From the snow-bound rocks of Japan's 'Hell's Valley' to the ripe jungles of Borneo and Belize, here are nine destinations for a really wild encounter...
Star primate: Lemurs – ring-tailed, aye-aye, golden-crowned sifaka and many more...
Why it’s a hotspot: Madagascar’s forests, grasslands and deserts are home to countless endemic wonders, but few as famed as its lemur – over 100 species of which live only on this island. Tracking them down isn’t difficult, though most spend their time up in the trees, which is arguably why the ring-tailed species is so iconic. It spends a lot of its day foraging on the ground, and visitors to the tamarind forests of the private Berenty Reserve have been known to find troops of them strutting the car park. Treks into its spiny forests also reveal Verreaux’s sifakas and (at night) the adorable grey mouse lemur.
To the north, the protected area of Loky-Manambato (near Daraina) affords sightings of the extremely rare golden-crowned sifaka, one of the most endangered primates in the world. You may also spy aye-ayes here, though to increase your chances, Aye-Aye Island, near Mananara, is (understandably) a surer bet. Normally, these creatures live high in the canopies, but the island’s limited range and the size of the trees here make spotting one far easier.
Other wildlife: Humpback whales (June to October), chameleons, fossas, long-eared owls
When to go: April to December; be sure to avoid cyclone season (January to March)
Star primate: Orangutan
Why it’s a hotspot: The dense forests of Borneo are one of only two places on Earth you can spy orangutan in the wild. But how you see them often defines the experience.
On the Malaysian side of the island, access is usually easier. The Kinabatangan River, for example, snakes deep into Sabah, its lodges found about 80km upstream. Orangutan viewing is done mostly by boat here, with proboscis monkeys, gibbons and macaques also rattling the branches. Alternatively, up your budget and head to the dense forests of Danum Valley (also Sabah), where some 500 orangutan shake the canopies – a handful often in sight of the Borneo Rainforest Lodge and its treetop walkway and guided trails.
But if you don’t mind toughing it out, you can skip the border to Indonesian Kalimantan and Tanjung Puting NP’s 3,040 sq km of lowland tropical forest. Around 5,000 orangutan swing its dense jungle, with access via a 2.5-hour boat trip from Kumai along Sekonyer River to Camp Leakey. Hire a houseboat and guide and drift veined jungle tributaries, wandering ‘bird lakes’ and trails in the unfettered Bornean wild.
Other wildlife: Pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, Malayan sun bears
When to go: March to October is dry season, making trekking and boating easier.
Star primate: Gelada baboon
Why it’s a hotspot: The vast massif of the Simiens runs the far north of Ethiopia, its pinnacles pimpled with giant lobelia and topping 4,500m in places. It’s also the only place you’ll find one of the rarest apes on Earth: the gelada.
The world’s most terrestrial primate – aside from humans – spends most of its day grazing in the high mountain meadows, its shaggy grey fur and distinctive red-streaked chest (it’s known locally as the ‘bleeding heart monkey’) making it easy to spot if you take the effort.
Hiking trails wind into the mountains, though you must travel with a guide and a gunman. Routes range from two to 14 days, but it’s possible to spy geladas within a few steps of the trailhead at Simian Lodge. They aren’t shy and an estimated 3,000 live here in large ‘herds’ (up to 200), though loss of habitat means it’s a far cry from the 500,000 recorded in the 1970s.
Other wildlife: Walia ibex and small numbers of Ethiopian wolf (both endemic to the country)
When to go: October to March is the dry period, making hiking easier; August to October is wildflower season.
Star primate: Chimpanzee
Why it’s a hotspot: Some 100 habituated chimps rattle the canopies of Gombe, the 56 sq km park skirting Lake Tanganyika’s banks. Visitors boat in from Kigoma, with early-morning treks into the interior rewarding with close-ups of the group’s complex society. Gombe isn’t the only park on the lake, however. The 1,613 sq km Mahale Mountains NP may require a couple of days to track any of its 1,000 chimps, but it yields some rocky scenery, fine kayaking and white-sand coves.
Other wildlife: Olive baboon, red colobus, hippopotamus, crocodile, bush pig
When to go: Avoid wet season (November to May) when the chimps hide and the trails are muddy.
Star primate: Delacour’s langur
Why it’s a hotspot: One of the quirks of Vietnam’s Van Long Nature Reserve, a tough wetland in Ninh Binh Province dotted by green-sprouting craggy limestone karsts, is that it isn’t easy to get to. This means that there are very few predators (or poachers), so it’s no surprise that it is also home to some rare finds, including one of the last surviving refuges of the Delacour’s langur, a species endemic to northern Vietnam.
The world’s largest known population live in the park (alongside plenty of birdlife), with boat trips into the wetlands and caves rewarding with rare views of these toe-headed, be-quiffed simians scrabbling up sheer cliffs. Their black bodies give way to distinctively large white bottoms – like some terrible tanning accident – making them easy to spot, especially in the morning or early evening when they’re most active.
Other wildlife: Black-faced spoonbill, cotton pygmy goose, white-browed crake
When to go: Year-round
Star primate: Black howler monkey
Why it’s a hotspot: As the New World’s largest (and loudest!) primate, the black howler monkey is hardly inconspicuous. But hunting and habitat destruction mean the chances of seeing one in the wild are limited, despite their territory stretching Belize, Mexico and Guatemala.
Your best chance of spying one is in the Community Baboon Sanctuary, a 30km swathe of protected farmland and forest running along the Belize River in the north. Its small size has meant that the competing primates here have developed some impressive calls, and a stay at the lodge means you wake to the full-throated roar of thousands of howlers barracking the canopies.
Walks and canoe trips into the jungle reward with sightings in the trees overhanging the riverbank. The sanctuary has also relocated groups to other locations, such as the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary further south, where hunting and disease had robbed them of their native wildlife; now treks into its forests echo to heartening howls.
Other wildlife: Jagarundi, armadillos, hickatee river turtle, nearly 200 bird species
When to go: Year-round
Star primate: White-handed gibbons
Why it’s a hotspot: The dawn chorus of the white-handed gibbons of north-east Thailand’s Khao Yai NP is truly haunting – capable of raising shivers and smiles alike. Here, one of the largest intact monsoon forests in mainland Asia encompasses 2,168 sq km of limestone karsts, waterfalls and thick, untouched rainforest. It’s the perfect location to spy a wealth of rare creatures.
A 50km web of undemanding trails wind this UNESCO-listed park, making it easy for independent travellers to explore, while the northern entrance (out of Pak Chong) avoids day-trippers from Bangkok. Treks into the jungle interior, through the draping liana vines and past roaring waterfalls, reveal gibbons barrelling through the branches overhead as well as flashy great hornbills and troops (make that armies!) of noisy macaques. Some 250 elephants even tramp its boundaries, making for a rare treat if you can spot one.
Other wildlife: Clouded leopards, slow loris, gaur, Asian black bear; 300 bird species
When to go: Year-round, though the wet season (May to October) can make trekking very difficult.
Star primate: Japanese macaque (snow monkey)
Why it’s a hotspot: These days, the park has one man-made pool where the majority of the Japanese macaque troop will coalesce, and where visitors can get close. These red-faced apes are well used to humans, so aren’t bothered by encounters; they also use the pools year-round, though the most dramatic shots are to be found during the snows of winter (December to March). Plus, if you want to follow their lead, the park isn’t far from the onsen (hot spring) towns of Shibu and Yudanaka.
Other wildlife: Japanese serow, flying squirrel, wild boar, Asiatic black bear
When to go: Year-round
Star primate: Mountain gorilla
Why it’s a hotspot: There are only a handful of places in the world where you can see mountain gorilla species in the wild: DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. DRC can be tricky to get around, and political flare-ups are all too common, while Rwanda’s price-hike for gorilla-tracking permits means it’ll cost you $1,500 (£1,120) a day for a one-hour encounter. But Uganda is stable, accessible and affordable (from $450/£335 for a permit), and in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park they allow you to spend much longer with their habituated mountain gorilla families than in other countries.
Normally, a day’s worth of trekking can yield just one hour of face-to-face time with a gorilla group, but the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s Gorilla Habitation Programme means those trekking the dense jungles of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest can enjoy four hours in their company. It means a chance to get to spend more time observing the intricate social hierarchy of a species far closer to us that we’d care to admit. Truly remarkable.
Other wildlife: Hippo, chimpanzee, lion, mongoose
When to go: The best time is from December to late February and June to December. Rainy season (March to May and October to November) can make trekking difficult, though gorilla permits are cheapest in April, May and November.