About ethical places
Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary - Founded ten years ago by Katherine Connor she provides a 540 acre reserve in Sukhothai where the elephants are free to roam as they would in a natural habitat. The picture at the top of this page is from Boon Lott. There are no shows or rides and the tame elephants are used to tourists and will come to you. This alone makes Boon Lott ethical but the consensus is that this is the best elephant camp in Thailand.
ElephantsWorld - Founded in Kanchanaburi in 2008 by a conservation group who remain anonymous it recently went through some big changes and they put ethics at the top of their list. Because all the elephants are rescued and retired work animals they are very friendly and the camp has a very good record of provision for children. It is a family orientated camp run on the same model as Boon Lott.
Elephant Nature Park - in Chiang Mai is one of the oldest establishments. It has been a sanctuary since 1993 but was a camp for many years before that. They are also involved in ecological work such as replantation and animal re-introduction and veterinary services. They have been for decades an example of how to get involved with conservation and animal welfare as a twinned venture.
Elephant Haven - in Sai Yok is the latest addition to the Elephant Nature Park group. It is new and is in a beautiful location but has no history apart from it used to be a rather questionable elephant camp that has been taken over by the conservation group in Chiang Mai. So far I have only heard good things about the camp.
Chang Damnoen Saduak Housing - Chang Damnoen is old school. Run by mahoots who no longer have a trade since it was outlawed by the Thai Government. They dress in traditional clothes and demonstrate how the elephants used to work and were looked after. These are mature domestic elephants but what makes this place ethical is the way the mahoots have embraced modern social and awareness management methods. The mahoots are a delight to talk to and although they do rides and shows it is done with great care. Nevertheless, many feel elephant shows and riding are inappropriate so although I feel Chang Damnoen behave ethically not everyone will agree with me.
Gibbon Rehabilitation Project - in 1994 zoologist Terrance Dillon Morin and his wife met with Noppadol Preuksawan at the Royal Forestry Department and set up GRP to re-introduce Gibbons to Phuket. The native species is unique to the region and was wiped out by poachers. The Gibbon is now a protected species and thriving because of GRP and is the only place you should see them. If you see anyone with Gibbons in Thailand report it to this organisation. The camp is ethical despite some political wrangling and is well worth visiting and volunteering. It is the kind of place that makes you feel good.
Don Kruai Tiger World - captive tigers are the reality of Thailand's big cats. They are close to extinction in the wild so finding them in a natural environment is almost impossible though most of the wild tigers now have tracking devices for monitoring purposes and saving the species is a priority for the Thai Government. But re-introduction is not possible and the only way you are going to see one is in a place like Tiger Kingdom. Don Kruai is only a few years old and is purpose built but the work is ongoing so the containment is not perfect and everyone agrees that using tigers for photo shoots with tourists is not ethical in the sense of wildlife conservation. But there is a difference between wild and captive tigers, they are not the same animal, captive tigers are pet cats and behave like one. Don Kruai is a zoo but they look after their cats very well and they are free inside the compound to do as they please. I describe their practices as ethical but you have to decide if keeping a tiger in a zoo is ethical. Personally I feel it is ok to go here but not everyone will agree with me.
Khao Soi Dao - is a wildlife sanctuary and a National Park. Soi Dao would appeal to twitchers and ornithologist alike (see IBC) with a wide variety of pheasants, owls, eagles, woodpeckers, and broadbills amongst the many the best of which for me was the sighting of a Hornbill. There are helpful rangers and educational materials to help you spot butterflies, deer, amphibians that can only be found in this park, herds of wild elephant, and even wild cats and civets. There is accommodation and you can hire a guide (one of the rangers) who can take you up the 5000 feet mountain and follow the 16 waterfalls of Namtok Khao Soi Dao. This is one of many National Parks but it is my favourite.
Wild Gully Wildlife Station - Wild Gully is a nickname I have given the place. The correct name is สถานีเพาะเลี้ยงสัตว์ป่าช่องกล่ำบน pronounced something like 'Sa Thanee Por Liang Sa Bpaa Chawng Glam Bohn'. It is an animal rescue centre for sick, injured, and confiscated wild animals where they are rehabilitated and where possible returned to the wild. Founded in 1983 by Queen Sirikit it pre-dates WFFT and is on park land that has been there for at least 400 years. What creatures are there depends on current situation but the 170 acre hospital will take about one day to walk round. They do allow volunteers and research students as well as day trips and it is inspiring to see the wide variety of animals being cared for.
Pattaya Elephant Village - I have included this elephant camp on the merit that nobody has found fault with it. There are no reports of abuse or mahoot training methods though I do have some doubts. I see in their video a mahoot holding a training spike which is a concern. They also show you how they train the elephants but I would question how they trained the elephants in the first instance. If the pachyderms were collated by donation or are ex-work animals then they may have been trained already which is what the village claim. Although they do shows and rides they do not treat the elephants badly and they are a non-profit organisation founded in 1973. Some of their literature is misleading and that may be to simplify but on their page about the elephants in their care it reads "through reasons of injury or ill health, can no longer be used as a part of the backbone of heavy work in the jungles of Thailand. Also because of their diminishing habitat, it is now longer possible to return them to the wild" and both statements are inaccurate. Logging in Thailand was outlawed in 1983 and is why the working elephants cannot return and there are National Parks in Thailand that cater for unwanted elephants so these are kept in the village deliberately. It is up to you to decide on the village's ethics but I think it is pretty good for the elephants they have in their care and if it is good for the elephants then it is ethical to visit but keep in mind that the elephants are not there by choice and could be re-homed. What makes me want to visit is the way the elephants do not need to be led to docking stations, they do it of their own accord, I think the elephants like their job.
Saovabha Snake Farm - If reptiles are your thing you will love what goes on at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute. All snake shows should be banned, they consist of teasing snakes and inflicting pain on them, Thais have no consideration for snakes and deem them vermin. No surprise when a thousand people are bitten each year and as many as 100 die. Most of the injured are children playing in fields but sometimes it is a complete surprise to find a snake where it is not expected. This means specialist hospitals are needed and snake farms that gather venom for laboratories. The Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute is a research department of the Thai Red Cross Society and they provide a snake show to teach children about snakes and what to do when you meet one and what to do when someone is bitten. The staff are extremely brave and face up to the most lethal of snakes every day to hopefully save lives and limbs and they welcome visitors including tourists. If you are deranged enough you can also volunteer but if you are a snake lover I beg of you, do not go to any snake show, only go to the Saovabha Snake Farm in Bangkok. Although the farm has been here since 2008 it was also here before the inauguration. It has been here doing this very important work since WWII and its ethics are amongst the best in the World even if it does mean being cruel to snakes.
Why is Thailand so bad?
It isn't. Thailand has a commendable record with 147 national parks, 58 wildlife sanctuaries, 67 no hunt areas, and 120 forest parks covering a fifth of the country.
There are five UNESCO World Heritage Sites two of which are natural forest with a known 69 tigers in the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Kanchanaburi alone. Thailand's Government does more than any other country in the World to preserve natural habitat and wildlife some of which is the very last in existence and yet if you Google 'tigers in thailand' 679,000 results are predominantly about the Tiger Temple. I read the first 6 pages and all I could see was information and news about a temple that has been closed down by the Director of National Parks for being unethical.
I tried searching for 'ethical tourism in thailand' and got pages of Eco-Tours and this seems to be part of the problem. People who do not understand the difference and tour operators vying for your attention and money and if you pay a tour operator to take you on an ethical tour you have no more benefitted the animals than you would have done if you visited a tiger farm.
The next problem you come across is the number of 'expert' websites telling you to do your homework and be ethical. I found it exasperating because all I could find was another website telling me to do my homework. They seem to be so intent on telling the world how much they know about eco-tourism and being ethical (which in all honesty seems to be very little) that you cannot find websites that do help you. And that is why I have put a list of ethical places at the top of this page and below is why they are ethical.
Being ethical is subjective. If you think a place is bad then it is unethical. But I might think it good so it is ethical. Ethics are not legislative they are personal. The latest 'craze' is to state that riding an elephant is bad for their backs. I tried to find any website that explained why and couldn't find a single one. I then tried research and academic databases and couldn't find anything on there either. The knowledge appears to be anecdotal in that working elephants have been found to have injuries from persistent riding. But that doesn't mean it is bad for an elephant, it depicts elephant abuse.
On several websites I found statements that if you look at the elephants you can see signs of abuse. Yes you can but that doesn't mean the animal has been abused where it lives now. Elephants have the lifespan of a human so it is normal for a domestic elephant to have changed hands several times in its lifetime. Many of the sanctuaries have rescued working elephants or confiscated them from street owners and that is where they were abused not the house they now live in. What you should look for is the riding crop used by the mahoot. It should be rubber tipped and a simple side on tap on the hip enough to tell the elephant you want it to walk. If the mahoot has a big stick or it has a spike or any kind of metal attached to the end of it then the elephant is being stabbed to make it behave. Also elephants do not sit up and beg and nor do they run without having been 'trained' to do so, so elephant shows are ok but tricks are not. Elephants doing paintings or card tricks or feats of strength are ok but standing in a street chained to a tree is not.
One way to decide if an elephant camp is ethical is to Google images of the camp. If any elephant has an armchair, or couch, or worse still a garden bench strapped to its back then it is hurting the animal. Imagine someone using chair legs to dig into your ribs from behind. That is what the elephant can feel. I am not going to tell you if riding is ethical or not, it is up to you, but make sure the elephants have plenty of blankets on their back and that the chairs have skids instead of chair legs.
Doing your homework is important not because of the camp or the welfare of the animal. It's important to not ruin your holiday with bitter resentment or disappointment. Thailand in 2013 was threatened with sanctions for not doing enough to prevent ivory traders. None of the ivory found in markets was of Asian origin. It was illegally imported from East Africa into Myanmar, Cambodia, and Malaysia and then carried across the borders into Thailand and this trade is almost impossible to prevent. Thailand asked for International assistance and received absolutely none because all efforts were concentrated on Human Trafficking. Thailand is still cleaning up somebody else's relentless mess that is promoted by sole traders who sell it on ignorant of the harm they cause. Would you choose not to visit Thailand because of this?
If so, what if I told you in 2013 CITES along with several International groups and NGOs held a conference in Bangkok that was hosted by the DNP because Thailand had done more than any other country to save Tigers. Clearly Thailand is not a bad place for ethics; People are. But sometimes this sense of ethics becomes contentious and causes the oddest of arguments. On Tripadvisor Ms.Tabmit of Khon Kaen, a town with no discernable reason to produce wildlife experts, intimates that Tiger Kingdom may be a front for illegal tiger trafficking. When questioned she backtracks on the claim and this is how the Internet tears down animal related business'. I would choose not to call Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai or Phuket ethical on the grounds that captive bred tigers for the purpose of photo sessions is not in my opinion a model of best practice for the tiger. But neither is it bad for a tiger's welfare so why not go anyway, it's up to you, both Tiger Kingdoms are not bad places and they look after their cats.
Tabmit adds that she meant the tiger temple in the post she made in December 2016 while the temple was closed down six months before. This is what I find a great deal of; deliberate misuse of facts to prop up a non-sensical argument. She uses a link to Big Cat Rescue (who's owners I am familiar with) to argue why you should not visit zoos or the Tiger Kingdom but it makes no sense at all. BGR is a Florida based organisation that desperately wants to put an end to the petting of cubs in shopping malls in America because the cats when they get too big become unwanted and often dumped having been replaced by another cub. I can tell you there is NO evidence that anything like this has ever occurred at Tiger Kingdom and none of their cats have gone 'missing'. It is nothing more than innuendo by someone with zero knowledge or experience of big cats.
Thailand has a natural habitat and wildlife that could be described as exotic. Elephants, tigers, snakes, exotic birds, turtles, rhinocerous, water buffalo, deer, bears, primates, cranes all live naturally in Thailand. Thai people are used to interacting with exotic creatures so why would we be surprised if one of them had a pet leopard on a leash doing photo sessions. This is not the same as a US shopping mall, because you can wander into the pathway of an Asian elephant in Thailand, but you would not expect to see one in the USA outside of a zoo or safari park. This means ethics in the USA are not the same is in Thailand. Often Thai people do not even realise that their resources are finite and neither do they understand why some animal posession is illegal. This does not excuse your activity. You cannot visit a tiger zoo and then claim it was not your fault you went when you find out it is a farm that sells tigers to China. This is the game NGOs play. They suspect a place is unethical so they gather evidence from tourists. But a tourist doesn't know a drugged tiger from an overfed one and neither do the NGOs. So many are guilty of ludicrous claims that it is their agenda they care about and not the tourist, nor the business, nor the animals involved. For most NGOs it is the publicity and fund raising that matters.
The most guilty in Thailand is WFFT. Edwin Weik is untrustworthy, dishonest, and an attention seeker. His wife runs the most fantastic animal sanctuary in Phetchaburi (Wildlife Friends of Thailand, 108 Moo 6,Tambon Thamairuak, Amphoe Thayang, Petchaburi 76130) Google Maps, but her husband who pretends to be someone he is not, uses it as a platform to voice his stupid opinions. On Twitter he describes himself as "Founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, and first wildlife hospital in Thailand" and neither is true. He was highly influential in the founding of WFFT but it would not have happened without his Thai wife and it was not the first animal hospital. Although it is without doubt amongst the best.
In a recent tweet is 'None of the people involved with illegal trade of tigers and possession of protected wildlife at #TigerTemple have been charged in court'. No they haven't but not because of claims that everything in Thailand is corrupt. It is because there is no evidence that will secure a conviction. He also loves the replies like 'Don't ever give up Edwin'. Utter nonsense, Edwin Weik had no influence on the closure of the temple and neither did his activity in any way help. It was almost solely down to Sybelle Foxcroft and the foundation of cee4life and her work continues. It is by no means over and Edwin Weik is not entrusted with knowledge of the efforts currently going on behind the scenes because he cannot be trusted to not take advantage of it.
"How does anachak know all this?" is the obvious thought to any reader but sadly I cannot publish that until there is closure on all those involved with Wat Pa Luangtabua Yannasampanno. Edwin Weik posts that the temple is trying to resurrect its self. I was invited to a very important meeting in 2017 and can state categorically that is not true and the temple will never re-open. What needs to be ensured is that no subsidiary can start up with the same poor management and that no illegal trafficking can re-occur and currently there is a collaboration of six organisations working with the DNP toward making sure this doesn't happen and those NGOs do not include Edwin Weik or WFFT.
What cannot be done is shutting up Edwin Weik who persistently makes things worse and when headway is made he usually lays claim to the victory. I have no doubt Edwin Weik will do the same when the tiger zoo in Sai Yok is placed under a management order to which he has no knowledge (although he does if he reads this). But despite all this would I recommend WFFT? Absolutely and unreservedly I would. In fact if you can spare the time why not volunteer. WFFT is not beyond reproach but you'd be hard pressed to find anything unethical about the rescue centre.
With any tiger sanctuary the question of ethics cannot be satisfied. On Facebook Angie Marie writes "Please don't go here and spend your money here, it's really not ethical." about Damnoen Saduak Tiger World which is a little surprising because I was there a few weeks later and thought it pretty good compared to other tiger petting zoos. She also wrote the same on Tripadvisor, other Facebook pages, and Google which means she is on a vendetta. I have included Don Kruai because it is clean and the tigers are very healthy and have the freedom to roam. Ms Marie says the cages are cramped and hard floored but doesn't understand the tigers are freely entering the cages to escape the heat.
It is a common claim that all tigers in Thailand are drugged. I am curious as to what they are drugged with? Tigers sleep 18 hours a day and when they are tired they have little interest in goings on around them so the hundreds who keep saying the tigers look bored or drugged are not qualified to make either claim.
I have included Don Kruai but not Phuket or Chiang Mai because although the other two do try hard to look after their cats I have never been to either. They are all the same group so I hope they also have the same business model. Whether they are ethical or not is up to you to decide. None of the three have ever been found wanting for care quality, none of them have been accused of illegal trafficking, and they are all licensed to breed and keep tigers. Except for One Green Planet who posted the headline "EXPOSED! Thailand's Tiger Kingdom Is No Sanctuary for Animals". No, it's a petting zoo, it is called Tiger Kingdom Petting Zoo. They care about tigers, they want to save the tiger, they would even like to be involved in conservation, which is more than can be said about One Green Planet who are also on a vendetta without weighing up the evidence. What's more, anyone in Thailand can take a big cat to Tiger Kingdom and it will be taken in and looked after, that makes it a sanctuary even if it has never happened.
If you want to read One Green Planet's opinion (and it is just an opinion) try onegreenplanet.org but the article has nothing at all in it and is not about the headline. This kind of gutter press investigation can be used on any well meaning company. Responsible Travel is quite a good company and the Thailand tour offers trips in a tour bus, flights around the country, visits to Hill Tribes, and elephants in their natural habitat. They are encouraging you to generate a carbon footprint that you will over your lifetime never balance, visit Mon which has been described by many organisations as unethical, and then Chiang Mai's elephant camp that is not at all natural, the elephants are fenced in, and that is in the first three days! It would be responsible, or ethical, or ecological to not go at all.
This is how easy you can start rumours. Often the accusers are anonymous which means their comments are of little value but they want it to gather momentum. People like Khunwilko, who crops up a lot around the www, are well meaning but they do not realise what they are doing is 'trolling'. They have no impact except on a business' income, they bring about no change, all they do is set the seed of doubt. I have had a lot of experience of investigators and they do not publicise themselves, they do not post their findings on Facebook or Tripadvisor, they are brave people who care about wildlife and put themselves at great risk so publicity is not something they can afford. What you read on the Internet is usually second hand material that someone read somewhere else, it is not fact nor the truth about an animal sanctuary, it is an opinion, it is mostly invention.
So if you want to see wildlife in Thailand:
1) Check out if a place you fancy is appropriate by looking for photos.
2) Check whether the photos are actually of the place you are considering.
3) If you read something bad about a place look for good comments to counter the claims.
4) Check if the person making accusations is genuine.