Sadly so much of the wildlife that we hold so dear is at great threat of extinction. The good news though is that there are still safe havens where you can see these species in the wild and in doing so, also personally contribute to their survival by supporting innovative and incredibly effective conservation efforts, as an intrinsic part of your vacation.
I personally find this so inspiring and it really elevates my travel experience to the extraordinary. I myself recently took part in a rhino conservation exercise where a small team accompanied the veterinarian and rangers to dart a rhino and chip their horn for conservation purposes. This was such a moving experience and I would recommend it to everyone! I’ve included my top recommendations below for the very best places to see precious wildlife in the wild before they’re gone and support conservation initiatives as you travel:
Elephants are being lost at a terrifying rate in Africa. I believe one of the most promising sanctuaries for them is Zakouma National Park in Chad. African Parks have begun to turn this park back from near-decimation to a safe space for wildlife and as a result, elephants have begun to return, resumed breeding and have started to trust humans again. On my last visit they even came up to the ranger station to drink from the hosepipes just feet away from us.
The Masai Mara is also undoubtedly the most phenomenal wildlife region on the continent, home to the Great Migration of wildebeest and the Big 5. The Mara Elephant Project operates in the Mara to protect elephants with poaching patrols, veterinarian support and human-wildlife conflict mitigation. I highly recommend a visit to the MEP visitor centre whilst you’re there to learn all about their work and have the chance to track a tagged elephant on your game drive back to camp.
Chobe and the Okavango in Botswana have the largest density of elephants in Africa so for those determined to see these gentle giants in the wild, this region is a must. One highlight in the Okavango Delta is Abu Camp, which has a resident herd of elephants previously rescued and rehabilitated here. The elephants chose to return to the wild but remain in the area and often visit the camp or can be seen up close on game drives.
Rhino are disappearing at an alarming rate in Africa and Asia but there are still a few strongholds where they are well protected by teams of rangers and conservationists. For a donation, you can take part in a rhino conservation safari in various locations in Africa (dependent on there being a need) like I did in South Africa – a truly life changing experience. In addition, the best places and ways to see rhino on safari are:
Mountain gorilla numbers have gladly increased due to one of the most successful tourism-driven conservation programmes in the world. The best places to trek to see mountain gorillas are in Rwanda in Volcanoes National Park or Uganda at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Your permit costs help to fund their ongoing protection, and there are several wonderful lodges that also have embarked upon community support schemes with local villages and tribes which improve their lives and help to support conservation of wildlife in the forests.
I was also fortunate to track western lowland gorilla in Odzala National Park in the Republic of Congo, one of the most extraordinary primate experiences I have had. Here the gorillas are generally easier to find as they live in the forests surrounding the lodge (and you don’t have the added exertion of trekking through the dense mountainside vegetation).
They are arboreal and move through the trees as you watch which means an exhilarating experience! This is one of the most off-the-beaten-track regions of Africa so you are afforded almost complete exclusivity!
Lions are one of the most iconic wildlife species in Africa, yet many people don’t realise that they are at risk of extinction if current trends continue. Today they exist in just 8% of their historic range and are only found in pockets of sub-Saharan Africa (and one small population in northern India). In the last 25 years, their numbers have declined by half.
You can find out more details in my blog specifically focussed on the best places to see lions in Africa. However, in my opinion the ultimate lion safaris, in terms of meaningful travel, can be taken in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda with Dr Ludwig Siefert, or the Namib Desert with Dr Flip Stander.
Both these experts dedicate their lives to conservation so spending time with them, tracking the lions they protect and maybe even helping to collar one (if there is a requirement to do so) is the most humbling experience.
Orangutans once were populous in southeast Asia, but today their numbers have decreased by at least 50% in the last 60 years. However on Borneo there are three wonderful sanctuaries that are preserving the forest for these gentle primates.
Kinabatangan Sanctuary is a thin ribbon of primary forest in Sabah, saved from the loggers and palm oil plantations. It protects both sides of the river of the same name and supports a population of around 200 pygmy elephants as well as orangutan, gibbons, proboscis monkeys and a plethora of other forest-dwelling species. You can stay at Sakau Rainforest Lodge and visit the Sanctuary with expert guides in boat safaris at dawn and dusk for the best chance to see the wildlife.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the most extraordinary place where one can see rescued orangutans and witness the conservation efforts first-hand. Orangutans in the wild would normally spend up to six years as infants with their mothers, and if orphaned would not survive. The Centre cares for them and teaches them how to live in a protected wild environment where they can thrive. Eventually they become independent and voluntarily return to the forest to live in the wild.
Danum Valley Conservation Area is one of the greatest remaining ancient rainforests in the world and harbours some of the worlds rarest animals, reptiles, insects and plants. This is an important habitat for orangutan and safe refuge from the surrounding destruction of rainforest for human uses. I highly recommend you spend time here on your safari and do anything you can to support its continued protection.
Of the seven species of sea turtle, three are now critically endangered due to climate change, poaching and death as bycatch in fishing gear. The best places to see turtles are in tropical and subtropical waters, particularly around reefs. It is also possible to see them when they come to their beach nesting sites to lay eggs and then later when the hatchlings make their perilous journey to the sea.
Local Ocean Conservation in Kenya work to protect turtles in the waters off Watamu by implementing a series of community outreach and education programmes, a bycatch release programme, mangrove restoration projects and nesting site protection and monitoring. This is a wonderful place to visit at the end of your safari in Kenya to get involved in some of their projects and see the work they are doing ‘in the field’.
Pangolin are one of the most endangered mammals in the world and yet many people have never even heard of them. There are several species across Asia and Africa but sadly many Asian species are at the brink of extinction due to high demand for their scales (for traditional medicine) or the whole animal (considered a culinary delicacy).
In Africa, all species are now also under threat due to poaching by locals for bushmeat, and also poaching by organised crime syndicates in order to ship to Asia. However there are a few remaining places where they can be found in the wild and are protected by conservationists.
One such place that I found tucked away in the forests of the Central African Republic is Sangha Lodge. I stayed here on the most incredible journey, primarily to see the forest-dwelling elephant in the Dzanga Bai. They have set up a Pangolin Rehabilitation Centre and research project, where they care for pangolins rescued from poachers and treat them until they can be released back to the wild. They have saved over 100 pangolin from death.
Pangolin can also be seen over southern Africa and a wonderful place to experience their conservation is at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, where Dr Wendy Panaino studies pangolin in the semi-arid desert to learn how they will react to climate change. You have the opportunity to spend time with her, learning of her work and track tagged individuals to take readings and observe their behaviour.
Wild dog can be found in small pockets across Africa but some of the best populations that you can see on your safari are in Zimbabwe and Zambia. They are at risk due to poaching and conflict with humans but there are some wonderful organisations making a difference on the ground.
Painted Dog Conservation works in critical wildlife areas in Zimbabwe by running community outreach and education programmes and anti-poaching units made up of paid and volunteer rangers from the local communities. You can support this wonderful organisation as part of your safari. You also have the unique opportunity to join a small group safari in July 2023 to spend time in Mana Pools and Savé Valley in Zimbabwe with award-winning photographer and guide Nick Dyer and Dr Rosemary Groom, a foremost expert on wild dog. Together you will track them watch how they hunt as a pack, how they play and see them with their young at their den sites. This allows a deep insight into this little-understood carnivore, whilst making a personal contribution to their conservation.
Seeing a tiger in the wild, in its natural habitat, is a truly magical and humbling experience. With fifty tiger reserves, India is home to almost 80% of the global tiger population and is undoubtedly one of the finest safari destinations in Asia. The best parks and reserves to see tigers on safari in India are:
Please do contact me for information or advice about travel to Africa, Asia or Latin America – I would be delighted to discuss this further with you. Or if you would just like to dream for now, you can do so at our Video Library.
Images courtesy of Abu Camp, Nick Dyer (top pic), Odzala Discovery Camps, Mara Elephant Project with Adam Bannister, Local Ocean Conservation, Sangha Lodge and Isak Pretorias, Marataba Conservation Camps, Tsawlu Kalahari, Uganda Carnivore Project.