10 best wildlife travel experiences for 2015

Our experts reveal this year’s greatest wildlife travel experiences. 

Wild koalas

1. KoalasYou Yangs Regional Park, Australia

Tigers can be identified by their stripes, whale sharks by their spots, sperm whales by their flukes – and koalas by their noses, as we’ve recently learned. New research has shown that nostril-pigment patterns remain consistent throughout a koala’s life, enabling conservationists to count populations more accurately and non-invasively – which should help improve the species’ long-term survival prospects.

It also means that visitors to You Yangs Regional Park, near Melbourne, can be introduced to individual koalas, each of whose life history is very well known. “This is Clancy, second son of Pat, and very easygoing,” you might be told. Tourists are also encouraged to look for koalas who may not be known to the team. “Their sighting is logged, photos are taken and identification established or at least attempted,” says Echidna Walkabout’s Janine Duffy, who perfected the art of koala ID.

Find out more about Echidna Walkabout. 


2. Whale sharks, Sogod Bay, the Philippines

The Philippines is acquiring a reputation as a fantastic place to see whale sharks. If you can dive, consider Sogod Bay in the south of the island of Leyte – it may host the largest aggregation of the species in South-East Asia. A small-scale, sustainable operation is run by an organisation called KASAKA comprising local fishermen.

“In 2013 we identified more than 90 individual sharks,” says Alessandro Ponzo of conservation organisation Physalus. “Sharks can be seen from November to July, though peak season is between February and June.”

Also good spots are Puerto Princesa and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park on Palawan, and Donsol on Luzon, though Ponzo believes regulations are not well enforced here.

Find out more about Physalus.


3. Andean bears, Cerro Chaparrí, Peru

You’ve read the books, loved the cartoon and seen the film – now discover the real Paddington Bear for yourself. Except it’s not easy. Though some bears – notably the northern trio of black, brown and polar – are a cinch for any self-respecting ursophile, Andean or spectacled bears are elusive and increasingly rare. Most encounters, in either the humid cloud forests or soggy páramo that are their favoured habitats, are purely by chance, but there’s one place in South America where the odds are slightly higher.

It’s called Chaparrí, and it’s a community-owned reserve in the dry forests of northern Peru. In fact, this is not typical Andean bear territory, but they are an adaptable species that can be found everywhere from sea level up to altitudes of over 4,500m. Even if you don’t see a bear, you are unlikely to leave disappointed – the Tumbesian region is renowned for its bird life, and 39 of its 65 endemic species can be seen at Chaparrí. But if you do want your Paddington moment, don’t forget the marmalade.

Find out more about Chaparrí Reserve.


4. Sumatran orangutan, Gunung Leuser NP, Sumatra

Glamping in a yurt in Cornwall is one thing, but what about the rainforests of Sumatra? Sennen Cove is beautiful, but it can’t offer the sight of Sumatran orangutans stripping a wild fig tree or the sound of duetting siamang gibbons. That’s what Raw Wildlife Encounters aims for in its conservation-focused tour of Gunung Leuser NP, though as its founder Jess McKelson says, “This is rainforest – nothing is guaranteed.” Clients are promised nights camping in the forest and that the expertise of local guides will give them every chance of wild experiences. Raw shows them the other side, too: palm-oil plantations, and a visit to a ‘refugee’ centre run by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

With the most recent estimate suggesting there are only 6,500 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild and the Aceh government planning more development for the Leuser Ecosystem, this is a species that needs all the help it can get.

Find out more about Raw Wildlife Encounters. 


5. Bison, Białowieża Forest, Poland

The concept of rewilding has been popularised by writers such as George Monbiot, with his book Feral. In Britain, we can get little sense of what a rewilded landscape looks like, but you don’t have to travel far to find one.

Białowiez˙a Forest, straddling the Poland–Belarus border, is a good example. With more than 140,000ha of protected old-growth habitat and 160,000ha of buffer zone, this is a primeval landscape the size of an English county. Among its 40–50m-tall pines, spruces and oaks roam two species symbolic of a wild European landscape: bison and wolves.

And it’s bison, also called wisent, that make the area unique. Counting both Polish and Belarussian parts of the forest, it is home to an estimated 900 animals – one-third of the world’s wild population. Winter, when bison are given supplementary feed, promises the most reliable sightings.

Find out more about Rewilding Europe.


6. New Zealand fur seals, Kaikoura, New Zealand

One of the most spellbinding moments in 2014’s hit BBC One series Life Story featured New Zealand fur seal pups at Kaikoura swimming upstream to a freshwater pool where they can practise the skills they’ll need to survive a life in the open ocean, without the fear that they could be ambushed by a great white shark at any moment.

It’s a spectacle you can easily see for yourself. Some 20km north of Kaikoura – New Zealand’s whale-watching capital, on South Island – is Ohau Stream Walkway and Waterfall. Look out for the seals at Ohau Point, then follow the trail inland for just 15 minutes. If the sight of a small forest glade where a waterfall thunders into the abyss – and literally dozens of tiny fur seal pups splash about in the middle – doesn’t melt your heart, you’re probably made of granite.

Find out more about Ohau Stream Walkway and Waterfall.


7. Lions, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya

Lions are in trouble. Though population estimates vary widely – from fewer than 20,000 to more than 30,000 – everyone is agreed that the species is declining, and that loss of prey and indiscriminate killing to protect people and livestock are the key causes.

The lion-tracking programme at Ol Pejeta Conservancy aims to demonstrate that lions and humans, cattle and goats can live side by side. Using radio-collars, conservationists are establishing the core territories of four lionesses, helping them understand which areas the cats use most – and, therefore, where not to graze the valuable livestock.

And – here’s the fun part – guests can become the trackers themselves, therefore helping the conservancy keep tabs on their lions throughout the year. “Lion tracking has helped to free up areas that would otherwise have been kept off limits because of lions, thus creating more space for livestock,” says Paul Goldstein, who runs trips to Ol Pejeta for Exodus. “It also helps bring harmony between tourist facilities and pastoralists.”

Find out more about Kicheche Laikipia Camp, Ol Pejeta Conservancy.


8. Killer whales, Grundarfjörður, Iceland

Until recently, the place to head for close winter killer-whale encounters in Europe was Tysfjord, on Norway’s west coast, where they gathered to feed on the prolific shoals of herring. You could even swim with them, if you felt brave.

Today’s in-the-know enthusiast, though, heads for the remote town of Grundarfjörður on Iceland’s Snæfellsjökull peninsula between January and March. Here the herring swim so close to the shore that you can watch killer whales feeding on them without leaving dry land.

“I have been to Grundarfjörður for the past two winters, and we had more than 100 on some days,” says marine mammal expert Erich Hoyt, who works as a guide there. “We saw them every day that there was good weather, and frequently from the hotel.”

Grundarfjörður’s fortune is down to a regional shift in herring stocks in the north-east Atlantic, which have moved south-west over the past decade – so this could be a transitory phenomenon.

Find out more about Discover the World. 


9. Cock-of-the-rock, Manú Biosphere Reserve, Peru

When you think of the wildlife of the Amazon Basin and its hinterlands, what animals come to mind? A jaguar stalking through the undergrowth? Scarlet macaws squabbling at a clay lick? Unseen piranhas swimming silently through a tea-coloured tributary?

Perhaps it should be none of these. Peru’s national bird, the Andean cock-of-the-rock, is as unlikely an assemblage of flaming orange and black as ever appeared at a cocktail party. It largely inhabits the higher reaches of Amazonian cloud forest, from Venezuela to Bolivia.

The conservation organisation Crees gives you the opportunity to experience the cock-of-the-rock lek (when males display to potential mates), and get involved in environmental programmes and science-based research. You might help to monitor fruit-baited butterfly traps, or set footprint and camera-traps for species such as tapirs, peccaries and even jaguars.

Find out more about Crees. http://bit.ly/1x915Z5


10. Black rhinos, Palmwag Concession, Namibia

While rhino losses to poaching topped more than 1,000 in South Africa alone in 2014, there is one country in Africa where they are relatively secure – Namibia. There are a number of reasons for this, but the emphasis on community-owned, conservation-focused tourism is significant.

Desert Rhino Camp – an initiative of Namibia’s Save the Rhino Trust and Wilderness Safaris – in the Palmwag Concession, sandwiched between Etosha NP and the Skeleton coast, is one such example.

Rhino-tracking takes place every morning from the camp with expert guides. That living rhinos are a source of income to local people is one reason there is less poaching; another is the simple fact that they are being monitored on an almost daily basis.

Find out more about Desert Rhino Camp.

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