Wildlife in Thailand

What are you looking at? Well, it looks like a branch – but that’s because you’re looking at the branch, and not the creature above it. There! Now everyone is frozen in position, following your guide’s pointing finger.

Suddenly, it dawns on you that you’re a few feet away from a wide-eyed langur. You watch as his black-gloved hands reach out from branch to branch, with the practised care of a cat burglar. Your guide, who has waited for that ah-ha! moment, nods approvingly.

You don’t have to be a keen-eyed naturalist to enjoy wildlife in Thailand’s jungles – nor do you need to plunge into wetlands in waders, or be particularly intrepid. Thailand is well set up for visitors young and old.

“Chai, our guide in Khao Sok National Park, showed incredible knowledge of the area and its inhabitants,” said Wendy Van Gool in their review of our most popular Thailand wildlife vacation. “In the short while, he spotted an owl sleeping in a tree, a rare monkey and vipers, and made us bamboo coffee while we cooled off in the river.”

As for spotting bigger beasts, Thailand’s most famous residents – its elephants – are on everyone’s ‘must-see’ list. Luckily you don’t need sharp eyes to spot them. These gentle giants can be easily seen in dedicated parks and sanctuaries. If you’re really lucky, you may also see them in the wild.

Where to see wildlife in Thailand

Thailand wildlife trips might go north or south, or do a mixture of the two. The north of Thailand is seen as less ‘touristy’ than the south and the majority of elephant parks are in this area – many tourists fly into the city of Chiang Mai and go on into the countryside from here.

Those who travel south get national parks like Khao Sok, and Thailand’s best beaches. On snorkelling and diving trips off Phi Phi Island, or in the Similan and Surin Islands, you might spot a leopard shark – easier to spy than the clouded leopards on land. Even if you don’t see one, there are plenty of colourful reef fish.

Where to see wildlife in Thailand’s national parks

National parks are common stops on the tourist trail. Bear in mind that Thailand’s wildlife is fairly shy. Many national parks claim to have populations of sun bears, leopards and wild elephants, but you’d have to go deep into the park and be incredibly patient to catch a glimpse of one of these.

For a more casual observer, there’s a chorus of monkeys and birds, a quiet army of snakes and reptiles, giant rafflesia flowers – and the beauty of the parks themselves.

Wildlife in Khao Yai National Park

UNESCO-listed Khao Yai National Park is one of Thailand’s most visited. Whilst only 2.5 hours from Bangkok by road, it still has plenty of wild corners which make it an excellent birding destination – and a bat destination too. At sunset, tourists can watch at Khao Yai Bat Cave as millions of bats take to the sky for their evening’s hunt.

Wildlife in Khao Sok National Park

Khao Sok National Park, which contains fragments of the some of the world’s oldest rainforest, has floating bungalows on its lake, so you can stay close to nature in comfort. “Khao Sok National Park is an amazing, beautiful, peaceful place,” says Dave Tucker, director of our partner the Beyond Tourism Company, who run some of our top wildlife trips to Thailand. “There are limestone islands coming out of the lake. You can sit on a floating balcony and watch the elephants coming out of the forest – it’s really nice.”

Wildlife in Kaeng Krachen National Park

Other wildlife hotspots include Kaeng Krachan. The forests in Thailand’s largest national park stretch right up to the border with Myanmar (Burma). Whilst it’s a little more difficult to get here, there’s impressive jungle the deeper you go. Gaur (also known as Indian bison) and wild elephants are the largest treasures in an area that contains leopards, langurs, porcupines and civets, and even a handful of tigers.

“On a walking safari you can go to the salt lick and watch the wild elephants,” says Dave Tucker. “You’re pretty much guaranteed to see them there.”
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Thailand wildlife under threat

This is no Galápagos. Thailand’s wildlife is a shadow if its former self and has been in retreat from human intervention for decades. “The overall picture for wildlife is pretty bleak,” says Dave. “Loads of forests have been cut down; there’s been loads of encroachment.”

Thailand’s population growth, corresponding need for deforestation to make room for agriculture, and the tourism boom that happened after the 1960s, have meant that animals in Thailand have fewer and fewer places to hide. For Thailand’s largest animal, the elephant, their forests have all but gone, and tragically most have been logged within their lifetimes.

It’s come to the point where the best places to see wildlife in Thailand are places where you cannot go – up by the Myanmar (Burma) border, in national parks where the only visitors allowed are researchers. And the best time to see wildlife in Thailand was a time when you couldn’t visit – that is, during the pandemic.

Pink dolphins and rare dugongs were spotted near beaches where they had not been seen for years when the Covid-19 pandemic emptied tourist resorts. The return of Thailand’s shy animals was such a shock after years in hiding that it made headlines the world over; Thailand’s wildlife might be big and beautiful, but it doesn’t perform on demand.

Nature has every right to be wary. There are still some horrible abuses against wildlife – in November 2022, an investigation by animal rights organisation PETA found that Thai coconuts used to make coconut milk were picked by monkeys which were kept chained, and trained using cruel methods. There is still an illegal pet and wildlife trade in Thailand.
In other areas, pressure from tourists is helping change some practices. Witness the dwindling popularity of elephant rides, the closure of the infamous tiger temple in 2016, and the change in how Thai zoos – often horrific places – are portrayed in the media.

In October 2022, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment revealed plans to raise money to free the country’s last gorilla in captivity, which was held in a Bangkok zoo above a shopping mall.

After the international stir around animal sightings during Covid, the Thai government announced in 2020 that national parks in Thailand would be closed for a few months every year to help the nature recover. For a country where one fifth of the GDP comes from tourism, closing tourist attractions, and advocating for wildlife in this way, showed a clear new commitment to native wildlife.

Tourists in turn can follow rules and use responsible tour operators. “The more we encourage good practice – especially after Covid – the more it will support the rise of good tourism,” says Dave.

Responsible tourism is its own reward. It’s mandatory to go with a guide when on a wildlife trail in Khao Sok – but following this rule means you’ll likely have a great local guide who can spot creatures that you’ll easily miss.

Being a responsible tourist also means choosing carefully – using a tour operator that will seek out elephant parks that treat their animals right. The reward for this is seeing happy animals. After all, isn’t that the point of a wildlife vacation?

Expert wildlife spotters and naturalists will want to look to the more remote areas – but for the casual observer, Thailand remains a great adventure for wildlife lovers, especially if they can help with conservation efforts, fund elephant rehabilitation, and go to the beach afterwards. And those who want to do more can also look at volunteering vacations.

Thailand wildlife sanctuary vacations

Who has the widest eyes out of the otter, the palm civet or the baby dusky leaf monkey? On a Thailand wildlife volunteering vacation, you can help care for animals confiscated from markets and illegal traders – and you’ll fall for all those cute faces and cheeky personalities.

To keep their animals protected, sanctuaries have a ‘no touch’ policy, so you’ll spend time creating enrichment activities, preparing food and cleaning enclosures – all with the aim of giving these animals a better life after years in cruel captivity.

Where to see elephants on a Thailand wildlife vacation

The two best ways to see elephants in Thailand are in the wild and in an elephant home. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see them in the wild, but if you do, it’s an incredible privilege. For many, spending time with elephants is a vacation highlight – even for those who aren’t on a wildlife vacation.

“A couple of people took some pictures from the shoreline on the last trip in Khao Sok, where elephants came out just across the lake from the group,” says David. “That’s super cool as that’s their wild habitat and they’re clearly comfortable enough to forage and they can’t be reached – and only 100m away.”

Whilst there are small populations of wild elephants still in Thailand, tourists are guaranteed to see elephants if they visit them in sanctuaries and parks. Half of Thailand’s estimated 6,000 remaining elephants are in some form of captivity – 75 percent of these are in elephant camps established for tourists, mostly found in the north of the country.

The debates about the most responsible way to visit these rages on; for more information see our elephant conservation guide. Booking your trip through a responsible operator means that someone else has done the screening for you, so you can observe these animals – and they can be observed – at peace.

Elephants are Thailand’s biggest wildlife attraction, and raising their standards of care lifts the standards by which the country views all its wildlife. Hopefully, more of Thailand’s amazing nature can come out of hiding soon – until then, keep watching the trees.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rushenb] [Intro: Rushenb] [Wildlife in Khao Yai National Park: Rushen] [Tiger temple: MichaelJanich] [Where to see elephants on a Thailand wildlife vacation: Tontan Travel Thailand]