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Korea is not famous for its wildlife watching. So when I found out I had to visit in September 2006 for work and had a free weekend my excitement was containable. And when I spoke to a couple of Korean friends I pretty much gave up on the idea of trying to see any wildlife: they painted a bleak picture of a landscape devoid of anything mammalian. But in fact Koreans seem curiously apologetic about their country's environment. In reality it wasn't anything like that bad: I saw quite a lot of forested hills near the major highways that looked quite promising and that was in the most populated part of the country.
I returned to Korea in February and October 2007 and again in October 2009.
Lagha Seals on Baeng Ryong Do Island
I took a package tour overnight to the island that included meals, a night in a comfortable but basic hotel and a bus trip around some of the sites. This - a full on Korean package tour - was an experience in itself.
The seals begin to arrive in March and leave by late October. Numbers peak in August. I saw animals at several points around the coast during the weekend, though the major congregations occur at rocks off the north-east, north-west and south-east corners of the island.
All the bus tours stop at the Shrine of Simcheon, and that was our first stop after lunch. By happy coincidence I bumped into the Korean Cetacean Research Institute there. They were out on a field trip, and they had a scope set up to watch a few seals hauled out on the rocks - the Mulbeom Bawi (seal rocks) - that are off the north east coast. I saw a couple of other lone animals in the water off of the "airport" beach (the sand here served as a runway) and the "window rock". There were another 20 or so animals in the water by the Dumu-Gin Rocks off the north west coast, past which all the tours take a boat trip. I'd been told that I could hire a small boat when I arrived to take a personal tour of the seals here. But when I arrived I found out that the "small boat" was in fact a 50 seater fishing boat and would cost about $100 an hour to charter. So I stuck with the program. The cruise we were on slowed down momentarily as we went past at my request, but in any event the seals were quite skittish and I am not sure how much closer we could have got. I was also told that they spend most of their time in the water during September unless the weather is exceptionally warm.
Seals also haul out off the south-east coast on the Youn-bong Rocks but I didn't visit there.
It could - in theory - be just about possible to see the seals in a day trip. You'd have to get the first ferry over, take a taxi straight to the Shrine of Simcheon with a scope, spend 10 minutes watching the animals then head back for the last boat that day for Incheon.
More information on the seals and their movements is here on the Seaturtle.org site.
Seoul and Daejon
In February 2007 I went back to Korea and met up again with my Goodwill Guide from 2006. He offered to help me visit Seosan Lakes and Daejon, on Steve's advice these were good mammal spots. I went to Seosan again in October 2009, taken for the day by the immensely hospitable - and harcore mammalwatchers - Rich Lindie and his partner Hayley. They were fabulous at finding the mammals there.
The network of fields that lie next to the main highway from Seoul are the place to find stuff and there are a network of 2wd navigable dirt roads leading around and through the fields. One of the locals, who the people running the cafe found for us, came along to direct us. But he wasn't really needed. He claimed that Siberian Weasels were seen quite often in the area, as Rich Lindie confirmed. Steve Karsen and Rich Lindie have seen Amur Leopard Cats here as well a. They don't look much like the regular Leopard Cats as you can see in RIch's photo below. It is a particular shame that the area is being developed so heavily.
I went back in October 2009 with Rich Lindie and his partner Hayley and despite torrential rain they found me a dozen Raccoon Dogs and a couple of Amur Leopard Cats in their favourite area. We found a few Water Deer too.
I was back in Daejeon is October 2007 and returned to the same area. I couldn't find any deer or hares but as I was walking back down the hill I watch a large mustelid come out of the streamside vegetation. Oblivious to my spotlight it walked to within a few metres of me and climbed a tree, moved up a branch and disappeared into the canopy. I was so suprised that neither my mind nor my camera registered the details. It didn't have much in the way of distinguishing features. For a long time its arboreal behaviour led to me believe it was either a Japanese Marten, apparently very rare in Korea and it didn't look much like one, or a Sable (never recorded in South Korea though they are in the North). But in 2010 I learned on good authority that Siberian Weasels can climb quite well (at least compared to most weasels) and so I am satisfied that it must have been this species, especially as it looked like one. So mystery solved.
Korea and other wildlife watching
From talking to people there it seems that some other good areas for mammal watching are the DMZ (the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea) which is empty of people and rich in wildlife as well as the occasional landmine. I have no idea whether it is possible to visit there, though I know you cannot just rock up for a hike and so would need to make arrangements before hand at the very least. I am making enquiries. Mount Odae, nearer to Seoul also sounds like it might have a few animals living on and around it, and you can visit there without getting shot.
The guys from the Cetacean Institute also say that Finless Porpoises are the most common cetacean in Korean waters and are quite abundant, especially in the south. They are often seen from the bridge in Busan. According to Rich Lindie
The Namhae Grand Bridge (Namhae Daegyo) that connects Namhae Island to the mainland is my local spot for watching Finless Porpoise. Recently I spent almost a full day observing them from a few spots near to the bridge. While non-locals didn't seem to take any notice of them or perhaps did not see them, the local fisherman were well aware of their presence and what I was looking at. At times they came quite close to where I was standing and I had excellent binocular and scope views of a number of individuals.
Cross the bridge to the island make your way down to the area around the base of the bridge and to the west. To the east of the bridge is the turtle ship replica. Watch the surface for a little while from as elevated a point as possible, and you should spot them easily. After some time, I got used to their preferred areas and the timing between surfaces. If you take a scope and scan a little ahead of an individual and wait, you will sometimes get nice views of their 'blunt' heads and the characteristic ridge on their dorsal surface as they surface slightly rolled to one side. Remember to use distant buildings etc to get bearings when lining up for a closer view.
Also, if you are interested in trying to see Siberian Weasel (I sometimes go to the same extent to add a mammal to my world list as I do in my world bird listing!!) keep an eye out along the outer eastern shores of the Nokdong, especially in the rocks near the road pull-over. I have seen a couple of records from the area and have seen it there twice. Sit quietly near the rocks and wait for a little masked head to pop up between the cracks. Of course, the birding's great too.
According to Steve Karsen, Raccoon Dogs, Weasels, Hares and Water Deer almost always live in the same habitats i.e. open woods, woods along streams, marshy grassland/ricefield ecotone etc. If you have a reasonable choice I'd search hardwood areas since it seems to be harder (In my experience anyway) to find mammals in extensive Korean Red Pine woods. Maybe it's because they are sometimes rather dry. Anyway I've seen much less "sign" and mammals in pines. Woods that are somewhat scrubby make better hare habitat. I suggest that you check out habitats during the day and search with a spotlight at night. You could find these species around Seoul, but it might be a hassle because of the heavily urban setting: Pukansan National Park is there but tends to be very heavily used (although I'm certain that all four species are there). It could be hard to get in there at night-some national parks are more picky than others about their closing times. There are very definitely wilder mountainous areas east of Seoul but I've never been there so couldn't reccommend anywhere specific...