Wanna explore the wildlife? You should never skip these 15 places

Face-time with Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. Leopard spotting in Sri Lanka. Great white tagging off Cape Cod. We share some of the planet’s most interesting—and experiential—wildlife encounters. You can actually go where the wild things are; be prepared to capture some prize-worthy images along the way.

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African Bush Elephant, South Africa

Elephants impress in any habitat, but there’s something extra special about observing them in Madikwe Game Reserve, home to South Africa’s “red elephants.” At Mateya Safari Lodge, meet the elephants that have adjusted to the imposing terrain of the country’s northwest, where the giants coat themselves in red clay as a cooling method. The herds near Mateya are impressive in size and personality—watching them play, wrestle, and bathe near the watering holes is endless entertainment.

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Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Ecuador

More than 500 nautical miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, the Galápagos Islandscomprise a living museum of evolutionary biology, where The Land Before Time lives in the present. Roaming this Darwinian dreamland are the world’s largest living species of tortoise, the Galápagos giant tortoise. Conservation efforts are restoring populations of various subspecies across the Galápagos’ many islands, but your best bet for one-on-one time with these gentle giants is in the western highlands of Santa Cruz at Reserva El Chato. A visit here is standard on itineraries of most upscale Galápagos cruise ships, like La Pinta yacht.

Wildebeest Migration, Kenya and Tanzania

Each year millions of wildebeest in search of lush grasslands migrate between Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and the contiguous Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Capturing this inspiring—and dramatic—spectacle is all about timing. July to October, for example, base yourself at Governor’s Camp to catch the wildebeest parade into and out of the Mara; but December to April, head to the southern Serengeti and go glamping with and Beyond Serengeti Under Canvas to witness calving season. For the ultimate vantage of the migration, opt for a hot-air ballon safari.

 

Atlantic Puffin, Maine, United States

Atlantic puffins were declared locally extinct in Maine in 1901, but thanks to the life work of Dr. Stephen W. Kress and major donors like Barbara’s, maker of Puffins Cereal, these charismatic, clown-faced birds have made a major comeback. Dr. Kress’s Project Puffin has fostered a seasonal bird-watching industry to visit the project’s bird haven, Eastern Egg Rock, by boat. To gain access to the island by foot, you’ll need to donate a serious sum to the project, after which Dr. Kress will likely personally escort you to see his Audubon-affiliated life’s work.

 

African Lion, Tanzania and Botswana

Insider’s tip for lion-spotting in Tanzania and Botswana: Skip the national parks and head to more remote lodges on private concessions, where off-roading and night driving are permitted, and the number of vehicles is limited to the number of guests on the land. At andBeyond Klein’s Camp in Tanzania and Wilderness Safari’s Vumbura Plains camp in Botswana, for example, you’re likely to get hours-long encounters with huge prides of lions—not just one solitary female, and not just a quick five minutes—without another vehicle in sight.

Hippos, Tanzania

“River horses,” as their name translates from Greek, may be common sightings on an African safari, but find a colossal herd (or a “crash” in safari lingo) and be entertained for hours with highly photogenic hippo shenanigans: fighting, snuggling, bobbing, territory marking (which includes whipping the tail in a helicopter-like fashion), and herding in almost artistic formations. Watch the best-of mayhem at the hippo pools near the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti.

 

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Black Rhino and White Rhino, South Africa

Thanks to staunch protection efforts, Sabi Sand Game Reserve, west of Kruger National Park, and andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, a 100-square-mile swathe of South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province, is home to the critically endangered black or hook-lipped rhinoceros and its larger sibling, the white, or square-lipped, rhinoceros. These are some of the few places on earth where the rhino population has not been completely decimated by poachers. Safari in style on Sir Richard Branson’s private safari concession, Ulusaba, and prepare to saturate memory cards with plenty of rhino photos.

 

Cheetah, South Africa

There’s no denying Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is a haven for big cats, but as a safari-goer, you’re more likely to get those prized shots of a cheetah in South Africa. AndBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve sits on prime cheetah real estate, where you’ll encounter—and photograph—them daily.

Polar Bear, Manitoba, Canada

With all the distressing news about melting ice caps and starving polar bears, it’s encouraging to see that one polar bear sub-population is thriving, as are its natural surrounds. Welcome to Canada’s west Hudson Bay coast, home to nearly 1,000 plump polar bears, and where outfitter Churchill Wild runs three fly-in lodges—Seal River Heritage Lodge, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, and Dymond Lake Ecolodge—to track these endangered species on foot (yes, you read correctly).

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Gray Whale, Mexico

Don’t bother packing the zoom lens when whale watching off Puerto Adolfo López Mateos in Magdalena Bay, Mexico. The gray whales here readily approach small skiffs, bobbing in and out of the water at close range to study the scene of awe-struck humans snapping their cameras at a rapid-fire pace. You can join a group by purchasing tickets at the port kiosks or pre-arrange a private journey through a hotel concierge in Los Cabos or La Paz. One catch: This phenomenon is seasonal, so make sure to book anytime between mid-January and late March.

Bengal Tiger, India

While the semi-habituated tigers of Ranthambore National Park in northern Indian make for an easy photo shoot, go off the beaten path to Madhya Pradesh in central India to capture the elusive, wild tigers in a more natural setting. Check-in to Taj Safari’s Banjaar Tola on the riverbanks adjacent Kanha National Park, and prepare to snap curious langurs, peacocks in full bloom, multi-colored Indian rollers, and, of course, magnificent Bengal tigers.

Mountain Gorilla, Rwanda

Coming face-to-face with a mountain gorilla—a creature that shares 97 percent of our DNA composition—is arguably the ultimate wildlife encounter. In the mist of Rwanda’s lush, mountainous north, you can observe them at close range, with all the excitement and awe the interaction will bring. Begin your journey by obtaining a coveted national park permit—they’re often sold out months in advance—through your chosen outfitter or lodge. (We recommend Micato Safaris and Bisate Lodge).

Leopard, South Africa and Sri Lanka

Leopards tend to be especially elusive (and hard to spot), but in the Okavango Delta, you’ll find leopards more common than not. Sightings at Wilderness Safari’s Abu Camp and Vumbura Plains camp tend to be excellent. Over on the island of Sri Lanka, venture into the thicket of Yala National Park in search of the daintier cousin to the African leopard, the Sri Lankan leopard. Yala’s density of leopards is one of the highest in the world, and Yala offers a departure to those looking beyond the African safari.

Great White Shark, Massachusetts, United States

A massive rebound in the gray seal population off Massachusetts’s coast means we no longer need venture to South Africa for amazing encounters with the ocean’s most intriguing—and feared—animal: the great white shark. With such an abundance of prey, this supreme predator has steadily returned to its former home along the Cape. Take part in scientific research and get super close to these misunderstood creatures with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which runs a program to shadow shark researchers as they tag and identify the great whites.

White Lion, South Africa

White Lions are a genetic rarity of Panthero leo, endemic to eastern South Africa. Sadly, their striking beauty is a curse—all but 13 individuals have been stripped from the wild in the name of circuses, zoos, Las Vegas shows, and hunting. Miraculously, it’s still possible to see this hyper-rare big cat in its natural habitat. Near the South Africa-Mozambique border, the sublime Singita Lebombo Lodge and Singita Sweni Lodge have exclusive rights to a 33,000-acre tract of Kruger National Park, where several of the lions happen to carry the recessive white gene. Last year, a white male cub was born, and, ever since, he’s been frequently seen—and photographed—on game drives.

By: Paul Rubio
Read more: 11 beautiful but dangerous tourist destinations around the world (Part 1)

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