I’ve been a nature-lover my whole life, but I began traveling specifically to see animals in the wild back in the early ’90s. Still in my early 20s then, I was fascinated by watching wildlife. My passion grew exponentially as I took up photography and became more adept at spotting hidden animals.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve been blessed to explore over 40 countries on six continents. The one thing most of the places I’ve visited have in common? An opportunity to see animals in their natural habitat.
From swimming with whale sharks in Mexico and diving with sea turtles in the Philippines to being surrounded by polar bears in the Canadian Arctic and trekking to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda, most of my favorite travel memories involve wildlife. Here are my picks for the 10 best places in the world to see animals in the wild.
With eight national parks, two national forests, and 23 national wildlife refuges, Alaska has loads of wilderness and wildlife inhabiting it.
The sheer expanse of it—snowcapped mountains, winding glacial rivers, and magical dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis—is simply jaw-dropping. Alaska’s landscapes are incredibly diverse, but wildlife is a constant.
Whether it’s the unique grizzly bear subspecies that inhabits Kodiak Island; the whales, otters, and other marine life in Kenai Fjords National Park; or the megafauna found in Denali National Park (including caribou, dall sheep, moose, wolves and two kinds of bears), you’ll see plenty of animals in the land that inspired The Call of the Wild.
The Amazon Rainforest
There’s nothing quite like waking up on a boat making its way down the mighty Amazon River. The river’s drainage basin covers approximately 2,900,000 square miles, stretching all the way from Peru and Ecuador to Brazil’s eastern coast.
The world’s largest rainforest is home to a remarkably diverse array of flora and fauna. Portions of the Brazilian Amazon have fallen victim to logging and development, but the sections of the river in Peru and Ecuador offer impressively pristine places for wildlife lovers to explore.
And with more than 1,400 mammal species (including capybara, jaguar, ocelot, and tapir), 1,500 bird species, 1,000 amphibian species, and an endless array of insects, opportunities to see animals in their natural habitat are almost constant.
As a professional traveler, “What’s your favorite place you’ve visited?” is probably the most frequent question I’m asked. It’s impossible to answer, but Antarctica is always near the top of my list.
The dynamic landscapes and towering icebergs are obviously a key attraction; but the wildlife-watching opportunities you’ll find there are unlike any other destination we’ve traveled to.
Vast penguin colonies are a frequent sighting, and who doesn’t love a good close-up penguin sighting? But the rocky shores of Antarctica are also home to six species of seals and nesting birds such as albatross, petrels, gulls, and terns. Some of our most impressive wildlife sightings came while out on the water: Antarctica is home to 10 cetacean species, with humpback whales and orcas a fairly common sighting.
Arctic / Northwest Passage
The Arctic may not be the first place people think of when they imagine the best places in the world to see wildlife. The northernmost part of the planet is rugged, remote, cold, and goes from mostly dark all day in winter to mostly light all day in summer.
The region stretching from Alaska, Canada, and Greenland to Scandinavia and Russia offers plenty of opportunities for adventure activities, including kayaking, ATV excursions, cross-country skiing, hiking, catch-and-release fishing, and more. But wildlife is where the region really excels, with Arctic animals such as polar bears, moose, caribou, and more.
As many as 2,000 beluga whales come to Canada’s Cunningham Inlet each year to nurse their young and molt their skin in the river’s relatively warm waters. Kayaking provides opportunities for close-up encounters with these beautiful creatures as well as whales and narwhals, while the region’s hiking trails may lead to sightings of muskox, Arctic foxes, Arctic hares, snowy owls, and ptarmigans.
Ecotourism in Botswana is big business, bringing in some $250 million in annual revenue. Commercial hunting was banned there in 2014, and anti-poaching laws are VERY strictly enforced. Wildlife management is largely left in the hands of local communities, providing alternative revenue streams to wildlife trafficking.
The country has prioritized conservation ever since 1963, when the local Batawana people established the Moremi Nature Reserve (the first of its kind in Africa) after seeing their lands threatened by illegal hunting and the development of cattle farms.
Thanks to its stable government and progressive social policies, Botswana is now one of Africa’s burgeoning ecotourism hotspots. Its tremendous opportunities to see animals include exploring the Okavango Delta via a traditional mokoro, or canoe, bird watching in the Okavango Panhandle, mingling with the 120,000 elephants estimated to reside in Chobe National Park, and having a traditional Big 5 safari experience at Moremi.
Located 563 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the world’s first UNESCO site is an animal-lover’s paradise that brings Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to life. Seeing the differences between the Finches and giant Galápagos tortoises on the various islands is a clear illustration of how animals adapt to their environment over time.
The diverse landscapes of the Galápagos Islands are home to some of the world’s most fascinating endemic species, from ocean-feeding marine iguanas to comical blue-footed boobies and diminutive Galápagos penguins.
This is the only place in the world where wildlife has virtually no fear of humans: curious Galápagos sea lions swim right up to you, and birds such as the magnificent frigate and waved albatross mate and nest right beside marked hiking trails. In short, it’s a life-changing place you’ll never forget.
India is home to around 70% of the world's wild tiger population. There are 50 tiger reserves on the subcontinent, all managed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India (formerly known as Project Tiger).
Thanks to the NGO’s focus on creating new reserves, anti-poaching legislation, and awareness campaigns, there are currently around 3,900 Bengal tigers in India. This is a remarkable example of successful conservation of an endangered species, especially when you consider the population stood at 1,706 just six years ago.
But of course, the tiger is not the only endemic animal you can see in India; the country also boasts a diverse array of wildlife habitats, from the highest mountains in the world to one of the largest deserts, from tropical rainforests to the world's largest river delta. These ecosystems are home to more than 1,300 bird species, Asian elephants, Asiatic lions, Indian leopards, sloth bears, langurs, wolves, and the increasingly endangered dhole (or Indian wild dog).
Kenya / Tanzania
East Africa would rank near the top of any nature-lover’s must-see list just for the Great Migration. The annual event, which typically lasts from May through October, finds millions of blue wildebeests, buffalo, gazelles, and zebras making their way across the Serengeti from Tanzania to Kenya and back again.
But the region boasts enough amazing natural attractions to keep avid wildlife watchers and photographers busy for months. In Tanzania, there are up-close encounters with elephants in Tarangire National Park, hippos galore at Lake Manyara, the famous flamingos of Lake Natron, and lions hunting in the Ngorongoro Crater.
In Kenya, you’ll find the Big 5 mammals and over 400 species of birds at Amboseli National Park, while the Maasai Mara is part of the 12,000-square mile Serengeti ecosystem.
When most people think of Patagonia, they think of Torres del Paine National Park, which encompasses 242,242 hectares and averages around 150,000 annual visitors—it’s one of the largest and most visited parks in Chile.
The park’s popularity is well-deserved: In addition to the iconic Paine Massif, part of the Patagonian icefield, and some truly stunning lakes, it’s home to animals ranging from guanacos (a.k.a. Patagonian llamas) and pumas to Andean condors and caracaras.
But Torres del Paine is hardly the region’s only great place to see animals. Located at the southernmost tip of South America, the Tierra del Fuego archipelago is home to amazing birds (condors, penguins, firecrown hummingbirds), cetaceans (numerous whale species and endemic dolphins), and mammals (foxes, guanacos, seals). Argentina’s Peninsula Valdés is arguably the best place to spot southern right whales, and guanacos, rheas (an ostrich-like bird), and dwarf armadillos are all commonly seen.
“The land of a thousand hills,” is best known for the endangered mountain gorillas of Volcanoes National Park, which were made famous by late primatologist Dian Fossey (and the biopic of her life, Gorillas in the Mist).
There are currently 10 habituated gorilla families open to tourist visits, so trekking permits are limited to a mere 80 per day. Being surrounded by mamas, babies, and massive silverback gorillas is an experience you’ll never forget. But it's hardly the country's only wildlife-centered attraction.
From tracking chimpanzees and several species of monkeys in Nyungwe Forest National Park to a more traditional Big 5 wildlife safari in Akagera National Park, Rwanda has numerous options for nature and wildlife lovers. And, since the country is still emerging as an ecotourism hotspot, you’re almost certain to have some of these pristine attractions all to yourself!
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.