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Audley Traveller
14 Min Read
Maine iguana, Galapagos Islands

Wildlife experiences inspired by the BBC's Planet Earth II

The BBC's Planet Earth II had us gripped. In the last episode, David Attenborough reflected on ‘how easy it is for us to lose our connection to the natural world’.

While we can’t claim that you can see everything that was captured on Planet Earth II, a lot of seminal wildlife experiences are entirely within your reach. Recalling the footage that most grabbed them, our specialists relive their own experiences — from sightings of jaguars in Brazil to grizzly bears in Canada — and explain how you can do the same.

As seen in Mountains: dancing grizzly bears in British Columbia

By Canada specialist Mike

One of the stand-out scenes of Planet Earth II’s Mountains episode was footage of grizzly bears fresh from hibernation, rubbing themselves against trees in a far-from-graceful dance. While this was filmed in the Canadian Rockies, I had some incredible bear-viewing experiences along the west coast of British Columbia.

The setting alone is worth the journey, with wild coastlines, dense forests and the mountains adding to your sense of seclusion. I stayed at Great Bear Lodge, set on a peaceful estuary within the Great Bear Rainforest on the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

The lodge offers twice-daily guided bear-viewing trips. I like the intimacy of these outings — you’re in a small group led by naturalist guides who know the best places to find the bears and can tell you anything you want to know about their behaviour. You usually head out by boat, sometimes stopping at specially built ‘bear towers’ (raised wooden viewing platforms positioned along the river’s edge).

You have the best chance of seeing the bears ‘dance’ if you visit in early spring (April to May). Having just emerged from hibernation at this time, the bears (sometimes accompanied by cubs) forage along the shoreline, filling their hungry bellies with berries, mussels, barnacles and sedge grass. Males, in particular, tend to rub themselves against trees. More than just scratching an itch, they do this to mark their scent, perhaps to warn off other males competing for females in the area.

Note: the Great Bear Lodge has just five rooms, so booking at least a year in advance is essential.

As seen in Deserts: territorial mustangs in Wyoming

By USA specialist Ida

Wild mustangs in Cody, Wyoming, USA

Wild mustangs in Cody, Wyoming, USA

Watching this episode as the white stallion went in for a kick and its dark rival went up on his hind legs, teeth bared and nostrils flaring, I was struck by the power, aggression and hardiness of the USA’s wild mustangs. The fight demonstrates how the males must regularly compete for territory and females, the scars covering their backs indicating how bloody these battles can be.

The scenes in Planet Earth II were shot in Nevada, but mustangs are found across a number of western states, including Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, California and Arizona. Believed to be descendants of horses brought over by 16th-century Spanish explorers, they roam the land in large herds consisting of a stallion, around eight females and their foals.

While staying in the small city of Cody in Wyoming (once the home of ‘Buffalo Bill’, aka William Frederick Cody), I joined a guided small group tour in search of wild mustangs. Herds of them live in the nearby Bighorn Basin, a semi-arid plateau of open plains surrounded by distant mountains.

The guides knew exactly where to look. Driving through the barren landscape, we soon came across a herd of around 20 horses. While we weren’t able to drive right up to them, they were clearly visible, and with a pair of binoculars I could make out individual horses and, in some cases, their battle scars. Our guides even had names for the horses — one called ‘Canada’ had a white mark shaped like a maple leaf.

I was surprised by the mustangs’ range of colours and patterns — a mixture of white, reddish-brown, black and chestnut. We didn’t see any fights, but we could sense the tension as two young male outsiders tried to approach the herd, looking to steal some of the females and form their own group. Some of the horses began neighing, and you could see how fights break out.

As seen in Islands: marine iguana outpacing racer snakes

By Galapagos specialist Holly

Marine iguanas, Galapagos Islands

Marine iguanas, Galapagos Islands

Impossibly outnumbered, a hatchling marine iguana somehow manages to outmanoeuvre the amassed racer snakes lying in wait. Once the newborn starts to run, it’s a tense persuit to the safety of the black volcanic rock plateau above the beach. In a final attempt to close in on its prey, the last chasing snake flings itself full body at the iguana. The escape is as startling as it is improbable.

Iguanas nest in the Galapagos from January to March, when the sand is at its warmest. The hatching site featured on Planet Earth II is northerly Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island, a thin taper of sand locked between the South Pacific and a shelf of solidified lava flow — easy hunting ground for the predatory snakes.

One of our local guides was on the beach as the BBC filmed. It was the first time he’d witnessed the iguanas’ dash in 14 years of guiding. While it’s a very rare spectacle to catch, marine iguanas are prolific across the Galapagos.

They bask in the sun in massive numbers, blending into their surroundings so effectively that you literally stumble upon them. ‘Watch your feet’, my guide yelled repeatedly as he led me through one group (the iguanas won’t move for you). Every so often you’ll hear a spitting sound as an iguana ‘sneezes’ fine jets of salt out through its nostrils — a way of regulating the seawater taken in when swimming.

I also encountered iguanas while snorkeling in the central islands. As the single marine lizard species, they swim down to the seabed to nibble on algae, and I watched as they came to feed. With motionless legs, they use their tail as a rudder and wiggle their hips to propel themselves, gliding quite serenely through the water.

As seen in Jungles: howling indris of Madagascar

By Madagascar specialist Chris

Indris in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar

Indris in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar

Madagascar has featured heavily on Planet Earth II — not surprising given the fact that around 80% of its wildlife species can be found nowhere else. The indri, the largest species of lemur, featured on the Jungles episode. Usually heard before it’s seen, its distinctive call reverberates through the forest.

Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, just a three to four hour drive east of the capital, Antananarivo, is the best place to see indris. The park is split into two sections: Mantadia National Park, which is made up of dense primary rainforest untouched by humans, and the Analamazaotra (or Périnet) Special Reserve (ASR), known locally as Andasibe. Here the rainforest has been re-established after slash and burn farming methods caused deforestation in the area. Both areas can be explored on foot with a knowledgeable local guide.

While I was walking through the forest early one morning, I was stopped in my tracks by the incredibly loud call of an indri. The sound wasn’t dissimilar to whale song, and hearing it gave me goose bumps. My guide pointed up to the tree in front and I soon spotted a family of three indris perched on branches high in the canopy. While they spent most of their time huddled together, the young indri was a bit more active, occasionally jumping between the branches.

Deforestation has destroyed much of the indri’s habitat, but local people are finding alternative means from travellers who come to see their wildlife. As Madagascans increasingly realise the value of their country’s wildlife, conservation efforts to safeguard the indri and many other species continue to grow.

As seen in Deserts: Namibia’s dune-dwelling creatures

By Namibia specialist Mike

Namaqua chameleon, Namibia

Namaqua chameleon, Namibia

If you watched this episode, you’ll know that the arid burnt-orange sands of Namibia may seem alien and lifeless, but actually support a wealth of wildlife. When I first visited the country as an already seasoned safari-goer, I expected to see elephant, lion, cheetah and springbok. But what made the trip special were the unexpected encounters with smaller wildlife species I’d never seen or considered before.

One of the most captivating clips of the episode was of darkling beetles scaling some of the world’s highest dunes in the Namib Desert. Once at the top, they collect water droplets from the morning fog that rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean — their only source of water. Opportunistic Namaqua chameleons use their lengthy tongues to pluck the beetles from the sand, gaining a drink and a snack in one swift mouthful.

In the dunes just outside the coastal city of Swakopmund, you can join a Living Desert tour with an enthusiastic guide who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the insects, spiders and reptiles that live in and around the dunes. Heading out in the early morning, you may see darkling beetles patiently collecting water, chameleons catching them for breakfast, spiders that escape their enemies by cartwheeling down the dunes and geckos that hop from one foot to the other as the sand heats up.

Having these smaller creatures pointed out to me and learning about their ingenious methods of survival soon allowed me to see the desert in a whole new light. The thrill of spotting a bug or a lizard became almost as exhilarating as spying a lion out in the bush.

As seen in Grasslands: rhinos in Kaziranga National Park

By India specialist Graham

Great one-horned rhino, Kaziranga National Park, India

Great one-horned rhino, Kaziranga National Park, India

I was keen to see more footage of northeast India’s Kaziranga National Park during the Planet Earth II Grasslands episode. After watching the park’s rhinos, tigers and elephants enthusiastically destroying the camera traps on Planet Earth II Diaries, I can understand why there wasn’t more.

You don’t have to be part of a film crew to see Kaziranga’s wildlife. I stayed in a traditional stilted bungalow at Diphlu River Lodge on the outskirts of the park. In my room was a thick booklet listing the startling amount of species I might encounter — and a pen to tick off my sightings.

Wrapped in a blanket, I joined my guide and naturalist for a dawn jeep safari. As the grasses are high enough to hide an elephant, we drove adjacent to the river, a tributary of the sacred Brahmaputra. I usually find that patience is needed on a safari, but almost immediately we pulled over. A pile of glistening brown otters writhed on the waterside in front of us. We were about to move on when an Indian turtle shuffled out of the water nearby.

Peering out of the jeep, I focused my binoculars on the opposite riverbank. My guide was adamant he’d heard something else. I waited. The orange coat of a Bengal tiger appeared from nowhere. She’d been walking between the grasses before breaking cover to drink from the river.

As we drove onwards, it struck me that I hadn’t seen Kaziranga’s most famous resident, the great one-horned rhino. They’re not subtle creatures, and we soon began to spot them powering through the grasses as the day warmed up. Scattered across the park, I soon lost count of how many we saw.

You have the best chance of a successful safari if you travel to Kaziranga in February through to early April, when the animals come out of the dry jungle to drink.

As seen in Jungles: jaguars stalking prey in Brazil

By Brazil specialist Fiona

Jaguar, Pantanal wetlands, Brazil

Jaguar, Pantanal wetlands, Brazil

For me a muscular male jaguar clamping its jaw around the throat of a caiman was the most memorable part of Planet Earth II’s Jungles episode. While I’ve seen jaguars in the wild, I’ve never glimpsed a hunt.

The BBC’s footage was shot in the Amazon, but its dense forest provides such good cover for jaguars that they’re incredibly difficult to spot. The open marshes of Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, is a good alternative.

I stayed at Hotel Porto Jofre, in the northern Pantanal. It’s an old fisherman’s hut that has been converted into a basic but comfortable hotel. Heading out on morning and afternoon boat safaris along the Cuiabá River, my guides panned the riverbanks looking for signs of movement between the pockets of bush.

We didn’t need to look too hard. Rounding a corner, we spotted a jaguar snoozing on the water’s edge. A capybara sat nonchalantly nearby. I’ve never managed to put my finger on it, but there’s something comical about seeing these sheep-sized guinea pigs.

Jaguar sightings at Porto Jofre are almost guaranteed, especially if you travel from June to September. This does mean the river can become busy with boats. A quieter option is Caiman Ecological Refuge in the southern Pantanal. A private reserve, it’s still a working cattle farm.

Running its own research unit, the refuge supports a healthy jaguar population. Safaris here cross the cerradõ (wooded savannah) by jeep. I was woken by a knocking at my door at 5:30am one morning: a jaguar had been sighted. Throwing on some clothes, I raced out of the door and into a waiting jeep. Just as we were leaving the lodge, a jaguar emerged from underneath a little bridge just in front of us.

As seen in Cities: Singapore‘ s Gardens by the Bay

By Southeast Asia specialist Rob

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

The last episode of Planet Earth focused on the newest habitat on the planet, the urban environment. Whilst watching wildlife attempt to survive in brightly-lit concrete jungles was harrowing at times (the newly hatched turtles spring to mind), the city of Singapore offered a glimpse of a future where our cities might be designed to welcome and nurture wildlife.

A sweeping panoramic shot introduces Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, a series of shell-shaped greenhouses and metal Supertrees straight out of a sci-fi novel. It’s a botanical garden for the 21st century, with hi-tech biodomes replicating dry desert and rainforest environments and eco-filters to clean the surrounding waterways.

The view from afar may look impressive, but I’d argue it’s even more interesting close up. I spent the afternoon wandering between the dry heat of the Flower Dome, the humid Cloudforest Dome — complete with 30 m (98 ft) high waterfall — and the balmy outdoor gardens. It’s like exploring a horticultural honeycomb, with habitats from all over the world nestled in their own little section.

The grove of futuristic Supertrees dominates the garden, with the tallest tree reaching 50 m (164 ft). You can walk underneath their wide canopies, fitted with photovoltaic cells to harvest solar energy, and investigate their vertically planted trunks which are home to more than 200 species of orchids, ferns and flowering vines. The OCBC Skyway connects two of the trees with views right across to the South China Sea.

Still in their infancy, the gardens are slowly becoming a haven for wildlife. The rare Daurian redstart has started to visit on its migratory route south, whilst many local bird species have moved in, including the pick-necked green pigeon and Asian glossy starling. Insect life is flourishing with butterflies and dragonflies a common sight. A pair of otters have been spotted — although it’s a little too early to judge whether they’ve become permanent residents. 

As seen in Islands: surprising penguin behaviour

By Latin America specialist Lizzie

King penguins, South Georgia

King penguins, South Georgia

You’ll remember the footage of the chinstrap penguins living on the uninhabited island of Zavodovski, an active volcano in the South Atlantic. In their quest to find food for their young, the penguins risk their lives leaping off the island’s steep cliffs into a maelstrom of booming, battering waves.

Zavodovski is closed to visitors — but nothing’s stopping you heading to South Georgia, a UK territory 349 km (217 miles) to the northwest. It seems equally inhospitable, an island with a spine of snow-covered serrated peaks cut through with ice, with the occasional splash of green tussock grass. But here, against a backdrop of mountains and glaciers streaked with rocky moraine, I saw vast colonies of king penguins. They're one of the tallest and most photogenic species, with their silvery coats and distinctive amber-gold throat plumage.

Thankfully, none of the penguins were performing the death-defying feats we saw on Zavodovski. I watched them waddling up out of the water onto shingle beaches and serenely make their way inland (a good 15 minute walk even for humans) to their chicks. As on Zavodovski, it’s safer to raise young far from the coast. On valleys and slopes clear of snow and ice, you’ll see their chicks — fat, fluffy balls covered in insulating brown down, anxiously awaiting the next meal.

The chicks are often curious: while some follow a parent around, others will wander right up to where you’re standing. The Antarctic Treaty recommends you keep 5 m (16 ft) away from wildlife, but that didn’t hinder one trio of boisterous chicks, who toddled over to inspect me.

You’ll also see adults forming lines, sometimes in chilly streams, cooling off as the water trickles over their leathery feet. Some have their necks tucked under their flippers, having a snooze. It always amused me — it looked like they were politely queuing for a bus.

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