Where to visit and learn about protected wildlife in Southeast Asia

PHOTO: The Star

It's not just the people of the ASEAN region that make it so wonderful to visit; it's the wildlife too! The beauty of the natural world that surrounds us is truly magnificent.

Smart, sustainable tourism can not only deliver the experience of witnessing some of the world's most magnificent creatures, but offer part of the solution in ensuring they're still there for generations to come. So let's take a look at some of the wilder and sustainable sides of wildlife tourism.

An enchanting place to begin our natural journey is with the fireflies of Selangor, one of the most eye-catching and enriching sights of Malaysia's natural world. A visit to Kuala Selangor, to the north-west of Kuala Lumpur, allows visitors to appreciate the evening air above the Selangor River with the beauty of Kampung Kuantan Firefly Park.

Watch the night come alive, illuminated by the flicker of these beautiful insects. The fireflies cluster around mangrove trees at the edge of the river, and are best viewed from the row boats which can be hired with friendly local guides. They may be small, but the beauty of the flickering fireflies flitting through the darkness above the water is not to be understated.

Moving from the miniscule to the ginormous, the beautiful elephants of the ASEAN region have long been a draw for tourists. Exposure in recent years has highlighted some of the less sustainable practices in elephant tourism, but that shouldn't put you off your own experiences in gaining an understanding of these beautiful creatures.

The Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Taeng District of Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, offers an award-winning, sustainable alternative to the tourism elephant rides often found elsewhere.

In rehabilitating and supporting rescued elephants, you will come to know these beautiful animals more closely, while enjoying an adventure that at the same time supports a worthy cause. The Elephant Nature Park is the most famous of several sustainable elephant sanctuaries throughout the region, each of which offers you the chance to learn the simple pleasures of feeding, herding and cleaning these beautiful creatures.

Elephants offer an iconic image of animal tourism, but the wild nature of South-East Asia is perhaps no better depicted than in the majestic orangutan, our very own "man of the forest". These beautiful creatures have faced significant challenges in recent years, with the loss of much of their natural habitat.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabi­litation Centre, located on a 43sqkm reserve in Sabah, offers visitors a chance to view these awesome creatures while supporting an organisation that seeks to highlight and address the challenges to their survival.

Visitors to the centre are treated to educational videos about these beautiful creatures, and the opportunity to view them appropriately in their natural surroundings. There are five bus trips there a day from nearby Sandakan and the centre is open from 9am to 4pm. Visit at feeding time around 10am and 3pm for the best chance of seeing one of these great creatures.

The drive to protect wildlife, while revealing the wonders of the natural world, is at the very heart of Cambodia's Wildlife Alliance. This organisation works closely with government and wildlife organisations to nurture and protect the wonderful creatures and their habitat throughout Cambodia. Their mandate is not only to protect, but to educate, and as such they offer some wonderful opportunities for sustainable tourism that at the same time supports their fantastic cause.

The Wildlife Alliance tours at their Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre provide the opportunity to get up close and personal with rescued animals, hand-feed elephants, appreciate the beauty of their rescued big cats as well as visit the cutest in all nature - the baby animals! A day's tour costs US$150 (S$203), with a pickup at 8am from Phnom Penh. The payment for these tours goes directly to funding the organisation's work in the rescue and rehabilitation of animals.

On top of this great day out, the Wildlife Alliance has a variety of alternative experiences. This includes being part of the awe-inspiring moment of release, as rehabilitated animals are let free into the wilds of the Cardamom Mountains, near Chi Phat in the south-west of Cambodia, to eco-tours of the region around Chi Phat.

For a full-on immersive eco-adventure, you can even take part in their "Be a Ranger" experience, also based in the Cardamom Mountains area. Experience the intense and challenging life of a wildlife ranger - from patrolling the forests to keeping wildlife safe. The Wildlife Alliance offers a truly unique opportunity for sustainable travel and enjoying the wonders of the natural world, all while playing your part in helping to maintain them.

Finally, if we're to maintain the beauty of nature for the next generation, then educating them about its wonders should start at an early age. The aptly named "Farm in the City" in Seri Kemban­gan, Selangor, is a wonderful example of this important opportunity, and it's right here at our doorstep.

By combining its role as a nature conservation park with that of an immersive and interactive zoo, Farm in the City means the next generation can get a sense of the natural world far removed from their often urban lifestyles.

With a variety of family-friendly attractions, such as a petting zoo, alongside various educational programmes and conservation projects, you're bound to inspire a love of the natural world in the younger generation, while enjoying the wonders on show too.

Now go talk to the animals.

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