Perhaps it is just the fact that I grew up in Africa, but I find the phenomenon of Samui’s wildlife tourism a bit bizarre. To me, experiencing wildlife means to observe animals in their natural surroundings, doing things that come naturally to them. The only entertainment factor should be that you have been taken out of your own natural habitat, and are now a part of theirs. There should be no question as to ‘When is feeding time?’ – If you have to ask this, then it is NOT a wildlife experience. Watching a pack of hyenas chewing away at a carcass, that they have chased, brought down to the ground and killed only moments before you unobtrusively drove up, IS a wildlife experience. Watching a monkey dressed in a tutu, eating a packet of crisps and playing a guitar, is NOT a wildlife experience.
I find it rather sad that the only ‘wildlife’ experiences offered on Samui are in the form of shows, or forced interaction of some sort. Watching a dog perform a trick is one thing. It is a domesticated animal that enjoys the experience as well as the reward of a treat and the bond with its owner. Watching an elephant, tiger or monkey do a trick to an audience is humiliating to the animal, and I just cannot see the entertainment factor in this at all.
I suppose it is about supply and demand. If naive tourists pay good money to watch these shows, or pay to have their photos taken with a chained up monkey, bird of pray or reptile, then more and more locals are going to offer these attractions. I don’t think many tourists realise that these animals are often captured when young, and are kept in a drugged state to keep them docile, and easy to handle. So the next time someone comes and hangs a gibbon around your neck – refuse the offer of a photo. The more often well-meaning but ignorant tourists pay for this, the more animals will be captured from the wild and exploited in this way. The same applies to buying products from endangered species. How many times have you seen framed butterflies, giant beetles and spiders on the market, and seen a tourist buying it as a souvenir? Do you suppose that they actually considered where those insects came from, or do they pretend that each one died of natural causes and was collected to be framed? I suppose it is easier to put on blinkers and not think about these things.
I understand that you get working animals. An elephant or monkey can be trained to work, just like a dog or horse can, and this is different. For a start, they are usually better treated than the animals used in shows and these animals are also usually bred in captivity.
Thailand has so much natural beauty in the way of flora and fauna, from its colourful insects, to its bizarre reptiles and even larger wildlife such as tigers and elephant. The smaller creatures can be just as spectacular and magnificent as the large wildlife, and Samui’s butterfly garden is one place to see these delicate creatures in their natural habitat. I do wish that Koh Samui, and Thailand in general would promote its wildlife with conservation in mind, rather than with a ‘circus entertainment’ approach. For now, I am limiting my Asian wildlife experiences to observing the two giant Tokay geckos that live in my house. At night, they come to eat our kitten’s food, but he is happy to share, as long as it’s not him being eaten!