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Cheetahs in Iran, wild giraffes in the Philippines, Arctic flamingos. You’ll find some surprising discoveries on these amazing global safaris.
Wild giraffes in the Philippines (Photo: Bill Fink)
Island of Lost Giraffes: Calauit Island, Philippines
On a remote island off the coast of rugged Palawan in the Philippines, wild giraffe, zebra, and impala run free. It’s as if Noah’s ark shipwrecked there years ago and was forgotten. The rumored story is almost more bizarre: some say former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies wanted a private hunting preserve stocked with African animals and had over 100 creatures shipped over from a fellow dictator in Africa. After Marcos’ regime was toppled, the park’s small staff (who deny the hunting stories) remained on Calauit for decades, tending to over 200 descendants of the original animals who wander the island munching mangos. It’s not easy to get there, but once I did, I found Calauit is now a welcoming Wildlife Preserve, allowing me walk among the zebra, feed giraffe and take a tour among some native species who are probably confused about their towering guests.
A polar bear in Torngat National Park (Photo: Bill Fink)
Walking in Polar Bear Territory: Torngat National Park, Canada.
Unlike the Disney-fied polar bear-mobiles ferrying thousands of tourists in Churchill, the remote Torngat wilderness of northern Labrador has a base camp from which visitors walk trails and camp in tents in polar bear country. I slept behind a thin electric fence, hiked by recently killed seal carcasses, but fortunately only had a close encounter with a polar bear from the safety of a tug boat deck as we chugged along a scenic fjord. On shore, under the watch of armed guards scanning the hills for bear, I chewed pieces of air-dried caribou jerky, and later dined on stewed seal and freshly caught Arctic char.
With an elephant in Thailand (Photo: Intrepid Travel)
Please Don’t Ride the Elephants: Rescue Safari, Thailand
Asiatic elephants have long been “domesticated” for work and entertainment in Thailand, including popular elephant rides for visitors. But a new focus on responsible travel has led several tour operators to end the practice of riding elephants and instead focusing tours to only visit the elephants in a protected and properly managed environment. The Elephant Nature Park and Friends of the Asian Elephant project are two Thai centers for rescue and rehabilitation of wounded pachyderms. Travelers can join a day trip with Intrepid Travel to ride north from Chiang Mai and come feed (and even bathe with) the elephants in the Nature Park. Make a new friend with an elephant, and you just might be tempted to stick around and volunteer to help.
A flamingo flying through Torres del Paine National Park (Photo: Thinkstock)
Flamingos in Patagonia: Chile
In the huge national park close to the southern tip of South America, I anticipated seeing icebergs, glaciers, soaring condors, maybe a few penguins. But flamingos?! Sure enough, dozens of them were wading in a lake, seemingly as out of place as a penguin in Miami, but actually native to the region. Driving, hiking, and riding horseback on a gaucho-led treks through the area, I spotted furry guanaco and foxes, a goofy jogging ostrich-like rhea, a cute little pygmy owl, and enough sheep and llama to knit a thousand sweaters. Visitors can rough it by camping in the wilderness, or launch their tours from the Tierra Patagonia hotel.
A blue-footed boobie (Photo: Miranda McGinnis)
Darwin’s Dream: Galapagos Islands
Going on a “safari” in the Galapagos Islands is like stepping into the middle of an intense wildlife documentary. On land and in the surrounding seas of the island chain off the coast of Ecuador, wildlife flourishes in a concentration and variety unmatched anywhere on earth. Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution here as he studied the adaptations of common finches and iguanas to their unique island environments. You can play scientist as you join one of the many tours to the islands to observe giant tortoises, blue and red-footed boobies, sea lions, penguins, pelicans, albatross, and the list of wildlife goes on and on. Stay long enough and you may discover a new one.
Related: Finding the Real Galapagos
A cheetah in Iran (Photo: Iranian Cheetah Society)
A Weird Spot to See Spots: Cheetah Safari in Iran
The “Iranian Cheetah Society” sounds like some Oprah book title, but it’s actually a non-governmental group in Iran dedicated to saving the Asiatic cheetah. Once native to the entire Middle East, now only maybe a few dozen cheetah survive in the remote central plains of Iran. Coordinated by AltruVistas, the first ever cheetah eco-safari will go this fall to meet with the Iranian Cheetah Society and travel deep within the country’s national parks in search of these rare animals. And not incidentally, the trip is also a way for people from two countries with opposing governments to transcend politics and meet to share some common interests.
A bison in Yellowstone (Photo: Bill Fink)
Herds of Bisons: Yellowstone Off Season
Yellowstone is a hugely popular vacation spot in summer, with its Old Faithful geyser and herds of bison (and tourists). Visiting in winter gives a completely different perspective. Away from the crowds, and without all the leafy cover, it’s much easier to spot the wildlife which remains plentiful even in the depths of winter. Tours provides rides through the park in lunar-looking snow-smashing ATVs, as well as on snowmobiles and cross country skis. Despite the weather, I was happy to have braved the cold to see an other-worldly landscape of steaming hotsprings next to iced-over trees, bison shaking their shaggy heads into snowdrifts looking for grass to chew, bald eagles perched on trees, coyotes trotting along paths, and moose and elk clomping by the riversides for a drink.
A croc in Australia’s Kakadu National Park (Photo: Bill Fink)
Mind the Crocs: Australia’s Kakadu National Park
A wilderness half the size of Switzerland on the near-tropical northern end of Australia, Kakadu National Park is home to crocs, crocs, and more crocs, an estimated 10,000 of the toothy predators lurking just under the water. The warning signs are no joke, stay out of the water — what I thought was a log floating next to my tour boat was in fact a 20-foot-long “saltie” salt-water estuary crocodile which has been known to snatch unwary fishermen from the shores. Touring the area with a local guide is like hopping into a Crocodile Dundee movie, as my eccentric guide shared tall tales of his wilderness survival adventures versus rabid dingoes, poisonous snakes, and devious crocs. And when you’re tired of seeing crocs, there are hopping wallabies, howling dingoes, flocks of cockatoos, parrots, egrets, and heron, 25-foot tall termite mounds.
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