethical. Elephant sanctuaries are often also a good bet, but it is super important to do diligent research before handing your hard earned money over. I’ve seen elephant sanctuaries that offer elephant rides, which is a big red flag. Lion rescues are often some of the worst offenders as well, taking lions out of the wild for the sake of tourists. And tiger “temples” should be avoided at all costs.
When I first started traveling as a teenager, I will admit that I did not do diligent research. As an animal lover, I was always lured by the chance to meet animals. Years ago in Vietnam, I rode an elephant, and I still carry that guilt with me today. Now that I am currently traveling through Southeast Asia again, I have made it my mission to adequately research and only support organizations that are kind and ethical to animals. Here are some of my findings:
MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary: (Laos) This place is the real deal. My best day in Laos was spent at MandaLao near Luang Prabang. It is not the cheapest outfitter in town (the ethical ones never are), but the work they are doing is nothing short of amazing. Prasop, from Thailand, is passionate about repopulating Laos with elephants, and the work he does at MandaLao will lead to just that (he did it in Thailand). During my day at MandaLao, I got to bathe, kiss, hug (see above photo), and walk alongside these gentle creatures. And there was no doubt that these were happy elephants who were not abused, chained, whipped, or forced to carry humans on their backs.
Free the Bears: (Many countries) I will admit that I was skeptical because they have a small, public bear sanctuary right near a popular waterfall near Luang Prabang (Laos). And the bears are in captivity. But I learned that these truly are rescued bears who can not currently be in the wild. They were saved from horrendous bear bile and bear paw medicine farms. One was even missing a leg. The sanctuary near Luang Prabang is only a tiny part of what they do and is only to spread awareness of the situation to visitors. They have rescues and sanctuaries all over Asia and do amazing work educating the public about the plight of bears around Asia.
Soi Dog Foundation: (Thailand) Soi Dog has received a lot of press for the great rescue work they do to help curb Thailand’s overwhelming stray dog population. They also do rescues (sometimes dangerous) for dogs who are bound for the terrifying dog meat trade. Soi Dog adopts their dogs worldwide and is constantly looking for flight volunteers to help a dog get to his or her new home in the EU or North America. For the dogs that can not be adopted, they offer sponsorship programs. And hey fellow cat lovers, yes, they also help Thailand’s stray cats!
Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary: (Cambodia) Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary’s mission is to rescue local wildlife, preserve the forest, and provide sustainable community employment, three things that Cambodia desperately needs. The only way to visit their location in the north of Cambodia is to volunteer for a week (minimum). But they do a wide variety of ethical animal rescue and rehabilitation all across Southeast Asia.
Those are just a small sampling of responsible and ethical ways to see and interact with animals in Southeast Asia. Botton line: do your research and do not hand over your money to any tout on the street who promises elephant tours. It is also important to remember that many outfitters advertise “eco-friendly” tours, but not all of them are truly eco-friendly. Again, research, ask around and look for endorsements from reputable wildlife rescue organizations.
Looking for more help researching responsible travel outfitters worldwide? With my years of travel industry expertise and my love for animals, I can help you research and plan the perfect experience, where you, and the animals, will be very happy.
(Finally, and I can not stress this enough, you never know what can happen when interacting with animals. Therefore it is super important to make sure you are covered under a good travel insurance plan before setting out to visit animals abroad. I highly recommend World Nomads and personally use them for all of my travels.)