TRAVEL BUCKET LIST
15 Small States To Go For Animal Encounters
Unique Animal Encounters On My Bucket List Plus One That Will Never Happen
Many small states are small in human population but big in animal population. From polar bears to elephants, here is my travel bucket list for animal encounters of a lifetime.
Africa & Middle East
1. Botswana's Safari Games
Botswana is probably the most pristine and high quality safari you can find anywhere. The small nation is vast and diverse in natural environments, with about 40% of the country being protected for wildlife. In 2014, Botswana banned commercial hunting (partially reversed later) and focused its effort on safari tourism instead.
A safari trip can start at the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. While 84% of Botswana is covered by sand, the Delta cannot be more different. Wetlands, maze of channels and woodlands dominate this area, feeding all the big five game animals - African lion, African leopard, Cape buffalo, African bush elephant and South-central black / white rhinoceros. If you want to see a lot of elephants, you can also head over to Chobe National Park, home to around 70,000 elephants.
Read More: Botswana's Safari Games
2. Gabon's Surfing Hippos and Gorillas
Located on the West coast of Africa and bang on the Equator, Gabon is a small country with big ecotourism ambition. It is one of the most forested countries on earth, with forests covering 93% of its territory. In 2002, Gabon set out to create 13 national parks covering 3 million hectares. In 2017, it further committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emission by 50%.
Loango National Park is the most famous of the 13 national parks. Here you will find surfing hippos, made famous by conservationist Mike Fay. Besides the hippos, Gabon is famous for its gorilla conservation efforts. Nile crocodiles, elephants and whales can all be spotted in the nature surrounding this microstate.
Gabon is comparatively immature when it comes to tourism infrastructure. Joining a tour in Libreville may be your best way to tour Loango and all its gems.
3. Namibia's Gates of Hell
What does the end of mankind look like? Namibia’s Skeleton Coast may offer a hint or two.
Skeleton Coast, also called “Gates of Hell”, is a 500km shoreline made of sand while dotted with bleached whale bones and shipwrecks. Humans simply cannot conquer the desert here.
Yet some hardy animals dominate here. Lions and hyenas are seen around the shoreline looking for their seafood of the day. Elephants are sometimes enjoying themselves in the waves, along with neon pink flamingos as well as Cape fur seals. Going inland, you would also find baboons, giraffes and black rhinoceros.
To see the real Skeleton Coast, you must join an authorized tour. Sit back and let them take you through the region in a four-wheel drive. You may find that you get a whole new perspective of what the future of mankind may look like.
4. St. Helena's World Record
Scramble for Africa. World War I. World War II. Decolonization. He has seen it all. Meet the world’s oldest terrestrial animal, Jonathan the Seychelles giant turtle. He was born in 1832 and now lives in Saint Helena, a remote British Overseas Territory lying in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Jonathan was brought from Seychelles to St. Helena in 1882, and he became a celebrity on the island over time. He was first named by Governor of St. Helena, Sir Spencer Davis, in the 1930s. He later moved into Plantation House, sharing the residence with the governor. His status was elevated to an international celebrity when he was covered by the Daily Mail in 2008 and subsequently by the BBC.
Jonathan is likely the most famous resident in St. Helena, but he is down to earth and open to meeting visitors at his residence. You just have to make a reservation with his secretary at the tourist office first.
5. Qatar's Desert and Water
Most people don’t think of wildlife when it comes to Qatar. But the tiny Middle Eastern country is home to some interesting animals that are not commonly found elsewhere.
The Arabian oryx once roamed all over the peninsula. But human development and hunting activities pushed them into Saudi Arabia, and the last wild Arabian oryx was reported in 1972. Thankfully, they were saved by zoos and private preserves, and slowly re-introduced to the wild in the 1980s. Now there are over a thousand of them, with Qatar and its Arabian Oryx Sanctuary as a leader in the conservation effort.
Besides the desert, divers are waking up to the appeal of diving in Qatar, which has the second largest population of dugongs in the world. Dugong is also known as "sea cows", and it was said that dugong served as the inspiration for mermaids. Globally, dugongs are now a threatened species, but you may just have a chance of spotting them in Qatar.
6. Bhutan's Himalayan Natives
The Himalayas may be remote and not easy to get to, but that's perfect for some animals.
Takin, Bhutan’s national animal, is one of them. From afar, a takin may look like an ox, but it is actually more closely related to a wild sheep. According to legends, centuries ago, a monk arrived in Bhutan from Tibet and people wanted him to perform a miracle. The monk, in turn, asked to be fed a cow and a sheep. He finished his lunch and fixed the leftover bones together - the head of the goat with the body of the cow. The animal then came to life, marking the unlikely beginning of the takin. Luckily, finding takins in Bhutan requires no miracles. You can easily see them in the Motithang Takin Preserve in Thimphu.
The fierce looking takins are accompanied by cute red pandas in the Himalayas. Although they are called pandas, red pandas don't look like pandas. They are panda's distant relatives. But red pandas also feed mainly on bamboos, and tend to stay in trees in the Eastern Himalayas.
7. Christmas Island's Crab Migration
With a small population of 2000, Christmas Island remains off-the-beaten path for humans, but it has the highest density of land crabs anywhere.
The Christmas Island Red Crab is a species of land crab that can be found in two Australian territories in the Indian Ocean. A large majority of them can be found on Christmas Island and a much smaller number, on Cocos (Keeling) Island. These crabs are large, and they can be as large as 11cm. On the island, they dominate the forest floor, picking up dry leaves, fruits, snails and even the dead bodies of their own kind.
If you visit Christmas Island during October, right after the start of the wet season, you will see the land crab migration, a feat equally as impressive as migration safaris. Over 120 million red crabs will begin their sideways tiptoeing journey from their homes, in the depths of the forest out to sea in order to breed. As a result, huge tracts of the island appear to come alive with bright red, roving, shell-covered bodies, making this one of nature's most impressive feats.
8. New Caledonian Survivors
As the great European voyagers travelled around the world centuries ago discovering new territories, they changed the lives of humans and nature alike. In New Caledonia, the arrival of Europeans almost led the kagu (or cagou) to extinction.
Despite looking like a kiwi bird, the kagu barks like a dog and is almost flightless, which made them the perfect target for the European pet trade of the past. Also arriving with these European hunters were rats, dogs and cats, further damaging the kagu and their habitats. Luckily, conservation efforts began early enough and kagu now enjoys full protection in New Caledonia.
Once you are done with the kagu, you can dive into the waters to see the New Caledonian Barrier Reef, the world's third largest barrier reef system and a UNESCO world heritage. On calm days in winter, underwater visibility can reach 50m (165ft), giving you a good chance to spot dugongs and green sea turtles, both endangered species around the world.
9. Palau's Jellyfish Lake
Swimming with dolphins sounds fun, but swimming with jellyfish is simply exotic.
Hop on a speedboat with a tour operator in Kotor, Palau’s capital. About 45 minutes later, you will arrive at Eil Malk Island, site of the Jellyfish Lake. Here you will snorkel in the same lake as thousands of golden jellyfish that are found only in the small Pacific microstate.
The Jellyfish Lake is estimated to be 12,000 years old. At its peak in 2005, there were 30 million golden jellyfish in the lake. But rising sea temperature led to a decrease in algae, a major food source for jellyfish, and the golden jellyfish all disappeared in 2016 during a drought. It was not until 2019 when the lake was re-opened to tourists.
Palau is now even more serious about the measures to protect their unique treasure. Only one lake is opened to tourists, and no resorts are allowed at the lake. It is truly wildlife at its purest.
10. The Pacific Robber
On many Pacific small islands, not only can you find coconut trees, you will also come across coconut crabs, the largest and most powerful land crabs on earth.
Although coconut crabs are often spotted climbing up coconut trees, they don't actually depend on coconuts for food. They feed primarily on fruits, nuts, seeds, and the pith of fallen trees. But they are also a curious bunch. Coconut crabs will carry away anything unattended on the ground, if they think it could make a good meal. This is why they are also called "robber crab".
You will most likely find these robbers in Christmas Island, Cook Islands, French Polynesia (The Gambier Islands) and even Seychelles (Aldabra and Cosmoledo).
11. Faroe Islands' Puffin Tourism
Bird watching, or avitourism, represents a growing area of nature-based tourism. Faroe Islands, located in between Iceland and Norway, is a hot spot for exactly that.
Over 300 species have been recorded in Faroe Islands, but none of them are more famous than the puffins, which can be easily spotted by their large, colourful beaks. Atlantic puffins that can be found in Faroe Islands can also be seen as far north as Iceland and Greenland. But in the winter, they would travel as far south as Morocco.
Puffins were very common in the Faroe Islands, but between 1997 and 2019, the number of puffins have dropped by over 80%. Faroese people used to hunt more than 200,000 puffins a year, although hunting bans enforced in some areas have cut that number down to 1,000. Conservative efforts need to kick in soon if the Faroese wants the bird nerds to keep coming
12. Gibraltar's Hairy Guardians
Monkeys may be commonplace everywhere, but these Gibraltar monkeys are symbolic. They are said to be the guardians of Gibraltar. During the 18th century, a combined Spanish and French army tried to seize Gibraltar. In a surprise attack one evening, the monkeys were disturbed, which alerted the British soldiers. This forced the Spanish and French to abandon their plans. So legend claims that as long as the monkeys live on the Rock, so too will British have control.
This legend was taken very seriously. The British army took care of the monkeys directly at one point. It was said that in 1942, during World War II, there were only seven monkeys in Gibraltar, so Sir Winston Churchill ordered for a monkey replenishment mission from Morocco and Algeria.
Today, there are around 300 monkeys living in Gibraltar. Simply climb up the Gibraltar rock and you will run into them. They will probably remain the symbol of Gibraltar for a while.
13. Svalbard's Polar Spectacle
If you also grew up watching this series of polar bear-themed advertisements from Coca-Cola, then seeing a polar bear in person would definitely be on your list of things to do.
Polar bear is the largest bear species on earth, and the male polar bear can weigh up to 1,700 pounds. Despite the warming Coca-Cola advertisements, polar bears can be aggressive and people have been killed on encounters. So the best way to see them is to join a cruise or a professional tour.
Svalbard, a Norwegian territory in the Arctic Circle, is a 4-hour direct flight away from Oslo. It is also one of the best places for a professional tour with about 3,000 polar bears, more than the number of humans living in Svalbard. Besides the polar bears, you will also be treated to walruses, five species of seals and 12 species of whales at Svalbard.
14. Falkland Islands' Ecological Reserves
Sea Lion Island is one of the most southerly islands in the Falkland archipelago, putting it close to Antarctica and completely off the beaten track. This used to be a sheep farm for almost all of the 20th century, but it was turned into a National Nature Reserve in 2017.
At Sea Lion Island, you will notice the giant elephant seals that weigh up to 4,000 kilograms. Despite their large size, they barely survived extinction in the 19th century due to extensive hunting. You will, of course, also see sea lions, which at 300 kg, are minuscule compared to the seals. Lastly, a trip to Falkland Islands would not be complete without also seeing the majestic Magellanic and Gentoo penguins.
Getting to Sea Lion Island will require a 40 minute flight and you will get to stay on the island’s ecolodge which will surely be a unique experience.