Most extreme tours with wild animals

CNN  — 

Watching a wild animal prowl its prey, nuzzle young babies or dance its mating ritual is thrilling.

Hiking, trekking and adventuring into uncharted territory to watch wildlife in its natural habitat adds an addictive level of adrenaline. And we’re craving it more than ever.

Beyond the traditional African safari, travelers are searching for more fast-paced, challenging and authentic wildlife destinations. The ultimate thrill is to unearth terrain once inaccessible to travelers and come face-to-face with rare species.

These are the rising stars of wildlife travel – those that push boundaries by plumbing Earth’s extremes. Imagine scouring the depths of Djibouti’s waters to swim with whale sharks or journeying into the remote Siberian Arctic to live with nomadic reindeer herders.

With these adventures, the magic and mystery of creatures great and small are unleashed:

Reindeers in Russia

Travelers can now live with the Nenets, Russia's nomadic reindeer herders.

Far above the Arctic Circle, the indigenous Nenets nomadic reindeer herders live at the edge of extremity in the Siberian Arctic.

You must journey by train, bus and Trekol, a monster truck, to reach their isolated land, where few people have stepped foot. The Nenets have just started welcoming intrepid explorers to live and learn with them.

This trip is challenging to any adventurer’s limits. In frozen tundra where temperatures plummet to minus 50 Celsius (minus 58 Fahrenheit), the Nenets rely on reindeer herds. Reindeer sledding, fishing, hiking and camping with the Nenets people is as offbeat a wildlife travel adventure as it can get.

How to get there: A 15-day trip via Moscow and St. Petersburg with Intrepid Travel costs from $2,880. Visa assistance is also available.

Elephants in Gabon

Packrafting in the wilderness of Gabon’s Ivindo National Park is not a typical safari.

Expeditioners have reported peacefully paddling past gorillas in their lush natural environments, with forest elephants mere meters away in untouched jungle and wily chimpanzees leaping the treetops.

Floating amid dripping towering forests, deep dark braided rivers and equatorial Africa’s highest waterfall in a tiny rubber paddleboat feels out-of-this-world. Expect to see no other people.

Gabon is positioning itself as an eco-friendly wildlife tourism destination. This pioneering human-powered adventure of camping, trekking and paddling is reserved for the brave and fit.

How to get there: Secret Compass’s 16-day packrafting expedition is open to participant applications. Prices start at about $4,500.

Fossa finding in Madagascar

Sunset at L'Allee des Baobabs is as spectacular as the wildlife encountered in Madagascar.

Madagascar’s largest carnivorous predator, the fossa, can grow to six feet in length. Seeing one is rare but impressive.

A cross between a cat and mongoose, the fossa is endemic to Madagascar and can be tracked in the island’s Kirindy forest. Best known for its amorous mating displays, finding the fossa is a deep delve taking in many species of Baobab trees, also endemic to the fourth-largest island in the world.

Expect to meet several of Madagascar’s 106 species of lemur, the majority endangered and endemic. Tracking them is a thrilling chase through steep dense rainforests and raw wilderness, chasing the haunting lemur call, which echoes through rainforests and disorientates even the best guides.

How to get there: Rothschild Safaris offers an eight-day fossa and lemur-tracking safari adventure, including a spectacular sunset at L’Allee des Baobabs and the Tsingy Unesco World Heritage Site from $2,680 pp.

Gorillas in Democratic Republic of Congo

Organized voyages are now helping travelers explore the little-visited Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Venturing deep into the equatorial rainforest of DR Congo’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park, this is a trek to meet the small population of eastern lowland gorillas.

Organized tours offer the chance to be one of the first to explore a region that’s yet to emerge as a major travel destination. The area also hosts philanthropy and conservation projects with locals, to dig beyond the headlines and spend time in a magical and misunderstood Central African country.

How to get there: A 14-day trip to DRC, Rwanda, Burundi with Wild Frontiers costs from about $7,350. Mountain gorilla permits are significantly cheaper in DRC at $400, while Rwanda has just increased them to $1,500 per person.

Polar bear Arctic expedition

Watching mother polar bear and cub roll in the ice makes the cold in Norway's Arctic more endurable. (Dominic Barrington/Hurtigruten Svalbard)

Take a frozen landscape of glittering glaciers and icy tundra, throw in an Arctic Sea filled with rare beluga, blue and bowhead whales and add land residents of snoozing bearded seals, blubbery walrus and Arctic reindeer, and you have the best reasons to cruise Norway’s remote Spitsbergen.