Seeing animals in their natural habitat draws tourists to every corner of the globe for good reason. To see the majesty of a bear standing to its full height or witness thousands of sea turtles creating their nests on a beach can be a transformative experience for every animal lover.
Increasingly, however, tourists are becoming aware of the need to ensure sanctuaries for endangered and threatened animals are not only ethically-run but strongly involved in the education of every visitor that walks through their doors and determined to improve the plight of those that cannot speak for themselves. Here are ten places travelers can feel great about supporting while having their breath stolen by the well-cared-for inhabitants.
10 Chengdu, China
Situated just 6 miles from the downtown core of Sichuan, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding imitates the natural habitat of giant pandas in an attempt to provide them the greatest chance of continuing their endangered species.
There are fewer than 2000 giant pandas left in the world, with the majority of those dotted throughout the Sichuan Province. This is the best place on Earth to see these majestic creatures in their own environment and also a wonderful place to support thanks to its tireless work to create a future for not just pandas but many other rare and endangered animals.
9 Tam Dao Bear Sanctuary, Vietnam
This sanctuary for bears in Vietnam covers a total of 11 hectares and painstakingly recreates wild habitats crafted to encourage the natural behaviors of its many resident bears.
The team here often receive cubs that have been confiscated from wildlife traders and poachers. They then carefully introduce new arrivals to existing inhabitants and integrate them when ready. The expert behavioral and veterinary care the bears receive at Tam Dao leads to most inhabitants making a strong recovery. Visiting this Vietnamese oasis will help the important work continue.
8 Performing Animal Welfare Society, United States
This facility is California houses elephants that have spent their lives as props in movies, television, and circus acts, along with formerly captive and abused bears, primates, and members of the cat family. The animals can roam across hundreds of acres of pools, wide-open spaces, and re-creations of each species' natural habitats.
Companionship is encouraged here for animals that have been mistreated for their entire existence and can often see their demeanors change for the better. Human interaction is strictly off-limits but those wanting to support the society can become an ‘adoptive parent’ of a resident and attend special events that take place each year to learn more of their plight.
7 The Elephant Sanctuary, United States
The largest refuge for elephants in North America, The Elephant Sanctuary is home to 27 pachyderms that are given the run of 2,700 acres of pristine land. Tourists are never granted access to the animals and veterinarians only come within the vicinity of a troubled elephant when absolutely necessary.
This is a great place to learn more about the heart-wrenching history of elephants word-wide, marvel at state-of-the-art multimedia exhibits, and even watch live footage of the huge creatures via on-site, solar-powered cameras.
6 Sloth Sanctuary, Costa Rica
Nestled along the glorious Caribbean Coast, this sanctuary for sloths is a family-run operation that has been in action since 1992. Beginning with a single orphaned baby sloth, animal lover Judy Avey-Arroyo and her husband have since expanded the facility into a fully-recognized rescue center for the chilled-out creatures.
They offer tours of the sanctuary as well as presenting educational programs and undertaking scientific studies aimed at improving the lives of sloths and local flora and fauna. The population is ever-growing within its walls due to so many young sloths losing their parents before reaching an age of independence. Head to this wonderful part of Costa Rica and help support their remarkable work improving the natural world surrounding us.
5 Camaronal Wildlife Refuge, Costa Rica
A haven for marine conservation with a focus on nesting sea turtles, the Camaronal Wildlife Refuge is a protected area bursting at the seams with wildlife but has become best known for its sea turtle residents. Turtles lay their eggs in a unique phenomenon called an ‘arribada’ or ‘arrival.’ Thousands of the sea-dwelling turtles take to the shores at night and assure the continuation of their species in a simply remarkable display.
The work being done here is absolutely critical for the survival of a species that is in steady decline and crying out for intervention. Travelers can arrange to complete volunteer programs that will teach them all they need to know about the area and what can be done to help.
4 Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, Uganda
The only place currently home to rhinoceros in Uganda is the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, and it is tasked with attempting to breed the extremely threatened Southern White Rhino before releasing them back into the protected National Park ecosystem.
Tourists can visit the sanctuary on foot and observe these mighty animals living in their natural habitats while learning about the number of animals remaining in the wild and why numbers have dwindled so much when humans are their only true predators. It is easily reached from the Ugandan capital of Kampala and a tour is highly recommended for animal lovers.
3 Born Free Big Cat Sanctuary, South Africa
Resting inside the Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa, the Born Free Foundation Big Cat Sanctuary is home to rescued lions and leopards from all over the world. Their mission is not just to rescue and provide a better existence for these majestic animals, but also to educate all who visit on the animals' plight and on ways to improve it.
Often being told harrowing stories, visitors cannot come here without feeling a sense of despair at what has been allowed to occur while also feeling inspired that humanity can do better.
2 MandaLao Elephant Conservation, Laos
Laos was once referred to as the land of a million elephants but that is sadly no longer the case. Just a few hundred of the towering animals remain in Laos and sadly, most are used for tourism and forced to bear the weight of ignorant visitors with no thought for the treatment of their day’s entertainment.
MandaLao is the only sanctuary in the country that does not allow elephant riding and does not force their rescued inhabitants into any behavior whatsoever. Hiking and swimming alongside the elephants are possible; however, the animals' wellbeing always comes first. Should they wish to not participate, tours will be stopped. All visitors must also undertake a lengthy lesson on the conservation work being done by MandaLao and why it is necessary before taking to the trees in search of the elephants.
1 Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysia
Founded in 1964, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre sits on protected land right on the edge of Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve and is called home by approximately 50 orangutans that live freely within its boundaries.
The sanctuary provides medical care for orphaned and rescued primates, along with sun bears, gibbons, rhinos, and several other animals. The sanctuary's primary aim is the reduction of orangutans and apes drawn into illegal pet trade throughout Asia. It also serves as a wonderful resource of information related to endangered animals, causing all visitors to leave with a greater understanding of the world around them.