Nothing compares to the feeling of coming up close to a wild animal — the encounter is exhilarating, awe-inspiring and heart-stopping all at once and probably cherished a lifetime by any wildlife enthusiast.

No matter where you are in the world, you will not be far from at least one unique region in the world endowed with endangered species and rare animals. Wildlife lovers have the precious opportunity to observe them, watch them feed and responsibly interact with these creatures, which roam free in their natural habitats.

Here are five bucket list-worthy places that promise both spectacular nature and remarkable species.

Orang-utan in Borneo

Borneo’s rainforests are home to the fascinating orang-utan. Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Victor Ulijn, 2013)

Monkey business in Southeast Asia
Divided into Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, Borneo’s rainforests are considered some of the most ecologically versatile in the world. As the third-largest island in the world, Borneo’s trump card is definitely its natural environment and amazing wildlife. Here, travellers can explore the world’s oldest rainforests, immerse in local culture as well as be witness to some of nature’s most beloved miracles such as watching turtles nest or spotting an orang-utan and its babies in the forest.

At Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, an area packed with rare creatures, the inquisitive explorer can catch a glimpse of Asia’s smallest elephant, the pygmy, which is so visually adorable it would look right at home in a Disney cartoon.

Over in Semawang, in the centre of the mangrove forests, travellers will stumble upon the world’s largest population of proboscis monkeys, renowned for their large noses. These curious creatures will often plunge in the water with a comical belly flop to the enchantment of travellers.

The lush Bornean jungles are home to another fascinating character — the orang-utan. This auburn-haired visitor may often be regarded as shy, but as soon as the atmosphere becomes more laidback, the so-called Man of the Forest becomes overwhelmed with showmanship. Meet him at Sabah’s Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre or at Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.

Gorilla in Rwanda

There are only about 700 gorillas left in the entire world. Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 (Carine06, 2012)

King of the African jungle
Perhaps many cinephiles who have watched King Kong, have been inspired at least once to trudge the expansive forests of central Africa in search of the intimidating mountain gorilla. Found only in the border areas between Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the endangered mountain gorilla is carefully protected.

To come face to face with it, intrepid adventurers should head to the remote Volcanoes National Park in north-western Rwanda, where — accompanied by experienced local guides — they will pass by forgotten-by-time villages, terraced fields of beans, and locals carrying baskets of pineapples; walk among eucalyptus groves that exude dizzying scents; and trudge through peculiar bamboo forests, verdant hills and incredibly-dense vegetation, where the rare silverback gorilla dwells.

With only 700 gorillas left in the entire world, it’s understandable why watching them is often described as one of the most life changing experiences. Whether it is because of their intimidating size and unexpected gentle agility or because they greatly behave like humans (they share about 98% DNA with humans), these mammals won’t take much to impress you.

Sea lion in San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

The Galápagos Islands are renowned for curious and friendly animals.

Remote haven of diversity
Located off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos Islands are one of the most biologically-diverse areas on the planet and a must-visit for any wildlife enthusiast. English naturalist Charles Darwin, the archipelago’s most famous visitor, began to pen his theory of evolution here and it’s terribly easy to see why.

With myriads of birds and animals found nowhere else on earth, and which are instinctively unafraid of humans, the Galápagos Islands boast a pristine natural ecosystem unique on the planet. From uncommon species such as flightless cormorants, domed giant tortoises, prehistoric marine iguanas as well as land-loving fur seals, penguins, peculiar boobies and waved albatross, the Galápagos Islands are aptly dubbed Darwin’s living laboratory and an important reminder that the earth was once incredibly wild and untamed.

High five, Patagonia!
Known for its jaw-dropping scenery and wildlife, Patagonia is a world apart from any other place on earth. Enlightening young Darwin with its mystical sense of nature and inspiring author cum aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery many years ago, this vast wind-swept territory boasting emerald-green lakes, imposing glaciers, and infinite rolling pampas and mountains still continues to deeply beguile travellers to the present day.

Puma in Patagonia

The elusive puma can be spotted in the beautiful Torres del Paine National Park. Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (Gonzalo Baeza, 2013)

Just as Africa boasts its “Big Five”, Patagonia too takes pride in five unique species. On top of most travellers’ wish lists is the elusive puma, Patagonia’s only big cat and top predator, which some lucky ones can spot in the Torres del Paine National Park. Today, this remote refuge of life is designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve and home only about 100 pumas as well as large populations of guancos, Andean grey foxes, South Andean deer and condors.

In Chilean Tierra del Fuego, explorers will come upon Chile’s largest Magellanic penguin breeding colonies. At Punta Tombo, over a million penguins take over the shore from January to March, creating a view to remember. On the islands of southern Patagonia, specifically in Valdes Peninsula, the charismatic elephant seals lumber ashore to breed and molt during spring and autumn. Observing the birthing process of these mammals on the pebble beaches along the coast is indeed an impressive and humbling sight.

In Chacabuco Valley, large groups of guancos also known as the wild cousins of llamas, can be admired playing, relaxing, rolling in the dust or swiftly sprinting in the steppes after curiously gazing at a passer-by or vehicle. Finally, in Argentina, the small town of Puerto Madryn is the most famous location to catch a glimpse of the southern right whale — one of the largest animals on the planet, which majestically catapults its 30-ton body above the water to the wonder of any spectator.

Marine life at Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is home to an astonishing number of turtles, dolphins, reef sharks and whales. Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (gjhamley, 2009)

An oasis down under
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Barrier Reef lives up to its name in every way. You could spend a lifetime here just trying to admire its 3,000 individual coral reefs, 750 islands and 300 coral cays. This UNESCO World Heritage Site — large enough to be seen from space — is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystems; apart from the otherworldly collection of tropical fish, it is home to whales, turtles, dolphins, reef sharks, and various bird species.

On the impressive Heron Island, one of Australia’s most prestigious marine research stations, travellers can immerse themselves in the beauty of nature. Here, the waters are filled with bright-coloured schools of fish and the beaches reveal tracks of endearing turtles. At Wilson Island, snorkelling in surrounding reefs and witnessing manta rays, reef sharks and triggerfish cruising by will make many a visitor happy. Lest you forget, this diving paradise is not restricted to those who are comfortable with regulators or snorkels — there are creative ways and equipment that don’t even require you to get your face wet to relish the rich marine life and oceanic tranquillity. After all, you only need to enjoy being a guest of nature and stay on the lookout for the next encounter with its residents!