How to take part in ethical wildlife tourism

Travel writer Lauren Jarvis visits the Tongsai Bay eco-resort on Koh Samui in Thailand and looks at how to enjoy responsible wildlife tourism, as well as the importance of animal conservation work.

Photograph: Save Elephant Foundation
Words: Lauren Jarvis

What to consider when booking wildlife tourism

The Responsible Traveller: A Practical Guide to Reducing Your Environmental and Social Impact, by Karen Edwards, includes tips to help you choose an ethical wildlife experience. Aim to tick off at least five of these points before booking:

  1. Experiences led by wildlife experts who have studied a specific environment or animal.
  2. An animal conservation-led manifesto that shows the operator cares beyond making a profit.
  3. Family-run or locally based operators who also take pride in their community and surrounding environment.
  4. Tours that do not go to tourist-flooded regions, opting for lesser-known areas to avoid overwhelming the wildlife.
  5. A clear policy on how tours operate around wildlife displayed on their website.
  6. Small-group wildlife tours that do not pack in as many people as possible.
  7. Companies that maintain strict protocols when in the vicinity of wildlife.
  8. A trained operator with history in the region and insight into the behaviour of the wildlife.
  9. Information-based wildlife tours that teach you about the animals, rather than focusing solely on photo opportunities.
  10. A genuine passion for wildlife and the environment in which it lives.

Why the Tongsai Bay resort is a perfect example of eco-tourism

The Tongsai Bay eco-resort on the north-east coast of Koh Samui is a secluded family-run escape, with rooms and villas set in 28.5 acres of unspoiled jungle habitat, overlooking a beautiful sandy bay. With a vision to create a kinder, greener world and a sanctuary for wildlife, owner Thanakorn Hoontrakul, known as Gob, and his wife, Saisiri, have introduced a range of environmentally friendly projects at the resort, including innovative energy and waste-saving schemes, a robust recycling policy, minimal use of plastics, refillable natural toiletries, and support for local animal, community and educational projects.

Gob’s team books only ethical pursuits on the island and the resort has a non-motorised watersports policy to protect marine life. Unlike many hotels in the tropics, The Tongsai Bay refuses to ‘fog’ its lush gardens with pesticides, which harm all species, not just the targeted mosquitoes. As a result, the landscape is alive with more than 60 species of birds, butterflies, lizards, frogs and cicadas, which greet me with a chorus from the coconut and mango trees whenever I walk by.

Executive chef Thanawut Chaiwanwut, known as Chef Eak, has created an ethical Thai vegan menu for the resort’s Po-Lad Beach Bistro. Using fresh vegetables and herbs from the organic garden, Po-Lad offers curries and soups, a variety of non-meat proteins and desserts including mango with sticky rice, tinged vibrant blue by the delicate flowers of butterfly pea.

Visiting the Samui Elephant Sanctuary on Koh Samui

As one of the country’s most ethical elephant rescue and rehabilitation centres, the sanctuary enables me to keep my promise not to support a facility where animal wellbeing is not the priority, while experiencing emotional interactions with some of the elephants that call the centre home.

Working in partnership with the Save Elephant Foundation, the Samui Elephant Sanctuary in Bophut provides a safe retirement home for working elephants, offering half-day programmes for guests to prepare food and feed them in the paddock, watch them bathe in its large pool and enjoy the company of the herd.

Hearing the stories of the elephants’ previous lives is heartbreaking, and it’s humbling to see how far each of them have come, as they wander the sanctuary, free of drudgery and abuse, with space where they can learn to be elephants again. With another visitor centre at Chaweng Noi, Samui Elephant Sanctuary is now responsible for 13 animals, many of which were previously used for tourist rides, and the centre’s work has seen it win the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Responsible Thailand Award for Best Animal Welfare in 2019 and 2020.

To find out more and support the work of Save Elephant Foundation, or to adopt a rescued elephant, go to To arrange a visit to the Samui Elephant Sanctuary, see Details and pricing information for The Tongsai Bay resort in Koh Samui can be found at Find out more about visiting Thailand at


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