Wildlife travel guide
I am a grown man, and have travelled all over Africa. But the first time I saw a tiger in the wilds of India, I cried.
It takes a few minutes for it to sink in when you see animals in the wild for the first time. We all grew up with wildlife centers or watching Life on Earth, so there is a familiarity about seeing a giraffe elegantly reaching up to eat some acacia leaves, or a hippo emerging from a muddy river. But then it hits you. There are no fences, feeding time or fun and frolics. When that polar bear clocks you in the eye, it has only one thing in mind: dinner. With a gorilla, it might be a gentle glance to welcome you into the bosom of his family.
The impact of seeing animals in the wild is a highly emotional one, touching the psyche in multi-dimensional ways. You don’t need to be a hardcore, up-at-dawn wildlife fanatic to be struck by this. In fact, our wildlife vacations guide aims to show you that you can combine wildlife watching vacations with other activities, adventurous and cultural, but ultimately helping you find that wildlife moment that will stay with you forever.
Our Wildlife Vacations
What we rate & what we don't
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.
Family wildlife vacations
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.
Beyond the eye of the tiger
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.
Small group tours
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.
Exploring beyond the norm
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 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 is 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.
Ticking off the big five
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.
What will I see on a wildlife vacation?
The most commonly used phrase back at the bar in a safari lodge is ‘What did you see today?’ as people raise a glass to the honour of seeing a highly endangered black rhino, or watching a cheetah chase a zebra. So, what exactly can you see in the wild? Unless you are an expert, it is hard to know where to start with wildlife watching vacations, what you can see and when you can see it. And of course, wildlife is wild, so it is never possible to truly predict its behaviour, the weather or the impact on habitats. Our wildlife travel guide gives you some pointers….
African safarisThe Big Five get all the attention here, a phrase ironically coined by game hunters in the past, referring to the hardest animals to hunt on foot. Luckily the only shooting of African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and black rhinoceros on responsible safaris is by photographers, and of so much more than just the Big Five too. The most popular safari nations are South Africa, Tanzania, Namibia, Kenya and Botswana and the favourite time of year is the dry season July to September, when animals seek out watering holes for sustenance. Those in search of the miraculous wildebeest migration need to think about traveling between June and September to Tanzania or Kenya. However, you can see splendid wildlife on African safaris all year round.
Whale watchingWhales swim around the world, their movements following the seasons and availability of food, so you need to be sure you’re in the right place at the right time. The countries offering the most prolific whale watching trips, that are also responsible and carefully managed, are The Azores, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Norway, Sri Lanka and Tonga. Check out our whale watching travel guide for more details.
These vacations vary in name: gorilla safaris, gorilla tracking or trekking, but they are the same thing really. You certainly need to trek to see the mountain gorilla families of Rwanda and Uganda, the countries with the most impressive populations and tourism infrastructure to boot.
You can see gorillas all year round, although if you don’t want to trek in the rainy seasons, avoid November and March-May. You need to book well in advance as permits are compulsory and like gold dust. Minimum age for a permit is 15. See our gorilla safari travel guide for more details.
If you'd like to chat about Wildlife or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
Bear watchingIt’s a northern thing mostly, bear watching. Think Alaska and Arctic for polar bears, and Canada or Finland for top sightings of brown bears, the largest of which is Canada and Alaska’s grizzly. The seasons dictate the best times too. With polar bears in Churchill your best bet is autumn, when they move from land to sea in search of seals. In Svalbard, Norway, however, summer months are best, as ice floes carry them along the coast. And for British Columbia’s grizzlies, see them emerging to feed on grasslands in spring, on riverside berry patches in summer, and on salmon in autumn. Viewing conditions are at their finest in summer for Finland’s brown bears, with 24 hours of sunlight.
Tiger safarisThere are just over 3,000 tigers left worldwide, with six subspecies: the Bengal, Siberian, South China, Indochinese, Malayan and Sumatran tiger. You can see most of them on a tiger safari in India but also in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Siberia. Tigers are there all the time, but the climate dictates when you can see them. The parks that they inhabit are closed during monsoon season, July until mid-October.
November until March is great, but be prepared for cold mornings in winter, with temperatures going up to mid-twenties in the afternoon. Temperatures start to soar from March until monsoon, so really only for mad dogs and Englishmen.
Orangutans are only found naturally on the far-flung islands of Borneo and Sumatra. They are highly endangered, so wildlife vacations usually include a visit to a sanctuary or rehabilitation center, which are vital to the conservation of these creatures for future generations. The isolated forests still shelter a marvellous menagerie of other creatures, including proboscis monkeys, hornbills, slow lorises and pygmy elephants. You can see orangutans all year round, although the rainy season Nov-Feb can get pretty soggy.
Snow leopard trackingThese highly elusive big cats are endangered and can be found in cold, mountainous areas of central and Southern Asia such as the Himalayas. One of the best places to see snow leopards is in protected areas such as Hemis National Park in Ladakh. Our collection of snow leopard vacations offers you the chance to help research these ‘ghosts of the mountains’ or track them and their prey through the snow with very experienced guides. Some of these trips support organisations such as the Snow Leopard Conservancy Trust India.
Galapagos IslandsGalapagos are gorgeous. And totally gripping. With their other-worldly omnipresence of wildlife, such as marine iguanas, sea lions, penguins, sea turtles and sharks. The birdlife alone would have given UNESCO enough reason to name this one of the world’s first World Heritage sites, never mind everything else. There is wildlife here all year round although their behaviour changes according to the season, so do consult the wildlife tour operator for more details on that.
Costa RicaPlenty of countries have astounding wildlife, but rarely have they preserved it so carefully for decades – and few offer so many ecosystems in such a tiny space as Costa Rica. Sightings are so superb here as there is simply nowhere for the creatures to run. Turtles, quetzals, howler monkeys, sloths, caiman, otters, dolphins… take your pick of iconic species, and your waterproofs. It rains for seven months a year here, but with plenty of silver linings to those clouds. Late Dec-April are the driest and sunniest though.
More about Wildlife
It is a good lesson to remember that, on wildlife vacations, it is the wildlife that calls the shots. They tell us when the best time to go on a wildlife vacation is. If there is a sudden change in weather, for example, you might find that the most reliable wildlife sightings are suddenly rare. Or vice versa
Most people know that one day they would love to go to South Africa, Botswana or Namibia to see some of our planet’s great creatures in the wild.
Sometimes it is straightforward. It has always been your dream to see gorillas in the wild. Or polar bears in the Arctic. Others may need help working out how to choose a wildlife vacation.
Sometimes people wait until their kids have flown the nest before heading off on that trip of a lifetime to see our wilderness neighbours in the animal kingdom still brooding over theirs.
You don’t always have to fly to the other side of the world to see wildlife. In fact, Scotland is one of our top destinations for wildlife vacations in Europe.
There are so many to choose from and yet people always ask us – what are our top 10 wildlife experiences? So here they are below.
Blue Planet returns to the BBC, inviting us into an extraordinary underwater world and inspiring us to explore and protect our oceans.
One thing we have learned at Responsible Travel is that the more respectful you are to wildlife, the more incredible your encounter will be.
One of the most important pieces of wildlife vacations advice isn’t about wildlife at all. It is about people. And their homes.
It is rare in the wonderful world of wildlife that watching wildlife in their natural habitats comes issue free. What can we say?…it’s complicated.
Is there really such a thing as an ethical wildlife selfie? The spread of social media has encouraged a worrying trend in pictures of tourists holding, hugging and feeding wild animals, and NGO World Animal Protection has campaigned to stop this.
This wildlife travel guide is meant to be like a trailer for the new Attenborough series. Giving you ideas of what you are going to see, when you can see it and where.