Visiting and donating to Asian national parks and nature reserves

If you were near the United Nations building in New York City after dark last September, then you might have been lucky enough to see a fantastic 39-story-tall film and light display on its facade.

There’s never been anything like it and I was certainly stunned to see a world preview about the Earth’s many vanishing species on such an impressive public screen. The Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), a long-time animal rights and environmental group, presented the NYC event and many of the animals shown were endemic to Asian countries – creatures as beautiful as their story is heart breaking.

Food for Thought

The OPS film, Racing Extinction, projected images of our future as the only species capable of preventing the elimination of about 50% of all others on earth by the year 2100  – potentially the biggest global loss since an asteroid decimated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It’s a reality that ought to inspire us all to observe, support and sustain animal populations whenever possible.

Of course, it’s not always easy to help, but contributing while travelling is one option for most people, as organizations worldwide are always in need of financial and practical help to save a multitude of creatures from extinction. By visiting nature reserves and especially taking children along to see them, we can help embody a sense of stewardship for the planet and all its inhabitants.

Indonesia’s People of the Forest

It’s hard not to love a creature with a character, and orang-utans will make you love them in a minute. “Chewy” did that to me with one glance. That was the orangutan (named after Chewbaca, from Star Wars) that I met when treated to a rare visit to the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park (BTNP).

BTNP is the new site in Sumatra designated for the re-introduction of rescued orangutans by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP). The group is working with several NGO groups and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to save the extinction of the IUCN-designated critically endangered Sumatran Orangutan, of which only about 7,000 remain. These gentle creatures are being destroyed by encroachment into their native forests as trees are felled for pulp paper and palm oil plantations.

The irony, as explained eloquently by SOCP Founder and Director, Dr. Ian Singleton, is that “the destruction of the thousand-year-old forests that are home to the orangutans will inevitably lead to shrinking water tables and supplies for nearby Medan and Aceh residents”.

The area for SOCP’s exciting project, is called “Orangutan Haven”, and will be a substantial long term refuge to house creatures that have been exposed to human disease and abuse to the point that they cannot be reintroduced to their natural habitat for fear of dying or infecting others. There will be an entire living area on islands for the animals, with viewing shelters for visitors to see them, an educational centre to teach people of their plight, and sustainable crop planting. This is a project you can not only visit but also donate to with pride.

China’s Dark-Eyed Darlings

For an amazing look at the now thriving population of giant panda bears (ID’d by the black spots over their eyes) in the Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve, you can take a tour some five hours from central Chengdu, to this Qingchuan County haven on the northwestern edge of the Sichuan Basin.

The reserve, founded in 1978, covers about 248 square miles (400 sq km) and I was stunned by the beauty of its streams and trees. The stars of the reserve, however, are undoubtedly the 400 species of wild animals that live there and Pandas lead the attraction list.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – an international organization geared to informing governments worldwide on conservation issues – estimates that only a few thousand pandas are now alive in the wild. As such, the panda has become a second “national animal symbol” in China, after the dragon.

There are plenty more species to catalogue and help at the reserve. These include endangered Takin (also known as cattle chamois or wildebeest), which can be seen on cliff-edges at higher elevations. Closer-up visits are allowed for visitors seeking wonderful pictures of beautiful golden monkeys, while heavily hued palette-like Chinese Monals and golden pheasants can also be seen.

A recommended stop on this trip takes in the Mount Huangshan World Heritage Area, which offers breathtaking views of the famous “Cloud Dispelling Mountains”, often depicted in Chinese art. Known as “The Hundred Steps into the Clouds,” the stone stairs up the steep Huangshan mountain took over 1,500 years to construct, according to historical records, and will require all your strength to climb.

The rare red-billed leiothrix (or “Pekin Robin”) – deemed a true “love bird” for its mating behavior – also inhabits this mountainous region and what a sight they are to see with splashes of red beaks and wing tips, flaming orange throats, and lovely songs to hear.

I was also drawn to see the fascinating pangolins, which roll into a protective ball when threatened. Rated as a member on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species, pangolins, also known as scaly anteaters, are becoming rarer by the day. Used for their “medicinal” qualities by the Chinese, and prized for their taste and skins, they may not be around for long, so get a look at them before you only see their scales on expensive clothes.

Thailand’s Trunkload of Fun

Having been to quite a few tourist sites in Asia to view its animals, I would certainly suggest that you choose the places that do the best job of taking care of their tenants when going for a look-see. It’s important to visit animals “carefully and ethically”, which is why Mike Baker of World Animal Protection (WAP) recommends that travellers research places they plan to visit.

Thailand’s national animal, a revered creature around the world, is the Asian Elephant. Yet, WAP cites that 16,000 elephants, or one-quarter of those on our planet, are now in captivity. So how can you see these elephants in their most natural environment in Thailand? Try Elephant Nature Park (ENP), with a northern Thailand location not far from Chiang Mai. Offering trips for students, including eight-day study stays; the park has a variety of options for visitors. You can observe and also try your hand at caring for, pachyderms, feeding, bathing, cleaning and walking with these wise and wonderful beasts. There’s even an option to sleep amongst the elephants.

Weekly volunteers can care for disabled elephants as well, by committing from one to four weeks of their time, if accepted. ENP also has facilities in Thailand’s northeastern province of Surin and proudly uses the setting to show mahouts (elephant trainers) other ways to support themselves without making the elephants into riding beasts. In addition, ENP is developing another sanctuary near Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat in Siem Riep, Cambodia. With its 25,000 acres of lush jungle, monkeys, tigers, buffalos and the elephants, this sanctuary promises to be an exciting development, indeed.


Add a Sanctuary to Your Next Trip

Planning a trip around a visit to an animal sanctuary requires research and preparation, especially in remote areas. Fortunately, the best organizations have informative websites to help you add a responsible element to your next Asian adventure.

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Jim Grubman
Jim Grubman has lived more lives than the average cat, though he's hoping his two Flame-Point Himalayans beat him. He has written and edited many things, including cookbooks (he's a qualified chef), and he has even saved lives as a dialysis technician among a long list of medical and other jobs. For fun, he travels, writes about it, and sails as close to the Southern Seas as a sane man dare try.