Seeing a creature in its natural habitat is one of the greatest moments in travel. Here's your guide to finding, tracking, and encountering some of the most magnificent species on Earth...
Range: 20 million penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere.
The experience: The Antarctic Treaty insists that you keep five metres between yourself and a penguin. But just try telling them that. Sat on an icy shore, trying to keep both distance and composure, it’s nigh on impossible not to attract the attention of these curious birds, and it makes for an encounter like no other.
Need to know: Some 18 penguin species live across the Southern Hemisphere, from as far north as Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, where you can snorkel alongside its endemic species year-round, to the shores of the Eastern Antarctic’s Ross Island and its vast colonies of tobogganing Adélie.
But you don’t always need a cruise ship. You can swim alongside the braying (and crotchety) jackass penguins of Cape Town’s Boulders Beach in South Africa or spot rare yellow-eyed species in the bays of Dunedin, New Zealand, without ever setting foot on a deck.
Best place to see: The sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia is perhaps the world’s most famous penguin-sighting spot; cruises (Nov–Mar) disembark on Salisbury Plain, home to some 500,000 king penguins, for one of the great wildlife sights (arrive Dec–Feb to see chicks hatching). But whether spying hundreds of Magellanic penguins on the shores of Punta Tombo in Argentinian Patagonia (Oct–Mar for breeding) or fending off curious gentoos at Antarctic base Port Lockroy, seeing these birds makes for an unforgettable experience.
Range: Some 200,000 brown bears live across North America, Europe and Central Asia.
The experience: Alaska’s famous brown bears descend on its rivers in late summer for one last big feed before hibernation, and here they jostle for the best fishing positions, trying (and often failing) to catch their slippery prey. Watching from secure viewing platforms and surrounded by a sea of brown fur, it’s a sight like nowhere else.
Need to know: Bears are not something you want to encounter alone. Many parks have viewing hides and platforms, or drives where you can stop by the roadside (just look for any gathering of vehicles) and catch one ambling along. But mostly you’ll be out in the wild and vulnerable; for that you need an expert guide/tracker who can recognise prints and knows how to stay safe.
Best place to see: In the US, Alaska’s Katmai National Park is justly famous, with three bear-viewing platforms within a couple of kilometres’ walk of its fly-in camp (Jun–Sept), as you spy bears fumbling with their prey during the salmon run (July). Glacier NP in Montana is another regular stomping ground for bear-spotters, as is Waterton Lakes NP over the border in Canada.
In Europe, northern Greece’s Pindus Mountains, the Carpathian Mountains (particularly Romania), the Western Tatras of Slovakia, and even up in northern Sweden (May–Sept) are all good locations. The rarest sightings are found in Spain’s Asturias region, where tours in late spring and summer set off in search of its few-remaining Cantabrian bears, of which approximately 250 still survive in the wild.
Range: Less than 30,000 rhinos (five species) live across southern Africa, India, Nepal and Borneo.
The experience: It’s sobering to think that after one morning spent in India’s Kaziranga National Park, you’ve probably glimpsed around 10% of the world’s population of greater one-horned rhino. But as the long grass and low mist hanging over the jungle thins and you’re surrounded by rhino everywhere, it’s enough to give you hope for these beleaguered animals.
Need to know: While India claims the one-horned variety, it’s Southern Africa that is home to the largest number of rhinos (both black and white). Black rhinos are harder to spot, and not just because their numbers are fewer (about 5,000); they stick to the undergrowth and tend to be more active at night. White rhinos (of which 93% live in South Africa) roam more in the early morning, late afternoon and evening, and you can tell them apart by their upper lips: blacks have a hooked lip, whites a squared one. Both will leave you speechless.
Best place to see: The greater one-horned rhinos of India’s Kaziranga NP are a rare conservation success story – their numbers are on the up and sightings are likely. The same goes for Chitwan NP in Nepal, where walking safaris are permitted and poaching has been all but eliminated in recent years.
The same sadly can’t be said of South Africa, though the poacher-troubled Kruger NP remains the undisputed king, home to some 10,000 white rhinos, about half that remaining in the world. Just a handful of countries (South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia) are home to 98% of Africa’s black rhino, with Namibia’s Palmwag Concession in Damaraland one of few place where black rhino numbers are actually steadily rising.
Range: An estimated 3,890 wild tigers live in Asia (from India to the Russian Far East).
The experience: Every hair on your body stands on end. Every twig crackle sends you into a minor frenzy as the jeep driver quizzes rangers and studies pugmarks to get the inside track. Then you’re tearing through an Indian forest to a clearing where a Royal Bengal tiger looms in the undergrowth. Only then do you remember to breathe.
Need to know: Seeing tigers up close isn’t easy. In 2016, global figures rose for the first time in a century, according to the WWF and Global Tiger Forum; prior to that, tiger numbers across Asia and Russia had fallen by around 95% during the same period. A number of national parks in India and Nepal offer the chance to see these fantastic beasts in the wild, though weekend visits can be crowded. Typically, there are two set safari times per day (dawn and mid-afternoon), and be sure to choose a smaller six-seater vehicle – it’s just more intimate.
Best place to see: In India, little-visited Satpura Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is a rarity in that it offers walking safaris, though tiger sightings are rarer there. Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh) has the highest density, while attractive Ranthambhore (Rajasthan) is easily accessible from Jaipur (so is busy) and has seen rising tiger numbers in recent years. Pench and Kanha (Madhya Pradesh), Corbett (Uttarakhand) and Periyar (Kerala) are all good options, especially in dry season (Oct–Jun) when water is scarce.
Nepal’s parks offer a more remote setting, though, with Chitwan and the lesser-visited Bardia both offering walking and 4WD options (visit Oct–May).
Range: As few as 22,000 polar bears live across Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.
The experience: Zipping amid crazy-paving pack ice in a tiny Zodiac is how most people are introduced to one of the most jaw-dropping sights in the frozen north. Here, polar bears linger on floating islands, hot-stepping ice floes as they hunt seals. A remarkable sight.
Need to know: Taking an expedition cruise is the best way to see polar bears, with a small ship (no more than 100 passengers) maximising the number of Zodiac/shore excursions you can take. These are also more manoeuvrable and useful for reacting quickly to wildlife sightings. Look for on-board expert naturalists and a 24-hour bridge, so you can escape from the cold when wildlife-viewing at midnight.
Best place to see: Norway’s Svalbard archipelago is one of the best locations around to spy polar bears in the wild, with abundant sightings in its less accessible northern and western parts. For that, you’ll need a cruise ship (Jun–Aug), though sightings can be had on land-based snow-mobile trips around Spitsbergen (Feb–Mar), or even on dog-sled trips to the east.
If you’d prefer to stick to dry land, Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, is the self-proclaimed ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’, with bears mooching across the frozen Hudson Bay around October- and November-time, while organised Tundra Buggy trips (look for 18-person vehicles to ensure you get a window seat) tootle out to meet them.
Range: Two- and three-toed sloths are found across Central and northern South America.
The experience: You’re unlikely to just stumble across a sloth in the misty rainforests of Latin America. They hang stationary for long periods (sleeping 8–10 hours a day in the wild), to the point that algae even grows on their fur, camouflaging them from predators and wildlife spotters. Because of this, local knowledge is invaluable if you want to see that blissed-out smile beaming down at you from the branches above.
Need to know: Wandering sloth-friendly park trails independently can yield encounters, but using a guide massively increases your chance, as the teams radio each other to report sightings and their eagle eyes are more attuned to spotting these well-camouflaged creatures. Be sure to avoid any so-called sanctuaries that offer to let you hold sloths; this is not good for the animals and can cause them serious stress.
Best place to see: Costa Rica is year-round sloth central – it’s even on the currency! Home to Hoffmann’s two-toed and brown-throated sloths, you can see them anywhere but concentrations are highest in the forests of the Osa Peninsula; along the Pacific coast, such as Manuel Antonio National Park; or Tortuguero NP on the Caribbean side. However, those heading north towards Monteverde and its famous cloud-forest will only find the thick-furred, nocturnal two-toed sloth; they can survive at chillier altitudes, and though they are tough to see, guided night tours are available.
Range: A ten-year survey in western equatorial Africa found over 360,000 gorillas inhabit the region, though numbers are falling.
The experience: A silverback is a formidable sight. You expect it to be ‘big’, but it’s the power that blows you away. And while there’s a whole lot of rules (sit low, don’t point, don’t stare) when you see one, it can be hard to recall anything in the moment. Still, it’s worth it to witness the intricate family dynamics of a primate still living on the brink of survival.
Need to know: Spotting gorillas in the wild isn’t straightforward. Tours are the only way to see them and these are subject to strict time limits (typically an hour), while permits must be secured in advance. Nor will you be allowed on a tour if you’re sick, as infections can be passed on to the primates. You need to be fit, too, as you’ll be walking at altitude with no paths and hikes can take from 30 minutes to ten hours. Visits are easiest in the drier months (Jan–Feb; Jun–Aug); discounts on permits can be found in wetter periods (Apr, May & Nov) but be warned that the conditions are much harder going.
Best place to see: In the north of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda, where three of the nation’s 11 habituated gorilla families live, extended visits (four hours) are permitted. Elsewhere, Rwanda’s Volcanoes NP is famed for its gorillas, but visits come at a cost (permit: US$1,500 compared to Uganda’s US$450+). For a truly remote escape, Odzala-Kokoua NP in Congo-Brazzaville has a trio of fly-in camps, with treks into its dense biodiverse forests revealing families of western lowland gorillas – a truly wild sight.
Range: Remote areas of Canada, Alaska, northern USA, Europe and Asia.
The experience: You’re most likely to glimpse wolves early in the day, but driving Yellowstone National Park’s mist-enveloped roads at stupid o’clock in a land of wandering bison can be a risky business. Lying on a hump of land overlooking a bend in a river, binoculars in hand, might not seem like fun but seeing wolves requires patience, and the sight of a pack in full flow is unforgettable.
Need to know: How you see wolves depends on where you are. In Canada’s Denali NP, distance and practicality means bus/vehicle viewings are better, offering a higher vantage point and more eyes, whereas ranger-guided trips in Yellowstone NP, USA, are your best bet, especially in winter when they retreat to the remote corners of the park (a good time to visit, as they’re easier to spot against the snow). Some trips don’t even require sightings, with Swedish wolf-howling tours a thrilling way to re-connect with nature.
Best place to see: Good spots in North America include: Yellowstone NP, Wyoming; Denali NP, Alaska; and Bow Valley Parkway, near Lake Louise, Canada, with these northerly wilderness areas most accessible between May and September.
In Europe, the Carpathian Mountains, particularly Romania’s spectacular Zarnesti Gorge, are a hotspot for Eurasian wolves year-round; Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains are the last refuge of its native lupines, which roam the Web Valley and Sanetti Plateau (Sept–July).
Range: Less than 14,000 leopards live across sub-Saharan African and Asia.
The experience: It’s hard to keep quiet as the desiccated detritus of mopane and acacia crackles underfoot; your eyes naturally flick back to the armed guard bringing up the rear. Then they point to a tree and you see a leopard in the branches, freshly killed impala beneath its paws. The animal glares, sniffs, shifts, then inches down the trunk and disappears into the grass. Fleeting but magical.
Need to know: Leopards are elusive; seeing one while on foot (only permitted in a handful of areas) is a rare privilege. More likely is a sighting from a safari vehicle, so try to visit reserves where animals are used to humans, otherwise they flee quickly. As the cats are nocturnal, choose areas where night drives are permitted (although these aren’t allowed in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park). An expert tracker/guide is key; they’ll know popular cat hangouts and can read bush signals, such as monkey warning calls.
Best place to see: In Africa, sightings are possible year-round, though are easier later in the dry season (Mar–Nov) when the trees have fewer leaves and the grass has died back. Top spots are South Luangwa NP, Zambia, which is famous for its guided walking safaris; Sabi Sand Game Reserve, South Africa, which has a high density of habituated cats; and the Okavango Delta in Botwana, especially its Moremi Game Reserve.
In Asia, Sri Lanka’s excellent Yala NP virtually guarantees sightings, though is best when water levels are low (Feb–Jul), while leopard numbers are rising fast in India’s Aravalli Range; visit Jawai in southern Rajasthan for good sightings.
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