Wildlife watching takes you into remote areas, through distant villages and farming communities. Frequently, the people who live in these villages not only depend on tourism for an income but, in some countries, have been displaced from their lands for conservation and tourism purposes. Read up on the local communities before you go, and ensure that visiting them and using their services is part of your trip.
There are lots of family safari opportunities, but more specific wildlife watching vacations can be tailor made to cater for different age ranges. Go polar bear watching one day and kayaking the next. Or see Rajasthan’s tigers in the morning and camel trek through the desert on a camel in the afternoon. Seeing nature’s wonders is spectacular, but holding your loved ones in your arms as you do so is the icing on the cake.
Tigers are extraordinary, elusive and endangered, and it’s extremely moving to see one. But there is a sort of mania among many tourists, particularly in India, to catch just one glimpse of the big cat, when there are also lions and bears here too. Asian lions and sloth bears to be precise as well as leopard, elephants, buffalo, rhino, monkeys, wolves and a veritable fiesta of birdlife.
Joining a group of like-minded wildlife watchers takes the pressure off the organisation front. All you have to do is get yourself there, and the rest is all laid on for you. And in the hands of expert guides, and specialist wildlife companies, the itineraries always look like something out of a naturalist’s private journal, with all the best secrets and tips of where and when to see wild animals in all their glory.
One of the joys of wildlife vacations is the presence of expert guides, such as naturalists, marine biologists or ornithologists. In African safari destinations, many are from indigenous tribes who have been thoroughly trained to share the information that is second nature to them. Good wildlife guides share a wealth of secrets, and inspire you to journey further into the worlds they know so well.
The Galapagos are great, but their rarely visited Wolf and Darwin islands are a scuba diver’s dream. Kruger National Park is cracking, but iSimangaliso, South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site has wetlands, lakes and estuaries with over 500 bird species. Everyone loves lemurs but kayaking off Madagascar’s north coast to spot dolphins and whales is really like something out of the movies.
Wildlife vacations wouldn’t happen without the extraordinary dedication of many conservation charities around the world. Responsible wildlife vacation providers usually promote their chosen few, such as WWF, Care for the Wild International, Born Free and TOFTigers. Their campaigning for conservation at government level is so important, and always worth a standing order of a fiver a month. You wouldn’t miss it, but they welcome every penny.
Read your tour operator’s guidance on gear. Gorilla trekking in flip flops is not a good look. You don’t always need top brands, but you do need good advice on footwear. And waterproofs. And windproofs. Don’t make polar bear watching unbearable by not packing layers, even in summer. Always have bug spray and sun cream. And invest in or borrow a good camera to capture the eye of a tiger forever.
Recent documentaries including Blackfish and The Cove have exposed the ghastly backstage action that goes into capturing orcas and dolphins and getting them to perform - from wailing mothers separated from their babies to keepers being injured and even killed. Say NO to the circus and see them in the wild. You will also be contributing to their conservation. See our Dolphin watching and swimming guide for more.
Sadly not all sanctuaries are what you think. Many elephant sanctuaries in Asia are totally unethical, promoting the capture and mistreatment of wild elephants. The Tiger Temple in Thailand is notoriously so not a sanctuary, and there are some reserves in Africa that allow you to play or walk with lion cubs. Cubs that are then ‘canned’ for trophy hunters when they get too big to play with.
Whether learning to be a mahout in Thailand, swaying atop an elephant through Nepal’s jungles or riding a rescued elephant in a Sri Lankan sanctuary, elephant rides have traditionally been seen as a way of getting closer to nature while simultaneously conserving this endangered species. However, we believe that this not an ethical means of conserving elephants – it is, in fact precipitating their extinction in the wild. See our Elephant Trekking Guide for more details.
The Big Five are definitely worth seeing. No-one is ever disappointed by a rhino. Or an elephant, or a lion, But we do think there is much, much more to an African safari vacation than just seeing these species, and to miss the landscapes, cultures, communities, birdlife and lesser-known species in your bid to tick off this list would be a terrible waste of a trip.