Catching a glimpse of Southeast Asia’s most endangered species

An increasing number of travellers make the journey to Asia to breathe in its glorious scenery, diverse cultures and exquisite natural treasures. In the tropical Southeast, unique eco-systems are home to a vibrant collection of precious creatures, many of which are sadly climbing the “endangered” list as a result of poaching and habitat destruction.

Whether it is an adventure cruise down Borneo’s Kinabatangan River or an action-packed afternoon biking around Cambodia’s Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary, a generous sprinkling of companies across Southeast Asia offer visitors the chance to encounter some of its most magnificent inhabitants before they disappear. Many companies also educate tourists on their worthy conservation efforts and provide opportunities for them to give a little back.

Turtle Treasures

Our journey begins in Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands. This small archipelago, situated off Malaysia’s west coast, is home to a turtle project run by Ecoteer Responsible Travel. Visitors enchanted by the bobbing, meandering movements of these tiny creatures can take part in the program by diving and collecting sea turtle eggs for hatching, re-planting coral reefs and lending a hand in the hatchery itself. The program, based on the Tangjung Tukas Beach, is largely funded by eco-tourism so it is well worth a visit to lend support.

People of the Forest

Moving south, our next stop is in the Malaysian part of Borneo. The lofty forests of Sumatra and Kalimantan (Borneo) are the only places in the world to catch a glimpse of orang-utans in the wild, yet thousands of these friendly-faced creatures have been killed or displaced as a result of human development. The Borneo Orang-utan Survival Foundation encourages the protection of these gentle creatures in their natural habitat, and supports research and education for their conservation. The meandering path of Borneo’s Kinabatangan River takes cruising visitors through an eclectic range of landscapes, from isolated oxbow lakes to dense swamps and mangroves. Such a setting is ideal for visitors to catch a glimpse of the famous flame coloured apes, in addition to other fascinating creatures like the Proboscis Monkey and Borneo Elephant.

Pachyderm Pursuits

Travellers with a soft spot for elephants should definitely make a trip to Cambodia’s Elephant Valley Project, which is situated in the country’s Mondulkiri province. The EVP works hand in hand with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Forestry Administration to safeguard the Seima Forest, the elephants’ natural habitat. Visitors can spend a wonderful afternoon shadowing two elephant families and learning about the unique eco-system that supports their way of life. It is also possible to volunteer by undertaking small tasks like gardening and farming. The EVP stands out from other Southeast Asian elephant adventures because elephant rides are not available to visitors.

Safe Haven

Animal-lovers keen to explore Cambodia’s wild treasures often visit he Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Centre about 45 km south of Phnom Penh. The 2,285 hectare area is treated as a protected forest, and is home to a number of rare species that have been saved from the hands of poachers and traffickers. Many of Phnom Tamao’s residents, which include tigers, bears, water birds and elephants, are too vulnerable to ever be re-released into the wild. As such, the 96 varieties of mammals, birds and reptiles that call the park home often receive visitors keen to learn more about Cambodia’s conservation efforts.

Ocean Giants

For some travellers, exploring dry land is never enough. A trip to the Philippines’ Donsol Bay offers a chance to encounter one of the ocean’s most majestic creatures – the whale shark. Donsol Eco-Tour (DET) offers marine explorers the chance to snorkel alongside these gentle giants, with sightings guaranteed between the months of November and June. DET also supports the conservation of the bay by educating tourists and the local community on how to preserve the shark’s delicate eco-system.


Benefit with Minimum Impact

By taking an active interest in local conservation projects travellers can definitely help prolong the existence of endangered species in the countries they inhabit, but even eco-tourism can be damaging without proper research or a sensitive approach to the destination and species being visited. Here are some tips to ensure you have the maximum benefit but with minimum impact.

  • If you have enjoyed your trip to the Perhentian Islands or the Mondukiri EVP, why not give a little back by making a small donation or doing some voluntary work? Many eco-projects are largely funded by tourism, and supporting these worthy causes means that the magic of Southeast Asia’s wild animals can be enjoyed by generations to come.
  • Do your research and be vigilant before you visit/support any site that markets itself as a sanctuary for endangered species. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of these “rehabilitation centres” treat animals cruelly, perhaps by confining them to small enclosures or even drugging them.
  • Invest in a good camera. With numbers of these magnificent species dwindling as human development steps up its pace, you never know if you will get the chance to glimpse one of these wonderful creatures again. As such, your first meeting with one of them will be an encounter you’ll never want to forget.
  • Respect the space of the creature you are searching for. Remember you are the invader in their natural territory, so follow the regulations of the nature reserve by remaining quiet and respectful, and not leaving behind litter.
  • If you have the chance to visit one of Southeast Asia’s conservation projects, even if it is only for one afternoon, make time to talk to the wildlife rangers or guides. If you can find out more about how these animals are being protected, there may even be something you can do to support conservation efforts once you get back home.

Villas in Asia Pacific

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Rebecca Foster
Rebecca has travelled extensively in America, Europe and Asia and worked as an English teacher in Thailand and South Korea. She has also contributed to several publications in the UK and Asia and enjoys hiking, yoga and taekwondo whilst on her travels.