Wildlife encounters offer once-in-a-lifetime travel memories that you’ll treasure forever. Who doesn’t remember the first time they watched a Dolphin frolicking in the wake of their boat, saw a Deer or a Bear in the wild, or went snorkeling with aquatic life all around them?
These days, animals all around the world are facing an ever-increasing array of threats. Fortunately, there are also more opportunities to learn about wildlife conservation while seeing keystone species in their natural environment.
Not only do these activities teach travelers about the vital work being done to protect these animals, but in many cases they help to fund NGOs and other organizations working to save them.
Discover Corps offers several different trips that allow volunteers to work with wildlife researchers, conservationists and non-profit foundations. Our goal is to provide a hands-on experience that shows travelers the important work being done to save endangered species, and encourage them to become ambassadors for wildlife conservation.
Here are a few of our favorite wildlife encounters around the world, including several that you can experience by traveling with Discover Corps!
Feed a Baby Rhino in South Africa
One of the highlights of Discover Corps’ South African Wildlife Conservation Experience is a visit to Care For Wild Africa.
Founded by Petronel Nieuwoudt (former Captain of South Africa’s Endangered Species Protection Unit), this wildlife sanctuary is devoted to saving Rhinos and other endangered species from the scourge of poaching.
Guests start the morning bright and early by helping to feed orphaned Rhino calfs rescued by the facility. It’s an incredibly emotional experience to feel these babies’ power as they suck greedily at their 2-liter bottles of milk.
Afterwards, you learn more about the need to protect these incredible animals, and why Rhino poaching has risen so sharply over the past 5 years. You’ll end your visit with a tour of the world’s largest Rhino sanctuary, which also provides homes to rescued Lions, Hippos, and Birds of Prey.
Go On a Tiger Safari in India
Overseen by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, India‘s 49 Tiger reserves are home to around 70% of the world’s entire population of tigers.
The county’s conservation success is stunning: Despite the sharp rise in poaching, its Tiger population has risen from 1,411 in 2006 to nearly 2500 today. But the population is still endangered by loss of habitat and human conflict.
The largest and most well-known Tiger reserve is Ranthambhore National Park. Located in the northern state of Rajasthan, the park is conveniently located near India’s frequently traveled “Golden Triangle” (Agra-Delhi-Jaipur).
With a current population of around 55 tigers, Ranthambore provides your best chance for seeing a tiger in the wild. But, given the fact that the park encompasses 244 square miles, any visitor lucky enough to spot one of these fearsome predators should consider themselves EXTREMELY fortunate!
Meet the “People of the Forest” in Indonesia
In recent years, fires in Indonesia raged out of control due to record drought. In places like Pematang Gadun and Sungai Besar, where the forests are filled with Orangutans and other endangered species, many animals died from smoke inhalation. But a precious few are being rescued by non-profit organizations such as International Animal Rescue.
IAR established the first orangutan rescue and rehabilitation center in West Kalimantan in 2009, and has rescued more than 150 Orangutans over the past 6 years. Their primary goal is to save these endangered animals and return them to the wild after rehab whenever possible.
Due to the rise of palm oil plantations in the region, your odds of seeing an Orangutan in the wilds of Indonesia are slim. But at the IAR center in West Kalimantan it’s guaranteed, since they feed the Orangutans at set hours. Best of all, you’ll get the joy of knowing your admission fee is helping the NGO ensure the protection of Orangutans and their habitats in order to stabilize local populations.
Release Baby Sea Turtles in Costa Rica
There are few wildlife encounters more rewarding than watching baby Sea Turtles emerge from their nests and helping them safely make the perilous trek to the ocean. It’s easily the most memorable activity on Discover Corps’ Sea Turtle Initiative trip to Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, the total Sea Turtle population in Costa Rica has declined by around 90% since 1980. Current threats include poaching for human consumption, being struck by boat traffic, getting eaten by domestic animals, being caught accidentally by fishermen, and ingesting trash.
The good news is that there are plenty of Sea Turtle conservation organizations working to help save these endangered animals, including the NGO we partner with in Costa Rica. Discover Corps travelers get a chance to dig up hatched nests, help scientists measure hatching success rates, clean up the beach, and make signs to encourage awareness about sea turtle conservation.
It’s a great way to see Costa Rica Sea Turtles up close, not to mention helping to ensure they’re around for many generations to come!
Swim with Manatees in Belize
The first time I saw a West Indian Manatee in the wild, it was a magical experience. There’s just something innately powerful about a wild animal that chooses to swim over to you and interact with you, without any sort of enticement or prompting.
Unfortunately, threats ranging from disease to ship strikes and cold temperatures have caused a population decline over the past few decades.
Belize is home to an estimated 800 to 1000 West Indian Manatees– easily the Caribbean’s largest population. Most of them are found in Port Honduras Marine Reserve and the lagoons and rivers of Payne’s Creek National Park.
Guests on Discover Corps’ Caribbean Manatee Adventure get a chance to help researchers monitor water salinity and currents and collect data on the local Manatee population. Although these gentle sea creatures are wild and therefore unpredictable, up close and personal encounters are virtually guaranteed.
Trek to See Gorillas in Rwanda
Hiking to see Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park ranks high among my all-time favorite travel experiences.
Thanks to 50 years of habituation that began with the groundbreaking research of Dian Fossey, it’s possible to get within 10 yards of an entire family of Gorillas that seem completely indifferent to your presence. We were surrounded by a mixture of adult females, babies ranging in age from 3 to 18 months old, and massive Silverback males.
Getting to their preferred habitat– the bamboo forests that shroud the lower reaches of the surrounding mountains– can be a bit of a trek. The path is muddy, hills are steep, and it can take anywhere from one to three hours of hiking to reach the Gorilla groups.
But the reward is an unparalleled wildlife encounter that will leave you breathless and in awe of this critically endangered species.
Volunteer with Elephants in Thailand
The Asian Elephant population has declined by at least 50% over the last three generations, making them the most endangered Elephants in the world. The problems they’re facing range from habitat loss to poaching for their ivory tusks (which fetch a hefty price on Asia’s black market).
Many Asian Elephants are forced to perform tricks on the streets of Asia or do back-breaking work in the logging and tourism industries. They’re trained using a cruel regimen known as the phajaan, which is designed to crush the animal’s spirit.
Lek Chailert is leading the charge for Asian Elephant sanctuaries that emphasize the importance of conservation, rescuing abused, orphaned and injured animals from throughout the region. In addition to opening Elephant Nature Park and the non-profit Save Elephant Foundation, she oversees more than a dozen conservation projects in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and beyond.
Volunteers at these sanctuaries get a rare opportunity to work directly with the majestic creatures, feeding them, walking with them through the forest and even bathing them in the river. It’s an almost overwhelming wildlife encounter you won’t soon forget! –Bret Love
BIO: 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 website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.