Mt. Kilimanjaro

Wildlife Safari Guide: 7 Must-See Places

Mt. Kilimanjaro

Derived from the Swahili word for journey, a safari is defined as an expedition to observe animals in their natural habitat. The wildlife safari was invented in the 1830s by Victorian-era traveler William Cornwallis Harris, and later popularized by authors such as Jules Verne (Five Weeks in a Balloon) and Ernest Hemingway (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”).

A century ago, a wildlife safari was often a big game hunt, primarily in East Africa. But these days the term safari is often used to describe adventurous expeditions all around the world. They all share common characteristics, including an early rise, watching and photographing wildlife, a formal dinner, winding down with storytelling while sharing drinks around the campfire.

As diehard ecotourism enthusiasts, we’ve been blessed to experience some incredible wildlife safaris, including several offered by International Expeditions. Here’s a look at our picks for seven must-see places for wildlife safaris on three different continents.

East Africa safari

Tanzania


Tanzania borders Kenya to the South. As the starting point for the annual Great Migration, Serengeti National Park is arguably the country’s most famous safari destination. Serengeti is the Maasai word for “endless plains,” which is an accurate description of the impossibly scenic landscape. Spanning some 12,000 square miles, the Serengeti is packed with Lion prides, Leopards, and vast herds of Elephants, Giraffes, Zebras, Impala, and Wildebeests.

The Ngorongoro Crater is the largest intact, inactive volcanic crater in the world, and another must-see spot for a wildlife safari you’ll never forget. Measuring 2,000 feet deep and 100 square miles wide, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to more than 25,000 large animals (Buffalo, Hippos, Gazelles, Wildebeests, etc.) and a dense population of Lions. It’s also an incredible setting for watch the sun set from the crater’s rim.

Lion

Tarangire National Park is perhaps lesser known, but its dense array of animals (including Tanzania’s highest concentration of Elephants) is impressive. From Lions and Leopards to Giraffes, Zebras, and birds, it packs a surprising punch for a relatively small park. Lake Manyara National Park is equally uncrowded, yet offers a wonderful wildlife safari experience that includes most of the Big 5 as well as Flamingos, who flock here by the thousands during the wet season.

Explore in a mokoro

Botswana


Ecotourism in Botswana is big business, bringing in some $250 million in annual revenue. Commercial hunting was banned there in 2014. Anti-poaching laws are VERY strictly enforced. And wildlife management is largely left in the hands of local communities, providing alternative revenue streams to wildlife trafficking.

But Botswana’s focus on ecotourism is nothing new. The country has prioritized conservation since 1963, when the local Batawana people established the Moremi Nature Reserve (the first of its kind in Africa) after seeing their lands threatened by illegal hunting and the development of cattle farms.

Wildebeest by Caroline Culbert

Thanks to its stable government and progressive social policies, Botswana is now one of Africa’s burgeoning ecotourism hotspots. Its tremendous opportunities for wildlife safaris include exploring the Okavango Delta via a traditional canoe (a.k.a. mokoro), birdwatching in the Okavango Panhandle, mingling with the 120,000 elephants estimated to reside in Chobe National Park, and having a traditional Big 5 safari experience at Moremi.

Snorkeling

Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)


Named the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, this archipelago of volcanic islands 563 miles off the coast of Ecuador remains almost as unspoiled as it was when evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin visited during his famed voyage of the Beagle.

Blue Footed Boobies

Most of the islands are remarkably pristine. There are conservation laws put in place to protect the islands’ impressive biodiversity, which are designed to keep it that way. More than 97% of the archipelago is one big national park, with clearly defined trails and eagle-eyed guides making sure you don’t stray from the path.

As a result, the Galapagos Islands remains one of the world’s unspoiled places for a wildlife safari, with an exceptional array of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds to be seen. From Blue Footed Boobies and Galapagos Sea Lions to Galapagos Tortoises and Marine Iguanas, most have virtually no fear of humans because they have no predators. In other words, it’s an incredible place for wildlife lovers to explore.

Bengal tiger

India


India is home to a whopping 70% of the world's wild Tiger population, so it’s no surprise that the big cat is the country’s national animal. There are now 50 tiger reserves on the subcontinent, all managed under the watchful eye of the National Tiger Conservation Authority of India (formerly known as Project Tiger).

Thanks to the NTCA’s focus on creating new reserves corridor protection, anti-poaching legislation, and awareness campaigns, there are currently around 3,900 Bengal Tigers in India. This is a rousing conservation success for the endangered species, especially when you consider the population stood at 1,706 just six years ago.

Nagarhole elephants

But of course the Tiger is not the only endemic animal you can see on a wildlife safari in India. The subcontinent boasts a diverse array of habitats, from the highest mountains in the world to one of the largest deserts, from tropical rainforests to the world's largest river delta. These ecosystems are home to more than 1,300 bird species, Asian Elephants, Asiatic Lions, Indian Leopards, Sloth Bears, Langurs, Wolves, and the increasingly endangered Dhole (or Indian wild dog).

Africa safari vehicle

Kenya


Witnessing East Africa’s Great Migration is near the top of most animal-lovers’ bucket lists. It’s something many people dream of and save for their entire lives. And Kenya is one of only two countries in which you can see it.

Kenya’s finest wildlife safari opportunities can be found in two of its most world-renowned parks. The 151 square mile Amboseli National Park was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1991, and offers visitors a chance to see wildlife ranging from the Big 5 mammals to over 400 species of birds. But it is best known as one of the world’s premiere destinations for seeing massive Elephant herds.

Zebras

The Maasai Mara National Reserve is a prime destination for witnessing the annual Great Migration. Every year millions of Gazelles, Wildebeest, and Zebras make the arduous 500-mile trek northwest to Kenya in search of water and fresh grass. The famous crossing at the Mara River, where hungry Crocodiles lie in wait, is unlike any other safari spectacle you’re likely to see. The Mara is the also home to Lions, Leopards, Cheetahs, Elephants, Buffalo, Hyenas, and more than 470 species of birds.

IE’s Kenya safaris also offer a chance to visit some of Kenya’s lesser known wildlife safari destinations. These include Sweetwaters Game Reserve, where the Big 5 are often seen; Samburu Reserve, where you can glimpse Giraffes, Zebras and several bird species; and Lake Naivasha, which is home to Hippos and over 400 species of birds.

Gorilla

Uganda


Winston Churchill famously called Uganda “the Pearl of Africa,” while Lonely Planet ranked the country first on its “Best in Travel” list for 2012. Perhaps that’s because the central African nation is home to natural wonders that include the world's largest free-standing volcano, the world's second-largest freshwater lake, African's highest mountain range, and the headwaters of the world's longest river.

There’s no doubt Uganda has been blessed with more than its fair share of natural beauty. Much of it is conserved by 10 national parks, which offer outdoor activities such as mountaineering, rafting, community-based ecotourism, cultural tourism and more. But what makes Uganda a must-see for most nature-loving travelers is its wondrous wealth of wildlife safari opportunities.

Hippo

There’s chimpanzee tracking (in Kyambura Gorge) and sighting the unusual tree-climbing lions (in the Ishasha sector) in Queen Elizabeth National Park. You can take a wildlife-watching cruise along the Nile River in Murchison Falls National Park, which is home to 450 species of birds and 76 species of mammals. And of course there’s trekking to see Mountain Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (home to nearly half the world’s remaining population).

Best of all, the Uganda Wildlife Authority gives 20% of all national park fees to local communities. So any money you spend on a wildlife safari helps develop facilities such as schools, hospitals, and roads.

Zafiro excursion boat

The Amazon


The Amazon Rainforest is considered the world’s most biodiverse forest. When most people think of the Amazon, they think of Brazil, which is home to around 60% of the rainforest’s total area (2,100,000 square miles).  Sadly, Brazil’s exploitation of natural resources has led to massive deforestation. But the Amazon River spreads across much of the South American continent, including Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru. Taking a luxury Amazon cruise allows you to explore hundreds of miles of the Amazon, providing some incredible wildlife-watching along the way.

Hoatzin

The mighty river’s forests are filled with countless species, including Howler Monkeys, Sloths, Iguanas, and occasional big cats (such as Jaguars, Ocelots, etc.). You’ll get a special thrill watching for Pink River Dolphins as you glide through the Amazon’s tributaries intimate excursion boats. And for birdwatchers the area is a treasure trove of tropical delights, with colorful Parrots, Macaws, Toucans, and countless other avian species seemingly around every turn.

Three-toed sloth

Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.