Ethical Animal Tourism: Emma’s Family Experience in South East Asia
My family and I have always enjoyed exploring new places together, and in 2017 we went on our first overseas adventure, to South East Asia. We travelled to four countries in four months, and we continue to plan many more extended trips as our kids grow up. We have begun ‘world schooling’, so as part of our kid’s education we will travel to many places around the world together, experiencing other cultures and environments and learning from the source. For us, we think it’s the best kind of education we can provide, and we love that it gives us the opportunity to really be with our children throughout their childhoods.
But, we didn’t want to create this life if it had a negative impact on the environment, or the people whose home lands we were visiting! We are aware of the issues with tourism and travel emissions, so we researched and found ways we could achieve our goals without harming people or the planet.
These included flying minimally, supporting responsible tours and accommodations, seeking experiences that benefit locals, and giving back too. We wanted to volunteer with our kids if we could find projects that are ethically and professionally managed, and that accept young helpers! And we wanted to have experiences with animals in a way that did not profit from keeping them contained, but supported and protected them. Here are some ethical animal tourism experiences we took part in, while traveling in South East Asia.
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Ethical Animal Tourism: Volunteering with Sea Turtles in Malaysia
We were happy to find the Juara Turtle Project on Tioman Island, Malaysia, as it accepts families and does wonderful work protecting sea turtles. JTP is mostly concerned with turtle egg protection, education for volunteers, visitors and locals, research and a new coral mapping project. They patrol Juara Bay and a secluded nesting site daily, looking for evidence of nesting mothers. If a nest is found the eggs are carefully relocated to JTP’s hatchery, where the eggs are buried in a nest that replicates the mother’s in terms of its location (shade/sun/part sun) and depth. Sand from the original site is also included in the nest as it contains the mother’s fluids. The mother turtle never returns to her nest (or land!) after laying the eggs, so it does not harm their relationship.
Keeping Eggs Safe at the Juara Turtle Project Hatchery
If the project did not relocate the eggs to their safe hatchery, predators such as lizards and crabs would eat many, and poachers are still common too. Even though most species of sea turtle are endangered, and even though only 2 of 4 species still return to Tioman Island, their eggs are still eaten as a delicacy. Lights from resorts and noise from tourists are also threats to nesting turtles, so JTP staff work hard to educate people about what they can do to help.
We volunteered for a week at JTP, and we all got to experience the tasks that they need assistance with. Daily chores included cleaning, watering plants, and checking on and raking the hatchery. We had some larger jobs that are performed weekly also, like collecting recycling from businesses around the bay, walking the whole beach collecting rubbish, and sanding and repainting signs for the hatchery. And from JTP we could give a ‘turtle talk’ to visitors, explaining the threats to turtles and what the Project does, and showing them around the facilities. I enjoyed talking to guests and our kids even came along for that too! It was a great way for them to remember what we were learning.
Patrols for nesting mothers were done on the beach several times a night, at different times depending on the tide. Anthony enjoyed getting up early to do that so most mornings he volunteered for it, while I loved the boat patrol more. The boat visits a secluded beach about 20 minutes from Juara Bay every morning to check for turtle tracks.
During our week a nest was discovered at that beach, so we were able to watch how it was transferred and help a little. It was fascinating to learn about how carefully the transfer had to be done, to ensure the babies had the best chance of hatching.
The Excitement of Hatching Eggs & Baby Turtles
A nest also hatched just before we arrived, and a few late hatchlings emerged on our first night there. We were woken to come and see them be released, which was very exciting! A few days afterwards, that nest was excavated to count the number of unhatched eggs. We also got to assist with that, and Anthony found several hatchlings alive as he had a turn digging into the nest. Dante got to hold one briefly and Allegra gently touched its shell, before it was placed in a container while the excavation was completed. Seven babies were discovered were released soon after, though they had a fairly low chance of survival as they weren’t strong enough to emerge themselves. Dante and I also assisted in matching up the egg fragments from the nest, and we learnt about the various reasons why the remaining eggs didn’t hatch.
It was a wonderful week in which we learnt a lot, and I love that we were able to support the Project’s great work. I wrote in my blog post about it that perhaps two adults without children might have been more useful to JTP than us, as it did get very tiring looking after our kids as well as doing the work. Allegra still needed a daily nap then and they both wanted to play with us in the lunch breaks, which didn’t give us much of a break! One week was plenty with quite young children, but we are still very glad we did it. We were still helpful, and we wanted to show the kids how animals are a part of life and the ecosystem without taking them out of it. With this we could show them how important it is to care for the environment and protect all creatures, and it was a really interesting week for all of us. Also, we made many friends from all over the world there, and it was wonderful to connect with other passionate people while doing some meaningful work together.
Ethical Animal Tourism: Visiting Elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand
The other animals we were very keen to see in Asia were elephants. There don’t seem to be any volunteering programs open to young children working with elephants, which is probably for the best! There is a huge range of elephant experiences and many call themselves ‘ethical’ or ‘responsible’ but still have questionable practices, so we took our time researching what we could do.
The Mahout’s Elephant Foundation
In the mountains outside Chiang Mai in Thailand, there are now a couple of projects that take visitors to see elephants in the forest. We chose to support the Mahout’s Elephant Foundation, an organization who has returned some elephants to their natural home by walking alongside them for 8 days; from an elephant work camp, back to the forest.
The Foundation offers a home stay experience in a small Karen village, and trekking from there into the forest to observe the elephants doing what they love to do: which is grazing for food, scratching on trees, playing and taking mud baths. We loved that their program was created in conjunction with mahouts and others from the small village of Huay Pakoot, as the purpose is also to bring income to their village, and bring the mahouts home. In the past mahouts have needed to work in the cities with their elephants, which takes them away from their families and barely gives them a livable income. This type of program is benefiting them and their communities, and of course the elephants too. It is a wonderful model of sustainable tourism.
We were collected from our accommodation in Chiang Mai by the Mahouts Foundation, and they drove us the 4 hours through Doi Inthanon National Park to the village. We met our lovely host family and learned we were their first ever guests! They had recently completed a dwelling next door to their home to be able to receive homestay visitors, and it was beautiful. That night we had a welcome ceremony and our hosts cooked us a range of delicious traditional food throughout our stay.
Sustainable Elephant Observation: Why We Love the Mahout’s Elephant Foundation
The next morning we set off early to find the elephants. We walked past the village and corn crops, and into the surrounding forest. The elephants are allowed to wander very freely, so where they will be depends on the season and where they are currently grazing. At that time they were fairly close to the village, but at other times the Foundation recommends camping in the forest for that second night, to see them again before returning the next day. We had hoped to just trek again the next day to see them, but the hike was too long for us all to manage again!
When we were getting close to the herd we could hear them trumpeting. It was amazing to discover that even though they are huge, elephants can keep hidden extremely well in the forest, and that they are really nimble and graceful. They’re almost like mountain goats, navigating steep hills and squeezing through small spaces easily.
They are also extremely intelligent and curious, and they came straight over to us when we reached them. The mahouts and Foundation staff worked to keep them at a safe distance, especially from the kids. The experience is not about petting them, however much we wanted to touch them. It is about respecting them as wild animals and observing them behaving naturally. Even though these elephants are used to people, they are not domesticated animals. It is only under the expert knowledge of the mahouts and staff that such a close experience is possible.
We spent a few hours just watching them grazing and playing with each other. They were eating a range of leaves, bark, vines and roots, and learnt that these are their natural foods which provide enough nutrients for them. We also learnt that happy elephants are always on the move, and they flap their ears constantly. I loved seeing the matriarch Thong Kam crossing her back legs as she ate! It was just magical getting to know their personalities, and seeing them so happily living in their natural environment.
Zero Waste Meals & More Elephants: A True Thai Experience
The mahouts treated us to a fully zero-waste lunch experience, carving cooking pots, cups and serving bowls from bamboo. Their skills are amazing and it was a great insight into how people and nature can, and have, coexisted without harm. The elephants wandered away while we ate and Allegra had a nap, and we weren’t sure we’d get to see them again as they had walked quite a long way. But then the mahouts found them and herded them back our way for the night, which was really special to see. The elephants just walked right past where we were waiting for them, giving us a perfect view of how a herd would move together in the wild. It really was amazing to be able to get close enough to observe them behaving naturally, but not be so close as to interfere in their lives.
The following day we spent time with some lovely people from the village, picking organic strawberries, relaxing at a small café, and I had a go at traditional weaving too. We also had a special morning with our host family before we left, which was just beautiful. They and all of the Foundation staff are really genuine and caring people, and it was a blessing to get to know them a little as we supported their excellent program. There are more photos and some video clips on my blog post about the whole experience.
Why Programs like The Mahout’s Foundation are So Worthwhile
I realize that the time and effort required to see elephants in the forest like we did is much more of an investment that many travelers want to take. But I think programs like this are the future of animal and cultural tourism, and it’s wonderful to see more options like it becoming available. The Mahout’s Foundation is expanding as more communities want to adopt their model, and I hope as more travelers become aware of why these programs are much better than supporting contained animals, they eventually become the normal way of encountering other creatures.
Even More Sustainable Activities & Accommodations in Cambodia!
In our time in Cambodia we also sought sustainable activities and had a wonderful stay in Siem Reap, which was another highlight of our adventure. There and in Battambang we found many excellent eco-conscious businesses, social enterprises and NGOs to support, who are working to upskill Khmer people for the future. For example, one evening we attended the Phare circus, which is a world-class mixture of dance, theatre, (human) circus acts and live music. Phare offers education to disadvantaged youth for free, helping to them transform their lives through the arts. There are many programs like these in Cambodia, and seeking them for our activities ensured our visit was helpful in a lasting way, and was very enjoyable for us too.
Saying Goodbye to Asia & Hello to New Adventures
My family and I left Asia very happy to have had such interesting and supportive experiences with people and animals, and glad to have made many friends along the way. We had hoped to connect with people from different cultures, and to support locals and the work of organizations striving to do good for the environment and all of Earth’s inhabitants. We really achieved what we set out do to, and happily found many more supportive activities than I have listed here. It is a great time to be traveling with the intention of having a positive impact!
We are leaving soon for another adventure: an eco-friendly road-trip around our own country, Australia. We’re converting a small old caravan to be as efficient as we can, getting solar panels for it and using biodiesel as much as possible along the way. We’re planning to try some whale watching and are looking forward to seeing many Aussie animals in their own habitats too. And we’re also going to learn much about our indigenous culture, which was not taught at all when Anthony and I went to school.
I love that it’s possible to find inclusive and sustainable models of tourism now, and that we can incorporate the history and geography of our aboriginal people in our world schooling adventures. And I love that it’s possible to travel with minimal impact on the environment and on other people. With awareness of the common tourism issues and a focus on supportive experiences and eco-friendly resources, it’s absolutely achievable to have amazing travels than benefit much more than ourselves.
Follow Along on Emma’s Family Travels
Did you love this post? Then be sure to check out Emma’s website, Small Footprints, Big Adventures, where she shares more about traveling with her family sustainably, world schooling and more! Don’t forget to like them on Facebook too!
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