To see wildlife in their natural habitat can be a wonderful holiday highlight. Yet wildlife tourism can be a murky business and it is not always obvious whether the animals are looked after well or not.
How can you be sure that your visit is doing good rather than harm?
Here, wildlife expert and travel writer Lizzie Pook selects the most responsible animal sanctuaries to visit.
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dinner time: Elephants reach out to a visitor at the Chiang Mai sanctuary
Wildlife wonders: Founded by renowned elephant conservationist Lek Chailert, this pioneering park is a sort of blissful retirement home for rescued Asian elephants. The magnificent beasts – many of them saved from abuse in circuses or the tourist-trekking trade – can play, wallow and trumpet to their hearts’ content. You might even spot them kicking a football about.
Ethical credentials: Strictly no riding is allowed and the sanctuary is entirely free of chains. You cannot pet the elephants but they may reach out to you with their trunks at feeding time. The park is also home to a wonderfully rag-tag band of other rescued animals, including dogs, cats and buffaloes.
The bigger picture: The park offers volunteer packages and excursions to local villages. You can adopt a dog or sponsor one of the park’s elephants online.
Book it: Day visits start at £64 and must be booked online (elephantnaturepark.org).
Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi, Kenya
Wildlife wonders: Located inside Nairobi National Park, this trust takes on baby African elephants orphaned by poaching. Visitors will see the smallest ones draped in blankets to keep them warm, while more rambunctious sorts trumpet with glee as they frolic in copper-coloured mud.
Ethical credentials: The orphanage is open to the public for an hour a day (11am to midday), when you can watch baby elephants being fed milk and wallowing. This means sensitive animals aren’t exposed to too much noise or stress. You can’t feed the animals but if they come to you (which often happens) you can touch them.
The bigger picture: The Sheldrick Trust protects elephants and other wildlife throughout Kenya, operating anti-poaching units and mobile vets. Donate online, or adopt a baby elephant, rhino or giraffe until they are strong enough to be released back into the wild.
Book it: Entrance requires a minimum contribution of £3.75pp (sheldrickwildlifetrust.org).
Libearty Bear Sanctuary, the Carpathians, Romania
THE KEY SIGNS TO LOOK FOR
Hands-on experiences with wild animals – cuddling monkeys, kissing elephants – are on the rise thanks to social media. But more often than not, interaction with humans is extremely distressing for animals. Here are key signs tourists should look out for in sanctuaries which treat animals well and with dignity.
- Animals should appear to be well fed and have access to clean water.
- They should have a secluded area away from crowds.
- They should have no visible injuries and never be chained up.
- There should be no handling or paid-for photos with animals.
- Avoid anywhere where animals perform tricks or wear costumes. l Look for accreditation from the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.
Wildlife wonders: In the oak forests above Zarnesti, a town in central Transylvania, you’ll find a sun- dappled haven for bears. Animals here have been rescued from circuses or even hotels, where they were confined to small cages and kept as attractions. The animals are rehabilitated in 66 leafy acres, with minimal human contact.
Ethical credentials: Visitors can help prepare the bears’ food or else monitor their wellbeing via CCTV cameras. No interaction with the bears is allowed. Instead, well-informed guides show you around while the animals climb trees, swim and forage for berries in their forest surroundings.
The bigger picture: The sanctuary offers tours for local children and plans are in place for an on-site educational centre.
Book it: Open mornings only and closed on Mondays. Responsible Travel offers a seven-day tour to Romania, including five days volunteering at the sanctuary from £925pp (excluding flights) responsibletravel.com.
Kelonia Marine Turtle Observatory, Reunion
Wildlife wonders: On the tropical island idyll of Reunion sits Kelonia, a scientific rescue and study centre dedicated to endangered green, hawksbill, loggerhead and olive ridley turtles. Built on a former turtle farm site, pools are brilliantly designed to recreate their natural Indian Ocean habitat.
Ethical credentials: There’s no animal handling but they can be watched peacefully sculling through the water from observation towers. Distressed or injured creatures are cared for in a nursery (and if you’re lucky, you might see freshly hatched baby turtles).
The bigger picture: Kelonia has joined forces with universities and scientific bodies to tag and study wild turtles’ nesting and migration patterns. Interactive museum exhibits on-site are brilliant for children who are keen to learn more about conservation.
Book it: Tickets cost £7 (museesreunion.re/kelonia).
Wolf Haven International, Seattle, United States
Rescued: Two of the wolves at Wolf Haven in Seattle pad through the snow
Wildlife wonders: Wolf Haven has rescued more than 200 captive-born wolves (some privately owned, others from zoos or roadside attractions) providing them with a safe home and fellow wolves for companionship and howling practice.
Ethical credentials: About 70 of the flint-eyed animals live in the sanctuary at any one time. The educational facility has one-way glass, allowing visitors to observe the wolves without disturbing them.
The bigger picture: Wolf Haven’s mission is to conserve and protect wolves and their habitat. It participates in two species survival programmes for the endangered red wolf and Mexican grey wolf.
Book it: A 50-minute guided visit must be booked in advance. A donation of at least £7.60 is suggested (wolfhaven.org).
Samboja Lestari Orangutan Sanctuary, Borneo
Wildlife wonders: Samboja is a 5,000-acre safe haven for more than 160 rehabilitated orangutans. Stay at Samboja Lodge nearby and you can visit the ‘orangutan islands’, home to primates suffering disabilities which prevent them from ever being released into the wild.
Ethical credentials: Book a trip through Responsible Travel and part of your expedition fee goes towards the adoption of an orangutan and to Safeguard, a ranger operation that helps prevent deforestation and poaching. There is no physical interaction or staged photo opportunities with the animals.
The bigger picture: The main aim is to rehabilitate the long-limbed creatures so they can be released. There are several ‘Forest Schools’ on site, so they can learn what life will be like in the wild.
Pay a visit to the nearby jungle and you may even see some reintroduced individuals clambering through the canopy.
Book it: An eight-day tour to Borneo’s Kutai National Park costs from £1,263pp, including domestic flights only (responsibletravel.com).
Wild Futures, Cornwall
Wildlife wonders: In the salt-smattered coastal town of Looe, the Wild Futures monkey sanctuary has a fantastic reputation for its rescue and rehabilitation work. Here, you’ll find some exceptionally well cared for primates, including capuchins, Barbary macaques and marmosets – each one rescued from unsuitable domestic ownership conditions.
Ethical credentials: As an active rescue centre dealing with animals that have not had a good start in life, some areas are not accessible to visitors to give the monkeys the time they need to recover. But you can meet some resident primates on lively tours that are led by dedicated carers.
The bigger picture: The charity focuses on ending the primate trade and abuse of primates in captivity, and relies on donations to enable them to fund external grassroots projects.
Book it: Tickets cost £9 for adults, £6 for a child, or £27 for a family (wildfutures.org).
Koala Hospital, Port Macquarie, Australia
Koalas at this not-for-profit centre in New South Wales arrive for a number of reasons, including bacterial infections, dog attacks and road traffic collisions. They are housed and cared for until, hopefully, being released back into the wild
The centre is currently working to care for many koalas afflicted by recent devastating wildfires in the region
Wildlife wonders: Fuzzy koalas at this not-for-profit centre in New South Wales arrive for a number of reasons, including bacterial infections, dog attacks and road traffic collisions. They are housed and cared for until, hopefully, being released back into the wild.
Ethical credentials: Intensive care units are out of bounds for visitors but you can watch the animals at rest (which is most of the time) or play in the large outdoor rehabilitation enclosures. There is no cuddling here (that should not be on offer at any ethical sanctuary) but volunteers take guests on tours and offer amusing anecdotes about the docile residents.
The bigger picture: The centre is currently working to care for many koalas afflicted by recent devastating wildfires in the region. Support this work by adopting a wild koala or making a donation towards the planting of a tree.
Book it: Open daily, except for Christmas Day. Admission is free but donations welcome (koalahospital.org.au).
Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, Malawi
Safe haven: A vervet is checked over by a member of staff at the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre in Malawi
Wildlife wonders: You’ll find all sorts of animals, from lions to pygmy hedgehogs, at the award-winning Lilongwe Wildlife Centre, set in the heart of Malawi’s capital. This green urban oasis is home to almost 200 creatures that have been injured or else rescued from the pet and bush meat trade.
Ethical credentials: Animals are kept in large, jungle-like enclosures and no handling or ‘walking’ with big cats is allowed. Visitors are instead taken on guided tours or allowed to ramble around the meandering walking trails.
The bigger picture: Like most good sanctuaries, Lilongwe is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (sanctuaryfederation.org). The site works to rehabilitate and release as many of its animals as possible, and also offers a tiered entry fee scheme so that those on lower incomes – particularly local Malawians, many of whom can’t usually afford to see the wildlife in their own country – can visit.
Book it: Open 365 days a year from 8am to 5pm. Entry for international visitors costs £4.40 (lilongwewildlife.org).