From the red dust of the savannah, to the craggy cliffs closer to home, find the best wildlife experiences, adventures and wildlife holidays in the world here. Based on decades of travel and work with Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic and more, here's my personal collection of bucket list wildlife experiences. With a focus on ethical destinations and sustainable tourism, of course. Updated 2019.
Sometimes, you have to work hard to see wildlife. And when I say sometimes, I mean most of the time. You have to creep past snakes in the darkness and risk frostbite to glimpse a tiger. You have to play basketball with the base of your spine along a rickety dirt track to see a zebra, lion or rhino. You have to hike for days to see a condor, paddle for miles to see a seal and at the absolute minimum jump into the sea to eyeball a turtle.
But sometimes it's easy. Sometimes a weekend trip or a deckchair safari can yield the same results if you stay still and keep your eyes and mind open. Through my work travelling the world, by myself or for Lonely Planet or the BBC, I've been lucky enough to have experienced some of the best wildlife adventures you can imagine.
But that's not enough. I thought it went without saying that ethical tourism is important. But the level of exploitation around the world reminds me that it's not. So. Here are responsible, ethical wildlife experiences. Ones that will set your heart on fire and leave you feeling good about it afterwards. After all, responsible animal tourism is one of the best ways to help save endangered animals.
So, bookmark this article and start planning a wildlife holiday of your own.
Catching sight of the big five in Africa is one of the most thrilling wildlife adventures in the world. Conjuring up The Lion King version of Africa, there is something in the red dust of the savannah and the flicker in the eyes of a lion that reaches right into the soul. It's important, obviously, to note that beautiful thought the image is, there is much more than that to the vast continent of Africa.
But with that said, there are no shortage of safari sites either. So, do you choose to go on a safari within sight of the snows of Kilimanjaro? Do you yearn for the lush green foliage and flamingo flecked lakes of the Ngorogoro Crater? A mix of city life with Cape Town in South Africa?
Are you short on time and are looking for a malaria-free quick ride out of Joburg? Or, let's face it, are you looking to go on safari in the place that inspired Pride Rock.
"The plane trembles like a bumblebee with vertigo as it lilts and lifts through the sky cavity around Joburg. The ground, a blurred marble of ochre and olive, continues on. And on. And on.
It’s only a short hop by air from Johannesburg to the Madikwe Game Reserve in African terms, but of course, for those of us from smaller isles, it’s hard to believe just how much space there is out there on the ground."
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is the largest delta in the world. Home to elephants, impala, giraffe, hippos and warthogs aplenty, its watery nature means that there are virtually no roads.
The only ways of getting around are by boat or by plane - or my mokoro, the traditional wooden carved canoe.
What you need to know
Unlike the dry, earthy safaris, these wildlife adventures take place on foot or in the mokoro and so you'll find a stricter age limit and fitness level in place.
You won't see all the Big Five but you will see elephants and hippos, as well as many more exciting birds and insects.
Botswana has a high cost, low volume tourist policy in place and you should probably arrange your wildlife holiday in advance. To organise it independently, head to Maun in Botswana and take a short flight to the fly-in luxury safari villages like Gunn's Camp.
Yes, chameleons are just as amazing as you hoped they'd be! Forget (if you can) the Karma-chameleon song and embrace the real thing in this jewel of an island on the east coast of Africa. Chameleons range in size from thumbnail to forearm-size, changing colours with remarkable authenticity to suit their surroundings. As for this cheeky fellow? He just strolled along our hotel balcony railing in Madagascar's second largest city, Diego Suarez.
It’s not every day you find a baby crocodile swishing through the water by your side. But it is something that happens every night, or thereabouts, on a night safari from Borneo’s Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Up above, amid the branches and the shadows and the tricks of the mind…are monkeys. Many, many monkeys.
Malaysian Borneo also provides shelter for the endangered, lovable orangutan (the Malay word for man of the forest.) Numbers are in decline, thanks to the destruction of their rainforest habitat for palm oil plantations, but places like the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre are doing their best to turn things around. Next door, you can find the cute and cuddly sun bear - as long as you keep a safe distance away.
Tiger, tiger burning bright. Though when I actually saw you, you gave me a fright! Ranthambore National Park in India has pulled off a magic trick in the face of the threat of extinction in only a few years. The park itself consists of golden long grasses and tall, willowing trees and dry leaf-laden earth that crunches underfoot.
Tigers are still scarce but most visitors will see one during a 3 day safari trip.
It's easy to understand why panda bears are the WWF motto. They are fascinating to watch, all bundles of fluff and fur - from afar. The main panda sanctuary I visited has closed for the time being. So watch this space for future updates.
Roam around the raw and rugged cliffs of Britain’s only Coastal National Park in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. The Puffins on Skomer Island mingle with manx shearwaters and more.
When it comes to whale watching, you have a choice between fields of icebergs or sweaty sunshine and topping up your tan. The key thing for whale watching wildlife holidays or vacations is to check the season: whales migrate and in many places in the world, you will only be able to see them for a few months of the year. Watching the tail of a mighty wale sink and splash down beneath the waves is one of the best wildlife adventures in the world. And, happily, you can see this in many places on earth. Here's an overview.
The tail, that majestic symbol of all the monsters of the deep, rises, pauses, holds, waits, lingers above the water before plunging down again, throwing up a signature of spray. Very few animals have the ability to stir emotions in us with their everyday movements. The humpback whale is undoubtedly part of this very special group.
In between the popular beach resort area of Nosy Be and Madagascar's further flung islands is a key whale migration route. Madagascar is harder to travel to and around than other destinations but for wildlife, it's hard to beat.
Pilot whales swim off the shores of the Canary Islands and taking visitors on a whale-watching boat trip has become a popular (and lucrative) pastime for local fishermen. Read more about whale watching in Tenerife here.
Moby Dick was inspired by the whaling capital of the world: Nantucket. Sadly, the whaling industry decimated numbers around this picturesque part of Cape Cod but numbers are returning. Recent reports place whales visible from even Manhattan again now.
Even after all that travel, there are still some wildlife adventures I have my heart set on but have yet to do. And they are...
Not all bears appeal, but these snow slipping ones do.
I actually spent weeks looking for them in Canada and Alaska but no luck yet. Likewise with brown bears.
Beautiful and serene, I imagine it would be so peaceful to do.
I have to see yogi!
So, what do you think? Which wildlife adventures should make the best in the world list?
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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