Ethical animal encounters: Where to see orangutans, elephants, and other wildlife in Asia

We've found the ethical animal encounters around Asia where selfies, animal rides and performances are NOT included...

Kids love animals: fact. But with the lack of farms here in Singapore, we all tend to rely on the usual theme-park style attractions for our animal encounters (unless you get lucky checking out the hot spots around the island to find some really weird and wild residents!). But how many of us have a hankering to see elephants and orangutans without buying into the exploitation trap? Those rides and petting experiences are just not okay, and certainly not something we want our children to be exposed to. So with a large dose of ethical encounters and sustainability in mind, we’ve found the places to see wildlife around Asia that will blow your mind without blowing your principles…

If you’ve already aced Vietnam with kids, it might be time to ramp up the ‘Nam experience with an off-the-beaten track adventure to Cuc Phuong National Park. Home to Cave of Prehistoric Man, limestone mountain ranges, fossilised sea reptiles and a thousand-year-old tree, you’ll also find some cool wildlife centres just outside the ancient forest:

Turtle Conservation Centre
You’ll find over 600 turtles and tortoises, most of whom have been confiscated by wildlife protection authorities from illegal traders, at the Turtle Conservation Centre (TCC). Here, the turtle conservation efforts strive to educate the public about the threat to the survival of turtles in Vietnam, rehabilitate the less fortunate turtles, and there’s a specialised breeding programme.
Cuc Phuong National Park Nho Quan, Ninh Bình, Vietnam;

Warm fuzzy feels alert! How cute is this rescued baby Loris? Photography: Endangered Primate Rescue

Endangered Primate Rescue
Swing by and visit the 170 monkeys and apes at TCC’s neighbour, the Endangered Primate Rescue. Of the 25 primate species found in Vietnam, seven are critically endangered and a further nine species endangered! The Endangered Primate Rescue Center is a not for profit project dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, breeding, research and conservation of these beautiful (and not so beautifully treated) primates, and home to around 180 residents including the rare Cat Ba langur and grey shanked douc langur. The center incorporates 50 large enclosures including two fenced semi-wild areas of primary forest which prepare animals for release into the wild and provide opportunities to study the behaviour of animals in semi-wild conditions.
Cuc Phuong National Park Nho Quan, Ninh Bình, Vietnam;

Myanmar is not just filled with amazing people, glorious food, stunning history and a whole lot of gold, it’s also got a fantastic ethically minded elephant sanctuary.

Green Hill Valley Elephant Conservation Project
After our mini-adventure to Myanmar with the kids last year, we’re always on the lookout for an excuse to go back to one of our favourite countries, and Green Hill Valley Elephant Conservation Project could be just the ticket. Head into the hills of Kalaw, around 25km from Heho airport and hang out on an elephant camp! The project was created to work with elephants from the timber trade, with the focus being on helping ‘phants who are no longer able to work. The whole fam will love helping to care for the elephants and learning how these beautiful beasts are rehabilitated, given sanctuary, and encouraged to form bonds with each other and their mahouts. No elephant riding! Hurrah! The Project also runs a forest recovery programme, and each visitor is invited to plant one tree to help with reforestation.
17 Kyaung Street, Kalaw, Myanmar;

Thankfully many tourists and locals are finally wising up to how horrible the likes of Tiger Temples, gibbon selfies and elephant performances really are. That tiger is NOT just sleepy: it’s drugged. Don’t do it, people.

Award winning Elephant Hills is keeping its elephant residents free from exploitation. Photography: Elephant Hills

Elephant Hills
We can’t trumpet loudly enough our praise for Thailand’s first ethically minded luxury tented jungle camp, Elephant Hills. Its two camps, The Elephant Camp and the floating Rainforest Camp are hidden amongst the jungly green, and guests at camp can enjoy some respectful encounters with the resident herd of 12 elephants (rescued from the logging industry). Elephant rides are not offered by the camp: these guys won the Thailand Green Excellence Award for Animal Welfare for the past two years in light of its ongoing efforts to keep its elephants free from exploitation. This is glamping at its very finest!
Khao Sok National Park, Southern Thailand;

The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GRP)
Rescued from the illegal pet trade and animal tourism industry, the gibbons who are part of the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project are in need of some TLC from the volunteers and staff to help them ultimately be released back into their natural environment. Sadly many of them have been subjected to some pretty appalling treatment and so recuperation can be a long and bumpy road. Many of them have been used as tourist gimmicks with ‘owners’ who have little regard for the animal’s welfare. Those selfies with a gibbon on a beach are responsible for the native white-handed gibbon being poached to extinction in the wild during the early-80s! GRP has been actively repopulating the Khao Phra Thaew forest areas of Phuket through its breeding programme since 2002. Visit the centre to view the animals (it is NOT a zoo so there will be no up close and personal viewing), find out more about the rescue, rehabilitation, release and repopulate ethos and learn about all things gibbon.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, 104/3 Moo 3 Paklock, Talang, Phuket 83110 Thailand;

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT)
The WFFT has been working tirelessly all over Thailand to campaign against all forms of animal abuse and exploitation, including the use of wild animals as pets and tourist props. It also provides veterinary help and rehabilitation to wild and domestic animals, educates visitors about the illegal wildlife trade (mostly for the tourist and alternative medicine industries), and aims to release animals back into their natural habitats wherever possible. Organise either a half day or full day visit (or why not extend your visit and become a volunteer?) to learn all about its impressive programme, help bathe an elephant, and watch monkeys, bears, snakes and other rescued animals being cared for.
WFFT, 108 Moo 6, Tha Mai Ruak, Phetchaburi 76130, Thailand;

Come meet Kizzie and her friends at Soi Dog Foundation! Photography: Soi Dogs

Soi Dog Foundation
While obviously not wild animals, having visited this amazing dog rescue centre ourselves with our children, we can’t mention animal rehabilitation in Phuket without a shout out to Soi Dog Foundation. These guys are working 24/7 to rescue Phuket’s street dogs, as well as campaigning tirelessly against the – sadly – rife illegal meat trade happening all over Thailand. Kids will love going in the dog runs to hang out with puppies and dogs of all shapes and sizes (the staff will guide you around the shelter and only allow you into the runs where the pooches have been established as friendly), and meeting three-legged pups, bald old timers and happy hounds looking for a fur-ever home. Sadly, for some of the dogs, the results of cruelty and abandonment have lifelong impacts which prevents them from finding a family to live with, so do consider joining the sponsorship programme while you’re there. We picked out our own sponsor dog, Diva, when we visited the shelter a while back, and we’ve since heard the wonderful news that she has been rehomed to a family in America to start a new life. Oh, how we love a happy ending!
Soi Dog Foundation; 167/9 Moo 4 Soi Tambon Amphur Talang, Mai Khao 10, Mai Khao, Thalang District, Phuket 83110, Thailand;

When someone says “Borneo” most of us think “orangutans”.  You’ll also find culture, charm, the biggest flowers in the world (bug eating rafflesia, we are talking about you) and a LOT of cats when you get to Kuching. Or head to Sabah for more ‘tans and the smallest bears in the world!

Thanks to rescue and rehabilitation centres in Borneo, beautiful Orangutans like these get to live life safe and happy. Photography: Semenggoh Wildlife Centre

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
Located on the Sarawak side of Borneo, not far from Kuching, and established in 1975 (the same year as our writer, Tracy!), Semenggoh Wildlife Centre has been rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing orangutans ever since. In fact, it has been so successful (it’s released over 1000 mammals, birds and reptiles into the surrounding forest) that its main focus today is being a centre for the study of orangutans. It’s also a safe haven for the semi-wild orangutans who have graduated from the rehabilitation programmes, and home to baby ‘tans born in the wild to their rehabilitated mummies. Look out for the latest newborn, Sigat, born in March 2018!

We’ve paid this beautiful patch of jungle a visit ourselves, and were lucky enough to see some of the residents hanging around in the trees, completely ignoring the humans and getting on with their happy lives under the protection of the centre. Please do note that as the orangutans are living free, seeing them is NOT guaranteed.
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, 93250 Siburan, Sarawak, Malaysia;

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
Next-door-neighbour to popular Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Bornean Sunbear Conservation Centre is doing great work on behalf of the tiniest bears in the world. It’s the ONLY sun bear conservation centre in the world, and has been rescuing and nursing its sun bears back to health since 2008. It acts as a permanent and safe home to those bears who are unable to ever be released into the wild, works closely with the government to rescue and release bears, and strives to educate visitors on all things sun bear.
93250 Siburan, Sarawak, Malaysia:

If travelling’s not on the table right now, why not teach the kids about wildlife through an environmental magazine like Panda Junior? Suitable for kids aged seven and up, Panda Junior is jam-packed with games, interviews, fun facts, and even competitions. This wildlife magazine has your A to Z on all the wonders of the Earth. Each issue even comes with a wildlife poster so the kids will be able to get ‘up close and personal’ with animals from home!


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