From the red dust of the savannah, to the craggy cliffs of Europe, here's our guide to the best wildlife experiences in the world. . With a focus on ethical destinations and sustainable tourism, of course. Updated 2020.
The Best Wildlife Experiences in the World
The Best Ethical Wildlife Experiences
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.
In other words, make animals worth more alive than dead.
So, bookmark this article and start planning a wildlife holiday of your own.
In a rush? Simply skip straight down to the top 10 wildlife holidays list.
Disclosure - if you book or buy through any of the links on this page, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Cheers and enjoy your wildlife adventure!
1. A Big Five Safari in Africa
As safari in search of the big five in Africa is one of the most thrilling wildlife adventures in the world. 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.
There are so many options. But where should you go? There's no such thing as a best safari in Africa, but I can help you narrow down the choice:
The Best African Safari Spots I'd recommend:
- Tanzania - combine a safari for the big five with the snows of Kilimanjaro and the flamingo-flecked lakes of the Ngorogoro Crater
- South Africa - mix city life and wildlife by travelling to Cape Town in South Africa, filling up on the history of Nelson Mandela and taking in the stunning landscape of Table Mountain and the Cape as well.
- South Africa - combine a trip to Joburg with a malaria-free safari at the Madikwe Game Reserve (you'll need to take a short flight to get there.)
- Kenya. Visit protected rhino sanctuaries, Giraffe Manor where giraffes swoop in at breakfast, and even go on safari in the place that inspired Pride Rock.
What to know about going on safari in Africa
- Safaris usually take place at dawn and dusk on a vehicle
- It can get cold! Wear layers.
- Always travel responsibly
- You need to stay quiet for long periods of time
- There are age limits for children for safety and viewing (typically 8, sometimes 12 years old.)
- Luxury and budget options abound
"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."
2. The Okavango Delta, Botswana
The Okavango Delta in Botswana is the largest delta in the world. Home to elephants, impala, giraffe, hippos and warthogs, its watery nature means that there are virtually no roads.
The only ways of getting around are by boat or by plane - or by mokoro, the traditional wooden carved canoe. What makes this one of the best wildlife experiences in the world is the beauty of the water itself, the calmness in the reeds, and the elephants that wander past at sunset.
What to know about visiting the Okavango Delta
- Okavango Delta safaris take place either on foot or in a mokoro (canoe) instead of a jeep.
- The age limits for children are stricter than jeep safaris.
- Botswana's high cost, low volume tourist policy means that few budget options are available and it's a good idea to arrange your trip in advance.
- To arrange this independently, travel to Maun in Botswana and take a short flight to whichever safari village has a vacancy. I would highly recommend the luxury safari village Gunn's Camp.
- You won't see the big cats here, but you will see hippos, elephants, warthogs and giraffes.
3. Chameleons and Lemurs in Madagascar
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.
Madagascar's unique flora and fauna combination stems from its split with mainland Africa many, many, many years ago. And while it's the wildlife that attracts the headlines, you'll find plenty of other things to do in Madagascar, from UNESCO World Heritage to luxuriously pure beaches.
In addition to chameleons, you'll also find lemurs flying through the air and rock formations like cathedrals in the midst of the jungle.
What to know about wildlife experiences in Madagascar
- You won't see the big game here but you will see plenty of wildlife.
- Madagascar's infrastructure and dense forestry means that travel times can be long.
- In addition to the wildlife, Madagascar has some of the best beaches in the world.
4. Orangutans in Borneo
Malaysian Borneo is one of the few places that 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 but dangerous sun bear, and almost everywhere else in the jungle, you'll find monkeys.
Night safaris swoosh along the river, following the shadows and looking for the curiously-nosed proboscis monkey amid smaller but still biting crocodiles.
What to know about seeing Orangutans in Malaysian Borneo
- Numbers are so fragile that you are unlikely to find orangutans by yourself. Instead, head to a recognised and reputable sanctuary like the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre.
- Check the latest travel advice as there have been some disturbances in the region.
- Our guide on where to stay in Sabah talks through the various rainforest lodges and city-beach hotels.
- Don't miss the other highlights of Sabah, like her cooking classes, turtle rescue and underwater world.
5. Tigers in Ranthambore National Park, India
Ranthambore National Park in India counts as one of the world's success stories when it comes to saving endangered species. A former hunting ground for maharajahs, this Rajasthan park has worked hard to make tigers worth more alive than dead.
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.
What to know about seeing tigers in Ranthambore, India
- Like the big safaris in Africa, you'll need plenty of patience and warm layers.
- Safaris leave in the early morning and again at dusk. It can get very cold in the morning and sweltering by mid-day. Pack appropriately!
- Ranthambore Park is only 130km from the key city of Jaipur, making it reasonable to fit into a trip around northern India, including the Taj Mahal.
- Even if you don't see a tiger, enjoy the monkeys and pelicans and look out for the snakes.
6. Panda Bears in China
The good news is that panda bears are no longer critically endangered. The bad news is that they are still vulnerable to extinction.
The Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is just one part of China's successful efforts to save the cuddly looking bear and WWF Icon. Through a well organised programme to end deforestation, promote breeding and ban hunting, nearly 2000 panda bears now live in the wild.
But for travellers to find them, it's best to head to a sanctuary, and the most accessible one is in Chengdu. There you'll find plenty of pandas, and cubs, chewing bamboo in their natural environment. You'll also be able to learn more about the ecosystem in which they live, from the red pandas to local birds.
What to know about seeing panda bears in China
- Follow the instructions at the Chengdu sanctuary carefully. The place exists primarily to save pandas, not to serve you.
- Have a well charged camera or phone (and don't use flash.)
7. Puffins on Skomer Island, Wales
Roam around the raw and rugged cliffs of Britain’s only Coastal National Park in Pembrokeshire, West Wales.
There, puffins mingle with manx shearwaters and seals splash around the shore.
For an alternative look at this explosion of British wildlife, try coasteering along the Preseli Hills. To the uninitiated, coasteering involves putting on a wetsuit and climbing along a cliff. It doesn't matter if you fall off, that's all part of the fun. If that sounds a little on the dangerous side, I should probably point out that you need to do it with a trained instructor and, obviously, listen to every word they say.
What to know about seeing puffins in Wales
- Puffins are surprisingly sociable creatures. You will walk through fields of them, they'll dive bomb from overhead and pose for photos.
- You need to join a group to take the short boat trip out to Skomer Island. The rest of Pembrokeshire can easily be explored independently.
- Stick VERY closely to the paths. Nesting birds dig holes on the island and it's easy to slip into one and break an ankle if you're not careful. Not that the staff will care. They will be furious that you may have hurt one of the nesting birds. Don't risk it.
8. Whales Around the World
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.
Whale-watching hot spots
- Cruising through Alaska is the perfect icy setting for whale watching.
- Between the popular beach resort area of Nosby and Madagascar's further flung islands is a key whale migration route. Great for people who love warmer weather.
- The Canary Islands in Spain have many pilot whales along their coast.
- 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.
9. Piranhas in the Amazon
Visiting the Amazon rainforest is one of the best wildlife adventures I've ever experienced. Sure, I didn't get to see the reclusive big cats (think panthers and jaguars) but I did see plenty of other wildlife.
In a way, the trees are the star of the show here, along with the birds and insects they maintain and the way that local natives and tribespeople (they're not the same thing - and both terms were the one chosen by the people I spoke to) live and work in harmony on the river.
Monkeys, toucans, egrets and armadillos live beneath the leaves but it was the piranha that made the biggest impact on me. Not literally, thankfully. Nor the anaconda. Read more on the wildlife experiences of the Amazon rainforest here.
What to know about visiting the Amazon rainforest
- The Amazon Rainforest itself crosses nine countries but the vast majority (over 60%) lives in Brazil. Manaus is the easiest gateway city with easy flight connections to Sao Paulo and Brasilia.
- It goes without saying (?!) that you will need a knowledgable guide, bug spray and long sleeved tops and trousers. Find a full list on what to wear in the Amazon rainforest here.
10. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
The pristine ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands barely needs an introduction. This is the land that inspired Charles Darwin to pull together his theory of evolution with a fervour that changed the world.
It's also one of the best wildlife experiences in the world on account of the variety of land and sea based creatures you'll find. Seals, turtles, giant tortoises and pelicans galore.
But the star of the show is the characterful blue-footed booby.
What to know about visiting the Galapagos Islands
- Shore excursions are strictly limited so as to preserve the local wildlife. Unfortunately, this means you'll rarely have the place to yourself and will be in groups of 10 - 30.
- You will need to board a boat to cruise the Galapagos, although you can spot the blue footed booby by hopping in a kayak near the big town of Puerto Ayara on the main island of Santa Cruz.
- It's definitely worth visiting more of Ecuador, from Quito to her cloudforests.
11. (Bonus!) Swimming with Manatees in Florida
Somewhat unflatteringly known as the "cows of the sea," manatees are gentle sea giants who cause little to no harm. While they range over a wide area in the Americas, they cluster into one place during their migration: Crystal River in Florida.
The area has drastically increased the numbers of manatees in their water through one simple measure: instituting a speed limit for local boats. Manatees navigate through echolocation and the noise and disruption from the faster motors confused them, leaving many to become lost at sea.
Florida itself is a haven for marine wildlife, with refuges and sanctuaries dotted across the state.
But swimming with the manatees in the wild is still an approved educational practice, as long as it's done right.
What to know about swimming with manatees in America
- You don't really swim. You float with a snorkel and wait for them to reach you.
- Manatee numbers are seasonal, so check before you book.
- Make sure you head out with a reputable company (as with all these wildlife adventures.) The Crystal River Plantation runs eco-approved excursions and also makes for an interesting place to stay.
The Top 10 Wildlife Experiences in the World: A Summary
What makes these the best wildlife experiences in the world?
Like all such lists, this one has its flaws. There is an open bias towards wildlife experiences and holidays that I've actually completed myself so that I can provide you with honest information.
However, you may also want to look into the following trips and ideas. I certainly will be!
- Polar bears in Churchill, Canada.
- Swimming with a whale shark
- Catching up with Yogi bear in Yellowstone National Park
- Tracking down brown bears and grizzlies in Canada (I did try but no luck!)
So, what do you think? Which do you believe are the best wildlife experiences in the world? Share below or bookmark for later.