When Charlie Foley and his wife embarked on a yearlong trip around the world in 2007, they headed straight for India and its wild tigers. The rush wasn’t just to witness the animal’s powerful feline grace. Foley, vice president of development at Animal Planet, had learned that there were more tigers in captivity in Texas than there are roaming India’s major tiger parks. And the Foleys wanted to see the creatures in their natural habitat before they were wiped out of existence.
“It’s incredibly disturbing to think that an animal which is so evocative of a specific place—India—may no longer exist in that place in a generation,” says Foley. “We had to see them, and when we did, it was quite overpowering. It certainly changed my life.”
Seeing endangered animals in the wild is no different than experiencing other disappearing phenomena: the clock is ticking, so you better do it while you can. Fortunately, a handful of tour companies are making it possible. “Safaris to see endangered animals are a small but growing industry,” says Les Carlisle, group conservation manager of andBeyond, the pioneering South African eco-safari company.
The big difficulty with safaris that focus on endangered animals is the obvious one: many animals are too rare to actually see. “Panthers, snow leopards, and orangutans are all endangered, and you can go on safaris to try to see them,” says Carlisle, “but the chances of spotting one are slim.” So we searched for animals—and safaris—that offer the best odds.
Tigers are certainly threatened. In the 19th century, the tiger population of India numbered more than 100,000. Today there are fewer than 4,000; the population has been devastated by poaching, hunting, and loss of habitat. The almost mythical aura of a tiger is its own worst enemy: every part of the animal—from its eyes and whiskers to its claws, fur, and internal organs—is in demand somewhere around the world for medicine or ornamentation.
But an Indian government campaign to save the tiger in India, launched 15 years ago, has had some success, particularly in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. And &Beyond is helping travelers realize their dreams of seeing animals while they’re still around. In 2008, the company opened four luxury jungle lodges in Madhya Pradesh, where the tiger population predominates. Ironically, it has never been easier to see a tiger in the wild.
Of course, not all the endangered species are on land. After India, the next stop for the Foleys on their round-the-world tour was the Pacific Island nation of Palau, where they got to see rare sea horses and hawksbill turtles. But the best place to spot hawksbills—hunted to the point of extinction for their “tortoise” shell (from which we get tortoiseshell glasses)—is in the World Wildlife Fund’s Kiunga Marine National Reserve, off the northeast coast of Kenya. On the edge of the reserve, at the gorgeous Kiwayu Safari Village resort, you can have the rare experience of seeing turtles waddle onto the beach to lay their eggs.
Tigers and hawksbill turtles are just two of many endangered species that you can still see in the wild. Read on for more animals and more safaris—just be sure to get there before it’s too late.
Why Endangered: Civil war, poaching, and destruction of forest habitat have devastated the mountain gorillas of Central Africa, and only an estimated 680 are still alive. Rebels in eastern Congo have recently taken to killing the gorillas to try to prevent the Rwandan government they hope to overthrow from benefiting from gorilla tourism.
Best Place to See: Parc National des Volcans, Rwanda, where Dian Fossey worked for 18 years.
The Viewing:Baobab Expeditions offers three treks a year in Parc National led by Claire Richardson, president of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. The six-day treks include a rare visit to the park’s Karisoke Research Center, founded by Fossey, guaranteeing you will see gorillas. Accommodation is at Sabyinyo Lodge, a gorgeous collection of cottages on the slopes on the edge of the park.
Credit: Courtesy of Kiwayu, The Cheli & Peacock Portfolio
Why Endangered: These beautiful three-foot-long creatures found in tropical reefs are extremely vulnerable due to their slow reproduction rate and the burgeoning illegal trade in their prized “tortoiseshell.” Yes, tortoiseshell glasses come from turtles.
Best Place to See:Kiwayu Safari Village on the edge of the World Wildlife Fund’s Kiunga Marine National Reserve in far northern Kenya.
The Viewing: A chic, privately owned beach resort on an idyllic lagoon, Kiwayu is one of the few places on earth where you can watch rare hawksbills swim in the water from the comfort of a thatched beach banda. At certain times you can also watch turtles come to shore to lay eggs at night. True enthusiasts should visit between July and September, the main season for hatchings. Kiwayu also arranges boat excursions into the Kiunga Marine Reserve to see equally rare dugongs, a kind of manatee.
Why Endangered: Wild dogs (also known as painted dogs for their distinctive black spots) hunt over wide areas and don’t stick to park boundaries, making them vulnerable to farmers and rural villagers defending their livestock from attack. What’s more, only one alpha male and female breed in a single year so the consequences are especially serious if their pups are killed by predators. There are an estimated 3,000–5,000 alive.
The Viewing: Wild dogs are notoriously difficult to locate, but U.S.-based Aardvark Safaris books wild-dog walking safaris with Robin Pope in Zambia, and at luxury Botswana lodge Mashatu, which recently launched its own wild-dog research project. A trained tracker and researcher accompanies clients on these trips. Aardvark can also arrange nonscheduled customized safaris in Botswana in which wild dogs are located by trackers first, then clients are driven to the specific area to see them.
Why Endangered: Famed for their ghostly white coloring, white lions can no longer be found in the wild, and fewer than 300 live in zoos and circuses around the world. The white coloring (caused by a recessive gene) has made them a prized target of poachers and game hunters since they were first seen in the wild in South Africa in 1925.
Best Place to See:Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, a luxurious nine-tent lodge in the Little Karoo desert, three hours’ drive northeast of Cape Town. The reserve introduced a pride of white lions six years ago with the aim of getting them to breed with regular tawny lions, so as to increase their chances of survival.
The Viewing: Guests go on standard twice-daily game drives accompanied by a ranger and tracker, and can also see cheetah and rhino. Book with Roar Africa to combine a trip to the white lions with a visit to the Cape wine lands.
Why Endangered: Pandas have low reproductive rates, and because they eat mostly certain species of bamboo, they are restricted to a diminishing geographic area in central China. There are an estimated 1,600 left in the wild.
Best Place to See: Sichuan Province, central China, notably the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding Center, south of Chengdu. Another breeding center at Wolong was destroyed in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing several panda keepers, although only one panda died.
The Viewing: It’s virtually impossible to see giant pandas in the wild, but Seattle-area Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris runs two 14-day trips to China (January and May) that include an exclusive visit to Bifengxia, where 40 giant pandas are kept in naturalistic enclosures. The center temporarily releases pandas into the wild for Van Os’s clients to photograph. A winter trip with Van Os includes photographing endangered Siberian tigers in northeast Heilongjiang Province.
Why Endangered: Black rhinos have been decimated by poachers for their valuable horns, which are used for medicine in China and dagger handles in the Middle East (particularly Yemen). In the ’60s, there were 70,000 rhino in east and southern Africa; fewer than 4,000 are alive today.
Best Place to See: The Palmwag Concession in the hauntingly beautiful Damaraland desert region of northwest Namibia has the largest free-roaming population of black rhinos in Africa.
The Viewing: At Desert Rhino Camp, an intimate eight-tent camp run by blue-chip eco safari outfit Wilderness Safaris, guests get to see black rhinos on twice-daily game drives or on daylong walking safaris with experienced rhino trackers from the Save the Rhino Trust, an NGO established in the 1990s to protect the desert-adapted local rhino from poachers.
Why Endangered: The masculine grace and beauty of the tiger is its worst enemy: virtually every part of the animal—from its fur, eyes, and claws to bones and internal organs—is in demand somewhere, either for medicine or ornamentation. Add human encroachment on their natural habitat, and there are more tigers in zoos in America than there are in parks of their native India.
Best Place to See:National parks of Madhya Pradesh province, central India.
The Viewing: Renewed efforts to protect the last 1,200 tigers still alive in India have been helped by eco-safari company andBeyond’s opening of four lodges in Madhya Pradesh. Try Mahua Kothi, an elegant, 12-suite property set in a bamboo forest on the edge of Bandhavgarh National Park. Guests get to do twice-daily game drives in search of tigers, as well as bush walks with lodge naturalists. Parks officials often allow tourists to be photographed on elephant back close to a tiger if one is spotted.
The Viewing: Set in the shadow of Grand Teton on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, the rugged, cowboy-luxe Spring Creek Lodge is unique: an American lodge that offers African-style safaris. Lodge naturalist Kurt Johnson, who worked as a guide in East Africa, oversees dawn and evening incursions into and around Yellowstone in search of the great predators. Although grizzly sightings can’t be guaranteed, with high-powered binoculars and the help of professional biologists, nothing is left to chance.
Why Endangered: Listed in 2008 as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, partly due to melting tundra.
Best Place to See: Town of Churchill, Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada.
The Viewing: Of all the threatened animals on earth, the polar bear is the only one you go to town to see. Some 900 polar bears migrate through the small town of Churchill, Manitoba, each year, and tourists converge to see them in off-road tundra buggies the size of school buses. Go in October and November, when the bears hunt for seal on the frozen water of the Hudson Bay.
Why Endangered: A spectacularly beautiful bird with bright blue plumage and yellow circles around its eyes, this parrot has been threatened by habitat loss, the devastating exotic bird trade, and hunting by Indian tribes for its feathers to wear as headdresses.
Best Place to See: The vast Pantanal tropical wetland of west-central Brazil.
The Viewing: Since 1990, when the Hyacinth Macaw Project (a local NGO) was launched to breed and track the birds, the Pantanal has seen the population rise from 1,500 to 5,000. Today it is the only place on earth where you can see flocks of the birds fly overhead. Stay at one of two lodges in the Caiman Ecological Refuge, a working cattle farm and eco resort in the southeastern rim of the Pantanal, famous for the scores of hyacinth macaw nesting boxes it built.