Visit some amazing landscapes across the world, where the unique geographical features nurture an eco-system that is home to wildlife only found there. A growing awareness of responsible tourism has created these special destinations that have become sanctuaries for our precious and rapidly declining natural heritage.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Tracking the critically endangered mountain gorilla in these forests is a once in a life time experience. There are only 900 animals left in the world. Highly social creatures, they roam in groups led by one silverback male with several females and their off-spring.
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You are taken extremely close to a gorilla family and can spend time in their midst.
The forest is dense tropical, and machetes are used to clear the growth at times. At the park gate, groups of 8 tourists are formed and briefed by the designated guide. Then the trek starts with a guide and Uganda Wildlife Authority guards (who are armed in case rogue elephants come in from the Congo side). Average treks are for 2.5 hours and you get to spend about an hour with the gorilla group. The trek involves up and down walking with a bit of negotiating slippery tracks. Mountain trekking boots and poles are highly recommended. A light waterproof jacket and waterproof hat is also desirable.
It’s an experience of a lifetime, as well as a photographer’s dream. Circumnavigate the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard in an ice-class vessel, reaching a point just 500 miles from the northern-most point of the earth, the North Pole. Sail through surreal landscapes of towering icebergs, floating ice sheets that go on forever, living and dying glaciers that stretch for miles. This is home to hundreds of thousands of nesting Pelagic birds, a variety of seals, walrus, whales, dolphins, reindeer, and of course, the star of the show – the polar bear. This Arctic bear likes staying on pack ice as this is where its food, seals, live as well. With global warming, the ice cover is shrinking, posing a significant threat to the bears which may lose a large part of their habitat.
While on your short expeditions from the ship, take in the colourful variety of flowers blooming on the slopes, with large numbers of Kittiwake and Brünnich’s Guillemot nesting on the nearby cliffs. There is also a good chance of spotting Arctic Fox patrolling the base of the cliffs in case a chick falls from its nest, and bearded seal that swim in the fjords.
Although outside temperatures drop down to zero and cold winds start blowing, you will live in the comfort of a climate-controlled ship. But gear up every day to head out on small Zodiac boats to manoeuvre around icebergs and get closer to glaciers and wildlife. There are a variety of cruises you can book from May till October, with an average duration of eight to ten days.
Ladakh- Upper Himalayas
An absolutely unique ecology is found in the high-altitude cold desert of Ladakh. It offers a treat for wildlife lovers, although the climate and getting around is very challenging. The star of the show is the snow leopard, the elusive cat that blends magically into the white slopes. Specialised wildlife travel agencies have now honed down the experience, to an almost guaranteed viewing of the animal. One such on the high-end is the Snow Leopard Lodge at Ulley. For budget travellers, the Snow Leopard Conservancy Trust has helped locals set up homestays and guided treks across the Markha and Sham trekking routes.
Although the snow leopard is the apex predator in this zone, there is a wide variety of goat-antelopes unique to the high Himalayas. The blue sheep or bharal traverses the steep slopes with amazing balance and agility, coming down to drink at the Indus and climbing back to the safety of its high perch at dusk. Ibex and urial are other mammals with impressive ringed horns, and sometimes one catches males clashing horns at a sparring match. Spectacular birds of this region include the Tibetan partridge, golden eagle and lammergeier.
On the Kargil side of Ladakh there is another regal animal to be watched, the brown bear, which is the Indian counterpart of the grizzly. You can stay at a simple homestay in the village of Hulyal or Mushko (the expeditions are organised by Roots Ladakh). The snow-clad slopes very close to the LOC offer sightings of these enormous animals, foraging for food along with their frolicky cubs.
Peruvian Amazon Basin
More than half of Peru is covered by the dense tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin, that is home to the richest bio-diversity in the world. Exploring this region is an all new eco-tourism experience. Tapirs, sloths, jaguars, spider monkey and giant anteater are just some of the few species you will encounter; not to mention the colourful toucans, macaws and hummingbirds.
Most of the wildlife excursions start from Iquitos. Book yourself with a reputed eco-tourism company for day and night-time hikes, as well as boat trips. For stunning sceneries, walk cross hanging bridges or hike to viewing spots and floating platforms. You may also observe the local customs of the Bora, Yahua and Witoto ethnic communities for a totally immersive experience.
An alternate departure point is Cuzco city (also the base of the Inca trail), from where you fly to Puerto Maldonado. This is the entry point to the Tambopata National Park which straddles the river by the same name. Here you can see spectacular macaw congregations at the clay licks. A must-experience is the night safari to spot elusive kinkajous and caimans. The dry months of July and August are best to visit the Peruvian Amazon.
(With inputs by Tilak Mukherjee)