Top 3 Wildlife Experiences: bears, komodo dragons and snow monkeys

Combining my love of animals with my love of travel is my idea of an awesome adventure. I seek out nature on pretty much every trip I go on, and while sometimes I get a bit more ‘nature’ than I’d bargained for, most of the time, my wildlife experiences are the highlights of my travels.

Here’s my Top 3:

Looking after bears in Thailand.

I spent a month volunteering at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, near Hua Hin in central Thailand. You can read about my experience with the monkeys in this blog. But while the rescued monkeys who were previously badly treated seemed hell-bent on taking revenge on every human they came into contact with, the bears at the centre seemed to do the opposite.

Many of the Asiatic Black Bears and Malaysian Sun bears had been rescued from the most grim circumstances; bile farms where they were held captive in tiny cages while they were milked of bile from their pancreas. But once they were in a big enclosure at WFFT, with plenty of fruit, trees to climb and pools to swim (and poo) in, they seemed to forget the misery of their previous lives and embrace their new ones.

thailand bear

Every morning, volunteers would check the roster to find out what animals they’d been assigned to look after that day.  If you got monkeys, it was bad news, but if the roster said bears, then things were looking up. Despite the reality that caring for the bears often involved shovelling enormous amounts of poo, as well as scrubbing their poo out of their pools, the fact that the bears were just so…loveable…made you feel (almost) happy to do it.

Apart from shovelling poo, a big part of caring for the bears was feeding them. All the volunteers would stand at the kitchen benches, wielding machetes and cutting up massive amounts of fruit. We would also have to create enrichments for the bears, which was essentially hiding food in other material in order to make them work out how to get it out. Basically, we made lots of big frozen fruit popsicles, which in the Thai heat, they seemed to really appreciate.

thailand bear

Despite the fact that the bears looked so cute that you wanted to hug them, you also had to keep in mind that they were capable of ripping your head off with their claws, even if by accident. So moving them from one cage to another while you cleaned or put food down for them was pretty risky business. But watching them play seek with the food that you’d hidden for them around their enclosure was absolutely worth the risk. It was one of the highlights of my travels.

thailand bears

Kissing Komodo Dragons in Indonesia

Ever since I watched a documentary on komodo dragons, I’ve wanted to see one in real life. Partly because they are just so impressive; these massive ugly lizards that look like they’ve just crawled out of the Stone Age, and partly because they’re such fearsome predators. What strikes me as particularly cool is that they kill their prey in such a nonchalant way. Rather than suffering the indignation of having to run after their potential food, all the komodo has to do is give it a little bite, let it go and track it until it dies.

So naturally, after learning all this, I was super keen to go and meet a komodo for myself. Naturally. I booked myself on a boat leaving from the Indonesian island of Lombok and off we motored.

komodo dragon

On the second day, we reached Komodo Island and met the tour guide who was going to take us on a trek to search out the island’s namesakes. I was a little perplexed that the only weapon he seemed to have to protect us from these fearsome, lethal creatures was….a stick. Even though it was quite a big stick, it still offered me little comfort, and I spent a great deal of time looking over my shoulder.

It wasn’t until right at the end of the trek that we finally spotted what we’d come to see: a huge komodo basking in the sun. It didn’t seem to want to rush over and poison us with its teeth, although it did have a serious drooling problem and I wasn’t convinced that it wasn’t drooling because we looked a bit like lunch. It was doing its best impression of a komodo statue and rarely moved, which gave us a really good chance to check it out. This thing was seriously massive, and it just looked so...prehistoric. It had long talons and tiny eyes, and would stick its tongue out to taste the air occasionally. Luckily it didn’t seem to like the way I smelled and didn’t move a muscle toward me. (Or maybe it was deterred by the guy with the big stick).

komodo dragon

After arriving back at the main tea house, we saw several more big komodos. They appeared pretty tame, and didn’t have a drooling problem, so it seemed appropriate to lean down and give them a little kiss!

komodo dragon

Seeing Snow Monkeys take a hot bath in Japan

I’ve previously mentioned that even though I am an animal lover, monkeys are not my favourite animal. In fact, I think for the most part, they are the malevolent spawn of Satan. But, the snow monkeys in Nagano, Japan may just be the exception to the rule.

During a snowboarding trip, when we needed to give our sore muscles a rest, we booked ourselves on a snow monkey tour. After visiting a sake brewery and a couple of temples, we were deposited at the start of an icy trail and asked to start walking. Half an hour (and several near falls) later, we arrived at the hot springs. The springs were created by a local family who were sick of having monkeys popping into their own pool while they were taking a relaxing soak and wanted them to go somewhere else. Clearly, word got around, and now hundreds of monkeys turn up for their daily bath and free food.

snow monkeys

Watching the snow monkeys taking a dip in the hot springs is really entertaining, and they are just so cute. They do bombies, flips and breast stroke (sort of) in the hot springs before leaping out and comically jumping around in the freezing snow. They groom each other, have the odd fight and pose for photos (sort of). And yes, they were actually worth the half hour trek through the freezing cold (never thought I’d say that about a bunch of monkeys).

snow monkeys

Choosing my favourite top 3 wildlife experiences was near impossible, so check out the 'Nature' tab in my blog for heaps more of my wildlife travels.

Notes:

Wildlife experiences are awesome, but can also be dangerous, so I always travel with insurance. You can get a quote for travel insurance with Fast Cover by clicking here.