Recently I was doing some research for our upcoming Peru trip, and I started looking beyond the Amazon to see where you can see some of the world’s coolest wildlife! I made a list and thought I’d share it here… Unless otherwise noted, I haven’t actually visited any of these places, but my sources say they are your best bet to see these amazing animals! They’re all on my list, too, because there’s nothing quite like seeing wildlife in their natural habitat!
1. Giant Pandas
Who doesn’t want to see these adorable, cuddly-looking creatures? Your best bet for seeing pandas in a somewhat natural environment is the Chengdu Research Center in Chengdu, China. Researchers there work with pandas to learn more about pandas and their breeding habits. Thanks to the efforts of these researchers and others like them the giant panda is no longer endangered!
Recently it has come to life that these amazing animals–who somehow manage to be gawky and majestic at the same time–are rarer than elephants! Seeing a giraffe on a safari could be difficult, but you can get up close and personal with the herd of rare Rothschild giraffes at Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Kenya.
3. Brown bears
Whether you call them grizzly, Kodiak, or brown bears, one of your best bets to see these huge carnivores is a visit to Katmai National Park in Alaska, USA. Over 2200 bears are estimated to live in the park, so your chances of seeing one are very high! For the best odds, though, visit June-September, when the bears will be active. You might even get to see them catching salmon from streams!
Gorilla trekking — or hiking into the jungle in order to see families of gorillas in their natural habitat — may sound like something out of Tarzan, but it’s actually possible! These three national parks offer treks, so do some research on which country and tour operator you think will be safest before you go: Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Bwindi National Park in Uganda, and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.
If you haven’t heard of the wildebeest migration that happens every year in Serengeti National Park (Tanzania) and Maasai Mara Reserve (Kenya), take a minute to look it up–it’s considered one of the “Seven New Wonders of the World”! Over two million wildebeest move from the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara reserve, and it’s an incredible sight! Go in July to see river crossings if you’re on the Serengeti side or go in August to see them arrive in Maasai Mara, depending on which country you want to visit!
6. Polar Bears
Where can you be almost guaranteed to see polar bears? Why, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”, of course! That would be Churchill, Manitoba. If it’s in the budget, go during October and November for the best viewing times and be sure to book a tour with lots of tundra buggy time! If those prices have you in sticker shock, you can go at other times of the year for quite a bit cheaper. Your chances of seeing polar bears are lower, but the chances of seeing other interesting wildlife–like beluga whales!–are much higher.
I don’t know about you, but I personally like to think that Australia is chock-full of koalas and that Aussies are lucky enough to encounter them on a daily basis. This isn’t really the case, however, and if you’re headed down under and really want to see these fuzzy little guys, Narrandera Koala Reserve is the place for you!
8. Snow monkeys
Japanese macaques or snow monkeys can, predictably, only be found in Japan. You can see these adorable pink-faced monkeys play in the snow and soak in hot springs at Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Monkey Park!
With all six subspecies classified as endangered, and having lost 93% of their historic range in the last 100 years, seeing a tiger in the wild is not an easy prospect. India is one of the countries which has prioritized preserving its tigers, and two of its national parks (Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore) rank among the best places in the world to see wild tigers.
10. Orca whales
Orca or killer whales can be found in every ocean and most seas, so you can see them from the Arctic to the Antarctic and lots of places in between! This is good news because you don’t have to travel to far-flung countries to see them. The best place in the US is the San Juan Islands, close to Seattle, Washington. Three pods of orcas are in the area from spring to fall, but there’s a chance you could see whales passing through any time of year!
You’ll only find orangutans in two countries — Indonesia and Malaysia. You need to go to one of two islands–Borneo or Sumatra–to see them. There are a few options as far as reserves and research centers go, but one that comes highly recommended is Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, which is on the Malay half of Borneo. You’ll have an excellent chance of seeing these apes along the center’s boardwalk or at their feeding platform and viewing gallery! For a more “wild” experience, you could check out Danum Valley Conservation Area, also located on the Malay part of Borneo.
12. American Bison
The national mammal of the United States was once sent nearly to extinction in the 19th century, but they’ve made a comeback recently, mainly in protected areas like the well-known Yellowstone National Park. Another great place to see buffalo is in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. I’ve visited several times and never failed to see bison along the Wildlife Loop Road (and usually other amazing animals too, like pronghorn antelope, elk, or bighorn sheep). To guarantee seeing a ton of bison though, consider visiting during the Buffalo Roundup that happens the last Friday of September each year.
Another cool animal that you can actually see in the US is the manatee or “sea cow”. These gentle aquatic giants are also found in the Amazon and West Africa, but you’ll also find them closer to home in the Caribbean. A great place to see them is Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, which was created specifically to protect the Florida Manatee.
14. Tropical fish & coral reefs
One of the best places in the world to see tropical fish in their natural coral reef-habitat is, of course, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. You really can’t go wrong with the world’s largest coral reef system, but for great snorkeling/SCUBA diving and chances to see coral reef ecosystems in this hemisphere, try Belize. Hol Chan Marine Reserve is supposed to be an especially great place to go!
I’ve always loved jaguars, and I would love to see one during our upcoming trip to the Amazon, but unfortunately it’s pretty unlikely that that will happen! If you really want to see this elusive big cat, your best bet is the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland region, which is mostly located in Brazil. The increased chances aren’t really because there are more jaguars in the Pantanal than in other areas, but because it’s much easier to spot them in the wide open spaces of the wetlands than it is in the dense Amazon jungle!
You can see penguins many places in the Southern Hemisphere at the right time of year–South Africa, Australia, the southern tip of South America–but I’m hoping to encounter the large numbers of them and variety of species that can be seen on Antarctica itself! A cruise out of Ushuaia, Argentina seems to be the best way to go, though they can be pretty pricey!
I’ve always thought reindeer (or as they are more usually called in North America, caribou) are really, really pretty. One of the best places to see them in their natural habitat is Eikesdalen in Norway. If you visit this beautiful valley during August-September, you can head out on a reindeer safari to see a herd of these amazing animals!
Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar, the large island off the east coast of Africa, so if you want to see them in the wild, that’s where you’ll need to go! There are several national parks and reserves where you’ll have a good chance, but the Berenty Reserve on the south of the island has been in the business of lemur research for over 40 years, so it’s an especially good bet!
19. Sea turtles
Costa Rica is well-known as an eco-tourism paradise, but one type of animal that I’d love to see there is the sea turtle. Tortuguero National Park is famous for its nesting grounds, so if you go at the right time (July to October for Green Sea and Hawksbill turtles, February to April for leatherback turtles) you’ll be able to see turtles nesting and, if you’re lucky, hatching on the beach!
If you’re like me, you’ve loved lions ever since Disney released The Lion King back in 1994! Even if you didn’t love the movie, lions have been such an iconic part of so many cultures–often used in heraldry and well-known through Africa, Europe and Asia–that seeing a pride of them in the wild would be pretty cool. Kenya and Tanzania are your best bet–try Maasai Mara National Reserve (Kenya) and Ngorongoro Crater (Tanzania), two places with some of the highest concentrations of lions in Africa!
Whether African or Asian, elephants are amazing animals! To see the African variety, an excellent place is Chobe National Park in Botswana. They have an estimated 70,000 elephants — one of the largest concentrations of elephants in Africa — and it’s also said that the elephants there are some of the largest (physically). As far as Asian elephants go, there seem to be a lot of places to have “elephant experiences” in Thailand, but some of them do seem to be of questionable humaneness to the animals, so be sure to do your research before you go! For a “wilder” Asian elephant experience, you could try Bandipur National Park in India. It’s technically a tiger reserve, but the elephants who also inhabit the park are commonly seen on safaris too!
Note: my pictures in this post were taken at various zoos — usually the Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo or Como Zoo in St. Paul — unless otherwise specified!
What do you think? See any new places/animals you need to add to your list? Have you been to an awesome park or reserve that I haven’t mentioned? Do tell in the comments below!