Spotting some of the world’s most charismatic animals on a traditional African safari is surely one of travel’s greatest pleasures. But there’s so much more to wildlife and nature tourism than seeing a lion, elephant or leopard from your seat in a convoy of four-wheel drives.
From tracking down tigers to watching wrestling dinosaurs (okay, not quite – but close), here are a handful of alternative ways for travelers to admire the unparalleled spectacle of the natural world.
1. Looking for tigers in northern India
Tiger numbers have crept up in recent years according to official statistics from the Indian government: in 2016, India was estimated to be home to 2500 of them – 70 percent of the global population. But in a country this vast, it’s still hard to see one. With accredited naturalists working as guides, Himalayan Footsteps (himalayanfootsteps.com) offers a 13-day trip taking in the Bandhavgarh and Kanha national parks. Sightings are by no means guaranteed, although it’s said the best time of year to see tigers is between February and April, so it’s smart to plan ahead. If you don’t spot one, you’ll stand a better chance of seeing sloth bears, jackals and grey mongoose. Bandhavgarh is also home to 250 species of birds, so make sure you pack your binoculars.
2. Birdwatching in Peru's Islas Ballestas
Don’t listen to anyone who dismisses Peru’s Islas Ballestas as ‘the poor man’s Galapagos’; these uninhabited islands might not have inspired Darwin when HMS Beagle passed this way in the 1830s, but they are home to a huge seabird colony, as well as sea lions and fur seals. Due to the fragile nature of the islands, visitors can’t make landfall, but boats can be chartered along with dedicated guides from nearby Paracas. Peruvian pelicans and Humboldt penguins vie for real estate on these rocky outcrops, sea lions howl above the din of crashing waves, while blue-footed boobies, related to the gannet, dive-bomb the surrounding waters in a desperate search for fish.
3. Komodo dragons and orangutans in Indonesia
Indonesia is home to many natural wonders, but few spectacles compare with the sight of two Komodo dragons locked in claw-to-claw combat. A visit to the eponymous island home of the world’s largest lizard – the next best thing to a dinosaur, basically – is a highlight of Responsible Travel’s 13-day trip (responsibletravel.com) through the archipelago. Another major stop on the itinerary is Borneo, one of the last redoubts of the beautiful, endangered orangutan, who share their home with proboscis monkeys, gibbons and macaques, to name but three of the rare creatures sheltering in the rainforest.
4. Northern lights 'safari' in Nellim, Finland
Three hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle and just 9km from Finland’s border with Russia, Nellim is one of the best places in Scandinavia to see the aurora borealis, otherwise known as the northern lights. The light pollution is negligible, but due to temperamental weather staying in a single spot slashes your chances of seeing the sky lit up. The Aurora Zone runs ‘safaris’ in conjunction with the Nellim Wilderness Lodge (theaurorazone.com), chasing the lights after dark. Wrap up warm and be patient: you can drive as much as 250km in a single night if it’s cloudy. Daytime brings the chance to see herds of reindeer roaming the boreal forest from dirt tracks that surround the village. Lucky visitors may even catch a glimpse of brown bears or wolves.
5. Orca watching in Orkney, UK
Ninety percent of orca sightings in the UK occur off of the coast of the Shetland Isles and Orkney. The latter’s wild shores and turbulent waters are the best place to see these beautiful creatures. While most pods of orca are small, it’s been known for a group of 150 to appear east of the main island. You don’t need your sea legs to see them either, with the high clifftops on the island of Hoy affording superb views during the summer months. Cannock Head and the Old Man of Hoy are both recommended by local whale watchers. If you’re lucky, you might also see pilot whales, minke whales and bottlenose dolphins. Keen twitchers should also keep an ear out for corncrakes, a rarely seen bird with a distinctive call that’s native to these Scottish islands.
6. Horseback safari in Laikipia, Kenya
The Laikipia Plateau, which sits across the equator, is one of the ultimate places to see the traditional ‘Big Five’ (lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhino) in Kenya. Unlike popular parks across eastern and southern Africa, however, trips here cross private land, meaning tourist numbers are low and the chance to see Africa’s big beasts away from the crowds is much higher. The best way to do so is on horseback. Offbeat Safaris (offbeatsafaris.com) offers an epic 10-day ride crossing the savannah and climbing the Loldaiga Hills, with fully accredited guides who know the area intimately. A long way from bumper-to-bumper drives, this is African safari at is wildest and most wonderful.
7. Searching for sloths in Costa Rica's Manuel Antonio National Park
Despite taking up just 0.03 percent of the Earth’s surface, Costa Rica is home to six percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Inevitably, that makes this tiny Central American country a magnet for wildlife lovers. The elusive jaguars which roam its cloud forests are hard to spot. But slow-moving sloths are easier to find, especially in Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast, where you’ll also find a large number of capuchin monkeys. Finding a good guide is a must, especially if you want to understand the creatures’ habitat. Travel Excellence (travelexcellence.com) employs first-rate guides with knowledge of the area’s wildlife and terrain that’s second to none. They’re keen birdwatchers, too, so if you’re lucky they’ll help you catch a glimpse of toucans and perhaps even the beautiful bright green quetzal.