I’ve always loved animals, and one of my favorite things in the world is to see them happy and healthy in their natural habitat. And from the numbers of wildlife holidays taken each year, there are thousands of people around the world that agree with me.
However, my biggest concern with the industry is the number of places that are trying to exploit the wildlife tourism demand with animal attractions that are less than ethical. And so I’ve put together to this guide to the Best Ethical Wildlife Holidays, Safaris and Sightings that I have either personally taken/seen/experienced myself, or are those I have researched and added to my own ethical wild animal encounters bucket list (yes, I actually have one of those – and if you’re an animal lover – i hope you do too!)
Amazing Wildlife Holidays & Ethical Animal Experiences To Add To Your Bucket List
Big 5 Safari + Wildlife Tour in Africa
African Big 5 Safari’s are easily my all time favorite – mind-blowing, can’t wait to go again – kind of ethical wildlife experience. And if I could live in a National Park in Africa forever I would be a happy happy woman. The Big 5 (Rhino, Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Lion & Leopard) whilst being (unfortunately) known as such because they were the ‘Big 5’ animals that hunters prized the most – now find themselves at the top of the list of animals that safari guests would like to see in the wild. And for good reason.
There is nothing more magical that watching a herd of elephants plodding along across the savanna, watching a Rhino drinking from a waterhole or the buffalo charging to escape a predator – and don’t even get me started on those majestic big cats! Add in the hundreds of other different types of wildlife you are likely to see on an African Safari (giraffes, zebras, ostriches, antelope, hippos, monkeys, cheetahs the list goes on and on!) and it’s the stuff dreams (and wild animal encounters!) are made of.
Where to Go on Your Big 5 African Wildlife Safari: For a real chance at seeing the Big 5 you need to visit Game Parks in the Masai Mara, Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya or Botswana – although Namibia will give you a chance at 4 of the 5.
Come Face to Face with a (Komodo) Dragon in Indonesia
What could be more exciting than coming to face with a real life dragon? The Komodo Dragon (which is actually the largest species of monitor lizard on earth) are native to Komodo National Park in Indonesia where they live on 3 Islands – Komodo, Rinca and to a lesser extent Flores. They can grow up to 8.5ft long, can weigh up to 200lb and can run an impressive 12mph (humans can run up to 15mph for the record!)
They eat 80% of their body weight in one sitting, can live up to 30 years and it as recently been discovered that their bite is poisonous (although they prefer to use their teeth to kill and the venom is more of an incapacitator.) Unfortunately there are less than 5000 in the wild and they are listed on the vulnerable species list so if you want to see them you should go sooner rather than later!
Tick This Ethical Wildlife Encounter off the list: How to Plan a Trip to Komodo National Park
Give Elephants A Bath in Thailand
Elephants are beautiful creatures, but in most of central Asia and south east Asia their history of being used as working animals has now been replaced with being forced to carry tourists in the blazing heat and to entertain people by dancing or painting. Its not natural behaviour, is a result of mistreatment and is something that more and more people are starting to boycott. But we can do more.
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand is breaking the mould in Asia and is a shining example of how things should be done when it comes to interacting with these gentle giants. They are a sanctuary for rescued elephants (as well as buffalo, dogs, cats, birds and other animals), are cared for by a team of dedicated staff and volunteers and where interactions are limited to feeding, watching and bathing.
Mountain Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda & Uganda
Back in Africa, tracking Mountain Gorillas in the jungle is consistently ranked as one of the top wildlife experiences on the planet. The numbers who are allowed to trek each day are restricted to permit holders only (which cost in the region of $600-800) and the unpredictable nature of actually finding them, means that the trekking is often an experience in itself! (My friends were out there for 6 hours as the gorillas were on the move a lot that day!) But the culmination of your jungle walk is that you find yourself in their presence, where you can feel their power and watch them hanging out with their harem (typically 1 male and several females) is just magical. And if there are babies present, oh, be still my beating heart.
Where to Go Gorilla Trekking: East Africas Rwanda and Uganda (also possible in DRC but not advised due to the unrest in the country).
Hang Out With Orangutans in Borneo
If you love apes and monkeys, a wild animal encounter with the endangered Borneo Orangutans must definitely be on your list. The area known as Borneo covers Sabah and Sarawak (both Malaysian states), Kalimantan (Indonesian) and the small State of Brunei Darussalam, with Sabah being preferred by many due to their reasonably good road systems which makes travel between destinations quicker and easier, and due to the number of hotels from budget to luxury, making it a destination that is affordable for all.
Seek out this Critically Endangered Species and other amazing flaura and fauna on a Borneo Wildlife Tour
Go on a Tiger Safari in India
If you’ve already seen the big cats on the prowl (or just lazing about on rocks or in trees) in Africa, a Tiger Safari in India is a great addition to the kitty list. India monopolizes the worldwide tiger population and is home to over 75% of it – but that doesn’t mean you can just rock up to any National Park in India and be guaranteed a sighting.
Some NPs have made the bold claim that they can guaranteeing a sighting on their Safari holidays (and whilst it’s a dubious claim, they do have the largest concentrations of tiger numbers in each park so it may be possible) and these are located in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand.
Love Big Cats? Combine your Tiger Safari with the Taj Mahal and the Golden Triangle.
Christmas Island Red Crab Migration
Sir David Attenborough described the annual red crab migration as one of the worlds “most astonishing sights” and after seeing it with my own eyes last year (and you can have a look too with my red crab migration photo essay!) – I have to say I completely agree with him. Prior to my visit I had never heard of Christmas Island (an Australian external territory in the Indian Ocean) nor knew anything about this spectacular yearly event – where approximately 50 million adult crabs make their way down from the rain-forest and National Park lands which cover 75% of the Island – to breed and spawn along the coastline.
When it happens, most of the island’s roads are closed to prevent casualties, and for those roads that remain open it is slow going – with most residents carrying brooms and rakes in their cars to ‘help’ the little ladies and gents cross the road a little bit quicker. On spawning morning, be prepared to be up with cameras and head torches at the ready for 3am and watch as the crabs flood in waves to where the waves break on the sand when they ‘dance’ to drop their eggs. The whole experiences is absolutely incredible.
When to visit to see the Migration: It is all dependent on the moon, however the CI Tourism Board are able to estimate to some degree of certainly when it will happen each year – with breeding falling between October and November and spawning between November and December.
Whale (or Dolphin) Watching (across the World)
I’ve had the pleasure of whale watching and dolphin watching in several locations around the world. From Byron Bay and Kangaroo Island in Australia to Tenerife, a Spanish Island off the West Coast of Africa, and a few early morning wildlife spotting excursions in the Maldives – any afternoon on the water watching these incredible marine animals is time well spent. And as they are a water based activity, they are often perfect for combining with a beach holiday. Relaxation and Wildlife – what a fantastic combination.
I have unfortunately had one terrible experience Whale Watching and that was in Sri Lanka when I found myself on a Blue Whale spotting tour (with several other boats not linked to our tour) which as a group essentially chased the whales every time they came up for air. It was distressing for the whales and that coupled with the rough seas, meant it was a completely distressing for any ethically minded guest on board. Moral of the story – research, research, research before you book with whale watching operators in Sri Lanka (and the rest of the world) – if they ‘guarantee’ sightings- or a particular number of sightings, be wary.
Polar Bears in the Arctic
Polar Bears sit at the top of the food chain and have becomes masters of survival in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. They feed primarily on fat seals and are the most carnivorous of the bear species. As the Polar Region is not all that easy to navigate independently, in order to have a successful bear watching experience you’ll need an expert led tour with a local wildlife guide; along with a fair amount of time (as it’s typical to spend a few days at a time looking for them), a lot of patience (that goes for all wildlife photography) and an adjustment to a travel style you my not ordinarily be comfortable with.
At this time visiting both the North Pole / South Pole and both the Arctic Circle and Antarctic Peninsula are still on my wildlife adventure bucket list and as such I cannot vouch for any tour operators in the region, but I will update this post as soon as I have first hand experience to share.
Face a Grizzly Bear in the Canadian Rockies
Another amazing wildlife trips that I would love to experience is to see Grizzly bears and brown bears (as officially Grizzly’s are separate sub-species) in the wild in Canada. We’ve all seen the videos of the catching salmon and other fish, and to see that ingenuity for myself would be something I would treasure forever. If planning a trip I would recommend looking at Knight Inlet which has one of the largest populations of Grizzly Bears and may increase your chance of sightings.
Explore the Galapagos Island in Ecuador
Practically on every travelers bucket list – wildlife related on not – Ecuador’s Galapagos Island draws crowds in their hundreds of thousands each year. A volcanic archipelago in Central America in the Pacific Ocean, its isolated terrain shelters a diversity of plant and animal species, many of which are not found anywhere else. The Galapagos Tortoise is the most famous of the species you’re likely to encounter along with Finches, Penguins, Sea Lions, Frigate Birds, Blue Footed Booby and Sally Lightfoot Crabs.
Its an animal lovers paradise and one of the most well loved wildlife destinations in the world – even the big cruise companies have jumped on board and offer wildly expensive Galapagos Cruises but I’d recommend steering away from these as a cruise ships effect on the environment is not great at the best of times and we should make the effort to keep the Galapagos Islands as protected as we can.
Click Here For Our Top Galapagos Islands Tour Recommendation
See A Giant Panda in the Wild (or as close to it as possible!)
Let me let you in on a little secret. I am obsessed with Panda’s – there is something about the giant, furry, fun loving cuddly bear bodies that I just can’t not love! Listed on the endangered species list for a few decades now, their numbers have thankfully been on the rise since the 1970s but even with that there were only 1600 left in 2004.
As such, seeing them in the wild is a hard task and is not a tour offered by many due to both the difficulty and (lack of) success rating. There are however guaranteed sightings at Chengdu Panda Research Base AND if you are prepared to travel a little further out of Chengdu you can get a glimpse of them almost in their natural habitat at Bifengxia Panda Reserve – where multiple pandas were relocated to after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and where its Panda residents are being raised to be returned to the wild once they have learnt to fend for themselves.
Play with the Pandas: Visit Chengdu Panda Base or Bifengxia Panda Reserve
See Puffins in Iceland
Iceland has the largest Puffin Colony in the world (at Vestmannaeyjar – a collection of 15 small islands of the coast of Iceland. These beautiful birds known as the clowns of the sea have become the sweetheart of Iceland in recent years as visitors make seeing them a top priority on their trips to Iceland. And for those that don’t want to or don’t have time to head out to Vestmannaeyjar have plenty of options to see them from the mainland too with colonies at Lundey (Akurey) – which literally means ‘Puffin island’ or at the Látrabjarg cliffs in the West Fjord.
But be mindful that you can’t see them at all times of the year – with April to September being the ideal time (click here for a run down of the best time to go to Iceland and guide to the seasons).
Watch Lemurs in Madagascar
Madagascar sprang into the everyday conscious of the masses with the Dreamworks animated films of the same name, but King Julien (the lemur character just in case you’ve been living under a rock and have never seen the film) is a great introduction to these amazing creatures that are endemic to the island. There are 33 species of Lemur on Madagascar, some of whom mirror some of King Julien’s characteristics including singing like a whale and sashaying across the sand like a dancer! These creatures are so important to primatologists that they divide the world into 4 regions – Central and South America, all of Southern and South East Asia, mainland Africa and Madagascar – which stands as a region all on it’s own! How could we not include it on an Epic Wildlife Experiences list?!
Due to remote nature of the Island and that it is not really set up for independent travel, we highly recommend joining a specific wildlife focused tour to help you get to most from visiting this incredible part of the world.
Chill with the Hippos in the Okavango Delta
The Okavango Delta is a vast inland river system in Northern Botswana and it’s known for its sprawling grassy plains, which flood seasonally, becoming a lush animal habitat. The Moremi Game Reserve occupies the east and central areas of the region and it is here that Mokoro Safaris are the order of the day. Hop into a dugout wooden canoe (Mokoro) and drift between the reeds as you punt past rugged outcrops of land with elephants, zebras, giraffes and more. Sharing the waterways with you – and especially in the deeper pockets (which are perfect for wildlife viewing) are pods of hippos – who as long as you don’t get too close – are happy for you to sit and watch them for hours.
If you choose an overnight trip to the Okavango Delta, you’ll also have the opportunity to go on a walking safari and spend the night at an expert led bush camp – and listening to the hippos on the banks in the early hours of the morning is both exhilarating and a little bit scary!
Get Your Hippo Fix: Short on time, a quick 4 Day Okavango Tour might be in order. Have a little longer? It is cheaper to include it as part of an Overland Adventure Tour (I highly recommend Namibia Nomad– which starts at Victoria Falls and ends at Cape Town and travels through Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and into South Africa).
Swimming with Whales: Humpbacks, Orcas & Whale Sharks
Whales are some of the largest and most majestic creatures in the oceans and there are several places in the world where you can hop in the water with them. From swimming with Whale-sharks in the Maldives, to swimming with Humpbacks in Tonga in the South Pacific and swimming with Orcas in Norway – these are 3 epic marine wildlife experiences you’ll never forget. And as with any and all experiences that place you near to these incredibly powerful – yet mostly peaceful – wild animals, there is an element of risk and you enter into the water at your own risk.
So there you have it! I hope you enjoyed my Top 15 Epic Ethical Animal Experiences & Wildlife Holidays – and I hope it has inspired you to pick out your next responsible tourism based adventure. Let me know which would be your first choice – or if I have missed your bucket list trip, let me know in the comments below!
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