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The call of the WILD

Have you ever listened to whale song? Or, have you seen the rippling inky black of a river at dusk being ripped by a dolphin that shimmies up from nowhere? Have you waited with baited breath, trying to get a glimpse of a golden lightning pierceing the forest as you stand still on the Big Cat trail? And have you set a date with a jaguar by the starlight? Have you told yourself that you will not die without seeing the Aurora Borealis and of course if you can catch a glimpse of a friendly polar bear or two, you’d be up for it? Do it, if you haven’t already, for most of these creatures are under threat of extinction.

A vacation is not just a whirlwind tour of museums, restaurants and nightclubs in a cool city. It’s not just a beer-on-the-beach routine. There’s more. Go on a wildlife watching tour across the globe. And make sure you pay homage to those creatures that human callousness has endangered gravely. So chart out your route as we give you the best and in some cases the last natural habitats of these endangered animals.

CAT CALLS

A wildlife enthusiast’s dream trip is to get successful on a tracking tour of the Cats. And you can make a veritable world tour on their trail.

Tiger safaris are all the rage in India, but few remember that this is the last home of the Asiatic lion. Head to Gir National Park in Gujarat covering 1,412sq km, where 300 of these majestic and gravely endangered creatures still rule. It is the only place in the world where you can see the Asiatic lion in the wild.

You also get to see panthers, sambhars, nilgai, chinkara and chousingha here.

Trip Planner: Asian Adventures has a weeklong tour at Rs 66,400 for two, on double occupancy basis. It includes accommodation in eco-friendly lodges, meals as per itinerary, guided tour, surface transport and two jeep safaris in Gir. Mail to wildindiatours@vsnl.com.

A flash of black and yellow, a wave of ferocious muscles, a blur of piercing canines — yes, we are talking about one of the most powerful stalkers of the wild, the jaguar. These predators are protected under laws relating to endangered species in many countries, including the US. It is the most powerful feline in the Western Hemisphere, with a chilling reputation of biting directly through the skull of its prey. Catch them in their natural territory in Pantanal in Brazil as you weave in and out of the Amazon in a boat. The chances of seeing this feline are the highest in this region of the American continent. You can also spot giant anteaters, tapirs, giant river otters, capybaras, caiman, monkeys and birds. Total body fitness is a sine qua non for this tour.

Trip Planner: Reef and Rainforest Tours offer a 14-day package starting from London. They fly you to Sao Paolo and Cuiaba and then transfer you to the tropical wetland of Pantanal. Prices vary according to the season, and are between £4,822 (Rs 3,50,125 approx.) and £4,895 (Rs 3,55,703 approx.) per person on a double occupancy basis. It includes airfares, accommodation at a luxurious jungle lodge and river camp, all meals, guided tour, surface transport and permits. Mail to: mail@reefandrain forest.co.uk.

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

Matching menace step for step are the behemoths of the wild. The Big Cats usually give them a wide berth and their fury, once ignited, can cause mammoth destruction. Welcome to the world of elephants and rhinos. They look bulky and slow and you might just be tempted to go for a poke-and-run thing — do it if you have seen enough of the world.

It might surprise you to know that the Indian elephant, believed to be so common, is already an endangered species, according to the WWF. The Periyar National Park in Kerala is one of the most fascinating wildlife reserves in the world.

It’s a treat to watch them move about in herds and frolic in the waters of the beautiful Periyar Lake, where they are sighted most often and in great numbers. The lush green forest covering 777sq km is also one of the country’s tiger reserves. You can also expect to see gaurs, sambhar, barking deer, wild dog and the rare lion-tailed macaque.

Trip Planner: Namaste Tours has an eight-day package at Rs 23,590 per person on a double occupancy basis. It includes 3-star accommodation, breakfast and surface transport in A/C car. The tour also throws in a visit to Silent Valley National Park, 150km from Munnar. Mail to namaste1@vsnl.com.

The Great One-horned Rhino is as ancient as it looks, what with its armoured look and wallowing habits. The Kaziranga National Park in Assam — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is one of the last homes of these solitary beasts. The park stretches over 430sq km of grassland, marshes and dense forest with the Bramhaputra flowing through it. Apart from the rhinos (still poached for their horns), the forest protects tigers, elephants, wild buffaloes and swamp deer. It’s also a birding paradise. The world’s largest population of one-horned rhinos is found here.

Trip Planner: Compass India Inc. has a 5-day Rhino Land Tour at about Rs 19,025 per person on a double occupancy basis. It includes four-star accommodation, all meals, surface transport, permits and guided elephant safari. Mail to luxury-tours@highpointdesigns.com or call (011)41602115.

BEARING IT BRAVELY

Make way for another undisputed star of the wilderness — bears. And the top billing goes to the polar bears for holding sway over popular imagination for ages. High on the list of endangered species, there are only a handful of places around the world (read the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding seas) where you can actually watch them in the wild. And an added attraction when you go bear-spotting is the chance to get up, close and personal with Beluga whales, those completely white whales that measure up to 5metres in length. They are also known as the sea canaries as they make high-pitched squeaks and whistles.

Trip Planner: Arctic Odysseys has a seven-days and six-nights Bears and Belugas package to Hudson Bay for $6,195 CAD (Rs 254,330 approx.) per person. The guided tour starts from Winnipeg, Canada and includes air and land transfers, accommodation in natural lodges accessible by floatplanes and meals. They also arrange a swim with the Belugas for those not faint of heart. This promises to be a trip of a lifetime because you get to see the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis too. Mail to arctic4u@aol.com.

And do not for a moment think that the polar bears’ brown brethren come without their share of fan following. The brown bear is found in northern Eurasia and North America. Unfortunately, the species has faced local extinction in many of these regions. In many states of the US, they are listed as threatened species. You’d find a declining population of the bears in Alaska and Canada. And in Europe, they are near extinct. The exception is Finland, where you’d find them on the Finn-Russian border in the taiga forests.

In fact, the brown bear is Finland’s national animal. The Finnish call it mesikämmen, or ‘honey-paw’. You also get to see animals like wolves, wolverine, lynx and a wide variety of avian species here.

Trip Planner: Naturetrek has a three-night, four-day package to the taiga forests of Finland from UK. At £995 (Rs 72,228 approx.) per person. This includes airfare to and from Heathrow, accommodation at a chalet in the forest, meals as per itinerary. You get to watch the bears from a safe watch point (also called a hide). Mail to info@naturetrek.co.uk.

APING AROUND

It’s time to take a sneak peek at Tarzan’s world. And this one’s for real. The world of primates is fascinating.

There are only 600 surviving gorillas in the world today. And half of them can be found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (Bwindi means impenetrable) in Uganda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The largest of the primates, the gorillas move in groups of up to 30 members led by a silverback (an adult male of over 12 years with a silver patch on his back). You can also expect colobus monkeys and chimpanzees apart from the 120 species of mammals and 346 species of birds here. But you have to be in top physical condition. For instance, if you catch a cold, you’ll not be allowed to track the gorillas as you might pass on the infection to them.

Trip Planner: Responsible Travel has a 10-day safari in Uganda, between £1,895 (Rs137,322 approx.) and £2,450 (Rs 177,581 approx.), per person on a double occupancy basis, depending on season. This includes airfares to and from London, accommodation, meals as per itinerary, transport, guided tour, entrance fees and gorilla tracking. They also throw in trips to the Queen Elizabeth II National Park, the Chambura Gorge to track chimpanzees and rafting on the White Nile. Mail to: amelia@responsibletravel.com.

Closer home are the orangutans. About 315,000 of these great apes were said to exist at the turn of the last century. Their numbers have dwindled by 92 per cent. Head to Kalimantan in Borneo, one of the last shelters of these highly intelligent arboreal creatures. Wild orangutans thrive in this beautiful tropical rainforest, as do some ex-captives which have been rehabilitated. Keep your eyes open also for the proboscis monkey, the Pinocchio amongst the primates, gibbons and macaques.

Trip Planner: Adventure Indonesia has a five-days package beginning at the Pangkalan Bun airport. At $700 (Rs 35,387 approx.) per person on a double occupancy basis, this includes accommodation at an eco lodge, meals as per itinerary, surface transport, permits and guided tours in a traditional riverboat. And for $535 (Rs 27,047 approx.) you can opt to stay in the boat, which offers a glimpse of the wildlife in the evening and dawn. Mail to: info@adventureindonesia.com.

THE WATER BABIES

This rugged terrain with steep ravines and a deceptively still river running through has been the setting for many villainous activities. Yes, we’re talking Chambal. And no, we don’t mean daku-watching in the wild — tone your imagination down.

The National Chambal Sanctuary is one of the last living habitats of the Gangetic River Dolphins. Covering an area of about 1,235sq km on both sides of the Chambal River, the sanctuary is also home to gharials, marsh crocodiles, Sarus cranes, wolves, hyenas, blackbucks, Nilgais and more.

Trip Planner: Chambal Safari arranges for a River Safari. The tariff at Chambal Safari Lodge is Rs 5,000 per couple per night with 10 per cent tax and includes all meals. The River Safari costs Rs 1,350 per person plus taxes. This includes entry permits, the services of a trained naturalist, three-hours on a motorboat on the river, and a nature walk through the ravines. Mail to anudhillon@chambalsafari.com.

The Olive Ridley turtles are another species that are facing a major threat. Catch a glimpse of these amphibians with their heart-shaped olive shells as they return the beaches of Orissa. These are the last safe nesting grounds in India for this species; and Gahirmatha Turtle Sanctuary in Kendrapara, Orissa is the perfect spot. A partnership between the state government and NGOs has resulted in a safe habitat for the turtles. It is said that the Olive Ridley turtles always return to the same beach for nesting.

Trip Planner: Hidden Treasures India Destination Management has a three-nights and four-days package ex-Bhubaneswar. Priced at Rs 40,000 per couple, this guided tour includes accommodation with all meals, boat charges, permits and all transfers. This also includes a trip to Bhitarkanika Sanctuary. Mail to admin@htoindia.com.

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