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The really wild show

Follow Bigfoot and the Bengal tiger and tour Argentina in search of pythons, as we take you on an unforgettable tour of the terrifying and the beautiful.

The really wild show

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Madhya Pradesh, India: Eye of the tiger
Words by Luke Wright

The Bengal tiger has been a symbol of India for millennia. Its blend of elegance, power and agility has earned the big cat pride of place as the national animal.

Unfortunately, its iconic status has not been enough to safeguard its survival and these may be its last hours. Habitat loss, game hunting, illegal poaching, and gun-toting farmers have led to a steady decline in the Bengal tiger population. It’s estimated only 3,000 remain in the wild — some say half that — and there’s debate over whether tiger tourism should be allowed to continue in India. Opponents argue it’s hastening the big cat’s demise; tour operators claim they are its only chance of survival.

The state of Madhya Pradesh — the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book — is one of the best places to observe these incredible creatures. Against this background I was there to see if I could glimpse one. Staying at the all-inclusive Mahua Kothi lodge, 20 minutes from Bandhavgarh National Park with twice-daily safaris, my hopes were high.

“I am sure, sir, you will most certainly see a tiger here,” I was told when checking in.

Each morning and afternoon, we went out on a kidney-jarring 4WD ride into the park. We drove in and out of valleys, across grasslands, through sal forests and wherever else the enthusiastic guide thought an elusive tiger might be found.

“Shhh!” he said every so often, “We again listen for warning call in jungle.”

Though I had no idea what a warning call was, I did what he said. Invariably, nothing happened, so we drove on. This pattern went on for days. Kipling’s tiger king, Shere Khan, was a no-show.

Then, on the last safari of my trip, just when I was cursing every hunter and poacher in the land, the most dazzling animal experience took place. Three tigers lazing at the edge of a water hole decided to put on a show for us as we arrived. They jumped and dashed and playfully clawed each other. They dived and splashed and wrestled in the water. All only metres from where we’d parked. For 10 minutes we witnessed a wildlife spectacle like no other. And then, in an instant, they were gone. The show was over.

Southeast Asia

1. Orangutans, Borneo
Get up close to our hirsute cousin, the orangutan. Watching these guys swing through the trees is an unforgettable wildlife experience.

2. Komodo Dragon, Indonesia
The world’s largest living lizard is found mainly on Komodo Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.

3. Whale sharks, Philippines
Although it seems a terrifying prospect, swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Donsol is actually a calm and surreal experience.

4. Black gibbons, Laos
The Gibbon Experience is a conservation programme in Bokeo Nature Reserve. Stay in treehouses by night and, if you’re lucky, witness endangered black gibbons, bears, tigers and elephants by day.

5. Proboscis Monkey, Malaysia
Sadly, time is running out for these endangered primates with over-sized noses. Head to Sabah to watch them paddle across rivers and leap from tree to tree.

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland: Gone to the dogs
Words by Kieran Meeke

“I love the freedom,” shouts Rene above the noise of iron runners skating on the rough ice sheet that is Greenland’s frozen interior.

We’ve left the small settlement at Kangerlussuaq a long way behind and as far as the horizon there’s nothing to be seen but bright shades of white. His team of dogs enthusiastically pulling our sled seem to love it, too. “If I get thrown off, just hang on,” he warned as he put them into their paces. “The dogs will run until they’re tired. Probably no more than 10km. Then turn them around and they’ll take you home. Be careful not to fall off — it might be hard to find you.” Indeed. It’s at least -30C outside my reindeer fur coveralls and I don’t see me surviving out here on my own for too long.

Then one of the brown rocks in the distance moves and I realise it’s a musk ox, surrounded by several others in a small herd. Their shaggy heads remind me of bison but their thick wool coats disguise the animals’ true size. More closely related to sheep and goats than cattle, the musk ox survive these harsh conditions by digging for lichen and moss where the snow is at its thinnest.

As we turn for home, our dogs find even more energy and the wind picks up, sending an icy blast into my face. I huddle down into my furs, looking forward to a warm meal but wishing my time in one of world’s last
great wildernesses could be stretched out for much longer. As we left town that morning, I’d seen a lone hunter heading out behind his own sled team. As long as you have shells for your rifle, you can feed yourself and your dogs and keep going into the vast parts of the Greenland map that are still marked ‘Unexplored’. Have an accident, and you may never be heard of again or even searched for. I think of him out alone in the growing darkness of a winter’s night and feel a shudder of fear, mixed with a small dose of envy.

Scandinavia

1. Eagles, reindeer & wolves, Finland
Lapland is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with more than 450 species and a real chance of seeing eagles, as well as wild reindeer and wolves.

2. Orca, Norway
Hundreds of orca spend the winter in the Tysfjord region, about 125 miles inside the Arctic Circle. See how close you can get to them in a rigid inflatable boat!

3. Elks & wolves, Sweden
In Bergslagen’s forests you can track Europe’s largest concentration of elk, hear wolves in the moonlight, then paddle across a lake in search of beavers.

4. Puffins & whales, Iceland
The rugged coastline is a great place to spot various whale species and huge colonies of puffins and other seabirds.

5. Arctic fox, Sweden
These creatures may be as elusive as they come, yet sightings are possible in Vindelfjällen Nature Reserve.

Managalas Plateau, Papa New Guinea: Queen of the jungle
Words by Mark Stratton

When Queen Alexandra spread her glossy wings, I was dumbstruck by her size. With a 1ft span, the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing is the world’s largest butterfly. Found only on Papua New Guinea’s Mangalas Plateau, few westerners have seen one.

The chief reason for this is that Papua New Guinea is remote, expensive to reach and visits are plagued by flight delays, bad weather and vehicle breakdowns. Yet, as I discovered, it’s an island of once-in-a-lifetime adventure; home to 820 tribal groups and otherworldly wildlife.

To maintain the Managalas Plateau’s virgin rainforest in a province heavily cleared for oil-palm plantation, local non-government organisation Partners with Melanesians is promoting eco-tourism to help local communities benefit from nondestructive development. It’s hoped that Queen Alexandra’s birdwing-spotting trips will in time have the same global, iconic appeal as mountain gorilla safaris do in Uganda.

After a four-hour journey by 4WD, climbing a rutted, potholed road whose bridges had been swept away by rain, the local Ese tribe walked me to their rainforest home, Kawawoke. As we passed thatched, stilted huts, two axe- and spear-carrying men with red-painted faces and feathered headdresses led me to where the whole village had gathered to sing a welcome song and share a buffet of coconuts, papayas, and bananas. It was my David Livingstone moment. “You’re only the third white man to ever visit,” said community leader Cornwell Nukara.

“We have no shops, hotels, electricity, or running water,” he added, “but you will eat fresh food and experience only smiles.”

Cornwell showed me to a simple hut; I ate taro, yam, and home-baked banana bread with his family, and bathed in the river. Woken at dawn by a birds-of-paradise alarm call, I fell asleep serenaded by a tree-frog chorus.

The Queen Alexandra’s birdwing is elusive but helped by an entourage, who followed me around as if I were the Pied Piper, we scoured forest clearings and waited by hibiscus and bougainvillea bushes.

Named after Edward VII’s wife in 1907, the first specimen ever collected was downed by an Edwardian collector’s shotgun. Not the most reverent way to greet a new species, perhaps, but practical nonetheless, as this butterfly flits around the canopy like a fast-flying bird — particularly the female, which is much larger than the iridescent, green-and-blue-streaked male. When a huge, foot-wide female finally fluttered near me, revealing her lustrous, bluish-black and creamy-yellow body, it was as if I were witnessing a computer-generated image from a fantasy film. How could a butterfly grow this large?

But anything’s possible in Papua New Guinea; it’s a destination well suited for experienced travellers looking for something utterly unusual and prepared for the odd hiccup along the way. Yet the rewards for those who persevere are infinitely unforgettable.

Australasia

1. Koalas, Australia
Head to Kangaroo Island, off the coast of Adelaide, to be swamped by cuddly koalas.

2. Birds of paradise, Papua New Guinea
Expect fantasy sightings of the 38 birds-of-paradise species that are endemic to Papua New Guinea.

3. Albatrosses, New Zealand
Watch northern royal albatrosses with nine-foot wingspans patrol Dunedin’s coast.

4. Seahorses, west Papua
Unspoilt dive sites around the Raja Ampat Islands host awe-inspiring corals with large shoals of pelagic fish and pygmy seahorses.

5. Turtles, french polynesia
As well as spawning the prized black pearl, the archipelago’s waters are the place to spot leatherback turtles gliding gracefully beneath the surface

Read more in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)