The words “endangered species” conjure up several images, from prowling poachers, to serious eco-documentaries, from controversial zoos to activists blocking whaling fleets. And, let’s face it, The Jungle Book, The Lion King or Kung Fu Panda, depending on your age.
The Red List of Threatened Species™, published by the IUCN, categorizes thousands of animals as vulnerable, threatened, endangered or critically endangered. You’d be forgiven for translating these facts into the idea that you’ll never see these animals in the wild in your lifetime. Think again.
What about the nagging idea that tourism will only hasten their demise?
Travel responsibly, be safe, treat animals with respect and your trip will become a force for good. Conservation groups and governments recognise the value of an industry where an animal is worth more alive than dead. Successful eco-tourism forms a powerful bargaining chip when convincing local communities to conserve habitats and halt poaching. Some groups, such as WWF, even advertise approved tours.
Thus, with due care and attention, your green conscience can happily follow you on some of the world’s most memorable wildlife safaris…
1 – Polar Bears – Churchill, Canada
Nestled on the shore of the Hudson Bay, the self-proclaimed “Polar Bear Capital of the World” can only be reached by a flight or a 40-hour train journey from Winnipeg. For a few key weeks in October and November, polar bears outnumber the town’s 800 or so inhabitants, until the bay freezes over to pave an icy path to the Arctic feeding grounds.
As the ice caps shrink, so do the options for food. Bears have resorted to rummaging through Churchill’s dustbins, with repeat offenders earning themselves a tranquilliser shot and a ticket to the infamous Polar Bear Jail. Stood on hind legs, an adult male can reach 12 feet – yet the swirling snow can camouflage them on the street. Safety advice warns: DO NOT RUN and DO NOT PLAY DEAD.
A better way to meet them involves snuggling under specialist warm clothes on the back of a tundra buggy. In the relative emptiness, between vertical rainbows, arctic foxes and snow owls, polar bears swim, play and literally test the ice – by taking a run and plunging through the surface.
2 – Turtles – Barbados
For a warmer reception, try swimming with the turtles off the coast of Barbados. With only a swimsuit, a snorkel and 30 minutes of bouncing along the waves on a boat, you’ll be surrounded by these inquisitive and tactile creatures. Conventional safaris advise against touching animals, but in this case, you will have no choice. Intrigued by their new playmates, some turtles rise up beneath your feet and lift you out of the water, like some kind of turtle surfer.
Barbados hosts hawksbill, leatherback and green turtles in particular. They embody the Caribbean spirit of taking your time, crawling along the beaches to nest and waiting a good twenty years, depending on the species, before even doing that. Over-fishing and the destruction of their breeding grounds threaten their survival, although the Barbados Sea Turtle Project now protects and monitors their welfare across the island.
To see tiny hatchlings scramble from eggs and dash across the sand to the sea, book a moonlight cruise, relax and hope for a sprinkling of good luck.
3 – Tigers – Ranthambore National Park, India
Luck also plays a part in glimpsing the Bengal tiger. Under the dusty cover of dawn, a restricted convoy of jeeps crosses into Ranthambore National Park. Their passengers huddle beneath blankets, clutching binoculars. Many undertake several trips, watching the pythons, herons and chattering monkeys from across the violet-green plains, but return home having only seen tiger footprints.
Yet at least once a week a tiger deigns to emerge from the golden, swaying grass. The world’s largest cat has a presence so majestic it has sparked legends across history, a factor that contributes to both its popularity and downfall.
Poaching for traditional medicine, together with deforestation, has decimated the tiger population. Only 4,000 remain in the wild. That’s 4,000 across the whole planet.
4 – Rhinoceros – Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
But tigers are not the only trophies. Rhino horns reach great sums for Chinese medicine and dagger handles in the Middle East. Between 1970 and 1992, poachers killed a staggering 96% of all rhinos. Yet eco-warriors have regained some ground, with three of the five rhino species recently reported as on the increase.
For rhino hunting in the photographic sense, visit Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater. Formed from a collapsed volcano, the journey through the clouds that spill over the tree-lined rim and the 2,000 feet descent into the plains below, justifies the trip, full stop. Add in the herds of wildebeest, the lakes fuchsia-studded with flamingos and the hippos splashing around in the mud and you may forget what you came for.
Until you see one. Steady, still and solitary, rhinos summon visions of a prehistoric world, of dinosaurs, beautiful with unrepentant ugliness, plodding against the backdrop of the ancient volcano.
5 – Elephants, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Although elephants do roam the Ngorongoro crater, try South Africa’s Kruger National Park for another great pachyderm stomping ground. It’s easy to spot them traveling in herds, alongside acacia and sycamore, giraffes and Cape buffaloes. In fact, their visibility camouflages their vulnerability.
Both African and Asian elephants struggle to survive, requiring space to roam and up to 300 pounds of plant matter a day. The ivory trade hasn’t helped.
It’s only up close that you realize just how large – and dangerous – African elephants can be. Safari drivers twitch at the wheel – ready to spin through the savannah and onto the tarmac at the slightest sign of annoyance. When elephants snort water through their trunks to create a homemade shower it’s endearing. However, the crashing thump of an angry 8-tonne mammal striding towards you inspires awe, a sense of panic and a hasty retreat.
6 – Giant Pandas – Chengdu, China
Enjoy an altogether less intimidating experience by watching giant panda families tumble over one another in Chengdu. With their limbs wrapped around bamboo, pandas resemble reincarnated cuddly toys. Although bears, they’re even vegetarian and it’s easy to see why they became the face of the WWF.
Deep in the Sichuan Province, this breeding and research centre aims to regenerate the giant panda population through artificial insemination, using genetic material from other facilities. Despite the clinical science, most visitors spend the day strolling around the expansive, secluded area, as fox-like red pandas and golden monkeys dance overhead.
The pandas themselves behave like cartoons, with the young balls of fur sparring and the elder bears sagely chewing on bamboo. Their total reliance on this plant – and the destruction of much of the Yangtze basin’s nature reserves – mean that the number of giant pandas left in the wild has plummeted to less than 2000.
7 - Grey Whales – Baja California, Mexico
There is cause for optimism, however. Although commercial whaling reduced the number of grey whales to around 2,000 in the 19th and 20th centuries – after protection in 1946 the population recovered. Today, you can see these giants from the cliffs, boats and even kayaks of the Baja California lagoons. Their regeneration has even earned them a new classification on the Red List: least concerned.
The best time to visit is between December and April, before the grey whales leave the Sea of Cortez to migrate 6,000 miles north to Alaska. Whenever you see a funnel of spray shoot into the air, watch closely. For grey whales aren’t the only ones in the area. If you’re very, very lucky, you may just witness the biggest creature that ever lived on earth: the blue whale.
Read more about:
- 10 of the World’s Most Dangerous Animals and Where to Find Them
- 7 Affordable Places to Go on an African Safari
- The Seven Animal Wonders of The Galapagos Islands
- Exotic Animals of the World that You Can Ride
Elephant in Kruger National Park by view from 5’2" on Flickr , Panda in Chengdu – by No Dust on Flickr , Grey Whale in Baja California – by nbonzey on Flickr , Polar Bears in Churchill by lance skytower on Flickr , Turtle by bill larnach on Flickr , Tiger by streamingmeemee (Tim Carter) on Flickr , Rhino by gcraig3si on Flickr