Wildlife Tourism Exposed: Nat Geo Uncovers the Truth About This Shadowy Industry

A tourist riding an elephant in Phuket, Thailand. Though elephants are considered domestic animals in the country, they must endure a brutal crushing of the spirit in order to serve man.

Wildlife tourism is a booming international business born out of the human desire to engage with exotic animals. Inextricably linked with the illegal wildlife trade – a black market with an annual estimated worth of $7 – $23 billion that puts 7,000 species at risk – the tourism industry has a dark side that has long been hidden from the public.

During our travels in South East Asia we had a number of unforgettable experiences with wildlife, as well as the chance to observe good and bad practices across the region. National Geographic’s recent exposé on the topic is a deep dive into this shadowy industry, and is essential reading for anyone passionate about travel, animal rights, and conservation. Below is an account of some of our experiences with wildlife tourism, our recommendations on where to go and what to avoid.

Interacting with captive elephants is very easy in South East Asia where thousands work in tourism, and where opportunities to ride elephants are widely available. We took the above photo while hiking to Big Buddha Phuket on a very hot day in Thailand. The hike took us through a jungle path along a cliff overlooking the Andaman Sea and past an elephant trekking camp on a busy road. The photo pretty much captures how elephant tourism works.

It’s easy to see that the tourist on the elephant appears overjoyed. Riding an elephant is probably a life long dream of hers because she likely has no idea of the cruel breaking of the spirit, known as phajaan, or the crush, that all elephants must endure in order to be obedient enough to give rides and perform tricks. Phajaan is a torturous event over days or weeks that usually occurs when an elephant is a baby or juvenile. The babes are separated from their mothers and beaten until they have lost the will to resist the elephant trainer, called the mahout.

The mahout sitting on the elephant’s neck in the photo uses his feet to guide the elephant by tapping her forehead with his right heel and steering her movements with his left foot on her ear. The bull hook in his hand, the tool most commonly used to control and discipline elephants, looms ominously above her head. A pink scar rings her back left ankle, likely the result of prolonged restraint. These are the things we can see.

What’s not visible in the photo are the concrete slabs connected to thick chains that line the edge of the cliff where we assumed the elephants rest at night, or the shacks in the jungle where it’s likely the mahouts and their families live. Beyond the animal cruelty that often goes unseen in this business is the human suffering of the animal caretakers who rely on the industry for their livelihoods. In Thailand, elephants are legally classified as domestic animals like horses or cows, and elephant training, like farming or ranching, is often a family tradition. In the case of elephant ownership, a lack of upward mobility often keeps families stuck in the cycle. The mahout is not the owner of the elephant camp.

We watched the above elephant in a caravan of several pass us, including one who walked with all four legs shackled together. When we reached the main road and entrance to the camp we discovered a baby elephant pacing in a small pen and a young male attached to a chain constantly pulling on his short tether. A family with a young child paid to feed him. We were asked if we wanted to feed the baby elephant, but declined, and continued on our hike unsettled by what we had seen.

Elephants carry tourists in high heat at Angkor Wat’s Bayon Temple in Cambodia. An elephant that died of heatstroke under these conditions in 2016 sparked an international outcry, including a petition to ban elephant riding in Cambodia that was signed by tens of thousands. This photo was taken in 2017.

National Geographic’s recent article covers a wide range of animals involved in wildlife tourism, from bears to wolves, sloths, elephants, tigers and marine animals spanning countries and continents. The main take away, though, is not just an understanding of the misery often involved in wildlife tourism, but the way tourists are duped. When writing about elephant camps in Thailand the article’s authors described two camps: one that offers elephant rides, and another that calls itself a sanctuary. At the “sanctuary” the animals seem free from servitude. But it turns out both camps are owned by the same company, and those elephants at the “sanctuary” also give rides.

This story hit close to home for us. One of our favorite experiences during our time in Asia was a day of snorkeling in Thailand, which we booked on a whim through our hotel. It was only later that we discovered the same company also offered elephant rides. Had we known at the time, we would have taken our business elsewhere.

We had a similar experience in Borneo when we visited two wildlife centers operated by the Malaysian government: Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, which appears to be doing great work returning orangutans to the jungle permanently, and their counterpart, Matang Wildlife Centre, which houses a menagerie of endangered and exotic animals that have been injured, orphaned, or rescued from the exotic pet trade. At Matang, most of the animals were living in cramped, small and sparse enclosures unlike their freely roaming cousins in Semenggoh.

Though Matang is not a zoo or sanctuary, not all the animals living there are releasable, causing visitors to wonder why the permanent residents are not living in better conditions. With no rangers available to answer questions, we left with the impression that Matang is under staffed, under funded, and poorly maintained, housing depressed and distressed wild animals. What we saw – pacing sun bears, an orangutan staring at the wall, rhinoceros hornbills in small confines, and a gibbon that threw poop at us – did not give us a good feeling, and it turns out other visitors shared our concerns. A slew of negative reviews on TripAdvisor have since reached the government, though it remains to be seen if any action will be taken to improve the conditions at Matang.

Orangutans at Matang Wildlife Centre in 2017.

Though not all experiences with wildlife tourism involve cages, chains, and trainers, when booking a tour out in nature you can still encounter some less than stellar guides and operators.

In Indonesia, we booked two tours around Komodo National Park that involved snorkeling with manta rays. It was surprisingly difficult to find information on most tour companies ahead of time, with many travel bloggers advising visitors to book in person. We scheduled one tour in advance with a sustainably minded company and the second on arrival, resulting in two very different snorkeling experiences.

The guides from the tour booked in person urged our group to jump into the ocean practically on top of the manta rays into a dark, swift current without any explanation of what to expect, while guides from the tour booked in advance encouraged us to calmly and gently enter the water at a distance so as not to disturb these gentle giants. Though no one was hurt with the first tour group, we felt that the experience could have been dangerous for us and the mantas.

So how can you avoid supporting unsavory organizations when seeing wildlife?

Research is your best bet. Visit the company websites and look at reviews on sites like TripAdvisor before booking. Reading blogs about others’ experiences can also be helpful. Though this will usually do the trick, it’s not always possible to know what a wildlife center, park or tour will be like until you get there. If something seems amiss, ask employees, and share your experience with others. Generally speaking, if an animal is performing i.e. being made to pose for photos, be constantly handled, do tricks, or give rides, it’s probably not a good situation. If you are able to interact with wildlife, it’s important that any contact is on the animal’s terms.

Arctic wolf, Sugar, relaxing at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in New Mexico.

Thankfully, there are plenty of sanctuaries, national parks, and reserves that offer opportunities to engage with wild animals ethically. Here are our recommendations on where to visit based on our experiences:

  • Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand – This sanctuary for elephants rescued from logging and tourism is truly fantastic. They have several projects around Thailand and neighboring countries allowing tourists to interact with retired elephants humanely. A number of tours and volunteer opportunities are offered. We volunteered on site for a week.

  • Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Kuching, Borneo – The orangutans at Semenggoh have been rehabilitated and released back into the wild after being injured, orphaned, or rescued from lives as pets. The center is open twice a day for visitors to observe orangutans during feeding times, though seeing them is not guaranteed. Visitors have no contact with the orangutans.

  • Komodo National Park with Flores XP Adventure, Indonesia – Flores XP Adventure is an eco tourism company offering tours around Komodo National Park. On our single day tour, we saw komodo dragons, dolphins, tropical fish, manta rays, reef sharks, and flying foxes in the wild. Tourists have no contact with the animals.

  • Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, Ramah, New Mexico – WSWS rescues wolves and other wild canines from the exotic pet trade, providing lifetime sanctuary. Like ENP, visitors can choose from a number of tours and volunteer opportunities. We worked at WSWS for two years and definitely recommend a visit.

  • Wolf Haven International, Tenino, Washington – Wolf Haven also rescues and provides lifetime sanctuary for displaced wolves and wolf-dogs. They are accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries and the American Sanctuary Association. Guided tours with no animal contact are available by appointment.

  • Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Ubud, Bali – The Monkey Forest Sanctuary is home to over 600 long-tailed macaques on 30 acres of protected jungle within the city of Ubud. The monkeys are wild, but not shy. Although it is possible to touch them, it’s not recommended.

  • Bako National Park, Borneo, Malaysia – During our visit to this protected peninsula, we saw bearded boars, proboscis monkeys, macaques, a pit viper, and many other animals along the trails and beach. There is no interaction with the wild animals at Bako.

Ultimately, wildlife tourism exists because people love animals, but if we remain shielded from the reality of the industry, elephant riding, tiger cuddles, exotic animal performance, and ownership will continue. As awareness of the unethical practices involved in most animal attractions spreads, the industry will have to change, benefitting humans, animals and ecosystems alike.

*Interested in more ways to help? Thailand is planning to allow Asian elephants, an endangered species, to be exported from the country beginning June 23, 2019 for the purposes of research, study, good relations, and parts or products for academic research or as antiques/art objects. Asian elephants are a keystone species making them critical to their ecosystems, and with only about 1,000 left in the wild in Thailand, this new law, which would lift a ban on elephant exportation that has been in place for the last decade, is likely to compromise the Asian elephant’s future in Thailand and beyond. You can help by signing and sharing this petition to stop Thailand from exporting elephants.

A happy herd at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Visiting: Big Buddha Phuket, Thailand

It was our first morning on the island when we noticed Big Buddha serenely overlooking the landscape. Gazing out our hotel window sipping instant coffee and taking in the palm covered hillside decorated with villas, restaurants, shops and a turquoise slice of Kata Beach’s half moon cove, we looked up at the behemoth Buddha while listening to the morning breeze that carried sounds of chirping birds, vehicles cruising the active roadside, and the mix of languages being spoken in the hotel lounge.

When looking into the area, Big Buddha hadn’t appeared in our research. Intrigued, we wanted to know more, and agreed to make an adventure out of hiking to the monument and scenic viewpoint.

Big Buddha's silhouette.

The bells to the right each dangle a heart inscribed with prayers in many tongues left by visitors.

A quick visit to the website offered some basic information and a brief history.

Entry is free and the site is open everyday from 6AM – 7PM.

Though construction began as early as 2006 the project was still in the finishing stages (as of our visit in 2017). Despite visible construction materials, the site offers outstanding panorama views from every angle, featuring, of course, a stunning 45-meter marble and jade Buddha seated atop the peak of Mount Nagakerd.

The back entrance to Big Buddha's interior.

A smaller 12-meter high glimmering gold Buddha serves as a replica for the larger statue and can be found beside its big brother. A path through the bottom of Big Buddha allows visitors to walk through and take a look inside.

At the base of the site is a traditional temple where monks can be found partaking in daily rituals and interacting with visitors. Being an active religious site, it’s good to know that guests, especially ladies, are expected to cover up shoulders and legs.

We had scarves that served this purpose, but shawls are provided and available for sale on site if needed at one of the plethora of shops offering souvenirs to take home with you.

Have a look at our video below for a walk through of Big Buddha.

If you'd like to know where we stayed in Phuket, learn about our adventurous hike, and peruse our gallery of snapshots (at the end of this article), please read on.



Relaxing on Kata Beach.

The drive from Phuket International Airport in a shared van with 15 other travelers to our hotel took about two hours stopping intermittently at each passenger’s accommodations. While this isn’t the fastest or most luxurious way to travel, it only cost about $6 per person, which makes it all worth it when you’re on a budget.



While planning our trip to Asia we had always envisioned visiting Phuket, Thailand’s famed tropical resort laden island, a bridge away from the mainland, and a jump off to the country’s myriad of dreamy emerald islands, each with their own charm.

This was the second stop on our six-month journey overseas following a month in Bali, Indonesia. After pouring over reviews of Phuket’s beaches and hotels, we decided on Kata Beach on the southwest side of the Island. We arrived in February during the dry season and enjoyed remarkably flat teal waters. Generally speaking, Thailand doesn't have a lot of surf. Despite that, Kata Beach does have some of the surf culture we were looking for in a place to stay.

On a backpacker’s budget, we admittedly struggled to find a hotel with the amenities we wanted within our price range. That is, until we found Boondaree Home Resort through AirBNB, tucked away from the tourist center offering both ocean and mountain views.

For about $20 a night we enjoyed a private room with en suite bathroom, a pleasant view, free and reliable Wi-Fi, free coffee, a fridge, a tiny pool, and a quiet place to get work done within walking distance to town. While the hotel is on a very busy street, it's less than a thirty minute walk through sleepy back roads to the beach, and 10 minutes walking distance to nearby restaurants. The staff at Boondaree was super friendly and helpful, too. (A note of reference: all the hotels we looked at with similar amenities near any beach were at least double the price per night.)



Let's Go!

While it seems most drive to Big Buddha we decided to hike for adventure and exercise.

We didn't have cell service at the time, and identified our route using Google Maps (the screenshots below were the road maps that guided us). Others who’d made the journey recommended leaving early to avoid walking during the hottest part of the day, but not being the earliest of risers we left at about 10AM. Hindsight is 20/20 and we can see now we would have been more comfortable if we heeded the advice.

It's important to know that Phuket is a developed city experiencing increasing growth, more so than we expected. Our hotel was on a steep and busy road not well suited for pedestrians. No sidewalks, just a little slice of asphalt on either side of the street littered with trash and broken glass.

Sunscreened, donning sun hats, sun glasses, sneakers, and carrying back packs filled with water and scarves, we started out on our hike. Motorists honked as they passed, some hoping we'd hire them for a ride, others simply alerting us to their presence. But once set out on our pilgrimage, we were determined to complete it.

The day grew hot fast as we walked the twisting highway that crossed the island from east to west. In a particularly narrow section passing a cliff side, we walked along a cement guardrail, enjoying the view of the other side of Phuket

The view from Mount Nagakerd.

After about forty minutes of trekking when the road started to dip downhill we began to wonder whether we were lost, and turned into a hotel restaurant to use the Internet and take a break from the heat. While sitting at the covered outdoor café, we watched a cat try to catch a stork (the stork prevailed), and consulted our map over watermelon juice and spring rolls.

At the end of the hotel’s driveway was a security shack that guarded a small road leading up the mountain. All signs pointed that we were to go that way. So we did.

The quiet street lined with fancy villas felt like a scenic road compared to the bustling highway, and soon, the asphalt met with a dirt path heading straight into the jungle. Now, this was the “hike to Big Buddha” we had in mind!

We forged ahead through a narrow trail along a steep cliff overlooking the east side of Phuket and Phang Nga Bay peaked with forested islands. Built into the hills, we passed both small shelters made of tin and boards, and abandoned half-built luxury homes. Orange and purple butterflies danced around us avoiding florescent black and yellow orb spiders perched in intricate webs.

We anticipated passing an elephant camp along the way, but were nonetheless arrested by the sight of a beautiful Asian Elephant walking toward us on the path, her mahout (trainer) on her head and tourist on her back. This was our first encounter with an elephant in our travels, and we found ourselves taken aback by both her majesty and plight. We stopped and waited, watching the elephant suck water from a small puddle on the side of the road and spray it under her belly to cool off. We continued on, passing two more elephants on a tourist trek, one with all of her four legs bound in chains.

Exiting the short and quiet forested segment of our walk, we came to an intersection with a winding road going straight up and down the mountain. To either side were outposts featuring young elephants. One juvenile that was harnessed to the ground by a chain on the side of the road paced and pulled at its fastened leg, only ceasing when tourists gave him a banana. In the opposite direction heading toward Big Buddha a baby elephant paced in a pen. We were offered to feed the baby, but declined.

*The cruelty inflicted on endangered Asian Elephant’s by the elephant tourism industry is well documented, and as such we do not condone elephant riding whatsoever. This is a complex issue, and in many cases both elephants and people are forced into bad situations that cause pain for both parties. If you want to interact with elephants in Phuket, please consider giving the power of your dollar to an elephant sanctuary like Elephant Nature Park's project, Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the first ethical elephant sanctuary in Phuket.



Up and up the mountain we climbed for at least an hour more passing restaurants and viewpoints, until finally we came upon the entrance. Once inside, we took our time exploring the complex and catching some gorgeous views before making our way up the imposing set of steps to greet Big Buddha himself.

When finished exploring the main attraction we visited the temple, and finally found a cozy bench to sip some cold coconuts before heading back to Kata Beach, stopping along the way for a late lunch overlooking the sea.

Nearing the top of the massive set of steps leading to Big Buddha.

The walk was easier on the way back thanks to knowing the way and what to expect (going downhill helped, too!), along with our self-made agreement to finish the journey without any griping. Inspired by Big Buddha, we made an effort to simply be in the now, to accept what is – whether pleasant or unpleasant – and enjoy these little moments.

By the time we reached Boondaree after 5 hours of walking through the heat we were exhausted and slightly dehydrated, but also gratified. We had overcome a physical exercise, an exercise in faith when we doubted our way, and an exercise in patience. And back at the hotel, after a fun and memorable day of exploration, the tiny swimming pool awaited us.