Wildlife is everywhere but often in the more developed, and concreted over world it is harder to discover. However around the world there are plenty of wilderness areas where wild animals are still abundant. East Africa, Svalbard, the Amazon Rainforest, the Jungles of Borneo and many more areas have such a proliferation of wildlife that anybody visiting these areas is bound to bring home a collection of fantastic memories and experiences.
Seven of my favourites follow:
- The Arctic
- The Pantanal
- Orangutans in Borneo
- Gorilla Treking
- Bears and Salmon in Alaska
- The Great Migration
- The Galapagos
What these areas all have in common is a nearly (no where is untouched by man) pristine wilderness, where animals are protected both by law and by a relative lack of human encroachment. It means simply that when allowed to animals can thrive in the wild. Seeing animals that have developed to take full advantage of their surroundings is awe inspiring.
While the tropics are renowned for their biodiversity the Polar regions aren’t lacking in wildlife. While the species count might be nowhere near as high, the biomass of the animals that do life there is phenomenal. Polar bear viewing in Svalbard will bring you into contact not just with the largest land-based predator on earth but also with a huge amount of birds, seals and just beneath the surface untold numbers of fish.
The secret to the amount of wildlife found in the Arctic is the lowly plankton. A simple organism that drifts on the sea currents it brings edible nutrients to the fish that inhabit the waters. In N. Armerica the currents concentrate nutrients in the Gulf of Alaska and on the Atlantic side the Gulf Stream and its variants bring warm waters and plankton up towards Svalbard feeding the fish that inhabit the area. The fish in turn feed the numerous seals, whales and incredible numbers of sea birds, including Arctic Terns, Skuas, Puffins and numerous species of Gulls.
The sheer numbers of sea birds nesting on the cliffs of Svalbard during breeding season is incomparable to anything you see further south in Europe. On a trip to sea Polar Bears you can’t escape the birds. If you are lucky and there at the right time. You might see Arctic Foxes trying to climb the cliffs to seek out eggs.
Of course to see Polar Bears is a lot more difficult. However there are about 2,500 living in the area of the Barrents Sea. Many tour operators in Svalbard do day trips by boat to areas where bears are likely to be seen but a multi-day trip is much more likely to bear fruit. However you are guaranteed to see an amazing array of animals whether or not you see the apex predator of the region.
The wetlands of Southern Brazil (and Paraguay/Bolivia) are a birders paradise. The floodplain of the Paraguay river is the world’s larges tropical wetland. The seasonal flooding brings silt from the highlands and nourishes the plain creating ideal conditions for a huge amount of specialist plants. These in turn create an extensive ecosystem that will leave any visitor with a wish to return and see more.
There are of course birds in the Pantanal. Wetlands are well know as great birding sites. However the Pantanal is not just a birder’s paradise. It is one of the last homes to South America’s giants. Though distributed throughout the continent, the Giant Anteater, Giant Otter and the Capybara are all much more likely to be seen on a trip here. While you can visit year round the Dry season is best as getting around is easier when the waters start to recede around April. Any time up to September the Pantanal is drying out and the animals are a bit easier to see.
One of the benefits of coming this time is that the more elusive creatures like the Jaguar are a little bit more likely to be spotted. With the drying of the floodplains the bush starts to thin and towards the end of the dry season animals have a little let cover.
The Jaguar is of course South America’s largest cat and is something of an ambush predator making it very difficult to spot. However in the Pantanal you have a very good opportunity.
The name Borneo conjures up ideas of real jungle and intrepid adventure. On the subject of Intrepid, the company with the same name will take you to Borneo nowadays. Of course the tropical jungle offers many wildlife viewing opportunities but the one that will blow your socks off is visiting Orangutans.
The only great ape who lives in Asia, the Orangutan is one of the most human like. In fact visiting them in rehabilitation centers you can see them act just like their human carers. Unfortunately their habitat is under threat from multiple fronts, notably the palm oil industry which clears, according to the WWF, 300 football fields every hour.
It isn’t just the Orangutans that are under threat. There are 100’s of thousands of different species in the Borneo forest. Proboscis Monkeys, Gibbons, Clouded Leopards and many more are also living in the jungle here.
Seeing Orangutans is easy. Lots of rehabilitation centers offer tours. However seeing them in the wild is a bit more tricky. However a trip with some of the local operators isn’t hard to organize and with a knowledgable guide will be a fascinating trip whatever you see. Tamjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan on the south coast of Borneo is a great place for this.
Going to see Mountain Gorillas is often touted as a once in a lifetime opportunity. It isn’t cheap but there is no reason not to go back and visit them as often as possible.
They are massive creatures but really are gentle giants. You will never forget an hour (limited to prevent too much influence on the animals) spent in their company. While you aren’t guaranteed to see them the park rangers in both Uganda and Rwanda spend so much time looking after them that they almost always know where they are. A trek can take all day to find them or possibly just a couple of hours. Either the trek through the jungle will introduce you to many other fascinating animals along the way.
Gorilla Trekking is possible in Rwanda, Uganda and the Dem. Rep. Congo. I don’t recommend going there at the moment though despite the fact that their Gorillas are probably most in need of ecotourism dollars. Rwanda is a bit more expensive than Uganda but has better infastructure in general.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda is home to about 10 habituated groups ranging from 10 to 35 individuals. It doesn’t matter which group you visit as you will be in awe of how peaceful the creatures are. It is amazing that they garnered a wild or violent reputation in popular culture.
Salmon Hunting Bears
In Alaska going bear spotting in the summer is pretty easy. All you have to do is find a river where the Salmon are spawning and wait for the fishing bears to show up. In some instances you can see large numbers of bears congregating at the better fishing spots.
One of the best things about going to Alsaka to see the Salmon Run is that it happens basically all Summer. In the north when streams thaw the salmon head up them immediately so that they have enough time to spawn before the winter sets in again. Further south most Salmon species spawn in the Fall. The timing of Fall is quite a bit earlier in Alaska than some of us might be used to.
As the Salmon swim upriver they provide a fantastic food source for both Black and Grizzly Bears, though Black Bears tend to feed on fish at night. Both species though are looking to fatten up in the Autumn as they need a huge fat store to get them through the winter months. Hibernating in the cold of Alaska can’t be easy.
Almost any trip to the coastal areas of Alaska or British Columbia will bring you within range of a river that has Salmon. Asking the locals will often be a quick and easy way to find out where the best Salmon catching areas are and thus Bear watching opportunities. However you do need to be careful when watching Bears. While they generally don’t bother with humans annoying them, getting in their way or threatening their young (they have a different idea of what a threat is) can lead to disaster.
There are also companies that have bear viewing platforms built. A much safer way of watching and already in the right area. Depending on where you are often these areas are inaccessible without a couple of days hike or a float plane to get you close. Places like the Great Bear Lodge at the Northern end of Vancouver Island are an expensive but fantastic way of seeing bears up close.
The Great Migration
East Africa is one of the richest biomes on the planet. The millions of animals who tramp around the area in search of fresh grasses in relation to the cycle of the rains make up one of the most amazing wildlife viewing opportunities. Depending on the time of year the animals are more or less spread out but in September/October when the Wildebeest are crossing the Mara River in Kenya they are pretty concentrated.
This is a prime chance to see thousands upon thousands of animals, especially the grazing ones, but because of the concentration of prey the predators are there in force as well.
There is nothing quite like watching a cheetah hunt at full speed or a pride of lionesses stalk their prey. Seeing hunts isn’t always easy but being out and about in the early morning and late evening always increases your chances. Staying in lodges within the Masai Mara National Park or the Serengeti in Tanzania make the odds better.
Fly in safaris are the best way to maximise your time in national parks and also give you an amazing view from the smaller planes as you fly over the savannah. Guides who really know what they are doing will bring you to the best hunting grounds giving you an even higher likelyhood of seeing something exciting.
In February and March most of the grazing animals give birth to their young on the plains of the Southern Serengeti. With half-a-million Wildebeest being born there is wildlife everywhere but they tend to be a bit more spread out than towards the end of the year when areas of fresh grass are a little bit smaller.
Last but not least on my list are the Galapagos Islands. This hotspot of evolution and diversity is about 1000 km off the coast of South America and has been relatively undisturbed since its discovery 500 years ago.
The species here are those that you won’t come across anywhere else. They have all evolved to be subtly different given the needs of living on small islands in the middle of a great ocean. Due to a lack of human presence and more recently absolute protection animals in the Galapagos haven’t developed a fear of man. It is up to us to avoid stepping on them or interfering with them.
Galapagos Seals, Giant Tortoises, Red- and Blue-Footed-Boobys are among the unique creatures here. As are the famous Finches that Darwin used to consolidate his Theory of Evolution. The Finches differ from island to island.
The best way to visit the islands is by cruise. A seven day cruise taking in a few islands on a small boat really gives you a experience like no other. Some of the islands are more recently volcanically active than others and the mountain size difference lead to dramatic differences in the rainfall levels.
Other Wildlife Hotspots
There are many more places where you can have an amazing encounter with wildlife around the world. Southern Africa is a good place to start with Kruger National Park and The Sardine Run off the south coast.
In Europe wildlife has been nearly exterminated by over-development but there are still places like Scotland and Romania which are fairly wild. Bears can be seen in Finland and Slovakia fairly regularly and easily as well. Birdlife is making a comeback across much of the continent thanks to EU wildlife protection laws. Places like Malta are excellent for seeing animals during their North-South migrations. The wild natural forest of Bialowieza is home to many species including the endangered European Bison.
Central America’s jewel is of course Costa Rica where the cloud jungles are home to many species of monkey, birds and reptiles. The brightly hued Tree Frogs are a common favourite there. Of course on the coast Turtles are common and whale watching is very good there too.
The Galapagos are a great place for diving but Indonesia, Belize and Australia are places where you see new species every time you dive. The diversity of the planet is amazing and this list could have gone on forever. However it has to end somewhere.