My travelling experiences are far from worldwide; the places I have been to, the people I’ve met and the wildlife I’ve gone to see have often been dictated by commissions to write a feature for magazines, newspapers or for a blog. But these have also been the trips producing the most interesting and unusual – sometimes even dangerous – experiences. Many of the people I’ve met, often experts on a particular species – the Arabian Oryx, the Mediterranean’s Monk Seal or the Florida Manatee for instance – have been as central to these stories as experiencing the animal itself. Without those experts and other contacts I’ve met over the years, there would be far, far fewer stories for me to tell. People such as: Wade Harrell of the US Fish and Wildlife Service with whom I spent a morning watching a family of Whooping Cranes feeding in marshes on the Texas coast and discussing his hopes for this very rare bird’s future; my good friend Gabriel Sierra on the Spanish plains getting a close-up view of several male Great Bustards’ fantastic courtship display as they contorted themselves into shimmering white bundles, one of the most extravagant bits of premating wooing to be found in nature; Thorvaldur Bjornsson and his friends collecting eiderdown from the nests of the Eider duck on islands off the coast of Iceland; Miro Uljan, a local hunter and forester, with whom I hunkered down for a long evening in a hide in a Slovenian spruce forest to watch Brown Bears; or Wayne Hartley from the Florida-based Save the Manatee Club with whom I canoed along a spring-fed, warm water river while over a hundred of these gentle lumbering giants lolled on the riverbed below us.
Without such people, I could not have written many of the stories in this collection at all: a Kenyan Dorobo tribesman, Robert Lentaaya, who uses an incredible working partnership with small wild birds called honeyguides to lead him through forest and scrub to a wild bee nest so they can share the honeycomb the bird implores him to harvest; the Parsis in Mumbai, helping explain to me the rituals of their ancient faith and who invited me to a funeral where the bodies of their dead are laid for birds to consume on the so-called ‘towers of silence’; Stein Erik in Norway whose buoyant optimism at the start of an evening’s Elk search turned to dismay after four hours of finding nothing but a glimpse of a rapidly disappearing Elk bum; or Phil Newman, then with the Countryside Council for Wales, who led me swimming into coal-black sea caves among the cliffs of the impressive Pembrokeshire coast as he tried to complete an autumn count of the numbers of Grey Seal pups reared there.
All of them, and others, have been unfailingly helpful in giving me local information and explaining what they were attempting to achieve. Francois Arcangeli, then mayor of the little French Pyrenean commune of Arbas, dedicated to the reintroduction of Brown Bears in spite of enduring and numerous death threats, and having blood thrown at him for his troubles. Many others went the extra mile to give as much help as they possibly could: Dimitris Skianis, our ‘Mr Fixit’ – and sometime translator – on the Greek Island of Alonissos who arranged meetings with a variety of people who had rather strongly opposed views on the need to try and conserve rare Monk Seals in the Aegean waters.
Over the years, searching out some of the places and animals I needed to find to justify my trip hasn’t always been straightforward. Just occasionally, my excuse being over-enthusiasm, it has got me into what might be described as some tight corners. Nevertheless, it has made the years of wildlife travel much more fun, at least in hindsight. The most disconcerting moment was being confronted in Oman by armed policemen kitted out in military fatigues, one of them the spit of Saddam Hussein in his forties; I was convinced I was going to be arrested. Another anxious few minutes involved getting behind a (really quite small) tree as a tonne of previously sedated Black Rhino, blundering to his feet having been given an antidote, had escape on his mind. And bluffing my way past one set of bureaucratic officials after another and signing forms I had no hope of understanding before being accompanied by a guard on to Southeast Asia’s largest open refuse tip. Waking up in my tent in the black African night to the sound of small trees crashing near our campsite as a family of elephant came uncomfortably close. Being convinced of an impending crash into jagged rock outcrops as my gung-ho 4WD driver took a shortcut, hurtling us down a dangerously steep sand slope in the Saudi desert, so steep we were hanging forward in our seat belts. Or feeling a little vulnerable having been left (albeit temporarily) by my guide in Rajasthan, Satto Singh, amongst some thorny acacia scrub with python burrows and tracks in the sandy ground all around, not knowing whether one of these huge constrictors was likely to peep out near my feet.
There have been several odd and amusing encounters too: the Tuareg tribesman in the middle of the Sahara, traditionally clad bar his rather ill-fitting and incongruous spectacles; the young Bedouin girl in Jordan, whose age I couldn’t fathom, who broke off from singing as she herded her goats in the mountains above the archaeological wonders of Petra to sit next to me in amazement because I was watching some birds with my binoculars; or the young Moroccan lad who came running barefoot a kilometre or more through prickly scrub desert to accompany me watching yet another bird, then pick up a stone and hurl it with such accuracy it all but hit the subject I had been hoping to identify.
Some of these stories are about unusual locations and events, adventures in out-of-the-way places, and also the tribulations of trying to get even a brief glimpse of the very animal I had travelled to find: a chance meeting while completely lost in a canoe on a myriad of little waterways in Holland’s Biesbosch National Park resulted in one of the closest views I’ve ever had of a European Beaver; or the couple of hours spent crouched in swirling damp clouds and cold drizzle on a knife-edge ridge in the rugged Madeiran mountains in complete darkness to hear just two ghostly – and rather faint – wailing calls from one of the rarest birds in the world as it flew in to its nesting burrow somewhere below us.
Several stories are about some of the most impressive landscapes and places I have ever seen: the dehesa of Spain’s far west – Extremadura – those extensive, oak-dotted pasturelands that can stretch as far as the eye can see and which nurture a cornucopia of wildlife from night-prowling Genets and Wild Cats to avuncular Black Storks and sail-pasts of huge Griffon and Black Vultures riding the sun-warmed thermals above; the alpine pastures of Schynige Platte, sitting amongst some regal, snow-white St Bruno’s Lilies, listening to marmots whistling, and looking out to the ice and snow-carpeted Monch, Jungfrau and Eiger alpine peaks; or the Niger River through western Mali, spotting the occasional hippo basking in its warm waters, and watching a Bozo fisherman hand-throwing his net from a pirogue while Golden Bishops were rising and falling like giant bumblebees above the riverside marsh grass.
So here are some stories from a fair chunk of a lifetime of wildlife travel. I hope you enjoy them.