Gorilla trekking in Rwanda
Image: Shutterstock / Time Out

10 once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experiences that put animals first

As the world opens up again, we can plan our wildlife encounters in a kinder and more considerate way

Karen Edwards

Whether you dream of exploring colourful underwater reefs or going on a safari across the southern African plains, encountering wildlife in its natural habitat is a fascinating, humbling and often life-changing experience.

As international travel reopens after 18 months of restrictions, these bucket-list trips will no doubt become more popular. Yet with issues such as overtourism, poaching, habitat loss and climate change heavily effecting countless species – putting many in danger of extinction – supporting wildlife tourism that prioritises animal welfare is now more important than ever.

Booking with ethical operators is the first step. These are the companies who hire well-trained guides, understand wildlife behaviour and advocate for their safety. They care enough to provide an informed experience – educating visitors about animal physiology and the threats they face – while investing in the people and environment impacted by tourism.

Considering an animal-themed trip in 2021? Here are ten once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experiences that put animals first.

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Wildlife experiences that put animals first

1. Spot puffins, seals and dolphins in Wales

Throughout the year, the islands of Ramsey and Skomer, off the coast of St. David’s in Pembrokeshire, provide shelter for an impressive 24,000 puffins, 80,000 gannets, hundreds of Atlantic grey seals, common dolphins, harbour porpoise and even the odd whale. In fact, the Welsh coastline is teeming with seabirds and marine mammals. Puffins can be seen nesting from May to late July, while cute seal pups appear from August onwards. Falcon Boats, run by local marine expert Ffion Rees, organises specialist rib boat tours along this wild, stunning coastline.

2. Photograph brown bears in Alaska

Surrounded by dramatic glaciers, lush forests and salmon-rich rivers, Alaska is one of America’s most wild and remote states. Home to brown bears, caribou, moose, bald eagles and everything in between, the landscape is beautiful – and nothing compares to the exhilaration of getting close to a brown bear (known locally as grizzlies). Booking with experienced bear guides – such as Alaska Photo Tours – is essential. Unforgettable photography experiences to Katmai National Park leave from the main traveller hubs of Anchorage and Seward during summer.


3. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda

With just 1,000 mountain gorillas remaining in the equatorial African rainforest around Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, going in search of silverbacks and their families is undoubtedly a bucket-list experience. On arrival at Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, visitors are divided into small groups and assigned a gorilla family to track, with experienced guides leading the hike. Just 96 permits, costing $1,500 (approx. £1,085) per person, are issued each day – and advanced bookings are essential. Reassuringly, the surrounding community – who have adapted to widespread tourism – receive 10 percent of the revenue, while a large proportion goes towards forest conservation and anti-poaching units.

4. Roam alongside penguins in Antarctica

Imagine snow-capped peaks towering high into a rumbling cloudy sky and glistening blue icebergs twisting and crackling under the early morning sun. This is Antarctica – where the eau de seal becomes embedded in your nostrils and spotting gigantic whale tails is an everyday sport. Perhaps the most breathtaking encounter, however, is observing thousands of penguins as they nest, feed and go about their penguin business. The best way to reach the southernmost continent is by expedition ship; Lindblad Expeditions offer 14-day itineraries, leaving from Ushuaia in Argentina, from approximately £11,000 per person. It’s worth it – excursions are led by a team of scientists-turned-lecturers, who teach you a lot about this formidable continent.


5. Dive with bull sharks in Fiji

Fiji’s Shark Reef Marine Reserve is one of the few marine sanctuaries in the world where humans can come face-to-face with wild bull sharks. Biologists have been collecting data here since 2004, working alongside villagers to protect the region’s no-fishing zone and maintain a healthy reef. As a result, eight species of shark and more than 400 tropical fish species can be found here. Beqa Adventure Divers take experienced scuba divers to see the sharks feeding at approximately 25 metres below the surface. Fees go towards reef conservation and supporting nearby villages.

6. Get up close to grey whales in Baja California

Known as some of the most curious and friendly marine mammals in the world, grey whales often allow you to get really close. The phenomenon takes place during spring in southern Baja California, when the whales are breeding and rearing their young. In the safety of Baja’s sheltered bays, they become playful around boats, sometimes letting people see the bristle-like filter-feeding system in their upper jaw known as baleen. Palapas Ventana offers tours to witness this spectacle in a safe and considerate way.


7. Meet the endangered Sumatran orang-utan

Indonesia’s rainforests are vital ecosystems for orang-utans, and with just 14,000 Sumatran and 800 Tapanuli orang-utans remaining in the wild, conserving these habitats are crucial. In the northern Sumatran town of Bukit Lawang, travellers trek into the Gunung Leuser National Park, where several ‘critically endangered’ Sumatran orang-utan can be found. Operators, such as Sumatra Ecoventures, hire trained and knowledgeable local guides to lead small group and bespoke tours – investing a percentage of their profits in rainforest conservation and the surrounding communities.

8. Book a community-conscious safari in Botswana

As one of southern Africa’s main safari hubs, Botswana is always busy during peak season – with the worry of overtourism becoming increasingly apparent. This is why it’s vital to choose wildlife-focused and community-conscious operators, such as Wilderness Safaris, which has been praised for its community work, including setting up tree plantations that employ locals. Little Mombo Camp on the Okavango proudly educates guests on rhino conservation, while staff at the Linyanti Wildlife Reserve are fronting Botswana’s vaccine efforts.


9. Go in search of chimpanzees in Uganda

Play-fighting, grooming and even posing for pictures: it only takes a few minutes in their presence to understand chimpanzees really do share around 98 percent of our DNA. These playful primates are found in equatorial Africa – particularly in western Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Kibale Forest National Park – and spend much of their time in the canopy, feeding on fruit and leaves and sleeping. Tracking permits cost $750 (approx. £550) in Bwindi – where mountain gorillas can also be found – or $200 (approx. £145) in Kibale. We recommend a four-hour Kibale ‘habituation experience’ for $250 (approx. £185). Fees are reinvested in anti-poaching initiatives.

10. Snorkel with humpback whales in Tonga

Between June and October, humpback whales make their way from the polar regions to the tropical waters of the South Pacific with one main purpose – to breed. Experienced operators, such as Tongan Expeditions, take small groups on day tours, with snorkel equipment at the ready in case you encounter humpbacks. The team maintain safe distances and apply considerate surface behaviour at all times. Nothing can compare to that mind-blowing moment when you first set eyes on a humpback under the surface of the water – and it will forever be etched in your memory.

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