Photo: Conservationist/Shutterstock

Rare Mammal Safaris: All About the Growing Travel Trend

by Suzie Dundas Apr 25, 2024

Anyone who’s been on an African safari knows all about the thrill of looking for wild animals. The fact that you have to keep your eyes peeled, be patient, and hope you’re lucky enough to see animals like lions and zebras makes the activity feel almost like a treasure hunt.

But after you’ve done a few game drives in Africa, you may realize that spotting famous species like elephants, hippos, and giraffes isn’t actually all that hard. The species are large and follow predictable patterns, and safari guides usually have at least a vague idea of where the animals will be at any given time.

That’s why rare mammal safaris are becoming more and more popular. When you’re on a unique safari to see a rare mammals like aardvarks, Pallas’s cats, or Iberian lynx, the challenge gets kicked up a notch. Safaris to see elusive animals go to unexpected destinations, are generally more active, and require more patience and skill, as looking for a single animal can often take days.


“There’s this interest out there in seeing these more unusual species,” says Dan Free, general manager of Wildlife Worldwide, which runs dozens of safaris, including 20 focused on seeing rare mammals. “People are looking for their next wildlife fix. It taps into the ‘primitive man’ kind of mindset, the thrill of the chase,” he says. “It’s the challenge of the more difficult things to see. It’s its like people trying to climb Everest. It’s there to be done.”

To learn more about the growing trend of unique safaris to find rare mammals, Matador spoke more with Free to get the scoop on the company’s rare mammals tours, what travelers may see, and what makes them so special.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

unique safaris rare mammals wildlife tours - clouded leopard

A clouded leopard in the wild. Photo: Signature Messages/Shutterstock

Matador: Tell us a bit about the company’s rare mammals wildlife tours. How’d they get started?

Dan Free: Well, it’s a combination of factors. Personally, I come from a zoological background, and went on to do a graduate degree in sustainability in business. Then after uni, I worked as an ecologist doing protected species surveys, so that was always kind of an interest for me. And increasingly, I became kind of more interested in the rare mammals overseas, and would travel overseas.

What happens is you do an African safari experience, and you fall in love with that. In particular, people become interested in big cats, but then you realize there are various big cats that can be seen around the world. People realize you can see tigers in India or jaguars in the Pantanal. So I jumped to wildlife travel. Everything at the time was quite bird-focused, but it became apparent that there were many people out there that were well traveled and keen to see some of the more unusual stuff. At that point, I came up with a trip to see clouded leopards in Borneo, our first rare mammal tour.


What makes the rare mammals safaris different from the more traditional African safaris?

There’s a lot. With some tours, like our tour to see clouded leopards in Borneo, it operates completely at night. We spend seven nights at a lodge going out with a spotlight.

There’s this whole supporting cast of mammals people were keen to see on African safaris, but are often overlooked. People were tired of being on safari and seeing the big five, and then talking with their guide about “What’s the rarest animal to see,” and their guide says, “oh, aardvark.” The more difficult it is to see, the more appealing it is.

On a normal safari, you may say something like “what will be will be. We’ll see what we see.” But on the rare animal safaris, there’s more thought that goes into searching for specific animals. So they are a bit more full-on in terms of the hours in the field, and a bit more dedicated in their approach. You’ll have it mind that you’re going to see aardvarks today, maybe, because we’ve seen fresh signs, we know there are burrows, so we’re going to target those areas. They’re a little more niche.

They require putting in a little more work to see the species. There’s typically more time in the field, with opportunities to see diurnal (editor’s note: meaning “active in daytime”) species, but quite often, we’ll spend a big portion of the trip doing night drives and trying to see some of the more nocturnal animals.

unique safaris and rare mammal tours -- aardvark

Aardvarks aren’t necessarily rare, but they’re seldom seen. Photo: Thomas Retterath/Shutterstock

Have the trips been popular?

The rare mammal trips are some of our best sellers. We come up with trips for species we’d like to see ourselves. If we’d pay money to do the trip ourselves, we know the guests would do the same.

A lot of these mammals, people haven’t even heard of. And that kickstarted the rare animal trend. You know, people are competitive. Anyone can go out there and buy the latest gadgets or see the big five; it doesn’t take any luck to do that. But to go see some of these unusual places and see these animals, thats something to be quite proud of. There’s an element of competition there — the challenge of trying to see something no one else has.

You also spend longer at specific lodges, so even if you don’t see, for example, clouded leopards, there’s all these other crazy mammals — moon rats, five species of civet, slow loris, all these wonderful mammals that you just don’t see during the day. So even if people don’t see the animal they came for, they do come back with having experienced a different trip.

A big thrill of wildlife watching is the highs and lows of seeing these things, or not seeing them. It’s an emotional roller coaster. It’s a bit more of an adrenaline rush. But it’s not always just rare animals — it’s probably more accurate to say elusive mammals. But they’re animals you just don’t see.

unique safaris slow loris rare mammals borneo

Slow loris is a rarely seen primate occasionally spotted on unique safaris in Borneo. Photo: kunanon/Shutterstock

Who are your guides? Are they locals? Certified naturalists?

We always have local guides involved, and will also occasionally send leaders from the UK. For example, if it’s a photography-focused trip, we may send a UK photographer.

But the local guides are essential. They’re always qualified naturalists with various qualifications in their field, and usually hold degrees. You need that local knowledge. First, it’s imperative that you’re supporting local populations and guides and providing a financial incentive to protect these areas. But second, you just can’t complete with them with their knowledge. They’re out every day, identifying behaviors and patterns and such. There’s just no way someone could fly in for two weeks and have the same knowledge.


On that note, tell us about your conservation efforts.

It’s quite exciting to work with conservation bodies and conservation efforts. We have partners in all of these countries and they all provide evidence of what they’re doing locally to support the lodges and guides and families associated with them. We’re very picky with who we work with. We work with smaller operators more locally based, rather than larger operators, like a South African-based one dealing with most of southern Africa.

We stay clear of that and just use the smaller guides. It sometimes makes it a bit more tricky — they may not be as slick as some of the bigger outfits, but we recognize the importance of working with those chaps. The whole team comes from a wildlife background, first and foremost, they’re all conservation motivated. We all firmly believe that what we’re doing can be a force for good, and I think that flows through the company.

Every year, there’s a pot of money from a conservation donation built into the cost of trips. That all goes into a pot distributed to the various conservation bodies we work with. We partner with research bodies and NGOs on the ground to do talks, or take guests out for days in the field with experts and scientists and such.

unique safaris rare mammals - india village

Some tours go to very small towns, like the village of Khichan in India, on a quest to see demoiselle cranes. Photo: Don Mammoser/Shutterstock

How about and the ethics and impact of bringing people into remote, non-touristy areas?

By showing people these animals, people are paying to visit areas, which may not necessarily be of interest otherwise as they may not have your typical mainstream species. But now, they’re becoming protected and managed for those species. We’re identifying different reasons for visiting.

Our group sizes are six to eight people with a very responsible guide, and driving at nighttime and moving slowly, so the impact on the ground is spread out over such a wide area that it’s minimal. I feel it’s more than justified, given that these regions are starting to conserve these species, rather than using the land for logging or grazing.

The challenge is to stay ahead of the competition. What else can we see that is not currently offered? And that means speaking to and working with NGOs and conservation bodies, reading research papers, or supporting projects like planting fruiting trees to create wildlife corridors.

sloth bear in Sri Lanka - rare mammals

A sloth bear in Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka. Photo: Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock

What’s the most popular tour? Which is the hardest rare mammal to see?

The African-based ones, either to Botswana or to the Kalahari to see aardvarks, have been very popular. I think aardvark is just an iconic species that captures the imagination. Also the clouded leopard trips to Borneo, those are probably the most challenging. But Borneo just has so much other good stuff that people aren’t ever disappointed.

A new one is the Sri Lanka tour, for sloth bear and leopard. But at night, we’re also looking for fishing cats, civets and such. That’s a nice one, and a bit more affordable in terms of pricing. It’s certainly a very niche product, and we have to be clear when people call up — we don’t have to vet them, but we just have to make sure they know what they’re signing up for. It’s high risk, high reward.

Rare mammals you can see on safari

Wildlife Worldwide runs several safaris to some of the most unique places on Earth in the search for rarely seen animals. The main price includes flights from the UK, but all trips have a slightly lower price available for people buying their own international flights from somewhere else. However, there are also a few operators in the US and Canada running unique safaris, as well as local operators in most countries. For example, Chile Nativo runs overnight puma-trekking tours in Patagonia.

Snow leopards

snow leopard rare mammal india

Photo: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

Snow leopards are large felines that live in the high mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. They can thrive in the snowy and cold environments thanks to thick fur that can be up to five or six inches long (and camouflages perfectly against gray rocks). Sadly, the creatures are classified as vulnerable, with estimates suggesting there are only between 4,000 and 6,500 left in the wild. Poaching and habitat loss are the biggest threats to their survival.

To see them with Wildlife Worldwide, check out the Snow Leopards of Ladakh tour through India. It runs for 14 days and starts at 4,495 pounds (about $5,596) per person, not including international flights. AndBeyond runs slightly pricier trips starting around $7,202 per person for groups of eight; and Discover Altai, based in Mongolia, runs trips to find snow leopards that start and end in Ulaanbaatar, the country’s capital city.

Northwest Bornean orangutans

borneo organutan unique safaris

Photo: Denys.Kutsevalov/Shutterstock

Orangutans live in the wild in Borneo, with estimates suggesting there are about 100,000 left in the island’s dwindling jungles, which are being deforested at an alarming rate. Adult orangutans can weigh more than 200 pounds and live for up to 45 years in the wild. The best chances of spotting them are by visiting protected reserves, but that doesn’t guarantee you’ll spot them — just that they’re likely in the area.

Wildlife Worldwide’s orangutan tour visits three wilderness areas to find orangutans, staying at various nature resorts away from cities. The nine-day trip starts at 4,470 pounds (about $5,578) per person, excluding international flights. Orangutan Trekking Tours offers shorter three-to-six day trips based on a rustic houseboat, which may be better for budget-focused travelers as they start around $250 per person per day. Budget travelers may also want to consider this three-night orangutan watching safari from locally owned Orangutan Applause, which includes shared accommodations on a boat with mosquito nets, or a night in a locally run homestay for a small upcharge. It’s very reasonably priced at $404 per person, all in.

Mountain tapir

rare mammals tapir colombia

Lowland tapirs are one of a few species found in Colombia. Photo: Diego Grandi/Shutterstock

Mountain tapirs in Colombia are quite rare, and classified as endangered by the IUCN. They have an estimated population of only around 2,500 individuals, currently declining, which makes them a high conservation priority. Their biggest threat is habitat loss, as cloud forests are being cleared for agriculture and livestock farming. And they’re sometimes hunted for meat.

Unfortunately, spotting a mountain tapir in the wild is quite challenging, as they’re nocturnal, skittish, and usually found in dense undergrowth. Wildlife Worldwide’s trip looks for tapirs around Otún Quimbaya Sanctuary, where you may also spot two-toed sloth as well as spectacled bear and rare birds. The Mountain Tapir Project runs occasional expeditions with the chance to volunteer for a day, and Birding EcoTours runs two-week birding tours with the potential for seeing tapirs. But otherwise, there aren’t that many tour options available, given how rare the species is.

Ground pangolins

ground pangolin in africa

Photo: 2630ben/Shutterstock

African ground pangolins, also known as Temminck’s pangolins or steppe pangolins, are one of the four pangolin species native to Africa. They’re not particularly rare, but they are elusive, due to being nocturnal and their solitary habits. However, their populations are decreasing, so they could become endangered in the near future. The biggest threats to ground pangolins are habitat loss due to agriculture, as well as illegal hunting for their scales, which are used in traditional medicine in some parts of Asia.

Spotting ground pangolins is a challenge as they’re excellent burrowers and spend a good portion of their time underground. Wildlife Worldwide’s trip is on the more luxurious side, starting at more than $13,000 per person for eight days. But you’ll stay at a high-end lodge on a private reserve, spending days and nights looking for species like pangolin, aardwolves, leopards, honey badgers, and more.

For something a bit more budget, you can book a few nights at a hotel like Pangolin Chobe Hotel in Botswana and try your luck spotting pangolins on safari, or Sangha Lodge in the Central African Republic. The latter offers speciality night and spotlighting walks to try to find white-bellied pangolins, as well as other rare mammals.

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