The Scarlet Macaw in Corcovado National Park
Courtesy of Costa Rica Tourism
With the thawing of winter in many parts of the world, animals and humans alike are starting to wake up and get outside. As avid wildlife watchers, members of VirtualTourist.com, a leading travel website, compiled a list of the "Top 10 Places to See Animals in the Wild."
Zebras in the Serengeti
Courtesy of Tanzanian Tourist Board
1. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Northern Tanzania provides more opportunities to see large numbers of animals in the wild than possibly any other spot in the world. VirtualTourist members mentioned Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area as prime spots to see animals in the wild. Both of these areas are famous for spotting the "big five," a phrase coined by hunters in Africa referring to lions, elephants, buffalos, leopards, and rhinoceros. Apparently, this phrase was coined because these five animals are the most difficult in Africa to hunt on foot, but now they refer to the animals visitors most want to witness on a safari.
The Serengeti area also provides a unique opportunity to watch animal migration in action. The wildebeest and zebras spend the rainy season from December to June in the volcanic open plains below the Ngorongoro Crater where the grass growth is most productive and nutrient contents high. Once the rains stop in June, the animals move west toward Lake Victoria, and then migrate north into the Masai Mara, only to return to the Serengeti with the rain in December. It is one of the last great migratory systems intact and there are few opportunities to see more than a million of any species, let alone just two, roam together.
2. Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India
Tigers are an animal many travelers would love to see, but unfortunately, the endangered species is increasingly rare. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are only approximately 3,200 wild tigers left in the world, with the largest population, the Bengal tiger, found primarily in India. A VirtualTourist member suggested Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh, India, as a great destination for spotting Bengal tigers in the wild. Since 1993, the park has been considered a tiger reserve so it has the highest density of tigers in India, making it likely you'll spot one during your visit. In addition to the Bengal tiger, the park is also home to more than 22 species of mammals, including leopards, jungle cats, striped hyenas, jackals and Bengal foxes. A safari at the park can be experienced one of two ways: via Jeep or on the back of an elephant. It should also be noted that the best time to visit is from mid-November to June.
Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
Courtesy of Tourism Australia
3. Kangaroo Island, South Australia
Only 15 miles off the South Australian mainland, Kangaroo Island is a great site for seeing all kinds of animals, but two species in particular have drawn VirtualTourist members there: kangaroos and seals. One spot not to miss is Seal Bay Conservation Park, located on the island's southern shore where visitors can observe Australian sea lions via the self-guided boardwalk or opt for beach access through a guided tour. Another recommended location is Flinders Chase National Park, which is home to hundreds of kangaroos and New Zealand fur seals. While they are not an animal attraction, many members enjoyed photographing the Remarkable Rocks, a unique collection of rock formations also located in Flinders Chase National Park.
Although there is animal activity on Kangaroo Island year-round, twice a year special sights are provided. In the Australian summer (December to February), kangaroos and wallabies can be seen at dawn and dusk. It's also the time when the Australian sea lion breeding season begins, so Seal Bay will be populated with cute pups. In Australian winter (June to August), kangaroo and wallaby joeys (babies) start to emerge from the mother's pouch and feed alongside them, and southern right whales pass along the island's shores during their migration from Antarctic waters.
4. Katmai National Park and Preserve, Southwestern Alaska, USA
One of the greatest locations in the Northern hemisphere to observe animals is in the Alaskan wilderness. While there are a great variety of animals to be found in the Southwest area of Alaska, visitors to Katmai National Park and Preserve are usually on the lookout for brown bears. According to the park's website, the brown bear population at Katmai National Park was recently estimated at more than 2,100 bears. Brown bears are particularly attracted to the salmon runs that occur at Brooks Falls during the summer, so a great time to spot them is from late June thru mid-July and September, although they can be present anytime between May and December. Since there is no road access to the King Salmon (the park headquarters), visitors must fly into the park. In addition to hiking, kayaking and observing the wildlife, Katmai National Park is a very popular spot for sport fishing.
5. Parc Omega, Montebello, Quebec, Canada
Canada's landscape provides ample wildlife viewing, but VirtualTourist members reported seeing great numbers of different animals at Parc Omega in the Province of Quebec. The park is located in Montebello, nearly 82 miles from Montreal and only 50 miles from Ottawa, making it a great stop for visitors to either region who'd like to see some Canadian wildlife. A 6.2 mile driving path is open year round and a great idea for families. By tuning your radio to 88.1 FM, you can learn more about the animals and the habitat during that time of year. From the safety of a vehicle, visitors will see bison, elk, black bears, red deer and timber and arctic wolves. The park also provides walking and hiking trails that are protected and only contain nonaggressive animals.
6. Volcans National Park, Rwanda
With only 850 mountain gorillas presently inhabiting the world, it's amazing that 300 of them live in a country as small as the state of Maryland. High in the mountains of Volcans National Park in Rwanda, 18 mountain gorilla groups reside, 10 of which can be visited by tourists. Since permits are required to visit the groups, VirtualTourist members suggest applying well in advance, especially if you plan on visiting during a peak time. Note: Since groups range in their location, visiting one group might only take a short walk through a forest, but another group might be saddled with a 1-1/2 hour trek through dense growth. However, members guarantee that visiting the gorillas is an experience of a lifetime. It's also worth noting that it is a significantly shorter trek to their location in Rwanda than in the two other countries where they can be found, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
7. Kruger National Park, South Africa
Encompassing 2-million hectares and straddling two different regions of South Africa, Kruger National Park is one of the most famous places in the world to see wildlife in action. Along with the Serengeti (listed above), it is also one of the best locales for spotting the "Big Five" -- lions, elephants, buffalos, leopards, and rhinoceros. One unique aspect of Kruger National Park is that it's a self-drive game park, meaning visitors can pick up clearly illustrated maps at every entrance to the park and navigate for themselves, taking their time and stopping whenever they want. However, if you want a guided tour, there are game walks and drives, hikes, and even mountain bike routes for exploring the park. One VirtualTourist member recommends driving the S56 from Babalala toward Shingwedzi. Although it parallels main road H1-7, S56 follows the river and provides greater diversity of animals and birds to see.
The South African winter months, from May to September, are best for game viewing since the grass is low, making it easier to spot game. VirtualTourist members also said it can be good to plan at least one nighttime drive or safari since some of the most desired animals to see (like leopards) are nocturnal.
8. Osa Peninsula and Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica
Few places are accessible and filled with tropical wildlife, so Costa Rica is an easy bet for some great wildlife sightings, especially if you are traveling from North or South America. VirtualTourist members suggested two spots within Costa Rica for great animal viewing: the Osa Peninsula and Tortuguero National Park. The Osa Peninsula, located on the Pacific side of the country, is one of the few places to spot the Scarlet Macaw in the wild. The forest canopies of Corcovado National Park supposedly have the largest concentration of macaws in Central America so visitors should keep a look out for these majestic birds.
Bordering the Caribbean Sea, Tortuguero National Park is located near Costa Rica's northeast border with Nicaragua. Members described exploring the canals into the park by boat, from which they were able to spot toucans, monkeys, sloths, and other animals. Another recommendation is to take a guided walking tour at night. Tortuguero National Park is also a sanctuary for nesting sea turtles. Although the green turtle is the primary focus, hawksbill and leatherback turtles are also tagged and counted by the conservation corporation. The green turtle nesting season occurs from July through October with tours occurring late at night to see turtles lay eggs. Since the beach is closely monitored during this season, you must have a guide and members recommend signing up early if you'll be visiting during this time.
9. Punta Tombo, Chubut Province, Argentina
Along with the majestic nature that visitors can experience while visiting Patagonia, there are some unique opportunities to see animals. Punta Tombo, located on the Argentine Sea in Chubut Province, is the best place to see Magellan Penguins within continental Patagonia. With more than 1.5 million Magellan Penguins arriving to Punta Tombo every year to breed, you are bound to see quite a few! Though the first penguins arrive in September and stay at Punta Tombo until mid-March, the recommended time to visit for optimal viewing is after November once the babies are born. In addition to the sheer volume of penguins another unique factor about Punta Tombo is that despite being a conservation reservation, visitors are allowed to get very close to the penguins, as long as they don't disturb or touch them.
10. Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Near Ambergris Caye, Belize
Only a short 20-minute boat ride from Ambergris Caye, the Hol Chan Marine Reserve is one of the best places to snorkel in all of the Caribbean. Numerous snorkel and scuba aficionados remark that it is incredibly rare to see such a variety of wild fish in such shallow water, since most of the reserve is only 6- to 10-feet deep. Groupers, angelfish, and even eagle rays can be spotted regularly in this area. Within Hol Chan Marine Reserve there is an area called Shark Ray Alley famous for its number of nurse sharks in the shallow 8-foot water. For many years, local fisherman cleaned their catch just inside the reef and the daily routine caused a large number of nurse sharks and sting rays to start frequenting the area.
No matter what continent you want to visit, there are always animals unique to that location worth an afternoon trek and a closer look. For information about other animals and destinations not found here, check out VirtualTourist.com
(c) 2013 VirtualTourist.com, Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.
This was printed in the May 19, 2013 - June 1, 2013 Edition