Traveling Ethically Abroad: Animal Excursions in Thailand

Updated: Feb 4, 2019

By Natasha Kabała, Science Writer

Animal Excursions When Traveling Abroad

Thailand has become a major tourist destination where many people from around the world come to have close encounters with animals. However, the animal attractions that you will come across in your travels to this Southeast Asian country may be unethical and may cause suffering to the animals they highlight.

While it is possible to enjoy these attractions in a humane and ethical way, telling the difference between what’s humane and what’s not can be difficult. Here are a few examples of what to look out for.

Elephant Riding

Elephant riding is the most common attraction in Northern Thailand. However, in recent years it has come under scrutiny for its unethical treatment and abuse of the animals

Elephants are classified as endangered with a decreasing population. Since it was last estimated in 2003, the population in Thailand was about 3,000; this number is likely to have decreased since then. Asian elephants have been poached from the wild to be used in tourist attractions, which has largely contributed to their reducing numbers.

Elephants are incredibly intelligent and sociable animals. To be used as attractions, they have to be mentally and physically broken to make them compliant. This abuse often involves isolation from others, use of bull hooks sharp enough to penetrate thick hide, and being over-worked until they obey.

Bull hooks will be continually used by employees at elephant riding attractions as a constant threat to elephants to keep them obedient. This is something to watch out for in all types of elephant encounters. A bull hook may not necessarily be a sign that the elephant is being mistreated, but it is a good indicator and can be evidence of abuse.

Elephant riding also causes pain for the elephant. Harnesses used for rides cause irritation on the elephants’ bellies and in their leg creases. The weight of saddles and riders on elephants can also cause permanent back injury as elephants’ backs are not as strong as they may appear.

While elephants can be extremely dangerous to humans in the wild, they can be even more so in captivity. A BBC article in 2016 stated that “Elephants have never been truly domesticated. They are captive animals, and if they decide to turn on handlers or riders, it can be deadly.”

This was proven earlier this year when a British man was trampled to death by an elephant in Thailand, bringing the risks of elephant riding into question once again.

Many locations will claim to be sanctuaries or orphanages, but it is difficult to know for sure if this is actually the case. It is important to thoroughly research locations before going to ensure you fully understand their work and what they do. This extra step may take time but it is important for ensuring the welfare of the animals and to avoid risks to yourself.

Tiger Selfies

Tiger selfies have been incredibly popular with travelers in Asia. It may seem like a wonderful experience with one of the most beautiful big cats in the world but this trend has recently been highlighted as a cruel practice towards the animals., Before deciding to snap a picture with a local tiger, there are many things to consider to protect the safety and happiness of the tiger and the species as a whole

Tigers are categorized as endangered and are continually decreasing in number. Wild populations are still being poached for these tourist attractions but, with less than 4,000 individuals remaining in the wild, any illegal trafficking is a major threat to the species.

Tigers used for photo-shoots are often drugged to keep them docile and calm; this is why many of the animals don’t seem stressed. This relaxed behavior can be misleading for animal-lovers who are looking for an ethical experience. Since the practice is not disclosed or regulated, it is unknown what sedatives are used in these cases or what the long-term side effects would be.

This attraction poses many dangers to tourists as tiger attacks are not a rare occurrence. In Phuket Tiger Park, a man was mauled by a tiger after going into an enclosure in 2014. In 2013, Tiger Temple had a similar occurrence when a British girl was attacked and suffered lasting injuries. In 2011, a woman was also attacked at the Million Year Stone Park and Pattaya Crocodile Farm. Despite how they may appear, these tigers are still dangerous, wild animals with an instinct to kill that should be respected and admired from a safe distance.

Cubs are often used instead of grown adults since they pose less of a risk to people and are perceived as cuter. In these cases, cubs are separated from their mothers at a young age. This separation can cause mental and emotional issues as well as health problems, which can prevent them from ever being released back into the wild.

Last year, the Smithsonian spoke out about the ethics behind tiger selfies due to the overwhelming evidence of the tiger abuse involved. The senior conservation advisor for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Marshall Jones, stated that “This practice harms not only individual tigers but conservation efforts to protect the endangered wild cats worldwide.”

One major example of this abuse was found at Tiger Temple, a Buddhist temple in the Kanchanaburi Province that kept tigers for photos and experiences with tourists. This attraction was closed for illegal trafficking and abuse of their animals last year; 137 tigers were confiscated as a result. The UK newspaper Telegraph reported that 40 bodies of tiger cubs were found at this establishment when it was raided by Thai officials. Many people had visited the temple to get up close to tigers but no one was aware of the behind-the-scenes abuse that was going on until it made international news.

If you still wish to see wild animals while you travel, it is best to see them in the wild to avoid encouraging the poaching and abuse of these endangered animals. If this is not possible, then research places that allow you to see the animals safely, that is humane and also gives the animals space where they can be in the most natural setting possible.

Animal Shows

In addition to the attractions already mentioned, many locations also offer animal shows. These may involve elephants, big cats, and monkeys. Safari World in Bangkok is one of the most famous and are known for the orangutan shows and boxing matches to entertain their guests. Not only is this unnatural and cruel to the animal, but the animals can also be injured as a result of the shows.

Many of these tourist attractions also do not give the animals enough space and don’t consider their welfare. According to, “Orangutans are shown being forced to fight in boxing rings with gloves strapped to their hands, an elephant performs tricks on a stone stage and then afterward they are locked up with the others in hellish conditions.”

These shows often involve abuse of the animals during training so that they obey commands. Additionally, these animals are often endangered and such tourist activities encourage the removal of these species from the wild.

Since attending these shows supports this trade, it is better to avoid them at all costs, especially if animals are being forced to act in ways unnatural to them in the wild.

Many attractions involving animals do not take their welfare into account and encourage the removal of many endangered species from the wild.

Ways To Help Protect Animals

If you are traveling for longer an extended period of time, you may be able to volunteer with a non-governmental organization to rehabilitate or contribute to research of wild animals. This will provide a more ethical experience and will also contribute to the conservation of these incredible animals. You may be able to assist with the rehabilitation of animals or be able to observe no-captive animals in the wild giving you a chance to have a truly once in a lifetime experience that doesn’t harm animals.

For experiences that help protect and care for animals, there are several resources you can use to find the best adventure for your trip. While some online sites can provide options for choosing an ethical experience, getting reviews from people who have already volunteered at these organizations is also important for ensuring they are exactly what they claim to be.

If you do not have the time to volunteer, there are more ethical, one-day attractions that are available that can also be investigated online.

No matter where you go, there are several ways to responsibly travel and have a fun time without exploiting the animals you visit.

At Stop Poaching Now, we work with on the ground conservation organizations that strive every day to connect people with the world’s animals in a safe, healthy, and happy way. Join us today to become a vital part of the fight against poaching.


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