Nature and animal lovers if, like us, your idea of the perfect getaway is an up-close and personal wild animal encounter, we’ve curated a list of the best, life-changing and most importantly ethical animal encounters on the globe. There’s a reason going on Safari is top of travel bucket lists and our most treasured travel memories are all centered around wildlife tourism experiences. Enjoy this adventure into the wild.

The Giraffe Center, Nairobi, Kenya

Ethical animal encounter

The Giraffe Center in Nairobi has released over 40 endangered Rothschild Giraffe’s into game lands throughout Kenya. Breeding these endangered beauties remains the center’s top priority with the goal of calves being released around three years old. At the center of the center is an observation deck where visitors can feed the giraffes by hand if they’re lucky enough to have one of the giraffes wander over during your time there. 

Hotels + Resorts: Giraffe Manor, one of our favorite experiential resorts, is located on the same property and provides exclusive guest only experiences. As you enjoy your coffee and breakfast it’s likely the giraffes will poke their long necks through the windows right beside you, looking for a treat.

Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai, Thailand

elephant nature park
Image Courtesy of Elephant Nature Park

If you are concerned with supporting the wrong organization during your quest to see elephants in Northern Thailand look no further than Elephant Nature Park.  Just outside of Chiang Mai, ENP is home to elephants rescued from the logging industry or trekking camps. One of the most rewarding parts of ENP is the ability to stay at the camp while you live and work amongst the elephants and other volunteers. Elephant Nature Park is funded by allowing visitors to experience the elephants in safe and respectful ways. A day at the sanctuary will allow you to watch them bathe, wander the grounds, and hear each animal’s personal story as well as feed them enormous chunks of watermelon. You can also touch them if you’re up for it.

Hotels + Resorts: A twenty-minute drive from downtown Chaing Mai the Four Seasons Chiang Mai’s private pavilions overlooking the Doi Suthep Mountains provide peak tranquility.

Kosgoda Turtle Conservatory, Kosgoda, Sri Lanka

Ethical animal encounter

The Kosgoda Turtle Conservation and Research Centre in Sri Lanka aims to increase hatch rates and protect turtles. For almost four decades they’ve devoted their efforts to protecting Green turtles, Hawksbill turtles, Loggerhead turtles, Olive Ridleys, and Leatherback turtles that nest on Sri Lankan shores – all of which are on the endangered species list. Guests are invited to participate in educational programs, observe the healing turtles, and watch the always popular (seriously cute) baby sea turtle hatching. 

Hotels + Resorts: Calamansi Cove Villas is a discreet luxury boutique resort in nearby Balapitiya With only 12 villas available it feels private and exclusive.

Gorilla Trek, Bwindi, Uganda

Ethical animal encounter

A hike through the thick, dense, misty jungles of Uganda offers one of the rawest and authentic animal experiences in the world. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Bwindi, Uganda, is home to the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world. With just over 1000 gorillas left in the wild, our endangered cousins are rapidly dwindling in population. The great news is the recent growth in popularity of gorilla trekking and the money it has raised is already having a positive impact on conservation efforts in both Rwanda and Uganda. Join one of the many private treks to see the loveable creatures in their natural habitat.  Guides lead visitors through the brush on foot in groups of 8 or less until the gorillas are spotted. Generally, the tours are 3-7 days, include lodging, and require 6 hours of uphill hiking per day. Once spotted a one-hour observation period begins and if you’re really lucky some of the most curious gorillas may come and observe you, while others stay firmly hidden.

Hotels + Resorts: Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge is stylish, eco-friendly, and situated at the entrance of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest nearly 7,000 feet above sea level.

Kayaking with Orcas, San Juan Islands, USA

Ethical animal encounter

The San Juan Islands are famous for their immense orca whale watching locations. The kayaking adventures allow you to get up close and personal with these large sea creatures without disturbing their natural rhythms. In their own environment, the whales are seen hunting and playing throughout the experience. Day trip guests will get the thrill of an orca whale encounter while gliding along the beautiful waters of the island. 

Hotels + Resorts: Just two blocks from where the ferry docks you’ll find the cozy and romantic Friday Harbor House with incredible views of the harbor.

Choosing Ethical Animal Encounters

It can be difficult to understand the differences between ethical animal experiences and the types of wildlife tourism to avoid. A good place to start is National Geographic, check out this article How to do animal tourism right. We also recommend steering clear of these experiences and practices:   

Elephant Riding: The harsh truth is that most elephant trainers use cruel decades-old techniques to “break” the elephants. We’ve witnessed the impact of this abusing practice first hand when we spent time volunteering at Elephant Nature Park. An elephant’s back is not designed to carry human weight and they can suffer broken shoulders and backs as a result.  To learn more about the impact of elephant tourism we recommend watching this Black Tusk by Christian LeBlanc.

Petting or Feeding Wild Animals: You should never touch, feed, or pose for pictures with wild animals. Sadly there have been cases of big cats being drugged to make these experiences safer for guests and lions and tigers being killed once they reach adulthood because they are no longer valuable as human entertainment.  

Exotic Animal Cafes: In countries like Japan, you will see cafes advertising animal encounters with cats, dogs, hedgehogs, owls. These animals are often overfed, locked in small cages when the cafes close, and nocturnal animals are forced to entertain guests under bright lights, so add these types of cafes to the no go list.