Lions, tigers and bears are old news these days--on safari, anyway. The newest breed of luxury wildlife tours is more likely to feature bullet ants, sea turtles or even a giant lammergeyer, a mountain-dwelling bearded vulture with a nine-foot wing span.
In addition to tried-and-true spots such as Kenya and South Africa, travelers in search of wildlife today could find themselves trekking the Mongolian mountains in search of golden eagles, examining rare orchids in Botswana, or chasing crocodiles and bathing in volcanic hot springs in Costa Rica.
To the supremely well-traveled--people for whom coming face to face with an elephant is no longer a thrill--remote and endangered corners of the world have become increasingly appealing. What’s more, the recent uptick in international travel, and interest in ecologically sustainable tourism, has resulted in a new approach to wilderness touring.
"We definitely are finding people want more meaningful travel experiences, and they're finding them in some pretty exotic destinations," says Pamela Lassers, director of media relations at Abercrombie & Kent, a luxury tour operator. "There's also a groundswell of people who want to travel responsibly."
To cater to these adventurers eager to experience and support local cultures, new tour offerings and properties are opening up worldwide. Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces, an Indian luxury hotel operator, announced a joint collaboration in 2004 with Conservation Corporation Africa, one of Africa's largest safari operators, to open a string of 22 Taj Wilderness Lodges; the first, Mahua Kothi, in India's Bandhavgarh National Park, opened this past November, and the next will open in February. Even already established resorts are offering special packages to draw wilderness tourists. Mexico's Marquis Los Cabos resort, for example, has introduced a five-day package, which includes three desert treks in Hummers accompanied by eco-guides.
This year, A&K will launch a partnership with the Arlington, Va.-based Nature Conservancy, offering a series of "conservation" journeys to areas the Conservancy studies, like Southern Africa, the Peruvian Amazon, the Galapagos Islands, Papua New Guinea and Brazil's Pantanal region. The trips were developed with a specific focus on conservation, and each will have a Nature Conservancy researcher or naturalist to serve as a guide.
"This series will focus on untouched and under-explored destinations," says Lassers. "Experiencing the place is what makes people want to preserve it." A contribution to the Nature Conservancy is built into the price of each trip.
Of course, leveraging wilderness trips as a fundraising tool is nothing new. The Nature Conservancy has been offering its own special departure series since 1999, through the Conservation Journeys Program. These invitation-only trips are designed to interest top-level donors in a more extended sponsorship campaign of a particular region. Trips have an average group size of eight and cost about $4,000 for five to seven days; one recent departure, for the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, ferried travelers past the killer whales, dolphins and porpoises of the Dean Channel via customized 77-foot yacht. This spring, wilderness trips are scheduled to Brazil and China.
"When I've talked to donors, we want to constantly offer them something else that they can't just pay for on a canned trip," says M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy. But that's not to say there aren't some spectacular options available from regular tour operators.
For the first time, Forbes.com has compiled a list of Luxury Wildlife Tours, and a single rule governed our selection criteria: more is more on a wildlife trip. We chose nine regions simply seething with species you won't see at home--and might not want to. While we included some traditional African safaris, like a Wildlife Safari jaunt to Kenya and Tanzania, we searched further afield, too, from India's brand new Mahua Kothi, a Taj Wilderness Lodge in the elephant, boar and monkey-filled Bandhavgarh National Park, to the West Indian manatees and keel-billed toucan of Belize. All of the trips included here are organized by a specific tour operator, except the South Africa itinerary, which can be booked independently.
Just don't forget the binoculars.