Wildlife sanctuaries in Asia: Discover the best ethical wildlife attractions that you can visit

Cultural landmarks and vibrant societies give us limitless possibilities when travelling in Asia, but today we take a step back from the temples and the sticky rice and set our long-range lens on the region’s wildlife. Foregoing unethical tourist traps in favour of more animal-friendly practices, we tour the very best wildlife sanctuaries in India, China, Malaysia and Asia at large to put our travel dollars towards conservation efforts and support the recovery of endemic species. This way as tourists we can work to protect natural habitats, instead of damaging them, and ensure the future of the animals we know and love.

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Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai | Photo: Deanna Deshea

Finding ethical animal tourism in Southeast Asia

You don’t have to buy into unethical tourism to appreciate the wildlife of Asia, though if you’ve ever swiped right on a Tinder tiger selfie, you’ll know just how prevalent (and normalised) exploitative practices have become. We in the West are largely to blame for this, having paid into cruel industries and ignored obvious abuse on our travels to distant lands. In 2022, it is up to us to do better, to ask questions and consider the health and wellbeing of the animals we claim to love before buying in. To help us all to do so, we’ve compiled a list of the best places to see wildlife up close in its natural habitat, across the biodiverse rainforests, mountain ranges and national parks that span the continent.

How we spend our money also often determines what practices are perpetuated, so funding organisations that prioritise their animals is essential for responsible travel. Seeing animals in the wild, within national parks and reserves, is no doubt the best option to encounter creatures that are healthy and free, acting as they were meant to rather than pacing around a cage. Sanctuaries too are a good way to support the conservation of a species, though anyone who has misgivings about Tiger King’s Carol Baskin may note that not all sanctuaries are created equal.

Thailand | Photo: Katie Hollamby

Borneo | Photo: Simone Millward

Mr. Hudson highlight image

Despite exploitation of elephants countrywide, a number of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai allow travellers to see and volunteer to work with Thailand’s most revered animal in a respectful way

1. Thailand

We start with a country notorious for its harmful practices – elephant riding and tiger doping being the two most common examples to avoid – in order to reframe this beautiful destination. As well as exploitative tourism, Thailand’s wildlife faces other issues, such as poaching, habitat loss and deforestation from logging. Thankfully, there are more and more wildlife charities and organisations aiming to protect and rescue vulnerable animals. Below we list an inexhaustive list of organisations that allow wildlife encounters, but we leave it to you to ensure your chosen provider is reputable, avoiding companies that offer elephant riding at all costs.

Despite exploitation of elephants countrywide, a number of ethical elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai allow travellers to see and volunteer to work with Thailand’s most revered animal in a respectful way. One of the leading elephant sanctuaries Thailand has to offer is Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park which has been operating since 1990. During that time, the staff and volunteers have rescued and rehabilitated tens of elephants, as well as dogs, cats and even buffaloes. As a visitor, you’ll get to feed the resident elephants and walk with them on 250 acres of open land, learning about conservation efforts in the region as you go. Similarly, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary offers the chance of new life to the island’s abused elephants.

Photo: Carlos Salavert

Thailand | Photo: Katie Hollamby

Beyond elephant sanctuaries, Chiang Mai also offers the chance to research wild Asian elephants with Biosphere Expeditions. On this volunteer expedition, travellers will head to the tropical highlands in the foothills of Thailand’s tallest mountain to conduct behavioural studies on elephant herds in the region, basing operations in a remote hill tribe community. Activities include biodiversity monitoring, capacity building as well as teaching and incentivising conservation to the local population.

Another great opportunity in Phuket island’s Khao Pra Theaw Wildlife Park is The Gibbon Project, an initiative aiming to rescue the nation’s gibbons from tourist exploitation and rehabilitate them on-site before releasing them back into the wild if possible. It’s free to visit the sanctuary, but entry fees to the national park apply. One more ethical wildlife hotspot on Phuket sets its focus on Mai Khao beach where nesting turtles have a safe haven to lay their eggs. Part of the work of the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation is to collect the eggs from other beaches and give them over to the Phuket Marine Biological Centre (PMBC) and the Royal Thai Navy to be rehomed and watched over on Mai Khao. Also in their remit is to educate tourists and schoolchildren on the necessity of conservation, collaborating with hotels, local communities, schools and government organisations to raise awareness and help the local population of leatherbacks and other endangered turtle species to thrive.

Beyond the wildlife, discover how to spend time in the nation with our 10-day Thailand itinerary alongside our rundown of the best destinations to enjoy gay Thailand.

Philippines | Photo: Cris Tagupa

2. The Philippines

When searching for wildlife vacations that coincide with tropical beach retreats, the Philippines’ Bohol Island is a fabulous first choice. A short distance outside of Panglao – Bohol’s most popular beach spot – travellers will find the Tarsier Sanctuary, a site home to the smallest primates in the world. Measuring in at around 10-15 centimetres fully grown and bearing wild yellow eyes, Tarsiers are intensely shy and almost impossible to find in the wild. The Tarsier Sanctuary is one of only a few ethical foundations on the island allowing visitors to spot the little critters in their own habitat, with staff extra vigilant in ensuring a stress-free environment for the park’s tarsiers. Flash photography and loud noises are forbidden and rangers will walk with you around the park to point out the tarsier sleeping spots of the day.

From tiny tarsiers to gentle giants, Donsol Bay on the island of Luzon should be your next destination in the Philippines, allowing for near-guaranteed sightings of whale sharks between November to June. Known as the whale shark capital of the world, Donsol prides itself on its community-based ecotourism, working closely with WWF Philippines to ensure the protection of the species. Embark on a boat tour from the bay with ‘spotters’ that scan the surface of the water for signs of life. Once spotted, you may don your snorkel and dive up close to these bus-sized creatures, perhaps four or five times on a three-hour cruise.

Back on land, a wholly different experience awaits nearby the Negros Forest, where forest cover has sadly dwindled to just four per cent of what it had a century ago, endangering a number of endemic species. To prevent more biodiversity loss, the Negros Forest and Ecological Foundation in Bacolod aims to rehabilitate the native wildlife, breeding critically endangered species and releasing the animals back into the forest when possible. Current residents at the foundation include a few leopard cats, Visayan warty pigs and Philippines spotted deer alongside birds, bats and reptiles. Discover more of this paradise archipelago on our ultimate two-week Philippines itinerary.

Tarsier Conservation Area, Bohol | Photo: Giuliano Gabella

Philippines | Photo: Rolands Varsbergs

3. Indonesia

Borneo and Sumatra are the last two places in the world home to wild orangutans, which makes Indonesia an easy choice for travellers in search of our orange-haired brethren. While both regions are incredible for their dense rainforests and biodiversity, Sumatran orangutans and Bornean orangutans do differ slightly in appearance, with the former having longer and brighter fur. If you’re a particular fan of redheads, opt for an organised orangutan trek through the Sumatran jungle, starting from Bukit Lawang village at the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. The park itself covers an area of 8,000 square kilometres, making an expert guide essential in navigating the vast space and successfully tracking orangutans. During the trek, your guide will also educate you about orangutan behaviour and many of the park’s 500 other animal species, such as rare Sumatran tigers, rhinos and elephants.

Indonesia wildlife doesn’t stop at orangutans, however, as the Komodo dragons of Komodo National Park keenly prove. These endangered Indonesian animals run wild (but slow, thankfully) on Komodo, as well as the islands of Flores, Rinca and Gili Motang. To see these three-metre, 70-kilogram beasts (at their largest) you can sign up for a trekking tour within the national park, guided by an expert who can track the Komodos’ whereabouts. Along the way, you will also meet many other animals Indonesia has to offer, including wild boar, monkeys and tropical birds. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Komodo National Park is accessible from Labuan Bajo on the Indonesian mainland, with specific tours reaching different parts of each island (so choose wisely).

Indonesia | Photo: Guillaume Meurice

Indonesia | Photo: Dimitry B

Besides Komodo trekking, travellers to the region can enjoy great diving opportunities off the coast, catching sight of manta rays, dolphins, sharks, turtles and – if lucky – Pygmy sea horses! If snorkelling is something you’re into, The Dorsal Effect organisation on Lombok Island may interest you. The purpose of the Dorsal Effect is to raise money and protect Indonesia’s marine life by finding alternative careers for fishermen formerly involved in exploitative fishing practices. One such result of overfishing and an unsustainable shark fin industry is the decimation of the local shark population – estimated to be 73 million sharks wiped out each year. Help The Dorsal Effect achieve its goal by booking a boat trip and snorkelling among the reefs and coves of Lombok, likely guided by a former fisherman.

One last option we have time to mention is Ujung Kulon National Park, based in southwest Java. The lowland forest here is the largest remaining on the island, providing crucial habitat for diverse flora and fauna, some of which are rare or endangered. Javan rhinoceros is one such species, seriously under threat though about 50 live freely in the park. The Javan leopard, Javan langur and silvery gibbon also coexist alongside more common residents such as deer, otters, peacocks, monitor lizards and wild boar. Upon exiting the national parks, discover more about the country with our guide to the best places to enjoy gay Indonesia.

Komodo National Park | Photo: Andri Onet

4. Malaysia

The ancient rainforested realm of Borneo is an island shared between four territories; Indonesian Kalimantan, Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. Each bears its own piece of paradise, laden with beaches, lush mountains and immense biodiversity. Those who don’t mind their orangutans fair-haired and would like a ditch the trekking can forego Indonesian Sumatra in favour of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. Here, Semenggoh Nature Reserve is a 1,800-acre forest just 30 minutes from the city of Kuching and home to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, a sustainable park dedicated to rehabilitating orangutans in their natural habitat. Park rangers put on a spread of fruit twice daily for the resident population to grab and go and for quiet visitors to view from afar, learning more about the project in the gallery beside the park entrance.

An alternative to Sarawak is the Malaysian state of Sabah, home to Borneo’s highest peak – the 4,095-metre-tall Mount Kinabalu. Acting as a base for Borneo safari tours in eastern Sabah is the city of Sandakan, in easy reach of the wildlife at Kinabatangan River, the orangutans of Sepilok and the Danum Valley Conservation Area, where various impressive species roam the 440-square-kilometre rainforest. When arriving at Danum, you’ll be welcomed by a tour guide who’ll take you around the park – day or night! – to search for gems of the forest such as Malay bears, Sumatran rhinos and Borneo pygmy elephants. Although encounters with the top three are rare, myriad other wildlife can take their place.

Malaysian Borneo | Photo: Jesse Schoff

In the same vein as Semanggoh, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is another great place to view semi-wild orangutans in a natural habitat (just one of three such sanctuaries in the world). As well as watching a feeding, you may also see mothers with their young and adolescents swinging from tree to tree before dining and dashing. While in the area you can also visit the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre next door, to learn of how bears are exploited for bile in the region and have your faith in humanity restored as you watch the rangers teach and rehabilitate traumatised and depressed bears.

Borneo gets wilder, however, especially so on boat rides from the small village of Sukau. From the boat, travellers get the chance to view pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, hornbills and eagles, something that is near impossible outside of the region. More action can be had at Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia’s largest park (at 4,343 square kilometres) and one of the region’s most wildlife-rich habitats. Here, Sumatran tigers, rhinos and cloud leopards live in peace, though sightings are rare. Less rare however are glimpses of the park’s 400 elephants, as well as dusky-leaf monkeys, spectacled langurs and more. Head straight to the park’s watering holes for the best chance of sightings, climbing to the top of the hides on stilts that give a bird’s-eye view of proceedings. Discover Malaysia with the best 10-day Malaysia itinerary.

Borneo | Photo: Simone Millward

Mr. Hudson highlight image

The aim of the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity is to rescue animals from unethical zoos and the black market, rehabilitating them in the hopes of returning them back to the wild

5. Cambodia

The most likely chance of finding Cambodian wildlife in its natural habitat is to trek through the jungles of the Cardamom Mountains or Virachey National Park, and, even then, there’s no guarantee. Only as recently as 2016 did the Cambodian government introduce the Southern Cardamom National Park, a 4.5-million-acre merger between six existing national parks, designed to protect the last habitats for wild Asian elephants, Indochinese tigers, clouded leopards and several other rarefied species. Formerly a war zone and hiding place for the Khmer Rouge after its regime collapsed, this biodiverse region has seen much unrest – from logging, mining and industrial development also – but, thankfully, several organisations are working to protect what’s left, including the Wildlife Alliance and Rainforest Trust.

Also making up for lost life are the many animal sanctuaries in the country, such as the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) based 90 minutes outside Siem Reap and the world-famous Angkor Wat complex. The aim of ACCB is to rescue animals from unethical zoos and the black market, rehabilitating them in the hopes of returning them back to the wild. A number of rare species currently reside in the park, totalling 500 animals from 45 species, including the leopard cat, pileated gibbon and Asian palm civet. As well as rescue missions, ACCB has a breeding program for endangered species alongside education workshops and seminars to teach locals about wildlife conservation in Cambodia.

Irrawaddy dolphins are a species found in rivers across South Asia, most notably in the Mekong as it runs through Cambodia and Laos. Pale and curved in the face, Irrawaddy dolphins could pass for beluga whales, if it wasn’t for their distinctive smiling faces. One of the best places to spot Irrawaddy dolphins is some 15 kilometres north of Kratie near Kampi village in Cambodia. Find out where to stay and what to do in the nation with our Cambodia travel guide. 

Angkor centre for conservation of biodiversity, Cambodia | Photo: Slavena Peneva

Angkor Wat, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia | Photo: Melody Temple

6. Sri Lanka

Dwarfed on the map by neighbouring India, Sri Lanka is a tropical nation that shouldn’t be underestimated, especially when it comes to wildlife. If you’re a sea turtle enthusiast, Sri Lanka is after your heart, for her beaches are incredibly important for the global population of sea turtles, hosting thousands of eggs each year. To help the turtles thrive, you can consider volunteering with conservation projects around the country, helping to protect nesting sites and hatchlings, and possibly even releasing baby turtles into the water at certain times of the year.

Beyond its hard shell, Sri Lanka is also home to an incredible landscape of monsoon forests and wetlands, where elephants and leopards are known to roam. Yala National Park is the oldest and best example of Sri Lanka’s parks also holding historical and religious importance. Minneriya National Park is a worthy alternative around four hours outside of Colombo, made all the better by the largest recurring gathering of Asian elephants anywhere in the world. Visitors who come to Minneriya National Park between September and October can expect to see a great number of elephants – over 300 in total – congregating around watering holes within the 21,900-acre park, to graze, drink, bathe and find mates. The elephants are certainly the stars of the show, but 23 other mammals (purple-faced langur and sloth bears included!) and 170 bird species also call the park home. Figure out the details of your schedule with our 10-day Sri Lanka itinerary.

Sri Lanka | Photo: Rajiv Perera

7. India

A big land with a wildlife population to match, India continues to progress in the field of conservation alongside economic development. We are lucky this is the case, as India’s endemic species are some of the world’s most championed, including tigers, lions and elephants. Of the 72 bird sanctuaries and 564 wildlife sanctuaries India has to offer, we’ve picked three favourites, each for very different reasons. First up is Ranthambore National Park in the northern state of Rajasthan, once the hunting territory for the princes of Jaipur and now one of the country’s largest national parks. Unique with a 210-metre fort upon which you can view the wildlife, Ranthambore is the place to visit if you want to step into tiger territory on guided safaris through the area. On your safari expedition, you can also expect to spot leopards, hyenas and wild boar, getting further involved in conservation efforts via Ranthambore’s volunteer programs.

Our second choice of the best Indian sanctuaries is Kanha National Park, a space immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and in the minds of all who visit. Dense forests, meadows, ravines and gorges run through it, to make it one of Asia’s most beautiful parks, alive with 200 species of plant and 70 species of tree. As far as wildlife goes, Kanha National Park also doesn’t disappoint, home as it is to tigers, jackals and wild boar – concentrated in the Kanha meadows. Nor are the watering holes of Sondar Tank and Babathenga Tank bad places to look, as animals often gather here to quench their thirst. Bird lovers meanwhile can stop at the elevated viewpoint of Bamhnidadar to spot birds of prey.

Not the biggest of Kerala wildlife sanctuaries but certainly large enough, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is our final pick among the wildlife sanctuaries of India, in proximity to Kerala’s romantic resort getaways. Set up as recently as 1973 in the Western Ghats, Wayanad now ranks 8th among the World’s Biodiversity Hotspots, rugged with hills and valleys home to 45 species of mammal, six of which are endemic to the region. The King Cobra is also resident in the park, alongside 45 reptile species, 30 amphibians and 203 bird species. See our full list of dream places to visit in India.

Ranthambore National Park, India | Photo: Kartikeya Srivastava

Bird Sanctuary, India | Photo: Lenstravelier

8. China

One last vast land on the wildlife-spotting bucket list is China, predominantly known for its larger-than-life cultural attractions, but China’s national parks seek to change this. Perhaps, most notably, the Cheng Du Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding has helped bring the native panda population back from endangerment, rescuing and rehoming giant and red pandas since the 1980s. This research base holds a key role in China’s ‘panda diplomacy’ mission, which was implemented as a way to build stronger relationships with foreign nations through the donation of its giant pandas (a species unique to China). The base lies upon 247 acres of misty mountain and bamboo forest, receiving 3.5 million tourists annually to observe the fluffy specimens. The nursery rooms allow visitors to watch female pandas nursing their young, while ‘Panda Valley’ offers insight into how trainers adapt pandas to the wild while also educating on local and global environmental issues.

To see pandas in their natural environment, Foping National Nature Reserve in Shaanxi Province may be preferable, a reserve home to 64 pandas and other endangered species such as the yellow monkey. To visit Foping, you first must travel to Xi’an and then to the foothills of Qinling Mountain, where trails through temperate forest (spanning 72,300 acres!) await. For more, discover Mr Hudson’s two-week China itinerary covering more national parks and hidden gems.

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, China | Photo: Theodor Lundqvist

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