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TRAVEL: World travel and wildlife

What on earth is happening each month of the year? An intrepid wildlife traveller reports

Sometimes it is not enough just to go and look. We in Britain who love the countryside, field sports, and our own flora and fauna, need more than that. Now, with the world's wildlife crisis mounting in parallel with increasing tourism, the safari industry is waking up, and providing those who want to know more about other nations’ wildlife a chance to do something productive—an ethic which is second nature to those who hunt, shoot, fly falcons and fish.

While many companies still offer the standard game-park experience, several pioneering organisations now offer contact with the wild—usually as a paying volunteer on a wildlife, botanical or reef study—while giving a percentage of the fee to help conserve the area. If you have had your fill of being a spectator, join our seasonal guide to what is best, and where.

February
Search for tigers in the gentle warmth of northern and central India’s dry season. Discovery Initiatives run a 15-day tented safari (with some nights in old palaces) through Kanah National Park in Madya Pradesh and Bandargargh in Rajastan. Led by Hashim Tyabji, an expert in the area’s fauna and flora (and tigers in particular), the safari makes every attempt to see these famously elusive cats. Plenty of other wildlife is also on view, including leopard, barasingha (wild cattle), sambar and axis deer, sloth bear, dhole (wild dog) and the tall nilgai antelope. The finale is a trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

March
Stay on in India, if you can, travelling west from Madya Pradesh into the savannahs of Gujurat’s Kutch region, where Earthwatch can sign you up as a volunteer on an Indian wolf project. Since Kipling’s day, when the wolf couple brought up his Jungle Book hero Mowgli, the Indian wolf has declined to fewer than 2,000 individuals. Gujarat is one of the species’ last strongholds, but even here it is in danger of being persecuted into extinction. The work involves counting wolf numbers (which may involve watching pups in wolf dens too), monitoring kill sites of wild and domestic animals, and radio-tracking both on foot and from a jeep through the Velvadar national park. Once the information has been gathered—several years from now—project leader Yadvendrader Jhala hopes to persuade the state government to widen the reserve’s borders to safeguard the wolves’ large territories and keep them away from human habitation. Visitors stay in a Jain temple in the forest, venturing into the wilderness at dawn and dusk each day.

April
The giant panda is losing habitat fast. Those who know that the way to save a species is to give it a value to humans will not be surprised to learn that if the panda becomes enough of a tourist attraction, the Chinese government might be persuaded to do more to ensure its well-being. With this in mind, Discovery Initiatives have set up a 17-day tour to China’s Wanglang Reserve—off-limits to tourists until very recently. Guests stay in villages of the local Baima tribe and trek daily into mountain forests in search of panda. Other wildlife includes red panda, leopard and golden monkey. Dress warmly, for nights are cold, and sudden rainstorms are common.

May
Mexico’s dry tropical forest is disappearing—and with it many spectacular forest cats: jaguars, ocelots, margays, jaguarundis, bobcat lynx and pumas [see Anniversary issue]. In an attempt to put still virgin forest under government protection, Dr Carlos Gonzales, a Mexican ecologist, is monitoring the present cat populations of a wild corner of Jalisco state. Earthwatch can send you to help him, radio-tracking and trapping both the cats and their prey (deer, iguanas, coati mundis and possums) through an exotic forest scented like incense. On days off you visit the nearby coast and swim at a deserted bay, watching dolphins play in the surf and frigate-birds cruise overhead. The trip lasts two weeks and costs £850 per person.

June
Take a deep breath for this one—six days by canoe down Zimbabwe’s lower Zambezi River. The challenge is not white water, but wildlife, namely hippos. It is a game of cat and mouse as you pass herd after herd of these vast and aggressive creatures, cruising past them—hoping to go unnoticed. On stretches of river that are hippo-free, herds of up to 1,000 elephant congregate along the river during this, Africa’s dry season. The buffalo, the 15ft crocodiles, and the lions which sniff around your tents at night when camping on the sandbanks make this an unforgettable adventure.

July
When South America beckons, Discovery Initiatives offer a superb trip: four days in Peru’s Macuipicuna Cloudforest, on the western side of the Andes. For those who wish to see rare species of humming bird, then this is the place to go, and each visit sponsors the purchase of an acre of cloudforest, helping to establish a ‘wildlife corridor’ from the mountains to the Pacific. You follow that route down to the ocean and then out to the legendary Galapagos archipelago to spend eight days in one of the world’s wildlife jewels. In Darwin’s footsteps, you meet giant tortoises and marine iguanas, watch sea lions, sea birds and all manner of strange creatures. Bookings include a donation to the Galapagos Conservation Trust (prices from £1,500 for the two trips).

August
Stay in Britain. If not shooting grouse, or bringing up the hunters, visit the Uist Outdoor Centre in the outer Hebrides. Sign up for one of their week-long day sea kayaking explorations recording information for local wildlife studies. You will encounter porpoises, minke whales and basking sharks, all of which pop up right next to you. Many trips run into travelling pods of whales, otters in the river mouths and birds, including corncrake (on the islands), red-throated divers and white-tailed sea eagles. You do not need previous sea kayaking experience; you just need to be a good sport. And you will never forget the experience of camping on a deserted Hebridean beach.

September
This is the month to see grizzlies, when the great bears are down in the lowlands feeding up on berries and fish to put on fat before their winter hibernation. Wolf Creek Retreat, on the border of Alaska and British Columbia, is a perfect place to see these great creatures safely. The lodge owner, Wade Davis, is a North American outdoor writer, ecologist and anthropologist and knows the area intimately. As well as watching these awesome bears swiping salmon from the rivers and wandering the upland meadows, you will make forays on horseback to see wolf, elk, moose and stone sheep. The salmon fishing is excellent, too (for us as well as for bears) and Wade can supply tackle. Discovery Initiatives put together this tour, with prices from £1,625 for 12 days.

October
Snow leopards are creatures most of us can only dream of seeing. Earthwatch offers the reality—17 days (including two days’ acclimatisation) in Nepal’s Himalaya, the Annapurna region, assessing this endangered cat’s future. Its competitors (wolves and dholes) are studied, as are prey species (blue sheep and marmots), conflicts with herdsmen, and the impact on its range of the now crowded trekking trails. This is for the truly hardy—no running water or electricity, and camping at 14,000ft. If you glimpse an elusive leopard you will be one of the more fortunate people in the world; if not, at least your work will have contributed to future management of the Annapurna Conservation Area and to a viable population of these magnificent creatures.

November
Thailand is the place to be for birds this month. Footprints Adventures lead trips into the rain and cloud forests of the highlands to investigate one of the bird-watching world’s best-kept secrets, the mountains of Kaeng Krachan and Kao Yai. Exotically-minded bird-watchers will swoon: among the 320-plus species you can see this month are such rarities as the white-browed shrike babbler, Javan frogmouth, silver pheasant, hanging parrot, pompadour pigeon, racket-tailed tree-pie and the fairy bluebird. You need to be fit for this one, and be prepared for rain. But these forests on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia, which were off-limits for years, are truly magical. Fireflies dance among the trees at night while leopard and tiger hunt, and herds of wild elephant feed in the hidden clearings. A 15-day trip costs £1500, with a portion of the money being donated to local conservation organisations.

December
If you are a scuba diver, get away to the tropics as a reef conservation volunteer with Coral Cay Conservation, who take scuba-diving volunteers (they train and certify non-divers) into the jewel-like coral reefs of the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Belize and Indonesia. Go for anywhere between two and 12 weeks, helping with surveys of the reefs to help the government develop a conservation strategy for fishing and tourism. The company has been successful already—persuading Belize to establish a marine national park for example. For you, the main adventure will be in that dazzling, silent world of colour, knowing that your time and money are helping to protect it. Prices from £750 for two weeks.

January
Join Dr John Laundre’s Mountain Lion Project, based at a ranch-house in the Jim Sage mountains of Southern Idaho. This Earthwatch study involves high adventure: Ten intense days of tracking and live-capturing the elusive cats, then radio-collaring and re-releasing them. You must be physically fit, as the project involves hunting the cats with hounds through forests often thigh-deep in snow drifts, until they can be safely tranquillised. The study hopes to limit development and change forestry practice in the western States. More than that, it is one of the most intense adventures you will experience.

Details:
Earthwatch: (01865) 311 600; www.earthwatch.org
Discovery Initiatives: (01285) 643 333, www.discoveryinitiatives.co.uk
Footprints: (01522) 804 929; www.birdingtours.co.uk
Uist Outdoor Centre: 01876) 500 480
Coral Cay Conservation: (0207) 498 6248,
Okavango Tours and Safaris
Tel (0208) 343 3283; www.okavango.com

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