By Melissa Alvarado Sierra | Published on April 5, 2022
Witnessing animals in the wild from afar is an amazing experience, but it can seem abstract. Only by meeting these animals up close and personal and immersing yourself in their environment can you gain a deep understanding of them and the ecosystems they call home. Wildlife tours and animal encounters give you an opportunity to learn how to protect these animals and their habitats, and through this experience, you may gain a new perspective of the world, and yourself.
Imagine yourself on soft ivory sand, looking out onto the brilliant water as it flashes various shades of turquoise, when, all of a sudden, a family of wallabies — a rare and nearly extinct type of kangaroo — goes leaping by. Or, you're trekking through a wild forest of eucalyptus trees while koalas snooze and feed on stringy leaves overhead. This dream is a reality on Kangaroo Island in Australia, where you can meet kangaroos and koalas and also view sea lion colonies, sunbathing seals, dolphins doing gymnastics, and even echidna, the spiny anteaters (but don't get too close!).
The island offers an abundance of sights and animal encounters both on land and sea. The country is serious about its conservation efforts, so there are many Australian conservation parks and wildlife refuges to visit. You can walk along the coast among protected sea lion colonies as they play, squabble and mostly just laze in the sun. This speck of Australian wilderness is the majestic setting for these wild animals, and here you can safely and ethically watch them go about their daily lives, and have a little fun too. Your guide will give you unique insight into the way these endangered animals interact with each other, fish and feed, and protect their seal pups.
And yes, Kangaroo Island lives up to its name. You'll likely see kangaroos hopping all around the island, but for an intimate look into their everyday lives, you can visit a wildlife park. Wildlife parks are dedicated to conservation as well as rescuing and rehabilitating the native animals on the island, and they often offer private tours. These wildlife tours will take you through the park, where rescued koalas, wombats, dingoes, penguins, kangaroos and more live freely on acres upon acres of protected land — no cages here. Your guide will tell you all about the animals and where they came from, and you'll get to cuddle koalas and hand-feed kangaroos. As you feed the kangaroos — and maybe meet some babies, too — you'll learn their story. Often, these animals are orphaned or injured in the wild or during wildfires and are brought here to be rehabbed and to be an advocate for their species. Living here, they are used to humans and will often approach you for a pat on the head or some extra snacks. A wildlife tour is a great experience for kids, too, as they'll be wowed by meeting these animals one-on-one and petting them in real life.
Some tours will take you around by bus, and some by bike, or you can slow things down with an after-hours walking tour where your chances are good to catch a glimpse of the native animals that are more active when the sun goes down. Keep your senses open for the sights and sounds of various animal species that may be hiding — often the best wildlife sightings happen when you least expect them.
When you're traveling, it may be tempting to grab a map and wander around looking for wildlife on your own, but you may find you aren't having any luck. Wildlife safari tours are invaluable because the expert tour guides know exactly where to go to spot native animals — and they have fun anecdotes to boot. There's nothing more thrilling than when you're riding along in your tour bus, admiring the gorgeous African landscape you've only dreamed about, and your guide animatedly yells, "Giraffe!" A good tour guide will be an expert on the animals and the environment, and often they'll have spent so much time here that the animals won't flee when your group approaches.
It's a bit of a hike to go all the way out to the Sahara Desert, but the good news is that you can ride a camel along the glistening beaches of Agadir, Morocco instead. Agadir is known as the "Jewel of the South," where bazaars spill over with handmade ornaments, and forts, palaces, and mosques with beautiful minarets adorn the city's view. Since camels are not wild animals in Morocco, you can indulge in the centuries-old tradition of camel riding, with a guided tour along the Souss river at sunset.
As with any tour involving animals, you should be mindful of the ethics and care of the animals involved. Morocco doesn't have any welfare laws to protect camels, so it's important to do your research and book your tour with ethical camel herders. An ethical herder will have a strong bond with their camels and will provide them with plenty of food and rest. Before your tour, you can observe the condition of the camels and get to know them and their herders. Once you are confident about the health of your camel, it's time to take a ride and explore Morocco as locals and vacation travelers have for many years.
Sitting atop these gentle animals, your local guide will take you on a journey past the river, where you'll catch a glimpse of the Royal Palace. Then, you'll venture away from the city and off the beaten path, through a eucalyptus forest and into the ancient Moroccan countryside. The experience of riding camelback can be uncomfortable, so a mid-ride Moroccan tea break will give you and the animal some well-deserved rest, where your guide will regale you with stories and facts about camels and life in Morocco.
For a wildlife tour under the sea, take a travel vacation to Tahiti. Beneath the warm, shallow coast of Papeete, Tahiti, many sea creatures await you, lurking within the colorful pastel coral gardens. You can join a snorkel or scuba tour of the underwater world, and with a good tour guide who knows the area, tons of fish will come out to play. In the lagoon, you'll meet magnificent manta rays, and if you wait patiently, these friendly creatures may approach you. Mantas say "hello" by getting really close and pressing themselves against your body — this is their way of getting to know you. They are thought by many to be dangerous animals, but unlike their distant cousin the stingray, manta rays are harmless and are typically very curious and interested in humans. It's an impressive sight to be in the clear ocean surrounded by these alien-like animals. Before and after your tour, your tour guide will give you background on the underwater ecosystem and you'll discover so much about the lives of these curious creatures.
A glimpse into a species facing extinction can inspire you to make a change, no matter how small. Across these countries, conservation efforts are being made to protect the native animals because, after all, the local ecology depends on them sticking around.
One of the best things you can do to improve your travel footprint is to volunteer your time on your trip. And when traveling to Thailand, you might choose to plan an embarking on a volunteer journey to safeguard the wild elephants of this beautiful country. Elephant rescue and rehabilitation sanctuaries are always looking for volunteers to lend a hand and contribute to the healing of abused, injured, and orphaned elephants. When you're visiting a sanctuary or wildlife refuge, be sure to purchase merchandise or give a donation as these places typically rely on donated funds.
You'll quickly realize how brilliant these animals are, and you'll learn why it's important to protect them. In Thailand, elephants are endangered and are often forced to perform for entertainment, but at a sanctuary, you'll be able to witness them living with autonomy, knowing they're protected and well taken care of. You can watch and assist in physical examinations, baths, and feeding times, and make sure you take a break to give their big trunks a hug!
Wildlife tours take you to places and provide experiences you never thought possible. Nowhere else can you glide along the waves with manta rays, come face to face with a giraffe, or watch as a kangaroo tenderly picks at treats from your palm. Be sure to wear clothes you're comfortable having nibbled on, and don't bring anything valuable — you wouldn't want it swiped by a friendly elephant! As you're up close to your favorite animal, you may be tempted to take out your camera, but instead, capture this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with your eyes so you don't forget it. And you most certainly never will, that's the beauty of wildlife tours.