Traveling Ethically Abroad: Shopping and Tourism in Thailand

By Natasha Kabała, Science Writer

Wildlife in Markets

Thailand is notorious for its wildlife trade wherein animals are illegally trafficked from inside and outside Asia. The US State Department estimates that the illegal wildlife trade is a $10 billion industry, which would make it the globe’s third biggest illegal trade after drugs and weapons.

The wildlife trade is expansive and can include anything from live animal sales for pets and industries, such as the inhumane civet coffee (“Kopi Luwak”) trade, to animal products including oils, skins, fur, and bone. Many of these products are used in traditional medicine or for souvenirs and jewelry. These items are sold to both locals and tourists across Asia, but the trade is not universal throughout the continent.

The Golden Triangle

The border between Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, better known as “The Golden Triangle”, is a regional hotspot for the illegal trafficking of animals and their products. Many endangered animals are threatened by this trade, especially the little-known pangolin which is currently the most trafficked animal in the world. As a result of this trade, Thailand, although a beautiful tourist destination, is also one of the largest contributors to the worldwide decline of endangered species.

Tiger and elephant parts are frequently found in markets across Thailand. These products, however, were likely transported from different countries in Asia and Africa to this final location. Consumers including locals and tourists often purchase ivory and tiger products at jewelry stores, amulet markets or temples, large bazaars.

Such places are commonly found by and marketed to tourists and are often seen as desirable cultural destinations. However, these sales can have a significant impact on the worldwide populations of endangered animals.

Effects of Illegal Wildlife Markets

This type of trade not only causes the destruction of species but also involves the suffering and slow death of many of these creatures. Using traps set along tiger trails, poachers and gangs capture and kill tigers to sell at markets and online. These traps are used so as not to damage the skins since an undamaged pelt is worth more, and the animal is more likely to suffer for hours or days before death as a result.

Elephants are also threatened by illegal trafficking to Thailand, from Africa as well as other Asian countries. Ivory is still frequently sold, despite the illegality of selling wild elephants products. By buying souvenirs or jewelry made from ivory in Thailand, tourists contribute to this illegal trade and its destruction of large numbers of African and Asian elephants.

The damaging potential of this market has not gone unnoticed, in 1997, a female tiger from India appeared on the cover of National Geographic. Sita brought international attention to this issue of tiger trafficking and poaching, but she was not immune from the dangers of the practice. In the spring of 1990, Sita unfortunately disappeared. Her bones and skin were later discovered in the possession of four men after she had been killed for her skin, meat, and bones. Tigers have unique markings, much like a human fingerprint, so it is easy to identify a known tiger through the pattern of their stripes. This helped them establish that the remains they found were, in fact, those of Sita.

In an attempt to avoid prosecution, one of these men even faked his own death and it wasn’t until 2012 when he was caught and imprisoned. Most people who engage in this practice never face the consequences these men did, and the surest way to end the trade is to end the demand for these products.

How Tourism Fuels the Trade

Even though culture and local beliefs significantly contribute to illegal trafficking, tourism also fuels this trade. Many products such as souvenirs made of ivory, tiger claws and teeth are still purchased by travelers who are sometimes unaware of exactly what they are buying. Additionally, tourists are often targeted by traders because they can get a higher price for their products than from locals.

However, if a tourist buys a souvenir or a piece of jewelry that is made from any animal product, it is impossible to tell whether it is sustainably sourced or not, even if that is what the trader has told the buyer. It is better to avoid animal products completely so as to be confident that you are not contributing to this illegal, cruel and unethical trade.

Tourists wishing to experience traditional Thai culture, often visit local trade markets such as Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, Charoen Krung Road Chinatown, Tha Prachan Amulet Market, Sukhumvit Road, and Silom and Suriwongse Road shops. Chatuchak Market is one of the biggest of these markets and is known for its sales of endangered animals, ivory jewelry and accessories, and tiger teeth and skins.

These markets can be good places to visit for your holiday souvenirs and keep-sake, but these markets have been known to include stalls illegally selling animals and their products. Tourists can be easily charmed into buying from these unlawful sellers, but avoiding sellers that offer animals or their products is one of best ways to protect these species for generations to come.

Tourists and locals will also likely come across animals being used as photo props. These animals have likely been taken directly out of the wild and will continually suffer for the amusement of people. They are often mishandled, underfed, and not properly cared for. To discourage locals from using wild animals in this way, tourists should avoid taking photographs. A cute photo isn’t worth the continued mistreatment of these animals.

Some tourists believe they are helping the animals by buying them from markets and handing them over to sanctuaries or rehabilitation centers. Although this may help one individual, the animal will likely never be released back into the wild due to teeth removal or an inability to survive on its own; this is particularly common in small mammals where tooth removal is used as a method of preventing dangerous bites.

Additionally, buying animals for any reason raises the demand for them to be captured from the wild; for every one bought, another one is captured. As heartbreaking as it may be, it is better to avoid traders with live animals or animal products and to inform other tourists why this is the best route to take to help conservation.

Joining the Fight Against Poaching

One of the best ways to truly help these animals is to help those working every day to protect them. Local organizations and wildlife protection groups in Asia and Africa dedicate their resources to saving these animals and preventing more from falling into these markets. At Stop Poaching Now, we work alongside organizations and leaders around the globe to ensure the long-term survival of the world’s most endangered species. By helping these groups more efficiently and effectively, we can ensure these animals are around for generations to come. If you’re ready to put an end the illegal wildlife, join us today and stop poaching now.


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