Three years ago I studied abroad in Thailand.  One of my favorite experiences was visiting the Elephant Nature Park, which ethically cares for over 35 elephants.  My professor is now back in Thailand, leading another group on this magical daytrip.

IMG_2402She just sent me this picture, which showcases the beautiful scenery of the park.  I wish I were there with them!

Thailand is getting more and more aware of ethical tourism.  Here are some other options:

1. Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary: Three guesthouses with double accommodation.  Wake up and walk only a few steps to help feed and bathe the elephants.

2. Elephant Haven: like the Elephant Nature Park, you can do a daytrip from Chiang Mai.  The unique part about this place is it is a reformed elephant camp.  Just a few years ago, they kept elephants in chains and used harsh training methods so the elephants would perform for tourists.   Now, they are looking to the Elephant Nature Park model as a guide to humane treatment for elephants.

3. Burm and Emily’s Elephant Sanctuary: one hour from Chiang Mai, this is a volunteer experience.  People often stay a week helping out, with regular feedings, bathing, and clean up duties.  Help restore nature to her finest by assisting with tree plantings.




Tikal, Guatemala

With only one day left on my vacation, I had to choose between a second day in San Ignacio, Belize with a daytrip to the ATM cave or a quick trip over the border to see Tikal.

It was an easy decision.  I’ve always wanted to see Tikal, and I was not sure when I would have another chance.  If I fly to Guatemala someday, I’d base myself in Antigua, which is far from the ruins.

The nice thing about guided tours from San Ignacio is they are small.  My tour only had one other couple.  We were dropped at the border to go through customs where a driver met us on the other side.  It was a two and a half hour ride past beautiful lake scenery and the town of Flores, some fruit and vegetable stands, and some rather bumpy roads.

The tour guide at the ruins was incredible.  He knew every detail, and could answer any question we threw at him.  He had boundless energy, and we gladly climbed every temple we could with him, despite temperatures hovering near 100F.  The ruins are everything I hoped they would be…not too crowded, beautifully preserved, fascinating, awe-inspiring, and surrounded by toucans (and the vocals of howler monkeys, although I did not see any).  A tourist note: it’s nice to report numerous and clean bathrooms too.


I asked the guide about his background, and he paid to go to a tourism program that offers government certification as a tour guide.  He said he was very lucky to have the extended family help him with funds to go to school.  He now runs tours of Guatemala, but is also sent to Honduras regularly to introduce tourists to the ruins of Coba.  Every now and then, he gets to participate in larger Latin American tours and gets to tag along to South America as a benefit, acting as a translator as he speaks French, English, and some German.

He emphasized how hard work is to come by in Guatemala, and that he goes to night school every day to learn better English and pursue a TESOL certification.  His salary goes to his schooling and to repay his family for their generosity.

The driver also works multiple jobs in order to provide for his family.

I was already aware of how hard immigrants to the US work to better their lives, but meeting the Guatemalans made me even more disgusted by the rhetoric that often plays on the airwaves about “these people” who are unfairly depicted as violent drug lords.

I have often wished travel abroad was a part of an American student’s education.  Study abroad, unfortunately, often is considered a specialty…the student usually already has a great desire to explore, and has a background in languages, international relations, or international business.  It would be great if those who were fearful of travel abroad had an experience in their youth where they could face their fear and hopefully conquer that fear, and make some international friends along the way!


The only negative about the tour was the mandatory stop at a restaurant on the way back where each small tour stopped.  The gift shop was Disney-like, with every Guatemalan craft and trinket under the sun for sale at higher prices than you know you’d find elsewhere.  The food was safe and sadly boring with little flavor.  But, in Guatemala, you knew your purchases were helping people make a very small living wage, so I really shouldn’t complain at all.  Interesting note was the waiter informed us ahead of time that the coffee wasn’t great, because the good stuff goes abroad.

The trip made me a better consumer.  I mentioned how exploring the coral reef in Belize made me really aware of my plastic use.  Guatemala has made me read coffee and chocolate labels – free trade, sustainable, certified by programs like the Rainforest Alliance – it’s worth the extra few dollars.  I also recommend buying online gifts from places like which support local artisans.


(photos by me)






World Animal Protection study

A recent study by World Animal Protection found that the number of elephants used as entertainment in Thailand has grown dramatically – increasing by a third in only five years.

Fortunately, many large travel companies are banning selling tourist tickets to elephant rides, including Trip Advisor.

Still, there is a massive problem of naive tourists who are excited to meet an elephant and desperately hope for a picture of themselves riding it so they can share their experience with friends and family back home. The report suggests that 40% of tourists in Thailand expect to ride an elephant.

What these tourists do not see is that many of these tourist elephants have to endure hours of being chained up each day.  Most have experienced harsh training methods such as hooks to keep them submissive.  Many were taken by force from their mothers as babies so they could grow accustomed to human control.

It is scary to read that only 200 of the 3000 elephants studied had humane living conditions.

If you plan on viewing wildlife on your vacation, please do a lot of research beforehand.  Elephant rides, dolphin swims, and holding tiger cubs are fun experiences for humans, but it rarely is good for the animal.

In Thailand, I can recommend the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is a wonderful way to meet elephants.  You are able to pat them, feed them, and wash them.  Yet, all the elephants are rescued and being well taken care of on acres of land.  The elephants are able to form herds, and are never forced into human contact.




Northern Rangelands Trust: saving wildlife, improving communities

The Northern Rangelands Trust believes that conservation is not only good from an environmental standpoint, but an economic one as well.  That is why they have worked in Northern Kenya with help from USAID to invest in saving elephants and increasing eco-tourism.  NRT was founded in 2004, and has done amazing work.  There has been a significant decline in poaching in areas where they operate.  CITES estimated in 2014 that 60% of killed African elephants were killed illegally – but that number was 46% in Northern Kenya and was continuing to trend downwards.


From Forbes Magazine:

In 2015, tourism revenues to NRT conservancies from entry and bed-night fees totaled over US$ 410,000 – a really significant income for these remote and marginalized communities, derived from their wildlife. Two safari lodges – Sarara and Il Ngwesi – are actually owned by the community, who contract operators to manage them. Wildlife tourism revenues are split 40/60 – with 40% going toward annual conservancy operating costs (like ranger salaries and vehicle fuel) and 60% going toward development projects deemed a priority by the constituent community at their Annual General Meetings. Most commonly the communities decide to spend these funds on educational bursaries for the poorest family, health care support, and water supplies to reduce the burden on women from collecting water from afar.

Tourism Revenue Lost

The University of Vermont, Cambridge University, and the World Wildlife Fund researched the lost revenue of the tourism industry due to the poaching of elephants.  Elephants are one of the main tourist attractions in Africa.  With less elephants, the tourism industry likely misses out on $25 million in revenue each year.IMG_3672

From Deutsche Welle:

“In a hypothetical scenario, the researchers compared the amount lost to tourism through poaching with the money it would take to implement anti-poaching methods to protect elephants across most African savannah areas.
The cost of protecting the elephants would be far lower than the losses caused by poaching. In most parts of the continent, the recovered losses would exceed the investment necessary to end illegal hunting.”

photo: I took this in Thailand

PETA and banning elephant rides

Vantage Travel will no longer offer elephant rides on their travel itineraries.  From the Boston Herald:

“Vantage is joining the 5 million members of PETA in the noble cause of stopping the abuse and exploitation of elephants by eliminating elephant rides and elephant shows from our itineraries,” spokeswoman Kristen Caldon said.

In the past few years, PETA has been educating travel companies on the abusive practices behind elephant tourist rides.  Most of elephants are chained when not being used.  They are often trained by harsh measures, including chain whips.

Other companies agreeing to stop elephant rides include Collette Vacations, Costco Travel, Tauck, and Trip Advisor.

I don’t always agree with PETA’s methods, but I am pleased they have raised awareness on this issue and have gotten positive results.

photo: taken in Thailand at the Elephant Nature Park


Predator Hunts approved

Back on February 19, I had a post about a Congressional bill to remove protections for Alaska’s wildlife on National Refuges.  I am very sorry to say that the bill passed the Senate this week, a vote on party lines.

Predator hunts (such as on wolves and bears) will be permitted.  Cruel methods like gassing dens is even permissible.

From the Alaska Dispatch News:

“At the heart of the disagreement between state and federal wildlife managers is what each group thinks should guide its purpose. The federal government has argued that the goal on refuges and in parks should be biodiversity. The state Board of Game has an interest in ensuring maximum sustained populations for hunting.”

In my opinion, the Alaska Board of Game is mistaken.  By killing predators, thus increasing populations of prey like elk, they are throwing nature out of balance.  For the long term health of their land, that is a bad recipe.

Unfortunately, short term profit is too often valued over long term benefit.  Hunting is a major tourist economy in Alaska.  Yet, the beauty of biodiversity and vast natural spaces would make Alaska a special place for generations to come.

Excessive oil drilling and lopsided hunting policies are clearly unwise for the long term health of Alaska and our planet.

IMG_1640Photo: taken at my zoo