One of the greatest things about visiting Thailand is getting to encounter the incredible wildlife of the jungle nation up close and personal. Thailand is covered with idyllic national forests that are full of waterfalls, ancient temples, and some of the most beautiful animals in the world.
So, what kind of wildlife can be found in Thailand? Thailand is home to numerous species, including Asian elephants, tigers, Malayan sun bears, clouded leopards, deer, gaur, and wild boar. It also has many small animals such as monkeys, reptiles, and arboreal mammals as well as aquatic species like Irrawaddy dolphins, whale sharks, and otters.
No matter where you visit, wildlife in Thailand is something you’re bound to run into. Read on to find out more about the animals of Thailand and where they can be found.
Large Mammals of Thailand
Thailand has many wild animals, but it is most well-known for some of its large mammals such as elephants and tigers, which are rare in other parts of the world and are also featured heavily in Thailand’s history and culture.
Along with its most famous wildlife, Thailand is also home to several lesser-known but environmentally significant species such as the clouded leopard and Malayan sun bear. Because Thailand has a sizable population of large predators, it also has significant populations of medium-to-large sized prey animals such as wild boar and wild cattle.
Asian elephants (also known as Asiatic elephants) are the largest terrestrial animal in Asia. The white elephant is considered the sacred animal of Thailand, and it is considered auspicious among Thai and Burmese royalty to own them in the palatial gardens.
Many tourists come to Thailand specifically to interact with the large population of Asian Elephants in the country, particularly in nature reserves such as the Elephant Nature Park. Here visitors to Thailand can take photographs with elephants and observe them in their natural habitat.
While many places in Thailand allow visitors to interact with elephants, few are credited with doing so in an ethical manner, with many accused of elephant crushing—phajaan, or “the crush” is a brutal training method designed to break young wild elephants by dominating them through force, making them submissive and fearful of humans.
Thankfully phajaan is dying out across much of Thailand because of strengthened public awareness and new methods of training that are successfully being incorporated into rural Thai communities where elephants are traditionally used as beasts of burden.
Indochinese tigers are easily one of the most threatened species in all of Thailand, with only a few hundred left roaming in the wild. Once common across Laos and Cambodia as well as Thailand and Myanmar, these magnificent predators have now been driven to the deepest, darkest parts of their habitats in a bid to escape deforestation and poaching.
Despite efforts in in the country to protect Thai tigers, only around 160 Indochinese tigers remain in the wild in Thailand. As recently as fall of 2019, a Buddhist temple notorious for allowing tourists to pose and take pictures with tamed tigers was raided by the government, exposing a massive ring of organized crime and illegal animal trade.
The best place to have a chance to see Indochinese tigers in their natural habitat is to check out Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary. While tiger sightings are rare because they camouflage themselves so well, the paw prints of these elusive cats can often be found in the park to mark their path.
As the name suggests, clouded leopards exist in what is known as the “cloud forests” of Thailand, such as the forests found in Doi Inthanon National Park. These high-altitude forests are similar to rainforests in biodiversity, though unlike rainforests, they have a distinct winter and summer season.
These smaller big cats are almost entirely arboreal, surviving in the canopies of the Thai forest by stalking and ambushing birds, lizards, and other small prey. Unlike other big cats, clouded leopards can neither roar nor purr, and communicates through a series of chuffing, growling, and hissing verbalizations.
Because they are so evasive and are rarely seen in the wild by zoologists, very little is known about the habits of clouded leopards or their population numbers in the wild. Because of habitat loss and other environmental factors, they are considered vulnerable.
While clouded leopards spend lots of time in the trees, they will occasionally hunt on the forest floor to go after wild boar, deer, gibbons, and macaques. The clouded leopard is genetically different than other leopards and branched out from Pantherindae into its own family over six million years ago, making it one of the oldest types of wild cats in the world.
Malayan Sun Bears
Despite their rarity, Malayan sun bears (also known as sun bears or honey bears) are one of the most recognizable bears in the world due to the prominent sun-shaped cream-colored chest marking they bear on an all-black coat.
Malayan sun bears are the only bears that are native to Southeast Asia, and they are best known for their long tongues, used to snake down into tree trunks and other crevices to extract honey, termites, and other small insects.
Malayan sun bears are endangered in Thailand and elsewhere because of environmental damage and commercial hunting for their paws and gallbladders (which are used in taboo Asian cuisine and folk medicine respectively).
Sun bears are considered environmentally important because their foraging activities reduce damaging termite populations, create habitats for smaller arboreal creatures, and help forest trees and plants disperse seeds.
Deer are one of the more common forms of wildlife tourists are bound to run into, as they are just as happy in the rural districts of Thailand as they are in its wildlife preserves. One of the most famous types of deer present in Thailand is the muntjac, or barking deer, of which Thailand boasts two species.
These deer are used as an alarm bell by other animals in the forest to discern the presence of predators since they will let out a high-pitched, sharp barking call to alert other animals to danger. However, because the deer are so easily spooked, their alarms are ignored until they are repeated enough. Singular “false alarm” calls are commonplace.
One of the weirdest “deers” in Thailand isn’t a deer at all—although it is an ungulate (hoofed mammal), the bizarre mouse deer isn’t a part of either the mouse or deer families. The mouse deer is almost entirely nocturnal, making sightings of it incredibly rare.
A larger deer that might be seen by visitors to Thailand is the sambar deer. This large herbivore more closely resembles its European and American cousins than the smaller jungle deer seen in Thailand. Sambar deer are one of the favorite prey animals of Thai tigers and other large predators.
Gaur (Wild Cattle)
Unlike feral pigs and cows that escape from rural jungle farms and manage to make their way in the wild, gaur is a species of native wild cattle that exist in stable numbers in Thailand’s jungles. Similar to water buffalo in Africa, these large cattle are a favorite prey of Thailand’s large predators but are also able to put up a large-sized fight.
Like Asian elephants, gaur are matriarchal animals, with an alpha female leading the group. This female is usually the oldest in the herd and will be able to lead the herd to the best foraging areas for food, water, and other resources.
Unlike many hooved herd animals, gaur bulls do not fight with their horns for the right to mate—instead, the right to mate is decided by size, with the smaller bull backing out of a confrontation peacefully. Instead, gaur use their horns and sharp hooves as protection against jungle predators such as tigers and leopards.
One of the most interesting things about gaur is their defensive behaviors when faced off with large apex predators such as tigers (one of the few carnivores able to take on a gaur). When confronted by a tiger, a herd of gaur will form a military phalanx of hooves and horns and advance on the tiger in a line while protecting more vulnerable herd members such as calves behind them.
Wild hogs or wild boar are commonplace across Thailand since many rural communities do not fence in their livestock, and wild hogs will freely mate with domesticated hogs that are kept close to or within the forest. This can be dangerous for Thai locals since wild boar can be notoriously aggressive. Wild boars possess razor-sharp tusks that they can use to bite and slash with surprising speed, making them capable of inflicting deep wounds that infect easily in the humid forest climate.
Wild Thai hogs are omnivorous and will eat everything from bird eggs and small animals to fruits and plants. Black boars are particularly prized by the Thai people for their succulent flesh and their ability to live on table scraps and vegetable peelings easily. As a result, wild boar are often kept as tamed livestock by Thai villagers or interbred with domestic strains to increase their vigor.
The resourcefulness of wild hogs and their ability to both burrow under and jump over most fencing means that many wild boars that are kept in captivity inevitably escape, increasing the location population. Such boars (like many semi-feral livestock animals in rural Thailand) may wander in and out of villages at will both foraging and being fed by townspeople.
The free-ranging nature of these quasi-wild animals leads to some local conflicts, however, since some Thai citizens consider them cunning village pets while others consider them a nuisance to be removed or eaten. In either case, there is no shortage of wild hogs in Thailand, and pork features prominently in many famous Thai culinary dishes.
Small Mammals of Thailand
Thailand is home to ten percent of the world’s animals and has more than 285 different species of mammal. Many of these mammals are smaller creatures that either travel on the forest floor or find their homes somewhere in the towering canopies. Many of these rare mammals are also challenging to find out of their Southeast Asian range, making them very vulnerable to habitat loss and poaching.
Binturongs are also known as bearcats, but these odd animals are related to neither the bear nor the cat family. Instead, these Old World mammals are a larger relative of civets, genets, and other so-called “tree cats” (none of which are cats).
The binturong has a prehensile tail (it’s the only animal classified as a carnivore that does). Though it is classified as a carnivore in Thailand, it mostly east a wide variety of fruit that is available in the forest. Its diet is omnivorous, and in the wild, it is an opportunistic feeder. It is also known for its distinct buttered popcorn smell, which is used as a territorial marker to ward off intruders.
One of the main things that make the binturong stand out in the Thai forest biome is its relationship to the strangler fig. The binturong is one of the few animals capable of producing a stomach acid strong enough to eat through the tough outer shell of the stranger fig seed, allowing it to be germinated once it has passed through the binturong’s system. This makes the binturong a stand-out member of the forest ecosystem.
Pangolins are the world’s only scaled mammal, and they’re also, unfortunately, the most trafficked animal in the entire world. This poaching practice has now threatened this unique Thailand native with extinction. There are eight different species of pangolin, and all of them are a threatened species to one degree or another.
Pangolin is derived from the Malay word penngulung, or “one that rolls up.” Like armadillos and pill bugs, pangolins are known for rolling into a tight armored ball when threatened, making them easy to capture alive for poachers.
While they may seem somewhat clumsy at first sight, these small mammals are quite agile, and some are even arboreal, living in the trees and using their tail as an additional limb for climbing. The distinct scales of the pangolin are made up of keratin, or the same material that forms fingernails in humans and other animals.
Despite this, pangolin scales, hides, and meat are frequently used in Asian folk medicine, and this has caused these wonderful creatures to be hunted to the brink of extinction. While the pangolin’s closest relatives are carnivores, the pangolin is mostly an insectivorous animal that uses its snout to root out ants, termites, and other insects, leading to its nickname of the “scaly anteater.”
Like binturong, banded linsangs are a small, arboreal carnivore, though linsangs focus on predation while binturong tend to forage. The diet of the banded linsang consists mainly of lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, eggs, and other small arboreal animals.
Like cats, linsang have sharp retractable claws that they use both for climbing and for catching their prey, though their body shape is more like that of a weasel.
Banded linsang are somewhat elusive in the wild, but are also commonly found throughout natural preserves in Thailand, allowing the occasional visitor a rare glimpse at this mysterious jungle creature.
Malabar Giant Squirrel
Thailand is home to the Oriental giant squirrel, also known as the largest squirrel in the world. These housecat-sized multicolored squirrels can be found across Southeast Asia and India. The main distinction between this giant squirrel and its smaller, dowdier cousins is that rather than burying caches of seeds and nuts in the ground, the Malabar giant squirrel stores them in the trees instead.
Monkeys of Thailand
Monkeys are featured heavily in Thai culture and legend, and one of the most famous temples in Thailand—Lopburi—is completely overrun with them. Monkeys in Thailand are bold and often accustomed to human interaction because they are freely fed in many villages and cities, leading some Thai monkeys to become notorious pickpockets and thieves.
Despite the threat of having your sunglasses or hat stolen, monkeys provide some of the most excellent wildlife entertainment you’re likely to find in Thailand, simply because they’re not shy at all and will perform their daily activities right in the middle of a busy sidewalk.
Gibbons are a threatened species that are endangered on every continent where they can be found, primarily because many of the forests they inhabit are struck by deforestation. Luckily, Thailand has 100 national parks where monkeys can frolic unmolested, and this has led to gibbons becoming one of the most popular attractions for wildlife watchers in the country.
In Thailand, gibbons can be most easily found in Khao Yai, and many can be seen easily from popular tourist trails without having to track too far off the beaten path.
Dusky Leaf Monkeys
Dusky leaf monkeys (also known as spectacled langurs) are most easily recognized by the bright white circles of fur around their dark eyes. Dusky leaf monkeys can be seen best around Cheow Larn Lake in Khao Sok. The best time to spot dusky leaf monkeys is at dawn and dusk when they are most likely to be found feasting on leaves in the forest treetops.
Contrary to its name, the crab-eating macaque doesn’t just eat crabs—it is an opportunistic omnivore, and half of its diet is comprised of nuts, seeds, and other plant matter. The crab-eating macaque also wasn’t originally a native of Thailand.
Instead, this macaque was introduced as an invasive species when they were illegally released in Asia after being used as laboratory subjects to study the polio vaccine and for other scientific studies. Crab-eating macaques can subsequently be spotted throughout Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. As a result, they have reportedly had a devastating effect on local songbird populations.
Reptiles of Thailand
Thailand is home to over 350 different species of reptiles, including a wide variety of lizards, snakes, crocodiles, tortoises, and geckos. Because Thailand contains an expansive network of wildlife preserves, it has managed to preserve one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world.
Some of the most famous reptiles in Thailand include the following:
- Asian monitor water lizards
- Siamese crocodiles
- King cobras
- Tokay geckos
Thailand has a large number of reptiles and amphibians because its warm, humid climate is well-suited to cold-blooded animals that can’t regulate their body heat.
The Asian Monitor Water Lizard (a smaller cousin of the Komodo dragon) is much loved by travelers that come to Thailand to spot wildlife but is detested by the Thai populace. The Thai word for monitor lizard is one of the worst verbal insults you can direct at a Thai person. In Thai culture, monitor lizards are seen as bad luck animals that hang out around evil spirits and cemeteries.
Snakes are another reptile that are frequently seen to harass the public in Thailand since they can be found even in urban areas like Bangkok, and many—such as the Royal King Cobra—are incredibly poisonous.
Chances are if you come to Thailand, you’ll probably end up spotting a snake or lizard whether you like it or not.
Aquatic Wildlife of Thailand
Thailand’s beaches are one of its most significant attractions. In the waters of Thailand, there are many examples of the beautiful wildlife that can be photographed and experienced while you’re in the country, both in Thailand’s many tributaries and in its tropical marine waters.
There are four species of otter found in Thailand’s freshwater habitats, and these playful animals can be one of the most exciting sights to be had on a Thai klong tour. Otters have also become increasingly popular on the exotic pet market in Thailand, though they reportedly make smelly and sometimes aggressive pets.
One common otter in Thailand, the Asian small-clawed otter, is the smallest species of otter in the world. These otters can be found in rice patties, streams, and rivers across Thailand. Asian otters live in large groups of up to fifteen members.
The primary diet of the otter is crustaceans and mussels, which it crushes using rocks as blunt tools to access the meat inside. Otters are one of the only wild animals other than dolphins, and monkeys that have been observed using tools.
Whale sharks are the largest fish on the planet, and since it is hard to find a better place to get up and close and personal with these incredible giants, whale shark dives are one of the most popular offshore activities to undertake in Thailand.
The best times to spot whale sharks off the coast of Thailand are in early spring when food is plentiful, and the waters are cooler. Once the waters heat up, whale sharks and other fish often move to colder, deeper waters.
Despite their large size, whale sharks feed exclusively on plankton and other microscopic organisms, making them utterly harmless to humans and any sea life larger than a minnow. These gentle giants are a popular attraction with divers across the world in the warm water regions where they can be found, though sighting one is a rare treat.
The best place to go scuba diving for whale sharks is in Koh Tao, which is widely regarded as a scuba diving hub in Thailand. Not only is it near many great diving spots, but it is also a place where you can get SCUBA certified quickly, cheaply, and easily. The crystal clear waters of this region and the vast amounts of marine wildlife available to watch make Koh Tao one of the best places to learn to dive.
Irrawaddy dolphins are one of the few freshwater species of dolphins in the world (though they are also known to inhabit coastal brackish marine habitats), and the few Irrawaddy dolphins in Thailand are some of the last—only 92 are estimated left alive in the country. There are only five river populations of Irrawaddy dolphins left.
These dolphins are distinct in that they are almost completely blind in the muddy river waters where they live, relying on sonar and echolocation to guide themselves through the riverways. They also tend to stick to small, shy groups of six or less, though sometimes larger gatherings can be found in deep water passages for purposes of socialization or hunting.
Irrawaddy dolphins are known as the “smiling faces of the Mekong river” and have particularly vivid expression. Unlike marine dolphins, which often “bow-ride” or cruise alongside boats, Irrawaddy dolphins are shy and will dive to avoid human traffic.
In Myanmar, Irrawaddy dolphins have been known to fish cooperatively alongside fishers to share in their catch.
Thailand is a Wildlife Mecca
Regardless of your reasons for visiting Thailand, if you have any interest at all, it is a country that should go on your bucket list. With one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, you won’t get many better chances to see exotic wildlife in its natural element.