Do you like your animal encounters furry, feathered or fishy? From cheeky monkeys and tree-dwelling goats to ‘bat tornados’ and hammerhead sharks, there’s a critter somewhere out there to capture your imagination (if not necessarily your heart).
Curious kids and adults alike will be fascinated by these amazing opportunities to see different creatures at play.
Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, Chengdu, China
See the doe-eyed balls of black-and-white fluff in the most natural environment possible at this research centre which was established in 1987 to rescue and protect the endangered panda. The animals roam around their large, carefully landscaped enclosures and can watch these beautiful beasts at play, at rest, sleeping and eating. Come early in the morning to see the baby pandas at their best. Note, there is an option to ‘hug a panda’. Whether the panda enjoys this experience is debatable, so best think ahead about this choice.
Yellowstone National Park, USA
Whether it’s bears or beavers, moose or mountain goats, elks or eagles, this park deserves its world-famous reputation for easy spotting of wildlife living properly in the wild. Especially if you get off the beaten track or even camp. The park has excellent activities for children, including a Junior Ranger program (age-appropriate activities need to be completed for the Junior Ranger patch to be awarded – we want one!). It’s also worth checking out the website for pre-trip fun and recommended reading.
Goats in trees, Essaouira, Morocco
An extraordinary sight to behold, and bound to make the whole family chuckle, the prospect of goats in trees is a great excuse to explore Morocco as a whole. In short: the argan trees bear argan nuts; the goats like the nuts; the goats like the nuts so much they will climb to the top of the argan tree and balance there happily while they munch said nuts. Surely there should be a yoga move named after these nimble beasts. See them either on the Essaouira road or outside Taroudant.
Refugio Nacional de Fauna Silvestre Ostional, Costa Rica
Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of olive ridley turtles come to Refugio Nacional de Fauna Silvestre Ostional to nest each year: keep the kids up late to watch this mass nesting and they will be wide-eyed for days. Your mini David Attenborough can also seek out urchins and anemones in the tidal pools, clock ghost crabs on the beach and indulge in a spot of birdwatching, all within easy reach of the hatching turtles. And then of course there’s the rest of Costa Rica to explore with more turtles, one or two crocodiles, some amazing butterflies and plenty of opportunities for high adrenaline fun such as zip lining through forest canopies and white-water rafting.
Bat flights, Carlsbad Caverns, USA
Dusk falling, the sound of hundreds of thousands of wings flapping in unison as the air becomes dark and thick with a steady rising stream of bats, heading out to find the bugs they need to survive till the next day. Ever wondered what a ‘bat tornado’ feels like? Well, take your kids to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and find out. Equally impressive is the bats’ return flight, although that obviously requires an earlier start. On certain days of the year you can stay on after the bat flight and learn all about the night sky too. Mind-blowing, for kids big and small.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
Tree-climbing lions? Tick! Healthy numbers of hippos and elephants? Tick! Over 600 different bird species? You’ve got it… This is the place to come for guaranteed sightings of a huge range of African wildlife, a real-life geography lesson in the difference between savannah, wetlands and forest and the chance to do all this without having to share it with too many of your fellow humans.You can also take a boat safari on the Kazinga Channel, giving your family a unique perspective on the many mammals, birds and reptiles coming to drink here.
Walkabout Wildlife Park, New South Wales, Australia
You can visit this park by day to see native Australian animals roaming free, but we recommend the Wild Sleep Out (walkaboutpark.com.au) where you can camp in the park overnight. Not only does this give you better sightings of the animals (many of which are nocturnal), but the experience of toasting marshmallows on the campfire while friendly eyes watch you from the surrounding trees and then snuggling down in your cosy tent to the sound of possums, koalas and bilbies as they come out to play is something no child will ever forget.
Monkey rescue, Pretoria, South Africa
What better way to bond with your own imps than helping with the care and conservation of over 100 species of primates in a monkey sanctuary (podvolunteer.org/Animals/primate-rescue-south-africa.html)? Volunteer as a whole family and you can get involved with food preparation, enclosure cleaning and maintenance, behaviour observation and recording, and ‘monkey time’ while your furry friends play. Then tack on a trip to Kruger National Park to see animals in the wild as a well-earned reward for your hard work.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Surely the ultimate adventure for any young wildlife enthusiast, a trip to these ecologically famous islands involves a considerable flight and then a lot of time (probably sleeping) on boats while you explore the different islands. The reward is sightings of an incredible variety of unique birds and animals, many of which lack natural predators and stay put when humans venture near. Go underwater and it’s like snorkelling in your very own aquarium with sea horses, marine iguanas, hammerhead sharks and Galápagos penguins to name just a few of the creatures you will see.
Watching birds of prey, UK
Teach the kids the ancient art of falconry on a day out in the English countryside. As well as learning all about these magnificent birds of prey and how they survive in the wild, there are plenty of opportunities for your kids to get a sense of what falconry is all about through handling the hawks, owls and vultures, and experiencing the exhilarating thud of a bird landing in their fist. A must for fans of Harry Potter’s Hedwig.