The world's best wildlife experiences (dreamstime)
List Words : Sarah Baxter | 19 November

The world's top 9 wildlife experiences

Your ultimate guide to finding, tracking and encountering the world's most amazing species

1. Penguin

Fast facts:

Estimated global population: Numerous – 18 species; most common is the Macaroni (18 million)
Geographical spread: Southern Hemisphere
Characteristics: Weight up to 40kg (Emperor); Body length up to 1m (Emperor); Life-span – 15-20 years

The Experience:

The Antarctic Treaty insists you keep five metres between yourself and a penguin; the only problem is, no one has told the penguins. There you are, sitting on the icy shingle, trying hard to stick to the rules, but these endlessly curious birds just won’t let you.

They waddle over as soon as your little boat runs ashore. They cock their heads whenever you move. At one point you think it would be nice to take a picture of just the scenery, but a limelight- hogging bird walks right up to your lens. Then takes a good peck.

There are penguins absolutely everywhere: their bodies – grey-white adults, brown fluffy chicks – are spread along the beach, up the slopes and almost to the snow peaks beyond. The air is raucous with their chatter, and heavy with their whiff. Noisy, nosy and smelly to boot – it’s lucky they’re so cute.

Penguins are found across the southern hemisphere, and encounters with them vary by location. The southern Atlantic island of South Georgia is the prime spot. To sail here and disembark on Salisbury Plain – home to around 500,000 kings – is probably penguin nirvana. But there are many other options. Australia’s night parades – where penguins troop up certain beaches at dusk – are reliable, family-friendly options. In New Zealand you can spot rare yellow-eyed penguins just a short drive from Dunedin. In the Galápagos you can snorkel with the most northerly ranging species.

Where found?

Antarctica and Southern Seas

Where: Antarctic Peninsula (various colonies, including Hope Bay for Adélies, Port Lockroy for gentoos, Snow Hill for Emperors); South Georgia; Falkland Islands. 

When: Nov-Mar. To generalise, penguins court/build nests Nov-Dec; chicks hatch Dec-Feb; chicks moult and fledge Feb-Mar. However, there are some species variations.

How: Cruise ship; Zodiac inflatable; kayak (carried by some cruise ships); on foot.

South America

Where: Southern tip and west coast, including: Isla Magdalena, Chile; Peninsula Tombo, Argentina; Galápagos Islands, Ecuador. 

When: Oct-Mar for Magellanic penguins breeding around the Patagonian coast. Galápagos penguins can be seen year-round but are more abundant Jun-Nov, drawn by good fishing in the colder waters (pack a wetsuit).

How: Cruise ship; small vessel; on foot; diving/snorkelling (Galápagos).

Other locations: 

Accessible hotspots include: Boulders Beach, South Africa (jackass penguins); Phillip Island, Victoria, and Kangaroo Island, South Australia (little); Oamaru and Otago Peninsula, New Zealand (blue, yellow-eyed).

Insider tip:

“In Antarctica, the ship you chose is vital. Jumping aboard some cruiser that breaks every Antarctic Treaty regulation will seriously negate your holiday. Before booking, ask how many times you’ll be getting off – if the answer is less than twice a day, book another expedition.” Paul Goldstein, travel expert and wildlife photographer

Bonus species to spot:

Antarctica: leopard seal, elephant seal, humpback whale, fin whale, southern right whale, orca, dolphin, albatross. Other: marine iguana, land iguana, giant tortoise, Darwin’s finches (Galápagos); kangaroo, wallaby, koala, wombat (Australia).

Further inspiration:

7 places to spot 7 types of penguin

Sleep out under the stars with nosy penguins in Antarctica

Discover splendid isolation and plenty of penguins in the Sub-Antarctic islands

2. Jaguar

Fast facts: 

Estimated global population: Unknown – possibly 15,000 
Geographical spread: Central and South America 
Characteristics: Weight 54-158kg (male); Body length 150-180cm; Life-span 12 years

The Experience:

It seems you’re driving through a wildlife soup. There are creatures everywhere. Caiman are snoozing in the shallows; capybara are grazing on the scrub; marmosets are scampering up the tree trunks; each lake, stream and puddle is flocked by birds of all kinds – kingfishers, storks, egrets, more. And this is just along the main highway.

When you reach the end of the road, it’s time to explore this wetland by boat. As you push between the water lilies, there’s a momentary distraction as a giant river otter dives beneath the water, but mostly your eyes are fixed on the banks. Patch of shadow after patch of shadow is dissected by your gaze until... unmistakable – that’s no sun dapple: you’re looking at the rosettes of a wild male jaguar.

He is absolutely enormous, a muscly brute with a thick head and cold stare. But he is also unperturbed by your presence and sits quietly while you gawp, as if fully aware he’d win any scrap paws-down.

Jaguar are notoriously difficult to see, being shy, nocturnal creatures living in an overgrown environment. However, the Brazilian Pantanal seems to be the exception, and sightings at one particular spot on the Cuiabá River are almost daily in the dry season. Cats are usually alone, but you may spot a mother with cubs, or a cat swimming from one bank to the other. Night drives from the area’s lodges may also provide a glimpse. And even if the big cats remain elusive, the general wildlife-viewing is spectacular.

Where found?

Brazil

Where: Pantanal (most accessible off the Transpantaneira highway); Amazon region (jaguars present, though hard to spot).

When: Head to the Pantanal in dry season (late Apr-early Nov) – animals congregate around remaining water. Dense vegetation makes spotting tougher during the wet season.

How: Boat trips; 4WD safaris; horseback safaris; guided walks; lodges (many gardens here contain more wildlife than entire reserves in other parts of the world).

Central America 

Where: Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve, Belize (the best bet in the region, though sightings still unlikely; signs of jaguar activity possible); Corcovado NP, Costa Rica.

When: The rainy season (Belize: Jun-Jan), when these remarkable cats are more active. 

How: On foot – with enormous amounts of luck.

Other locations: 

Possible, though unlikely, across South American jungle.

Insider tip:

“At the end of the Transpantaneira highway, right on the Cuiabá river, the area around the hotel Porto Jofre is the best to see jaguar anywhere in the cats’ range; most sightings are within striking distance of the conjunction between the Cuiabá, Three Brothers and Piquiri rivers, about an hour from the hotel by boat.” Mark Carwardine, TV naturalist and author of Ultimate Wildlife Experiences.

Bonus species to spot:

Giant otter, capybara, tapir, coati, ocelot, peccary, howler monkey, anteater, hyacinth macaw, toucan, anaconda.

Further inspiration:

Mike Unwin tracks down Brazil's jaguars in the Pantanal

3. Tiger

Fast facts: 

Estimated global populatIon: 3,200
Geographical spread: Asia (from India to the Russian Far East)
Characteristics: Weight up to 300kg (male Amur sub-species); Body length 140-300cm; Life-span up to 26 years

The Experience:

Every hair on your body is standing on end. Every twig crackle sends you into a minor frenzy. Your eyes comb the sal trees – and the dark spaces between them. Your jeep driver is doing his best, quizzing rangers and studying pugmarks to get the inside track. And then...

You’re off, bombing to a clearing where a few other jeeps have come to a halt: half hidden amid the elephant grass is the most majestic creature you’ve ever seen. The Royal Bengal tiger’s focus though is on the sambar grazing nearby. You watch, transfixed, as it creeps amid the undergrowth, considers its eating options, decides against it this time and melts into the forest. Only then do you remember to breathe.

Seeing tigers up-close is getting harder: in the past 100 years, the world’s tiger population has fallen by around 95%. However, sightings are still possible, especially within certain national parks in India and Nepal. Unlike some of Africa’s private concessions, these public parks – which have designated roads and rules – can get crowded, especially at weekends. There are usually two set safari departure times a day (dawn, mid-afternoon) and choosing a smaller vehicle will help to make the experience more intimate.

Better, elephant-back safaris can also provide close cat encounters: your chances of a sighting are lower as you cover less ground but the buzz of glimpsing an orange-black flash weaving through the forest as you gaze down from a howdah – 5,000kg of trail-blazing pachyderm swaying beneath – is arguably worth the decreased odds.

Where found?

India

Where: Tiger reserves countrywide. Bandhavgarh (Madhya Pradesh) has the highest tiger density. Attractive Ranthambhore (Rajasthan) is easily accessible from Jaipur (so is busy); but tiger numbers have declined. Other options include Pench and Kanha (Madhya Pradesh), Corbett (Uttarakhand) and Periyar (Kerala). 

When: Oct-Apr – dry season: improved visibility as vegetation dies back; animals congregate at diminishing waterholes; excellent sightings possible May-Jun, pre-monsoon, but temps are fierce. 

How: Six-seater gypsy jeeps; canters (larger jeeps); elephant- back (not possible in all parks); on foot (Madhya Pradesh’s Satpura Reserve only); boat (Sundarbans, West Bengal).

Nepal

Where: Chitwan NP (4-5hr drive from Kathmandu); little-visited Bardia NP (western Nepal).

When: Oct-May – viewing improves with dry season (best Feb-May). 

How: Jeep safari; on foot; elephant-back.

Other locations:

Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, Russia; Kerinci Seblat NP, Sumatra, Indonesia; Royal Manas NP, Bhutan. Sightings rare.

Insider tip:

“In 2012 the Indian government closed its parks. They’ve reopened now – the pick are Bandhavgarh, Pench, Kanha and Ranthambhore. Your first tiger is Damascene, put the camera down and enjoy it.” Paul Goldstein, travel expert, wildlife photographer and tiger fundraiser

Bonus species to spot:

Rhino, elephant, gaur, crocodile, leopard, striped hyena, sambar deer, chital, macaque, jackal, caracal, wild boar.

Further inspiration:

4 tips for sustainable tiger trips 

Tracking tigers on foot in India

Nepal's tiger population increases by 63%

4. Rhino

Fast facts:

Estimated global population: 29,000 (across all species)
Geographical spread: Africa and Asia
Characteristics: Weight 1,440-3,600kg (white rhino); Body length 370-400cm (white rhino); Life-span 45 years

The Experience:

More like being aboard a tank than an animal, the elephant you’re riding makes short work of the tall grass as it bulldozes a way across the plain, taking you places that more conventional forms of transport just can’t reach. A low mist hangs over the jungle, the air is filled with birdsong you can’t name and there are rhino everywhere.

Yes, everywhere. It’s a joy, though sobering to think that in one morning you’ve probably glimpsed around 10% of the world’s total greater one-horned species. You’ve seen a group of ten munching fresh shoots in a hazy clearing – unconcerned by your elephant-mobile, they let you get right up close. While tramping through the high foliage, you surprised a mother and calf, who would have been invisible from a vehicle on the road. And you got so near to one solo male, you could see the tufts on his ears and the flies up his nose.

The greater one-horned rhinos of India’s Kaziranga National Park are a rare conservation success story – their numbers are on the up, and sightings are virtually guaranteed. In Africa, poaching is a huge problem. However, black rhino and white rhino (the biggest species and, after elephant, the world’s largest land mammal) can be reliably seen in certain game parks and reserves. Black rhino – often harder to spot as they stick to the undergrowth – tend to be more active at night; white rhino roam more in the early morning, late afternoon and evening. You can tell them apart by their upper lips: blacks have a hooked lip, whites a squared one. Both will leave you speechless.

Where found?

Sub-saharan Africa

Where: South Africa is home to 93% of all while rhinos - try Kruger NP (especially southern Kruger; estimated rhino population: 10,000) and Hluhluwe-Umfolozi; Hlane Royal NP, Swaziland (for rhino drives, biking, walks); Desert Rhino Camp (for on-foot/4WD tracking of Damaraland’s desert-adapted black rhinos) and Etosha NP (night-viewing at Okakeujo waterhole), Namibia; Ol Pejeta Conservancy (eastern black rhinos, plus four of the surviving seven northern white rhino subspecies) and easily accessible Lake Nakuru (black and white rhino), Kenya.

When: May-Oct – dry and warm in South Africa/Namibia; Sept-Oct can be uncomfortably hot but offer the very best game-viewing as animals congregate around dwindling water. Kenya’s Ol Pejeta closes during the main rains (April and November).

How: Game drives; self-drive safaris (eg Kruger, Etosha, Hlane); on foot (some areas); protected hides and waterholes (eg Etosha, Hlane); on horseback (Botswana, South Africa).

South Asia

Where: Kaziranga NP, India (largest population of greater one-horned rhino); Chitwan NP, Nepal.

When: Dec-Mar, when vegetation is sparser and temperatures pleasant. Some controlled burning occurs Feb-Mar, opening up clearings. 

How: Elephant-back; 4WD safari; boat; on foot (in Chitwan; not permitted in Kaziranga); look-out towers (Kaziranga).

Other locations:

Botswana; Tanzania; Zimbabwe; Zambia. Indonesia (for rare Sumatran and Javan species).

Insider tip:

“Kaziranga is home to 70% of the world’s greater one-horned rhinos, so it’s a great place for sightings – especially as the rhinos are used to people and don’t seem to mind visitors getting close. Tours leave from park HQ in Kohora and must be booked in advance. Hiking is prohibited in Kaziranga itself, but there are opportunities nearby; you must walk with armed guards.” Mark Carwardine, TV naturalist and author of Ultimate Wildlife Experiences

Bonus species to spot: 

Asia: Asian elephant, tiger, leopard, sloth bear, Asiatic water buffalo, Indian gaur, sambar. Africa: African elephant, lion, leopard, cheetah, giraffe, zebra, buffalo,various antelopes.

Further inspiration:

Roaming with rhinos in South Africa

Where in the world to see rhinos

Tracking rhinos in Assam's Kaziranga National Park

5. Polar Bear

Fast facts:

Estimated global population: 20,000-25,000
Geographical spread: Arctic regions
Characteristics: Weight 350-680kg; Body length 200-300cm; Life-span 25-30 years

The Experience:

You almost don’t care about seeing a polar bear – there’s too much else going on. Sailing the floe-flecked Arctic waters, under a steadfast midnight sun, every day aboard has been a revelation. You’ve seen walrus flopped out on tiny isles; seals skimming between the bergy bits; minke whales huffing off to starboard; belugas to the port; and cliffs festooned with innumerable birds. You’ve even raised a dram chilled by a 3,000-year-old chunk of calved glacier. You almost don’t care. Almost.

And then, as you’re zipping amid the crazy-paving of pack ice in a small inflatable, you see it: the undisputed king of the North Pole. Only this is a queen – soon after clocking her still-considerable size, you glance to her side to see two snow-white cubs glancing back. The youngsters cower as Mum raises her powerful neck yet higher, a protective mother’s warning. Then, satisfied you’re no threat, she returns her attention to her brood. As you gasp in delight, the furry family wander to the icy edge of their floating island and make a dramatic leap onto another passing floe. Their earth – and yours – quivers.

Though polar bear numbers are on the rise in some areas, the species is on the brink, as climate change threatens its habitats. Taking an expedition cruise is the best way to see them. Choose a small ship (no more than 100 passengers) to maximise the number of Zodiac/shore excursions you can take. Small ships are also more manoeuvrable – useful for reacting quickly to wildlife sightings. Onboard expert naturalists and a 24-hour bridge (so you can escape from the cold when wildlife-viewing at midnight) are also desirable.

Where found?

Arctic Norway

Where: Svalbard – the best wildlife sites tend to be in the colder and less accessible north and east of the archipelago.

When: Jun-Aug, when pack ice has melted and ships can more easily access the best wildlife sites; viewing hours are long thanks to the midnight sun. Land-based winter trips (best Feb-Mar) are possible though bear sightings are less likely; base yourself in Longyearbyen, capital of Spitsbergen, and make excursions.

How: Expedition cruise ship; Zodiac (rigid-hulled inflatable boat); snowmobile; ski-touring.

Canada

Where: Churchill, Manitoba – self- proclaimed ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’; remote Baffin Island. 

When: Oct-Nov (Churchill), as bears mooch across hudson Bay.

How: Tundra buggy (fat-wheeled vehicles that hold 40 passengers; look for those with an 18-person maximum, to ensure you get a window seat); helicopter; on foot (with expert armed guides).

Other locations: 

Greenland; Wrangel Island, Russia; Alaska.

Insider tip:

“A bear seen miles from land in Spitsbergen is a joy. The ship you choose is critical. It must have the appropriate ice rating and ideally be a proper charter rather than one carrying 15 groups from 15 different countries, all wanting something different from their tour. Look for a trip with no strict itinerary on a small ship. Companies that offer guarantees on bear sightings are charlatans.” Paul Goldstein, travel expert and wildlife photographer

Bonus species to spot:

Arctic fox, walrus, bearded seal, ringed seal, reindeer, fin whale, minke whale, beluga whale, Arctic tern. 

Further inspiration:

Polar bear chasing in Svalbard 

Track pioneers and polar bears in Churchill, Canada

An Inuit adventure cruise in Arctic Canada

6. Leopard

Fast facts: 

Estimated global populatIon: 200,000 
Geographical spread: Remote areas of Canada, Alaska, northern USA, Europe and Asia
Characteristics: Weight 20-60kg; Body length 120-200cm; Life-span 6-8 years

The Experience:

The air smells of sage and potato bushes – it’s like an English roast under the African sun. As you walk, the desiccated detritus of mopane and acacia crackles underfoot, though you’re trying hard to avoid letting the ‘locals’ know you’re here. You’ve stopped to investigate everything from footprints to dung piles; you’ve had a close encounter with a family of warthog and watched heart-in-mouth as lions tussled in the nearby dust. It’s been a good day but it isn’t over yet.

Your guide and armed guard call a halt. In the distance, a hyena has put in an unusual daytime appearance. Then your binoculars tell you why: the female leopard looks perfectly content, lolling amid the branches of a sausage tree, freshly killed impala beneath her paws. She glares in your direction, sniffs, shifts, then gracefully inches down the trunk and disappears into the grass. Eventually you rouse your own legs to walk away, to leave her to her feast.

Leopard, found across Africa and Asia, are elusive creatures; 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. To increase your chances, visit reserves where the animals are used to humans – otherwise they flee quickly. As the cats are nocturnal, choose areas where night drives are permitted (though these aren’t allowed in Sri Lanka’s Yala NP). An expert tracker/guide is key; they’ll know popular cat hangouts, and can read other bush signals, for example, monkeys making warning calls when a leopard is nearby.

Where found?

Africa

Where: Top spots include south Luangwa NP, Zambia (home of walking safaris); Sabi Sand Gr, South Africa (high density of habituated cats); Masai Mara, Kenya; Okavango Delta (especially Moremi Game Reserve), Botswana. 

When: Year-round, though easier later in the dry season when trees have fewer leaves and grass has died back. In general, southern Africa is dry Mar-Nov, though Kenya and Tanzania tend to have ‘long rains’ Apr-May and ‘short rains’ Nov-Dec.

How: Walking safari (only permitted in certain areas); game drives; night drives.

Asia

Where: Yala NP (best) and Wilpattu NP, Sri Lanka; Indian reserves, including Gir National Park, Gujarat.

When: In Sri Lanka, Feb-Jul is best: water levels are low and animals congregate at waterholes. In India, visit Dec-Mar.

How: Game drives; elephant-back safaris.

Other locations: 

Ladakh, India (snow leopard – very rare); Russia (Amur leopard – very rare).

Insider tip:

“Leopards are shy, nocturnal animals. Keep a look out when on a walking tour as they mark their territories by making claw marks in the trees. Also, the alarm call of the vervet monkey changes to signal when a leopard is nearby. The call gets much more high-pitched because of the leopard’s ability to climb trees.” Honour Schram de Jong, Norman Carr Safaris

Bonus species to spot:

Africa: elephant, lion, cheetah, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, rhino. Asia: elephant, water buffalo, sloth bear, turtle (five species), crocodile. 

Further inspiration:

Sri Lanka's best wildlife parks and where to spot leopards 

Leopard spotting in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

7. Wolf

Fast facts: 

Estimated global populatIon: 200,000
Geographical spread: Remote areas of Canada, Alaska, northern USA, Europe and Asia
Characteristics: Weight 20-60kg; Body length 120-200cm; Life-span 6-8 years

The Experience:

It’s only just after dawn and already you’ve almost had a head-on with a bison. Driving along mist-enveloped roads at stupid o’clock in a land of hefty creatures can be a risky business – but there’s no way you’re stopping: you’ve an appointment to keep. Finally, and without mishap, you reach your destination. On a hump of land overlooking a bend in a rippled river, is a man with a monopod.

He’s focused on one sloping valley-side in particular, so you follow his gaze – and see nothing. Patience, he smiles, while filling you in on the creature you’ve come to see; you’re so engrossed in his words that you almost miss the beaver waddling out of the water nearby.

There are elk milling around too, and you’re just zooming in on them when something else catches your eye: no lone wolf, but a whole hungry pack. Though they’re distant, they’re clearly lively, alert and homing in on a limpy elk, whose days seem increasingly numbered. Suddenly, the pack picks up speed, working as one to chase its prey down the hill before disappearing behind a tumble of rock. The end. Or is it? Patience... Twenty minutes later you spot a single wolf padding away, its mouth full of food for later, its grey fur tinged an unmistakable red.

It’s not easy to see the wolves of Yellowstone National Park – or anywhere else for that matter. They’re wary of humans and tend to keep their distance. However, it’s a thrill to simply camp out in wolf country and hear their plaintive call.

Where found?

USA and Canada

Where: Wide-roaming, but good spots include: Yellowstone NP, Wyoming; Denali NP, Alaska; Isle Royale, Michigan; Arctic National Wildlife refuge, Alaska; Bow Valley Parkway, near Lake Louise, Canada. 

When: Northerly wilderness areas are more accessible May-Sept. However, wolf tracking is easier winter/spring: footprints are visible in the snow; wolves stand out against the white backdrop. 

How: On foot (eg ranger-guided trips in Yellowstone); by bus/vehicle (viewing in Denali NP better this way – higher vantage, more eyes on the look out); canoe (Isle Royale).

Central Europe

Where: Carpathians, Romania/ Slovakia; Scandinavia and Finland; Bialowieza Forest, Poland.

When: Year-round; easier winter/spring.

How: On foot; 4WD vehicle.

Other locations:

Bale Mountains, Ethiopia (for Ethiopian wolves); Zamora province, Spain.

Insider tip:

“Wolves are hard to spot. Experienced rangers are invaluable. Also, avoid wearing bright colours (especially white) – dark green, grey or brown will help you blend in. If you find fresh wolf tracks, wait quietly at the forest edge, preferably overlooking a large meadow – wolves sometimes scan these meadows for potential prey. Most importantly, you need patience and luck!” Dan Marin, Wanderlust World Guide of the Year 2007 & founder of www.transylvanianwolf.ro

Bonus species to spot:

North America: bison, elk, brown bear, black bear, moose, bobcat, bighorn sheep, lynx, mountain lion. Europe: Arctic fox, deer, bison, wild boar, brown bear.  

Further inspiration:

Track wolves in Yellowstone National Park

Wolves and vodka in Russia

16 unmissable winter adventures

8. Mountain gorilla

Fast facts:

Estimated global population: 880
Geographical spread: Central Africa
Characteristics: Weight 70-200kg; Body length 150-185cm; Life-span 35 years

The Experience:

You have sweat dripping off your sweat, mud up to your knees and foliage plastered about your person. You’ve been yomping and hacking through the rudely prolific undergrowth for a few hours now and are starting to understand why they call it the Impenetrable Forest. You’re so busy liberating your ankle from the latest tangle of vine that, when it finally comes, you almost miss the moment. Your guide has motioned for you to stop, and sunk to his knees behind a tree. Then a ‘rock’ so big you hadn’t even noticed it starts to move...

The silverback is formidable. You’d expected ‘big’ but it’s his power that blows you away: you can feel the brawn radiating from his limbs. In your head, you recall all the rules from your briefing (sit low, don’t point, don’t stare)... and then a beachball-size lump of playful fur bowls over, smacking right into his side. You gasp, horrified, but the old man simply gives the youngster a delicate pat, hauls himself up onto his mighty fours and trundles off to join the rest of his brood.

An hour – that’s all you get in the company of Central Africa’s mountain gorillas. But what an hour. As well as the strict time limit, there are other regulations: (expensive) permits must be secured in advance; you must not be sick (at the risk of passing on infection); you must join a guided group. You also need to be fit: you’ll be walking at altitude with no paths and, depending on which gorilla family group you are allotted to track, the hike to them could take between 30 minutes and ten hours.

Where found?

Africa

Where: Mgahinga NP and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda (permits: $500); Volcanoes NP, Rwanda (permits: $750); Virunga NP, Democratic Republic of Congo (permits: $400; some safety issues).

When: Jungle trails are easier to hike during the drier seasons (Jan-Feb, Jun-Aug) though downpours are possible at any time.

How: Guided hike (permits mandatory).

Insider tip:

“Each gorilla family can be visited only once a day, by a party of up to eight people. There are no guarantees of an encounter, although the success rate is close to 100%. The biggest risk is that the gorillas will be in the treetops – in Bwindi, it’s where they spend one-tenth of their time. Gorillas love to sunbathe after showers, so they often spend more time in the open during the wet season.” Mark Carwardine, TV naturalist and author of Ultimate Wildlife Experiences

Bonus species to spot:

Chimpanzee, colobus monkey, baboon, L’Hoest’s monkey, bushpig, paradise flycatcher, turaco, bee-eater, duiker. 

Further inspiration:

10 of the best places to see mountain gorillas

One perfect hour with Uganda's mountain gorillas

A handy guide explaining which gorilla is which...

9. Giant panda

Fast facts:

Estimated global population: 1,600
Geographical spread: China
Characteristics: Weight 85-125kg; Body length 150-190cm; Life-span up to 26 years (in captivity)

The Experience:

You’ve hiked right into the heart of the reserve, a million miles away from heaving, 21st-century China. Last night, a farmhouse was your hotel, a grain sack your pillow; no matter – you rose before the cockerel, and though it’s not even dawn you’re yomping through the forest, via waterfalls, fairy glades and – most importantly – foot- high fronds of tasty bamboo.

Every time a stem creaks, you tremble – but it’s no more than the breeze playing cruel tricks. Your eyes strain in the weak but growing light, partly to avoid stumbling on rocks and tree roots, partly scouring the foliage for the smallest signs of life.

And then, a sharp crackle. You stop in your tracks and squint into the shadowy clearing ahead. It’s dark but, yes, there he is, squat and gorgeous, a marvellous monochrome male breakfasting on – for a change? – a pawful of bamboo. You dare not move, crouching awkwardly but transfixed as this oh-so-rare fluff-ball eats his fill. He munches slowly, pausing only for the odd scratch – until something tips him off to your presence. In a flash, he’s off, bounding into the thickets with a crashing din and surprising speed, no doubt to find the perfect bamboo lunch.

A fleeting glimpse, perhaps – but lucky indeed. Encountering a wild panda isn’t easy. Not only are numbers falling, but the bears’ preferred habit is obstructive: steep mountain slopes, thick vegetation, remote locations. And, as winter is the best season for viewing, expect chilly temperatures too. An expert tracker is essential as they will know the best forest trails and can teach you to look for the telltale signs of a nearby panda (rubbed tree bark, split bamboo shoots, vivid-green droppings). All that’s left is to keep your fingers crossed...

Where found?

China

Where: The bamboo-rich nature reserves of central China, including Wolong and Fengtongzhai in Sichuan; Baishuijiang in Gansu; and Changqing and Foping in Shaanxi. Foping is thought to harbour the highest density of pandas (up to one per 1.5 sq km). Captive pandas can be seen (and held) at the Panda Breeding Centre in Chengdu, Sichuan.

When: Nov-Mar – pandas descend from the mountains plus the snow makes tracking them easier. March is mating season – prime time for panda-spotting.

How: On foot, with an expert guide.

Insider tip:

“Don’t just look for pandas on the ground, where it can be difficult to get a clear view through vegetation. Pandas are surprisingly agile climbers, and younger ones in particular can be see resting in the forks of trees. They descend backwards like a fireman down a pole, landing unceremoniously on the ground – cushioned by snow in winter.” Heather Angel,  Wildlife photographer and author of Panda (David & Charles, 2012)

Bonus species to spot:

Takin, golden pheasant, crested ibis, golden snub-nosed monkey.

Further inspiration:

Panda trekking in Shaanxi, China

Mark Carwardine stalks pandas in China but only finds plenty of poo