20 top animal encounters
Join an elephant patrol in Indonesia
Wildlife lovers have plenty of reasons to head up to Gunung Leuser, but for many the big draw is the chance to see one of the world’s rarest animals, the orang-utan, whose existence is threatened by the continued felling of its habitat. There are only three places to stay, but you’re free to explore the jungle by boat, foot, or on the back of one of the seven elephants who are used to patrol the area and deter loggers. Whether you see an orang-utan or not, it’s a world few get to experience.
Meet a moose in Algonquin, Canada
Just four hours from Toronto, by direct train, and you’re in 7600 square kilometres of maple hills, forests, rocky ridges, spruce bogs, and thousands of lakes and streams. There are plenty of activities all year round, from dog-sledding exhibitions in the winter to canoe trips in the summer, and Algonquin is one of the best places in the world to hear a wolf howling, or see moose and beaver from the comfort of your canoe.
Come face to face with alligators, Florida
Considered one of the most important wetlands in the world, the Everglades is a vast sodden expanse at the southernmost tip of Florida. You’ll be convinced grasses in the water are snakes and you’ll probably jump the first time your foot hits a branch underwater, but the sensation will quickly become less noticeable as the magnificent wildlife monopolises your attention – plus there’s a great lunch of fresh seafood and locally grown salad to look forward to once you return to dry land.
Track bears in British Columbia
On a Great Bear Nature Tour on the northwest coast of British Columbia, you’ll have an excellent chance of witnessing the grizzly bear’s natural feeding frenzy. Tours are based at Great Bear Lodge, a small floating cabin in Smith Inlet and, from late August to October, bears are drawn to the salmon-spawning streams. There may be as many as thirty bears at any one time, and this is also the best time of year to see the beguilingly cute cubs.
Watch the zebra migration, Botswana
For millennia one of the largest wildlife migrations in Southern Africa was the return from the Botswana saltpans to the Boteti River, but because of drought the river has not run since 1991 and the last pool dried up in 1995. To combat this, a camp called Meno a Kwena has built pumps that fill three water holes in the river bed. Sleeping in tents at night and studying tracks in the morning, the elevated position of the camp affords a great view of the thousands of animals which come to the pool to drink.
Visit Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa
For centuries elephants roamed freely across Maputuland, the region that straddles the border of South Africa and Mozambique, but their numbers collapsed during the Mozambique civil war. Now, after twenty years, the Tembe Elephant park is thriving, and close encounters are not uncommon for visitors. The safari camp’s facilities are standard for South Africa, but what sets Tembe apart are the thrilling game drive in the experienced hands of local guides.
See the rare sitatunga deer, Zambia
The best time and place to spot a sitatunga, Africa’s elusive swamp-dwelling deer, is at dawn and up a tree – more specifically the Fibwe tree hide in Kasanka Park. As the morning mists clear across the papyrus swamps below the hide, visitors watch the sitatunga taking to the water early to avoid leopards and other predators. Yet the water also has dangers, and some visitors to the hide can spot the snouts of crocodiles floating log-like amid the reeds.
Save the chimpanzees, South Africa
You can drop in for an hour-long tour or stay for a week or more at the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden, helping to monitor behaviour or record the sounds the chimpanzees make when communicating. Experts reckon our closest relative will be extinct within their natural habitats in as little as a decade, so spend some time here and help prevent this from happening.
Track wild dogs in the Limpopo, South Africa
The Endangered Wildlife Trust is a non-profit organization in the Limpopo region that has worked to ensure wild dogs’ survival for over three decades. One of their successes has been to show farmers that wild dog-tracking is a viable form of ecotourism that can protect the dogs while benefiting local communities. During the day guests are led by a trained conservationist on 4WD tours that allow them to observe the dogs roaming in their natural habitat and nights are spent in the thatched Little Muck Lodge.
Track red foxes in Vålådalen Nature Reserve, Sweden
From the Vålådalen mountain station at the foot of Ottfjället, two Swedish biologists run shoeing tours through the hilly, pristine forests of the Vålådalen nature reserve. Covering 6-10km a day and camping out at night, you’ll investigate tracks of red fox, moose, reindeer, otter, and mountain hare and learn about survival techniques in the wild.
Become a game ranger in South Africa
Few jobs have as romantic an image as being a game ranger. If you’ve got a few weeks or more to spare, then stay at a former farmhouse at Kwa Madwala Game Reserve, looking out over a small lake with resident hippos and crocodiles and see if you’ve got what it takes to be a ranger: tracking lions and hyenas on foot, tagging and releasing birds of prey, or counting antelope populations from a microlight.
Walk with the Chacma baboons, South Africa
Most of us would imagine that going for a stroll among baboons would be about as sane as going for a swim with a crocodile – yet the charity Baboon Matters propose just this. They believe that if people develop a better understanding of baboons then they will be less likely to consider them as pests, and so they take tourists up into the hills where they can observe around thirty individuals, who, far from aggressive, regard their visitors with curiosity or just carry on as if you weren’t there.
Join the Sami Reindeer Migration, Norway
The unique opportunity offered by Norwegian tour operator Turgleder is definitely not a made-for-tourism experience. The Sami use one or two snowmobiles to carry equipment but otherwise their technique for herding reindeer has not changed for centuries, so expect to eat and sleep like them in their lavvus (Sami tipis), cook over an open fire, and go ice-fishing for food.
Wake up with meerkats, South Africa
Meerkats are normally shy creatures, yet thanks to Grant McIlrath (know as “Meerkat Man”) there is a spot just outside Oudsthoorn where an insight into their world is possible. The meerkats are used to McIlrath and so if you drive out with him before dawn you’ll have the opportunity to see the meerkats bobbing up and down, sunning themselves and foraging for food – all before your stomach has rumbled for breakfast.
Track cheetahs on foot, Namibia
Based on the 223-square-kilometre Okonjima guest farm, Africat funds a programme to rescue cheetahs captured by farmers. They then care for them with a view to possible reintroduction to the wild. Guests stay in luxurious thatched chalets, and thanks to the radio collars used to monitor the shy and endangered big cats, the cheetahs are easy to find. In some places the guides will even take you to around ten metres to watch a pair of cheetahs devour a kill.
Meet mountain gorillas, Rwanda
Finding a mountain gorilla in the wild takes patience and skill as there are only about 680 left in the world, yet one of the best places to have a go is the Parc National des Volcans in the far northwest of Rwanda. This is home to half of the entire population of mountain gorillas and Rwanda Ecotours organise trips to see the gorillas, so all you need to do is decide between a one-day trek or a six-day hike.
Go dog-sledding in Svalbard, Norway
In Arctic conditions it’s difficult to get quickly from A to B without some form of assisted transport, yet the noise and air pollution caused by snowmobiles hardly does the fragile environment any favours. Dog-sledding, instead, is the answer – a green, viable alternative which allows you the chance to protect the Arctic wilderness while keeping an eye out for polar bears, seals, polar foxes and the northern lights.
See wildlife in Gabon
The jungles in Gabon not only have the highest diversity of tree and bird species anywhere in Africa but are also where wildlife of the equatorial rainforests tumbles out onto its Atlantic beaches: you’re just as likely to see hippos playing in the surf as you are elephants and buffalo roaming along the beach or humpback whales cavorting offshore.
Koala spotting, Brisbane
One of the best places to spot koalas is in the eucalyptus forest surrounding Brisbane. The only catch is that these animals are notoriously shy and very well camouflaged – so if you’re with a guide who knows their hangouts your odds of seeing one will be much improved. They’ll soon have you peering through binoculars, looking for freshly stripped branches and tell-tale claw marks, and with luck you’ll spot the culprit diligently chomping its way through the forest canopy or dozing way up above.
Watch wildlife in bed, Sri Lanka
The Heritance Kandalama lies surrounded by thickly forested hills and a shimmering lake, looking as if it is on the verge of being reclaimed by the forces of nature. So seamlessly does it blend into the rock face into which it is built that you can hardly see it from the other side of the lake. There’s plenty of wildlife to see and guests can take part in a nocturnal snake hike – although if you’d rather see snakes during the day you can check out the hotel’s own animal rehabilitation centre.