Thailand is a country of diverse natural environments. Dense wet jungles, lofty mountain peaks, as well as a mix of beach and marine habitats, make animals in Thailand some of the most varied in Southeast Asia!
Whether it’s giant mammals, fluffy monkeys or bizarre lizards, Thailand’s animals are as diverse as its landscapes. Whilst it is possible to see many of these wonderful creatures in captivity, the best place to see any animal is in the wild.
Whether it’s been for financial gain or use in hard labour, the exploitation of animals in Thailand has a long history. To counter this image, ‘ethical sanctuaries’ where you can see animals without negatively affecting them, have popped up over the country.
Although some of these sanctuaries truly do their best for the animals, more and more evidence is being uncovered that a lot of them are run strictly for profit, with little care given to the animals they are supposed to be protecting. You only have to watch Netflix’s Tiger King and read about Thailand’s Tiger Kingdom to understand how bad animal sanctuaries can be! If you are going to visit any animal sanctuary in Thailand, make sure to diligently research the place first!
Anyway, without further ado, lets dive into the best animals you can see in Thailand!
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1. Asian Elephant
- Where are they found in the wild: Khao Yai National Park, Kui Buri National Park, Thungyai – Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife sanctuaries, Kaeng Krachan National Park
- Conservation Status: Endangered
- Interesting Fact: Elephants are one of the few animals that can recognise themselves in a mirror!
Elephants. What more is there to say? These majestic mammals are one of the few remaining species of megafauna. Although smaller than African Elephants, Asian Elephants still stand between 2.4 – 3 metres tall and weigh in at around 4 tons. The largest ever recorded was close to 3.5 metres tall, 8 metres in length and weighed well over 7.5 tons. He was discovered in India during the 1920s and was unsurprisingly shot and killed. Ah, what would humans do with their time if it were not for big game hunting?!
Close to 4000 wild elephants roam the grasslands and forests of Thailand, where they spend most of their day consuming enough calories to sustain their epic bulk. This involves munching through 150 kg of food a day!
If you travel through Thailand, you are bound to find yourself with the opportunity to ride an elephant. I implore you not to be a part of this horrendous activity. In order to train an elephant to perform tricks or carry people, they must first have their spirit broken. This process involves torturing the elephant for weeks on end and having just one person attend to their wounds. Over time, the elephant comes to trust this one individual who will go onto to become their trainer. It is reported that up to 50% of elephants will die during the breaking in process.
If you want to be sure of encountering an elephant in Thailand, there are some excellent ethical elephant sanctuaries who are trying to turn the animal tourism industry around. (Click that link to see our recommendations.)
And, when you do have the opportunity to marvel at these tremendous giants, take a while to really look at them. After all, how often do you get to see an elephant up close? You might notice that some of them have large pink patches over their skin. This loss of pigmentation is due to age and surprisingly, not any kind of mistreatment. The lack of pigmentation can cause the skin to become sensitive to the sun. The elephants are aware of this so use mud to protect their skin, regularly flinging it on to their backs with their most defining feature, the trunk.
Asian Elephant’s trunks can grow up to 2 metres in length and are large enough to hold 4 litres of water inside. In the wild, elephants are usually very playful with each other, especially when young and it is common to see them using their long trunks to blast water at each other. Admit it, if you could carry 4 litres of water in your nose and blast it at people you definitely would!
2. Giant Black Squirrel
- Where are they found: In national parks across all of Thailand
- Conservation Status: Near threatened
- Interesting Fact: After just 5 weeks baby Giant Black Squirrels are ready to fend for themselves (even I’d consider children if I only had to deal with 5 weeks of grief)!
The first time I set eyes on a Giant Black Squirrel, I was blown away. For my entire life, I had assumed that squirrels came in two colours, grey and red, with the former being the larger of the two. How wrong I was. Giant black squirrels, as the name suggests, are neither grey nor red and are massive when compared to their common cousins. They measure close to 1 metre from nose to tail and can weigh up to 1.5kg. Seeing them slink effortlessly through dense foliage, as they search for fruit, seeds or eggs to eat, really is a sight to behold.
As a general rule, giant black squirrels prefer dense jungle to the neat rows of trees that dominate plantations, which goes some way to keeping them safe from human predation. Sadly though, we humans cannot stay away and thanks to habitat destruction, over 30% of the giant black squirrel population has been lost in the last decade alone.
3. Sunda Pangolin
- Where are they found: In a few national parks throughout the country with a larger population in the south
- Conservation Status: Critically endangered
- Interesting Fact: Pangolins are the worlds most trafficked mammal!
If you were born anytime after 1990, chances are you grew up wanting your very own Pokemon. Pangolins are the closest thing to a Sandshrew you can possibly imagine, so it is not surprising they are now so heavily trafficked that a few species are almost extinct in the wild.
With large scales covering their bodies and the ability to roll up into a ball when threatened, these metre long creatures are about as adorable as you can get without being fluffy! They have no teeth, instead relying on their long sticky tongue to do all the work when eating their favourite insects.
Sunda Pangolins will use their muscular legs and sharp claws to dig large burrows, which they line with vegetation for temperature regulation and comfort. These burrows are often located near termite mounds, so they never have to travel far for a meal. I wish I lived next door to a free all you can eat buffet!
As well as being popular in the illegal pet trade, Pangolins are used in all manner of ways for alternative medicine as well as being hunted by indigenous populations for their meat and scales.
4. Indochinese Tigers
- Where are they found: Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary and the surrounding forest complex which stretches into Myanmar
- Conservation Status: Endangered
- Interesting Fact: Indochinese tigers have darker fur and narrower stripes than other species of tiger!
Let’s be real for a second. Your chances of seeing an Indochinese Tiger in the wild are incredibly low. With somewhere between 200 – 250 of them left in their natural habitat in Thailand, you’d have to be super lucky to stumble across one. Or unlucky, depending on when it last fed.
If by some miracle one crossed your path and wasn’t considering eating you, you might notice that they are a wee bit smaller than Bengal or Siberian Tigers. Your average Indochinese Tiger can grow close to 3 metres in length and weigh just a touch below 200 kg, with the females being about 25% smaller than males.
Their main prey has always been medium-sized herbivores but as their habitat is being destroyed to make room for humanity, these prey animals are dying off, forcing the tigers to find other sources of nutrition. Whilst smaller mammals such as wild pigs and small deer are enough to sustain a single tiger, they do not provide adequate sustenance for a breeding population.
A poached tiger is worth around $50,000USD, thanks to the ridiculous trade in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Whether or not you believe in acupuncture and qi (pronounced “chee”), the false idea that ingesting ground up tiger bones will make you more virile, is causing the near extinction of these incredibly beautiful animals.
The good news: Thanks to tigers being such iconic creatures the world over, there are over 2000 of them living in zoos and sanctuaries in Thailand alone. So in the future, there should be a chance to repopulate the wild populations.
The bad news: Thailand is famous for being THE country to visit if you want to get a photo with a tiger. For less than the price of a meal at Pizza Hut, you can hold and play with tiger cubs, whilst a member of staff diligently snaps photos of you doing so. If a tiger cub doesn’t quite do it for you and you want to go bigger, then photos with fully grown tigers are also available.
If you are actually considering jumping in a cage with a tiger and aren’t Joe Exotic, then you need to think again. How can you possibly think it’s a good idea to get that near a tiger without them mauling and potentially eating you?
Although most tourists get out of the cage without being hurt (this isn’t always the case), it isn’t thanks of any strength of character or skill. Many exposés have revealed that these tigers are usually so drugged up, that they wouldn’t know how to eat even if they were starving. There are also reports suggesting that the tigers are so beaten over their lives, that they won’t raise a paw for fear of retribution from the zookeepers.
If you are still thinking about grabbing a quick selfie for your profile picture, please reconsider your actions and avoid anywhere offering tiger selfies. Your tinder dates and Facebook friends might think it’s cool but I assure you it’s not and those photos will not age well.
5. Asian Water Monitor
- Where are they found: Nearly all national parks around the country as well as Lumphini Park in Bangkok and Emerald Cave Beach in Koh Muk
- Conservation Status: Least Concern
- Interesting Fact: In Thai, the name for the Asian Water Monitor is used as an insult but is also thought to bring bad luck to those who say it!
Asian Water Monitors are the world’s second heaviest lizard, after the Komodo Dragon. On average, they weigh 20 kg but there are some anecdotal reports of specimens as large as 70 kg. These are not like the bearded dragons we have as pets!
As well as being heavy, they are large, with males being somewhere between 1.5 – 2 metres in length. The largest ever recorded was over 3 metres!
Asian Water Monitors are semi aquatic lizards, meaning they live part of their life in water and part on dry land. Often choosing primary jungle or mangrove swamps as their home, they are not restricted to such habitats and can regularly be seen swimming along rivers in towns and cities across Thailand.
When it comes to food, Asian Water Monitors are not fussy and will eat anything they can get their claws on. Even small crocodiles are fair game to these prehistoric beasts. Their size and diet may make you think they are the masters of their domain but Asian Water Monitors are rarely at the top of the food chain. If threatened, they can use their powerful legs to scale trees and climb to safety. If their attackers can also climb, the lizards will jump into water where they can make their final escape.
Whether it’s for the pet trade, zoos or for shamanic rituals to cure skin disorders or erectile dysfunction, Asian Water Monitors are the most traded lizard in Asia. Millions of the poor creatures are shipped around the world every year. If you need a lizard to help you get it up, you should really see a therapist, not a shaman – Just saying.
6. Dusky Leaf Monkeys
- Where are they found: In national parks across the south of Thailand including Khao Sok National Park and Ao Manao Beach in Prachuap Khiri Khan
- Conservation Status: Near Threatened
- Interesting Fact: When born, Dusky Leaf Monkeys are orange in colour which fades to grey in their first 6 months of life.
Dusky Leaf Monkeys are, whichever way you look at it, adorable fluffy primates. The large white circles around their eyes and the light colouration around their mouths, make them look much more expressive than other monkeys of a similar size. (They are also called ‘spectacled langurs’.) They are usually 50-80 cm from nose to tail and can weigh up to 10 kg.
As with most primates, the huge majority of their diet is made up of plant matter, fruit and vegetables. Like cows, they have different sections of their stomachs for digesting tough foods such as leaves or shoots and can consume up to 2 kg of food a day. Thats 20% of their body weight! I wish I could consume 20% of my bodyweight without getting dirty looks from the staff at my local Chinese buffet…
Dusk Leaf Monkeys are timid but sociable creatures, living in groups of up to 20 individuals. Even when another group approaches, assuming they are not acting aggressively, most of these monkeys would rather play than fight for territory. If monkeys can do it, why can’t politicians?!
7. Whale Shark
- Where are they found: Most of the famous diving spots in Thailand such as The Similan Islands, Koh Tao, Koh Lanta, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Chumpon but only during certain times of year
- Conservation Status: Endangered
- Interesting Fact: Whale Shark birthing has never been seen. It is assumed they give birth to live young and do not lay eggs.
Whale Sharks are iconic for being the largest extant fish in the world. On average, they measure 10 metres in length and weigh around 9 tons. However, there are some reports of individuals close to twice this size!
Even with their gigantic mass, whale sharks are calm, docile filter feeders who consume over 20 kg of plankton a day with their 1.7 metre wide mouth! To do this, they swim straight into clouds of microscopic organisms and by opening their mouths at the right moment, can suck in gallons of sea water. Filter pads in their mouths remove all the tasty treats from the water before expelling it out of their gills. It’s similar to how I eat a kebab after a few too many beers.
At certain times of year, whale sharks are popular with divers around Thailand. They are so chilled in the presence of humans that if you find the right individual, it is possible to hitch a ride, holding onto their dorsal fin. Be aware that this practice is discouraged by shark biologists, as well as being banned in many countries. According to experts, riding a whale shark can cause great stress to the animal and by impeding their movement you could actually cause them to asphyxiate.
Young whale sharks are known to be particularly curious and playful with divers but there is nothing to fear from these humongous fish, they are completely harmless to humans and there has never been a recorded case of a whale shark killing a human – I just wish the same could be said the other way around.
Whale Sharks can live for 80-130 years and are found in warm waters across the world, not only in Southeast Asia. Even with their immense size there is still a lot of unknowns when it comes to whale sharks.
8. Lyles Flying Fox
- Where are they found: In most national parks as well as in various temples across central Thailand
- Conservation Status: Near Threatened
- Interesting Fact: Flying foxes roost where they know they will be safe, often in temples that are protected by Buddhist monks.
As one of the largest species of bat in the world, Lyles Flying Foxes are a sight to behold. Their wingspan can be up to a whopping 1.5 metres and they are known to live in colonies with up to 20,000 fellow bats. If there is a nightmare inducing animal on this list, the flying fox might just be the one. If you get to the right place, at the right time, it is possible to see thousands of these giant bats flying in a great ribbon across the sky, as they leave their roosting grounds in search of food.
Flying foxes can travel upwards of 50 km per night to their feeding grounds, where they will gorge themselves on flowers, fruit and nectar. In order to get at their favourite grub, the large bats will land upright on branches before comically swinging down to adopt the classic hanging bat position. When sleeping, or when the temperature drops, flying foxes will wrap their wings around themselves for protection from the elements but I think it just looks like they’re hugging themselves.
Although they are considered a pest by farmers and as food by many local populations, flying foxes are known to take refuge in Buddhist temples where they live peacefully, side by side with monks. It is common in certain temples for the bats to only leave the temple when the gong is rung by the monks!
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