Top Picks For You

10 Ethical Animal Encounters You Can Have in the Wild

In ways that help species at risk.

Wildlife and the outdoors are major drivers of tourism, but it’s the rare traveler who hasn’t seen places where this is to the detriment of the animals and their habitat. However, as described by the World Bank Group, tourism done right contributes to sustainable development. It can facilitate conservation, enhance the perceived value of wildlife, increase funding for protected species and areas, create viable and more environmental land-use alternatives, and improve livelihoods and equality in rural communities.

Put simply, tourism can help create economies where wildlife is more valuable alive than dead. It makes conservation a good practice for individuals and businesses, increases willingness to comply with environmental laws, and intensifies demands for governments to enhance those laws. The plunge in travel due to the COVID pandemic has made it clear that tourism helps prevent poaching, is critical for protecting wildlife habitat, and for maintaining nature preserves and the animals that live in them.

If you want to see wildlife on your next vacation, make your tourist dollars count. Look for destinations and tour companies that provide good jobs to local people so they can rely less on poaching and activities detrimental to animals and their habitats. Ensure that some of the fees you’re paying go directly to conservation. Ask about protection laws and make it clear you expect them to be followed. Support brands that support wildlife.

Here are ten examples of close encounters with wildlife that can help protect the species you’re so keen to see.

1 OF 10

Gray Whale Watching

WHERE: Baja’s Pacific Coast, Mexico

Once almost extinct due to hunting, Eastern North Pacific gray whales now number around 20,000. However, boat strikes, fishing gear, pollution–including from noise–and other factors are killing them during their annual migration north to Alaska.

Gray whales find relief in three calm bays on the Pacific side of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, where they come to mate and have their babies. The boats that used to focus on fishing now take tourists out to see the whales from December to April. Mothers sometimes lift their 20-foot-long babies above the surface with their tails, which allows everyone to get a good look at each other. Under the right conditions, many whales initiate inter-species close encounters, swimming right up to boats and lifting their heads to receive scratches from human hands. It’s a mystery why they do it—one National Geographic photographer described how the whales would swim away if he didn’t engage with them.

A gray whale-watching tour in Baja will be one of the most amazing things you’ve experienced in your life. Choose the lagoons of Ojo de Liebre or San Ignacio or Magdalena Bay; day trips are available from La Paz and Loreto. Licensed tour operators are careful about following all protection regulations. The best tours have a naturalist or biologist on board as a guide.

2 OF 10

Snorkeling With Whale Sharks

WHERE: La Paz, Mexico

Also near La Paz, you can snorkel with the world’s biggest fish—the whale shark. While many destinations around the world offer whale shark tours, Baja’s capital is one of the best places. Whale sharks are reliably seen a few minutes’ boat ride from La Paz between October and February and, more importantly, there’s strict enforcement of rules to protect them. Some other tour operators lure whale sharks with food, ignoring conservation regulations.

Whale sharks are attracted to healthy parts of the ocean, so tourism is also an incentive for ocean protection. Many communities have found it more lucrative to offer whale shark tours than to fish from their depleted reefs, which is helping ocean life regenerate.

3 OF 10

Trekking to See Mountain Gorillas

WHERE: Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Mountain gorillas live in only two places: Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and in the Virunga Mountains on the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the DRC. Scientists aren’t sure why, but the animals can’t survive anywhere else, including zoos. While mountain gorillas are endangered, the population has grown from about 250 individuals in 1981 to over 1,000 at the last census. Tourism is essential for their protection.

As we explain in Gorilla Spotting 101: How to See Mountain Gorillas in Their Natural Habitat, tourism provides essential funds for employing park rangers, veterinarians, and trackers who protect the gorillas directly. The COVID-19 pandemic’s tourism reductions meant increases in poaching, including that of Rafiki, a famous silverback in Bwindi. Gorillas’ habitat is threatened by the need for land for housing, crops, and cooking fuel. Tourism helps provide nearby communities with clean water, food, healthcare, education, and jobs.

On a mountain gorilla trek, you’ll need to stay at least 23 feet from the primates. But gorillas might choose to come closer to you in search of tasty leaves or, simply, because they’re curious about you.

4 OF 10

Tracking Chimpanzees

WHERE: East and West Africa

Deforestation is the main threat to chimpanzees, though poaching for bushmeat and the illegal pet trade also affects them. Tourists’ interest in treks to see chimps helps them be left in their natural habitat. When you take a walk through the forest to look for them, many of the guides and forest rangers will explain how they gained their tracking skills, explaining that many started as poachers but now put those skills to better use escorting tourists.

On many treks, the chimps stay high up in the trees. An ideal place for a closer encounter is with Alluring Africa’s Greystoke Mahale in Tanzania’s Mahale Mountain National Park. You stay in one of the six deluxe thatch and salvaged-wood bandas in a remote location on the beach of Lake Tanganyika. Your chimping excursion has you tracking a family of chimpanzees that was first studied by researchers in the 1950s. Once you’ve found them, you can sit on the forest floor for often close-up views of their antics, with guides interpreting their coup-plotting and courting-favor behaviors for you.

5 OF 10

Ensuring Orphaned Cheetahs Learn How to Hunt

WHERE: Namibia

Cheetahs and other big African cats are at risk of having their habitat turned into farms as well as farmers poisoning and trapping them, incorrectly assuming all predators are livestock killers. The AfriCat Foundation and Okonjima Nature Reserve in Namibia educate farmers and school kids, helping to protect livestock, and rehabilitate orphaned, injured, and relocated cats.

Often, this involves teaching the predators how to hunt by dragging meat behind a truck. To ensure they’ve learned well enough to sustain themselves after being released into the reserve, rangers equip the cats with radio collars and check on them every few days. Tourists can come along on health checks, which often end with a walk through the bush and sitting in the sand a few yards from the cheetahs while they rest after their hunt.

The reduction in tourism from the pandemic has affected the AfriCat Foundation, too. With nearly zero tourists, key funds for the reserve are drying up and there have been reports of an increased number in poaching for food across Namibia. While you plan your trip to Namibia for a close encounter with cheetahs, watch these videos about AfriCat’s situation and consider making a donation to Okonjima and AfriCat too.

6 OF 10

Walking Among the Great Migration

WHERE: Tanzania

During the dry season in East Africa, almost two million wildebeest, antelope, and zebra migrate more than 1,200 miles from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya and back, followed by the predators that eat them. Tourism helps ensure the migratory routes are left wild rather than fenced and developed.

The Great Migration is an amazing sight on any type of safari. Those who want a very close encounter can book a walking safari and be in the middle of it. The Great Migration walking safari takes place from December to March. Beginning at Kimondo Migration Camp in the southern Serengeti and ending at Dunia Camp in the central Serengeti, you sleep in a new place every night. You’ll walk between nine and 12 miles daily and see more hoofed animals and birds than you can possibly count, with chances for spotting elephants, rhinos, lions, and cheetahs, too.

7 OF 10

Watching Scarlet Macaws Transition to the Wild

WHERE: Honduras

The scarlet macaw is the national bird of Honduras. The endangered red, blue, and yellow birds are popular as pets throughout the Americas and beyond, with poachers taking eggs, chicks, and even adult birds from the wild. What began as a rescue center for abandoned birds where tourists could get their photo taken is now a rehabilitation center for the macaws, where they’re ultimately released back into the wild.

Honduras’ Macaw Mountain Bird Park and Nature Reserve is near the Copán Ruinas UNESCO site not far from the Guatemalan border. You can see rescued birds up close plus spot released free-flying ones in the 335-square-mile Sacred Valley of the Scarlet Macaw. As Smithsonian describes, Macaw Mountain’s initiatives include an educational program for school kids to learn the value of protecting the birds. In partnership with the World Parrot Trust, they’ve done four major releases in the Copán Valley with more planned all over the country. Conservationists say protecting the birds is prompting additional rainforest protections, too.

8 OF 10

Peering at Polar Bears

WHERE: Canada’s North

In the past, when polar bears approached towns in Canada’s North they were often shot to prevent injuries to residents. Thanks, in part, to polar bears’ value for tourism, there’s now a Polar Bear Alert Program in the polar bear capital of the world—Churchill, Manitoba. Now, conservation officials scare away the bears or take them back to the wild. Persistent bears or those needing further relocation might be put in “Polar Bear Jail” until the sea ice is ready.

See them for yourself on a walking polar bear safari with Churchill Wild in the summer. In the fall, the most common way to watch polar bears is from above in a Tundra Buggy, Polar Rover, or viewing tower. At Churchill Wild’s Great Bear Ice Adventure, you can also see them close up while you’re safely fenced-in at Dymond Lake Ecolodge. While they wait for the sea ice to form so they can start their seal hunt, the curious bears often wander close to the lodge’s fences. Other places to see polar bears include Nunavut territory and Quebec’s Nunavik region.

Canadian companies offering polar bear viewing require permits and must follow protection regulations closely. If you visit, you’ll likely hear the story of the tourist who tried to lure a polar bear with a sandwich, which resulted in an immediate tour cancelation and flight home.

9 OF 10

Getting Checked out by Penguins and Seals

WHERE: Antarctica

The number of tourists permitted to visit the fragile Antarctic continent is limited. Those that go, says the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), return home as “ambassadors of goodwill, guardianship, and peace” and help foster the understanding and conservation of a destination without an indigenous population to speak on its behalf.

Climate change and melting sea ice put all Antarctic wildlife, particularly penguins, at risk. IAATO rules dictate the distance between you and Antarctica’s animals, but curious penguins and seals sometimes waddle close to people sitting still. A penguin might even leap into your tender boat, perhaps trying to avoid becoming something underwater’s lunch. Viking Expeditions will begin cruises to Antarctica in January 2022. Their two new ships, Viking Octantis and Viking Polaris, double as working research vessels with resident scientists on board.

10 OF 10

Restoring Hope for the Oceans at SHEBA Hope Reef

WHERE: Off Sulawesi, Indonesia

As climate change warms the world’s oceans, coral reefs and the undersea life they sustain are dying. Coral restoration is one way to help and, on May 5, 2021, an immense restored reef was officially revealed to the world. It’s off a tiny island near Sulawesi, Indonesia, and it’s so big it can be seen from space (and via Google Earth).

Called the SHEBA Hope Reef, it’s part of the world’s largest coral restoration program. Led by the SHEBA and Mars companies, it aims to restore reefs around the world—about 220,000 square yards of them before 2030. Working with the local community, the Hope Reef was started in 2019. In hopes of inspiring more ocean protection, it spells out the word “HOPE” in 46-foot-high coral-covered letters. The letters will eventually disappear as the reef continues to grow. Already it’s recruiting new corals plus attracting parrotfish, butterflyfish, eagle rays, critically endangered Hawksbill and green turtles, and more.

Getting to the reef itself is only for the most intrepid of travelers, but you can still help by choosing other destinations and brands that support coral restoration. One dream destination to consider is Kokomo Private Island Fiji, which began its coral restoration work in 2018.