When Charlie Foley and his wife embarked on a yearlong trip around the world in 2007, they headed straight for India and its wild tigers. The rush wasn’t just to witness the animal’s powerful feline grace. Foley, vice president of development at Animal Planet, had learned that there were more tigers in captivity in Texas than there are roaming India’s major tiger parks. And the Foleys wanted to see the creatures in their natural habitat before they were wiped out of existence.
“It’s incredibly disturbing to think that an animal which is so evocative of a specific place—India—may no longer exist in that place in a generation,” says Foley. “We had to see them, and when we did, it was quite overpowering. It certainly changed my life.”
Seeing endangered animals in the wild is no different than experiencing other disappearing phenomena: the clock is ticking, so you better do it while you can. Fortunately, a handful of tour companies are making it possible. “Safaris to see endangered animals are a small but growing industry,” says Les Carlisle, group conservation manager of &Beyond, the pioneering South African eco-safari company.
The big difficulty with safaris that focus on endangered animals is the obvious one: many animals are too rare to actually see. “Panthers, snow leopards, and orangutans are all endangered, and you can go on safaris to try to see them,” says Carlisle, “but the chances of spotting one are slim.” So we searched for animals—and safaris—that offer the best odds.
Tigers are certainly threatened. In the 19th century, the tiger population of India numbered more than 100,000. Today there are fewer than 4,000; the population has been devastated by poaching, hunting, and loss of habitat. The almost mythical aura of a tiger is its own worst enemy: every part of the animal—from its eyes and whiskers to its claws, fur, and internal organs—is in demand somewhere around the world for medicine or ornamentation.
But an Indian government campaign to save the tiger in India, launched 15 years ago, has had some success, particularly in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. And &Beyond is helping travelers realize their dreams of seeing animals while they’re still around. In 2008, the company opened four luxury jungle lodges in Madhya Pradesh, where the tiger population predominates. Ironically, it has never been easier to see a tiger in the wild.
Of course, not all the endangered species are on land. After India, the next stop for the Foleys on their round-the-world tour was the Pacific Island nation of Palau, where they got to see rare sea horses and hawksbill turtles. But the best place to spot hawksbills—hunted to the point of extinction for their “tortoise” shell (from which we get tortoiseshell glasses)—is in the World Wildlife Fund’s Kiunga Marine National Reserve, off the northeast coast of Kenya. On the edge of the reserve, at the gorgeous Kiwayu Safari Village resort, you can have the rare experience of seeing turtles waddle onto the beach to lay their eggs.
Tigers and hawksbill turtles are just two of many endangered species that you can still see in the wild. Read on for more animals and more safaris—just be sure to get there before it’s too late.