It takes a trip deep into the rain forest, desert outback or alpine wilderness to remind us that we are not alone on this planet. Yet an adventure trip to see wildlife in its natural habitat isn't like a trip to zoo. At Austin-Lehman Adventures, we give you our best viewing spots where a close encounter with amazing creatures is almost guaranteed.
1. Costa Rica
Costa Rica is home to more than 500,000 species, making it one of the 20 countries with the highest biodiversity in the world. Due to the wide variety of habitat within the small country (about the size of West Virginia) including tropical rainforest, deciduous forest, coastline (both Atlantic and Pacific), cloud forest, and mangrove forest, a wide variety of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and insects call Costa Rica home. Listen for the bay of the Mantled Howler Monkey, look closely for the camouflaged coat of the sleepy Sloth, and hope you’re lucky enough to spot the colorful plumage of a Resplendent Quetzal.
2. Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park has the largest concentration of watchable wildlife in the lower 48 states. Depending on what type of wildlife you want to see, you’ll have better luck finding it certain parts of the Park. For example, you’re likely to run into the resident elk herd who has taken up residence in the Mammoth area, munching on the tender green shoots of grass that grow around the hotel and visitor center. You just might see a grizzly bear while cruising through the open valleys of the Park at sunset or a black bear when weaving around U-turns over Washburn Pass. The only continuously free-ranging bison herd in the lower 48 since prehistoric times will almost always be found in Hayden Valley, often right in the middle of the road. Last but not least, spotting a wolf in Lamar Valley at sunrise is a special treat!
3. Galápagos Islands
Located 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands are of volcanic origin and have never been connected with the mainland. Therefore, for species to have arrived here, they had to have flown, swam, or floated. Most often, larger mammals reside at the top of the food chain, and these animals were not able to make the journey to the islands. Now with a lack of predators in the Galápagos, many of the animals appear tame, never learning to fear humans. Snorkel alongside the Marine Iguana, the only iguana adapted to life in the water. Walk quietly amongst the Islands’ population of Galápagos Giant Tortoise, many of which live more than 150 years! Spot one of the many species of birds including Darwin’s finches, Blue-footed Boobies, Frigatebirds, Albatrosses, Galápagos Penguins, and Flightless Cormorants.
The first African country to incorporate protection of the environment into its constitution, Namibia has 26 parks and reserves set aside making its abundant wildlife one of its greatest tourist assets. A country on the forefront of wildlife conservation, the government has made it possible for people living in communal areas to manage their natural resources through communal conservancies. Many populations of Namibian wildlife have decreased over the years due to human-wildlife conflicts (e.g. lions preying on livestock or human-elephant conflicts around water resources), and communal conservancies are helping battle wildlife destruction through education, ecotourism, and protection of habitat and migration routes. Due to communal conservancies, non-profit organizations, the government and other entities, populations of cheetahs, black rhinos, lions, zebras, and other native wildlife have been restored to the world’s richest dry land.
5. Amazon River Basin
Home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, one-third of all species in the world are thought to reside in the Amazon Rainforest. Home to reptiles, amphibians, primates, tapirs, capybaras (the largest rodent in the world), and even jaguars, you will know doubt have some sort of wildlife encounter on your journey through the Amazon. Its 3,000 freshwater fish species number more that what’s been counted in the entire Atlantic Ocean! A birder’s paradise, the Amazon Rainforest contains more species than any other ecosystem on the planet and contains over 4,000 species of butterflies. In the river itself you may spot a curious manatee or the Amazon River dolphin (also known as the pink river dolphin or boto). The diversity of wildlife in the Amazon region is truly staggering and worth a trip in and of itself to South America.
Antarctica, a continent of extremes, holds the title of coldest, driest, and windiest location on earth! It’s surprising that wildlife can thrive in such extreme temperatures and climate. Seals, whales, penguins and a large diversity of seabirds migrate to Antarctica to breed and feed on the endless supply of krill, fish, and crustaceans. Considered to be the continent’s signature species, seventeen types of penguins can be found in Antarctica; however, only four types (the Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap, and Gentoo penguins) actually breed on the continent itself. Antarctic Seals thrive due to the lack of their predator, the polar bear as well as the nutrient-rich feeding areas surrounding Antarctica. Considered a whale sanctuary, two types of whales, baleen and toothed, travel great distances from their northern temperate breeding waters to Antarctica’s nutrient-dense waters to feed.
Also known as the Great Land, Alaska is home to both land and sea species wildlife, and it’s easy to see both even on a short trip to the largest state in the U.S. With the largest state park system in America and 65% of the state being managed by the Federal government (including its 15 national parks), Alaska is an unspoiled safe haven for wildlife ranging from bald eagles to beluga whales. Even in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest town of 300,000 residents, you’re likely to spot one of the 1,000 moose that call the city home. Land animals to search for include black, grizzly, and polar bears; moose; caribou; mountain goats; Dall sheep; foxes; and coyotes. Off the coast, look for Humpback and Killer whales; dolphins; sea otters; seals; sea lions; bald eagles; and many types of bird life including puffins, kittiwakes, and oystercatchers.
Kenya is home to an amazing array of wildlife, but perhaps none as popular as “The Big Five.” This so-called “Big-Five” includes the lion, the largest of Africa’s big cats; elephant, the world’s largest land mammal; buffalo, one of the most feared animals; rhinoceros (white and black), both of which are endangered; and leopard, a very elusive animal, hunting at night and spending its days resting in trees. Of course many other types of animals can be found all around Kenya including zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, jackals, oryx, hyenas, baboons, monkeys, kudus, gazelle, antelope, hippos, wildebeest and more. The most popular wildlife park in Kenya, the Masai Mara Game Reserve is where you can witness the incredible migration of millions of zebra and wildebeest from July through October.
9. Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is home to a wide variety of animal populations, and some species are more likely to be seen depending on the time of year you go. The Tetons lie in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem encompassing over twenty million acres and considered to be one of the few remaining, nearly intact temperate ecosystems on Earth. The largest elk herd in North America migrates between Grand Teton National Park in the summer and the National Elk Refuge southeast of the Park in the winter. The Yellow-Bellied Marmot whistling at you from its granite rock perch of the Teton Mountain Range in July will be hibernating come December. Moose, found in riparian areas along the Snake and Gros Ventre river drainages in the summer time, snacking on willows and young, nutrient-dense vegetation may be found buckled down either conserving energy or feeding on bark or young sprouts in the forest in the winter.
10. South Dakota
South Dakota’s first and largest state park, Custer State Park is home to wildlife big and small from the burly, brawny bison to the peeking, passive prairie dog. Somewhere in between these two mammals is the infamous begging burro, a donkey that is not native to the Black Hills. These animals are descendants from the herd of burros that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak. Once the rides discontinued, the burros were released into Custer State Park where they have become a popular visitor attraction. Also found in the state park are big horn sheep, pronghorn (also known as antelope), wild turkeys, elk, and mountain goats.
Kasey Austin is the head guide and field operations liaison for Austin-Lehman Adventures.