In my last post, I gave a whirlwind tour of the strange and wonderful monkeys I’ve met around the world. But of course, if you travel to enough places, you see a lot more than monkeys. Every locale has its resident beasts, and if you spend a little time and a little money, you can usually come back with some great animal photos.
I haven’t gone on safaris to see lions and tigers — at least, not yet. But I’ve managed to see quite an amazing assortment of critters on my travels, starting with my round-the-world trip back in 1990. Returning to India from Kathmandu, I spent a couple of days in a camp of mud huts at Chitwan National Park. And on the first day, they put us all on elephants and off we went across the river.
Our target was the famous white rhinos that lived in the park. Chitwan was one of the few places you could see this threatened species. And the best part was that they were well protected there, and didn’t mind visitors getting quite close, as long as they were on elephants.
We found a small group after not too many minutes, and soon we were right among them. The only unfortunate thing was that I had a wide-angle lens on my camera, and being on an elephant, didn’t dare change lenses in case I dropped one. So I didn’t get the shots I really wanted, but this one gives you some idea of how it feels to be up close with these amazing, unpredictable beasts.
Those were probably the heftiest animals I’ve ever photographed, but I did have a chance to shoot some heavyweights a world away, on a cruise around South America and the Antarctic. When we pulled into Ushuaia, Argentina, “the city at the end of the world”, I took a nature cruise out into the Beagle Channel to see a herd of sea lions, who shared a rocky island with a couple of thousand cormorants.
They were an impressive sight, their huge bodies sprawled all over the rock and each other. There were mothers with their babies, lazy-looking adolescents and huge, hulking males competing to rule the whole scene. And some times it came to blows, as you see in the photo at top.
Most of the animals you get to see as a traveller aren’t that spectacular, of course. In Latin America, where I’ve spent a lot of time, there are jaguars and ocelots and giant anteaters — but you rarely, if ever, get to see them. Still, the animals you do see are just as interesting, if less spectacular.
One of the most common is the agouti (guatusa, in Spanish), a kind of cross between a rabbit and a rat or guinea pig. I’ve seen them in Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, where I found this one skulking the grounds of Copan, the ancient Mayan city in the highlands.
The other ever-present wildlife species in Latin America is lizards, most commonly iguanas. These guys can grow big, and in some countries have often been used as food (apparently they taste like chicken). But they can be spectacular, especially the males with their orange colouring.
I’ve seen them climbing trees, stalking people’s lawns, swimming in rivers, and hanging out at the Puerto Vallarta marina (below), where they decided that people’s boats were a good place to get a tan.
But the strangest place I’ve seen iguanas was in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where Parque Bolívar, a popular downtown park, had somehow become Iguana Central. They patrolled the walkways, played in sand pits, and hung from the trees (if you go, wear a hat when you walk under them). But the strangest thing was to see people — even little girls — petting them as if they were puppies.
There are other lizards, too, and not all of them are as docile as iguanas. For example, caimans, a smaller version of the alligator, like this one I found sunning itself on the river bank in Caño Negro National Wildlife Refuge in northern Costa Rica.
At one point my companions and I rode horses down to the water and disturbed a caiman lying under cover. It bolted, making the horses rear up and giving us all a nervous moment. I thought: what a way to go, thrown into the river and eaten by alligators. At least you’d have your 15 minutes of fame.
Other places don’t mess around with caimans — they’ve got full-sized crocodiles, which can grow over 15 feet (4.5 metres) long and take on just about any kind of prey. You typically see them lying in wait in the weeds or in swampy areas near a river or lake.
My most recent sighting was on the New River in Belize, where we saw three or four of them, starting with this fellow hiding in the weeds.
You don’t have to be as big as a crocodile to be dangerous, though. Central America also boasts the poison dart frog, which exudes a poison through its skin that can make you very sick — and possibly dead — if it gets inside you.
The most amazing thing is that they’re very small: a half-dozen would fit in the palm of your hand (though you’d be well advised to make sure you didn’t have a cut on it). They’re also beautiful, like these two little guys from Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Perhaps the strangest inhabitant of the Central American forest, though, is the sloth. Here’s an animal that spends most of its time hanging motionless, upside down in a tree; in fact, it spends so much time upside down that its hair grows from the belly upward. It rouses itself now and then to eat some leaves, and once a week climbs down to the ground for a bathroom break (can’t leave any evidence under the tree that would attract a predator).
There are two types of Central American sloths: the three-toed, which are grey with that strange, sock-puppet face (you can see a photo here) and the two-toed, which have light brown hair done up in a kind of Beach Boys do: to me, their faces look a little like a dog’s.
Here’s one , climbing through a patch of trees in Panama City. And one doing what a sloth does best — catching a few Zs.
But among these weird and sometimes dangerous creatures, now and then you run across something that’s just plain beautiful — like a butterfly. My favourite is the blue morpho, a huge butterfly that flits by you in the jungle, flashing wings so electric blue that they look like coloured cellophane. Then they alight and become plain, brown objects you can hardly see against the background.
I’ve never been able to photograph a blue morpho with its wings open, but you can see one here. However, I do have a picture of this remarkable creature: a glasswinged butterfly that set down near me in the woods near Boquete, Panama.
Finally, one of my favourite animal photos, from one of my favourite places, Puerto Vallarta. This is a malachite butterfly, and its amazing colour almost matches the stone on which they carve the Aztec sun dials. It only seems fitting, somehow.