Whether you’re looking to spot a particular favourite animal, or see areas with the most diverse mixtures; whether for viewing or photography in their natural habitats, here are some ideas for rewarding experiences throughout the world.
Africa is the home of the safari and many advertised tours refer to the Big Five – the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros, chosen for the difficulty of tracking them on foot. All but buffalo are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, so are popular sights for wildlife enthusiasts. The eight major safari countries are Botswana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zaire - Tanzania is considered the finest, being a politically stable country with superb wildlife viewing across a range of first-class parks to suit most budgets. It’s also the scene of the annual great migration of 2.5 million wildebeest and zebra.
The largest concentration of polar bears in the world is probably found in Churchill, next to Hudson Bay in Canada each summer – here, some 600-1000 bears disperse across 100 miles of coast, brought in by ice floes. They group and gather on headlands and capes, waiting for the winter freeze and can be observed by visitors close up from a special high sided vehicle. If you’re looking for somewhere closer to mainland Europe, Spitsbergen – the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago – and nearby Franz Joseph Land feature a population of around 3,000; although sightings may be less common as the bears are more dispersed.
There are literally hundreds of locations for whale watching worldwide, but whale watching has become so popular, it’s feared that it may be adversely affecting the natural habits of these creatures, so choose your tour responsibly. Two locations include New England and off the coast of Long Island, where the waters are rich in food from mid-spring to October, draw the Northern Humpback, Fin whale, Minke whale and the highly endangered North Atlantic Right whale. Alternatively in winter months, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary attracts between 4,000 and 10,000 endangered North Pacific humpback whales each winter to breed and feed.
This unique island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean was one of the last lands to experience human population, giving it a highly distinctive biodiversity. While there is much to see and do here, two notable activities for wildlife enthusiasts would have to be swimming with Hector’s dolphins – one of the world’s smallest, rarest and arguably friendliest dolphin species in Akaroa Harbour on the east coast of South Island; or visiting one of the world’s most endangered penguin species, the Yellow-eyed penguins, at Penguin Place, Dunedin (also South Island). Much of the profit from tourism here is ploughed back into conservation.
Madagascar is truly unique – an island isolated from the rest of the world with no large endemic predators, wildlife has evolved here creating some of the highest biodiversity on the planet. Of the 200,000 species found in this country, more than 80% are endemic, guaranteeing you once-in-a-lifetime viewings of creatures such as lemurs, the cat-like fossa and two thirds of the world’s known chameleon species. With five Strict Nature Reserves, 21 Wildlife Reserves and 21 National Parks, there is plenty to explore here. Six of the National Parks jointly form the Rainforests of the Atsinanana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Running parallel to the Queensland Coast of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is over 3,000 km (1,800 mi) long and features over 3,000 individual reef systems and coral cays with hundreds of stunning tropical islands. It’s inevitably a spectacular location for viewing wildlife, with over 400 coral species, more than 1,500 tropical fish species, more than 200 birds and 20 reptile species. Home of endangered creatures like the dugong and Green Sea Turtle, it’s accessible to all in a wide variety of ways, viewable by plane and boat as well as locations for divers of all experiences, from snorkeling to depth diving.
For many, the Giant Panda is the iconic symbol of rare and endangered species. While Giant Pandas can most easily be seen in some of China’s protected sanctuaries where they are held captive, many prefer to take their chances of spotting one in the wild. The Foping National Nature Reserve in Shaanxi Province, China on the southern side of the Qinling Mountains is said to have the highest recorded density of wild Giant Pandas in the world. If you’re not lucky enough to see one, you may still see a golden monkey, serow, Asiatic black bear or maybe even a leopard.
High on many people’s list of creatures to see is the Komodo Dragon, the world’s largest lizard. Growing to over 3 m in length and over 70 kg in weight, these superb creatures live only in Indonesia and are protected in the Komodo National Park. While most tourists travel to Komodo Island in search of these creatures, a better bet might be the quieter island of Rinca, with an estimated population of 1,300. The best times to see them are in the cooler parts of the day between April and November, but always with a guide – they can be deadly!
Despite the unparalleled biodiversity of the Amazon, wildlife is much harder to spot than on Africa’s open plains. Camouflage and nocturnal activity to protect from predators mean that you may see little. However, a good guide will help, as will carefully choosing your location. For example, the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve in Amazonas, Brazil is a Ramsar wetland site with more than 400 bird species, endangered monkey species and various Amazon River dolphin species. The Tumucumaque Mountains National Park, the largest of its type, protects 350 bird species, 37 lizard species and declining populations of jaguar, giant anteater and various monkey species.
India is proud to host nearly half of the word’s remaining wild tiger population and takes its responsibility for protecting its remaining estimated 1,400 big cats seriously. The reserve with the highest density of population is thought to be Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh; while Ranthambhore National Park is also known for its tiger population and offers the best chance of spotting this majestic beast in the jungle, especially between November and May when vegetation is sparsest. Ranthambhore is one of the largest of India’s national parks and is in the Sawai Madhopur district of southeastern Rajasthan.