Wildlife tracking on foot travel guide

Tracking wildlife on foot is effectively zooming in with your own eyes. From a vehicle you get a wider perspective, but walking you can look much closer at what’s going on not just with the animals you’re cautiously approaching, but also the surrounding landscapes. Whether that be noticing how a freshly chewed branch indicates the presence of moose in the forest, or watching in fascination as a dung beetle laboriously goes about its work.
Leave the big game for the 4x4 safaris. On foot, it’s all about appreciating the finer details and the fascinating micro systems of the bush. Be ready to learn an awful lot about poo.
In a vehicle, you’re confined to your seat, perhaps behind a window. On foot, you’re completely immersed in the natural environment, its smells, sounds and feel. You will be accompanied by specialist local guides who will be armed with a rifle or a spotter scope as appropriate, and able to bring to life the landscapes you’re passing through, the cultural history of a region, and the amazing behaviours of animals from lions to beavers and tiny insects.
Learn more with our wildlife tracking on foot travel guide.

What does wildlife tracking on foot entail?

First it’s important to draw a distinction between wildlife tracking, and wildlife watching. With the former, you are not simply a passive observer. You’re heading out into the same terrain as these animals, following in their footsteps and using clues that your expert guides point out: broken branches, footprints, dung, the remains of prey – to decipher which direction they’re headed in. With wildlife watching, you may be on foot some of the time, you may equally often be in a jeep or on a boat. It’s still an incredible feeling when a big cat slinks past or an orangutan swings into your viewfinder, but not quite the same as when you’ve had to put some effort into finding them yourself. And of course the ‘tracking’ part should be an indication that your chances of a sighting are improved, rather than just hoping for the animals to come to you.

Is wildlife tracking on foot for you?

Whether this kind of holiday would be a good fit for you or not depends on a range of factors including, of course, what animals you hope to see. If it’s always been your dream to see elephants and lions in the wild for instance then you might prefer an African safari which includes a short walking safari alongside its game drives – an interesting way to dip your toe in the water. The level of challenge varies significantly too – the mountains of Central Asia, or lugging a tent around the wilds of Sweden, are a whole different matter to the flat plains of Africa, while some trips such as snow leopard tracking are required to operate only during the harsh winter, as that is when the animals come low enough to be seen – can you handle very cold temperatures for up to 10 days or so? This kind of holiday is naturally fantastic for those with a passion for wildlife photography, but some photographers prefer the option of basing themselves in one likely place and waiting, rather than going out in search of the animals themselves.

Africa walking safaris

African walking safaris were first pioneered in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, and today they are a regular feature on safari itineraries from Kenya to South Africa. In most cases they are an adjunct to game drives on a wider safari itinerary, but there are holidays that take place largely on foot. In Africa, because you’re in the territory of big predatory carnivores (though they will usually give groups a wide berth) your guides will be armed. But in fact the Big Five and other large wildlife are rarely the focus on this type of activity. Instead your guides will introduce you to other elements of the African bush that are near impossible to notice from a jeep: dung beetles at work, plants that can be used for sustenance in dire straits or for medicinal purposes, the intricacies of a bird’s nest. It’s about getting a feel for the many ecosystems at play and how they all depend on each other.

Specialist wildlife tracking tours

Specialist wildlife tracking tours in destinations such as Sweden, Nepal and Central Asia are a different beast to African walking safaris in a number of ways, not only because there is rarely any need for guides to be armed, but also because you will be on foot most or indeed all of the time, and covering often challenging terrain. These holidays focus on animals that are usually much more difficult to locate, as opposed to those in African parks where the wildlife is much more accustomed to human presence, and guides will have a reasonably accurate idea of where to head each day. In some cases, such as tracking snow leopards in Central Asia, expert rangers will be scouting well before your arrival to maximise your chances of a sighting. Often these are in very remote locations such as the Chon Kemin National Park in Kyrgyzstan or Sarek National Park in Sweden so you will need to be prepared to rough it in quite basic accommodations (cabins or tents), and aware that luck is just as important as skill when it comes to finding the animals you’re after.

Our top Wildlife tracking on foot Holiday

South Africa safari holiday, 14 days

South Africa safari holiday, 14 days

Award winning safari in South Africa

From £3720 14 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2019: 24 Nov, 8 Dec, 22 Dec
Travel Team
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Practicalities

Conservation issues are a major theme of any wildlife tracking holiday. A particular example is the snow leopard, which is already endangered (thought to number only around 9,000 in the wild), and habitat reduction is bringing it into ever closer contact with humans. The value of wildlife tourism to conservation efforts is that it proves to local people, and official bodies, that these animals are worth something alive and should be protected. On some trips you will likely be involved with practical conservation work, be that be helping with educational programmes, or recording sightings to be passed on to researchers.

Another key aspect of wildlife tracking is the importance of your guide(s). When you book with a responsible operator you will be accompanied by expert guides, rangers, trackers drawn from the local community, often people that have lived in that area their entire lives and know it like the back of their hand. Their job is to get you close to the animals of course, and keep you safe, but they are also a deep well of information about the area’s culture, traditions, history and biodiversity. San Bushmen in Zambia might teach you desert survival techniques, Swedish guides might explain how moose or beavers form a significant role in their ecosystems. The satisfaction you will get from a quality guide cannot be overestimated.

Wildlife tracking on foot is an incredibly immersive activity – your senses will be attuned to the environment throughout. You are not constrained by road networks, with the freedom to go anywhere your guides think it suitable. Do note however that on many itineraries you will need to put in some effort. Apart from tackling arduous terrain that will require a degree of physical fitness, there will likely be frequent early mornings and late nights. That’s a) because many of the animals are nocturnal and b) because these are by no means cheap holidays – if you’ve come a long way and paid a lot of money to be there, you want to have the best chances of getting your sightings.

Trips can be small group or tailor made, and if you’re with other people you will be moving at a steady pace, though never rushing. Age ranges can vary. In Africa your typical walking safari might have a minimum age of 14, while in Central Asia it might be 18 due to the terrain. But if you have kids just below the cut-off that are fit and really keen to get out there, it’s always worth asking your operator if they can be accommodated.

What we rate & what we don’t

Underrated

Snow leopards of Central Asia

Though still very remote and involving challenging conditions, tracking the snow leopards of Central Asia – healthy populations exist in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – is now getting easier thanks to the efforts of specialist wildlife tracking operators and the skilled local people they work with on the ground.

The small stuff

Your guides will encourage you to appreciate the small stuff just as much as the big beasts – learning about medicinal plants on the plains of Africa, or the tiny but vital role that dung beetles play in the environment, the difference in tracks between wolves approaching prey cautiously or giving chase full-speed, or working out where an animal has bedded down for the night.

Tracking moose in Sweden

Tracking moose in Sweden is a relatively new experience but one with amazing appeal for adventurous trekkers. If you love the great outdoors, find joy in total isolation, and are comfortable lugging everything you need, including tent and cooking equipment, around for several days, then you’ll be in heaven here.
Rated

Specialist guides and trackers

It should come as no surprise that the most essential element of tracking wildlife on foot, the difference between success and failure, is the skill of your specialist guides and trackers. Usually they will be drawn from the local community and may have lived in the area you’re travelling since childhood, and they will have a vast array of tricks and techniques to find the animals.

Cultural discovery

As you will be spending long days as part of a small group in close proximity with your guides, these holidays offer fantastic opportunities to learn about tribal customs and traditions from Maasai warriors and San Bushmen, about the delicate process of reintroducing wolves to rural areas in France, and to visit tea plantations and temples in Nepal.

Conservation efforts

This type of holiday is a major boost for wildlife conservation efforts. Sightings might be recorded and passed on to research projects; conservationists may be invited to give talks, and conservation organisations receive funding from your operator. Just your presence in the area is a powerful incentive for local people to protect the wildlife and the habitats on which they depend.
Overrated

Guaranteed sightings

When tracking rare animals that are understandably shy of humans, it’s not a good idea to expect guaranteed sightings. It’s true that in many cases skilled trackers will have been putting some legwork in before you arrive, so that your guides will have a good idea of where to head. But you will definitely enjoy your holiday much more if you take each day as it comes.

The Amazon Rainforest

Many people think the Amazon, teeming with biodiversity as it is, would be a perfect place for wildlife tracking. However given the density of the vegetation there it’s actually very tricky to see anything.

Going it alone

There’s little sense in going it alone when it comes to tracking wildlife on foot. Wandering off into the bush from your safari lodge in Africa is obviously inadvisable, while in remote parts of Europe such as Sarek National Park you need to be completely self-sufficient. Plus of course your chances of actually finding the animals are minimal.

Best time to go

Best time to go wildlife tracking
Best time to go wildlife tracking
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pascal Mauerhofer] [Wildlife tracking on foor thumbnail: Enrico Mantegazza] [What it entails: Georgio] [Specialist wildlife trackers: Silverkey] [Underrated: Travel Local] [Rated: emanuelez] [Overrated: Edward Minggat Gena] [Best time: Red pandas: Linnea Herner] [Best time: Snow leopards: Frida Bredesen] [Best time: Moose: Kevin Noble] [Best time: Wolves: Tahoe] [Best time: Big Five: Matthew Cramblett]
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