Mammal Watching with Kids?

Hi All,

I’ve subscribed myself to this forum for about 8 years now, and it gave me lots of wonderful traveling ideas such as tracking giant pandas and snow leopards, things I didn’t know possible before. Though I have stopped my travel adventures since 5 years ago when I had my first kid. Now I have three. Since my job is nothing related to zoology nor photography, I don’t have any excuses to go to the wild anymore. In fact I have not left the eastern time zone to avoid dealing with jet lags for little kids.

Now the kids are a little older and I am tempted to plan for the next big trip, hopefully with some mammal watching. But there are many practically issues, like the kids’ tension span, safety, schedule, health, gears and cost (for 5 people). I wonder if anyone on this forum has any experiences with any of the aspects. My oldest is fascinated in rain forest and way back I’ve been to the Tahuayo Lodge on the Amazon. That was actually an easy destination with a base lodge and morning and afternoon excursions. But I’ve already been there. So anyone has a better suggestion?

Thank you.


  • Charles Hood

    I raised three to six kids, depending how we count various lost souls and boyfriends / girlfriends, and everybody had to go camping in Yosemite at least once, go see the rain forest at least once, and go to Europe at least once. (I live in California.) If you’re staying in one time zone to please the kids, that’s poppycock: they are plenty durable, or how did any of our ancestors ever make it out of Africa? Camping in Grand Canyon or Yosemite is cheap, or Costa Rica can be done cheaply if you look for modest accommodations and think about off-season bargains. Take them out of school: nature is the best education of all, or set up a “go fund me” thing and get all the in-laws, relatives, and chums at work to put into the pot. Go, go, that is the main thing — you just have to GO. Or as they say in Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Don’t dream it, BE it.” / Charles Hood, Palmdale, CA

  • Leslie Z Sokolow

    I believe it’s important to introduce kids to the wild places of their own country first. We loved the Okefenokee Swamp (river otters, alligators, turtles galore), Blue Spring State Park, near Orlando (manatees in an unmolested context), elephant seals in central California, 2 species of bears plus moose and ungulates in Glacier National Park, and of course the great megafauna experience in Yellowstone.

    After extensively exploring the US, we took our daughters to the Osa Peninsula. Costa Rica when they were in middle and high school. We stayed at a rustic all-inclusive ecolodge in Drake Bay (Jinetes de Oso Lodge). We chose activities that focused on wildlife, including a guided trip to the heart of Corcovado National Park. On the trip we saw monkeys, sloths, etc. The thrill that hooked my kids forever was the tapir that shadowed us up the trail for many minutes before someone turned around and noticed. Other activities included whale watching trips, snorkeling, nighttime insect-focused hike, etc. After that trip, kids were really excited about sleuthing out wildlife and going places where they can be found. We easily could have do this trip at an earlier age, if we had thought about it sooner.

  • Jon Hall

    I’ve taken my kids all over the place since they were tiny: I took my daughter up to Iron Range (Cape York Australia) when she was a few months old, and took my son to South Africa before he was 2. Not sure either of them got much out of those trips but at least now they have no problem at all sitting in a car for 12 hours or on a flight anywhere. Of course it depends on their personality and interests: my son is much more interested in looking for smaller things a rainforest than his sister. One thing I have learned – and I think it was Charles Foley who first mentioned this to me – is that kids can often prefer quests to see a particular animal, rather than my usual intense see everything trip. I honestly think I have never seen them so excited as when we were (finally) very hot on the trail of a Mediterranean Monk Seal in Croatia or when the Lynx we were hoping for wandered past the car Yes Costa Rica or Panama could be good spots for you to consider – or further afield – South African or Namibia are great with kids as you can self drive and go at your own pace and don’t have to worry about the impact on others if they start crying etc because you will be in your own car. I took my kids there when my daughter was almost 4 and she still remembers a great deal about the trip 10 years later (more than me I am sure!). Chile could also be good – safe, comfortable and you can drive yourselves around. Jon

  • machunter

    I have no kids but have taken groups of 21 university students to many destinations including Tahuayo Lodge three times and I can report that the guides there are excellent at handling folks of all ages. So no worries with that destination if you can afford it. As a frugal person who never was on a plane until 17 years old I would lean toward using limited funds for more, longer trips closer to home with exotic destinations as a uncommon treat…. mac hunter

  • Jason Waine

    With the exception of the time zone problem, I think a safari holiday to South Africa possibly staying in lodge tents would fit the bill. It would be exciting enough to keep the attention of most youngsters even those with no particular interest in wildlife. Go for it

  • william boehm

    greetings and wonderful idea from some of the members. do trips locally, but i am not sure where your based, in the US?
    i took my kids (four) into Olympic national park and I knew where to find elk herds, bear, mountain goats, dippers, courting harlequin ducks. Badlands national park with deer, bison and pronghorn, prairie dog communities. Also banff and Jasper National parks for elk, wolf often easily seen in the early morning at several locations, like the gravel road by Spray Lakes in the Kananaskis. i couldnt afford flying a whole family to exotic places at the time, but our adventures instilled in them a sense of wonder of Gods creation and to explore where their interests will take them. bill

  • Vladimir Dinets

    My daughter is 3 and she’s been to all continents except the Antarctic. She even met Jon Hall in person. She is interested in wildlife, but not obsessed with it like I was when I was her age. We generally have it easy with her because she doesn’t mind time zone changes and enjoys long flights; more importantly, she doesn’t get seasick (except in situations when I start quietly moving the family to a seat next to a lifeboat), but there are still some restrictions we can’t avoid:
    1. We don’t go to places where she would have to take malaria prophylactics and/or use 98% DEET (there is a child-safe repellent called Cactus Juice, but it’s less effective);
    2. We learned to avoid large national parks in Africa because it’s too much driving and too little walking;
    3. Pelagic trips have to be short because she sees every boat as a playground; she wouldn’t jump overboard on purpose but I still have to watch her all the time. I think this will no longer be a concern in about a year, and hope Fiona Reid would allow us to go on one of her Amazon trips eventually;
    4. Diving trips are problematic because my wife and I can only dive in turns (we can’t get our daughter PADI-certified until she’s 12; we’ll probably teach her ourselves much earlier, but it’s still a few years away);
    5. We spent a lot of time teaching her to keep safe distance from any animal until we tell her it’s OK to get closer, and she is now very careful, but I still watch her all the time when we are in places with lots of large predators and/or venomous fauna (such as around our house, where pit vipers are a constant risk);
    5. For trips to mainland Asia, you have to be sure your child can handle crowds well: blonde kids often get too much attention (as in 10,000 people trying to take a selfie with them simultaneously);
    6. We haven’t been above 2000 m asl yet, and will probably do it in 1000-m increments, until we find out how well she tolerates altitude;
    7. No matter how healthy your children are, it’s a good idea to carry a medical chest that would be sufficient for an army doctor in a colonial war, and to stay within 24 hours from a hospital. We never had any medical emergencies, but I know plenty of people who have.
    That leaves most of the planet still accessible, of course. Just pick a place you want to visit the most and see if there’s any particular reason not to share it with your kids.

  • Michael

    I have two daughters now aged 11 and 16 and we have been travelling with them all across the globe since they were 1-2 years old. Based on this experience, I agree with most of what Vladimir wrote, with a few additions:
    – Driving in large national parks in South Africa is a lot of fun with the kids if you put them on your lap while driving and let them “drive”. Perhaps not 100% legal but 150% fun.
    – One thing we do before every trip is to perpare an illustrated checklist of what we may see. I make a list of potential species and then together we google for photographs and prepare a little booklet with the photos, some information on where one could see the species, how likely it is to be seen (colour-coded red, yellow, green) and a line for writing down when and where it is seen. These lists greatly motivate them to specifically look for the missing species. Perhaps not suitable for a 3 year old but works well from 5 years onwards.
    – Our best mammal-watching trips with the kids were Western USA, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Australia.

  • Charles Hood

    Just to follow up to what was asked of me with my first reply, my youngest child (and the only one not a stepchild and hence with me from birth) was camping in Yosemite with me by 6 months old and had seen coati and hog-nosed skunk in Arizona before she was 1. Phil Telfer in the UK probably won’t reply to this thread, but by my count, he’s #3 lister in the world, and last fall on the CA trip when he finally saw ringtail, he had not just kids but grandkids on that trip. Anybody who doesn’t want to go out spotlighting can just stay in the hotel: the idea is to have fun, not make it epic, bring snacks, bring games, even have them bring friends their own age. In Hawaii, I also gave cash prizes for species, to motivate the sulky pre-teens….$5 for whoever first saw a Nene Goose, though with inflation, I would make that $20 now (and have the bills ready on site). Come to think of it, this might work for other adults on trips too. / Charles Hood

  • phil telfer

    I’ve travelled with my kids and more recently grandkids from early ages and the main comment i have is not to delay travelling until they’re older. Travelling for my lot is no big deal, they take it all in their stride with no fears and i reckon the sooner they get used to it the better.
    Agree with others that South Africa is a good first destination for kids with plenty of large stuff to see in daytime to keep the interest up. Maybe rainforests and places with a lot of spotlighting involved might not keep them so interested, depends on the ages.
    I’d say just take them and don’t worry too much about it, they’ll be fine.

    See Charles, i did reply!!

    Phil Telfer.

  • aholman512

    My wife and I took our 2 kids (now grown) to Australia, Borneo, Galapagos, North Dakota, Circle of Lake Superior,North to South California and Baffin Island. This occurred at various ages including teen years. We have continued this with our four grandsons(ages 9 and 12) who we took to Zimbabwe (Hwange and Mana Pools) last year along with our daughter. In all cases we have found that such experiences added much to their appreciation of the natural world and love for wildlife. As could be expected, there were many excellent mammal sightings in Hwange including a myriad of elephants and their first view of lions at which point one of our grandsons said it was the best day of his life. As already mentioned, the ability to walk on the land with wildlife seems to resonate well with kids and they mentioned this very specifically to us in regard to walks we did in Mana. So I heartily agree that it is never too early to include kids in mammal/wildlife travel plans. It is probably one of the best gifts we can give to them.

    Andy Holman

  • Sarah Young

    All of our holidays revolved around mammal watching pre-kids and although we do things differently now, we’ve still managed to have some fantastic wildlife experiences since our twins were born 4 years ago. In some ways it was easier when they were small, as they napped a lot and could be carried in backpacks, so we could stake out sites. Now they’re more interested in the animals we’re seeing, which makes it fun, but they need to run around and can’t stay quiet for long. We’re still figuring things out, but my top tips would be (1) go on mammalwatching holidays, but don’t expect to see and do everything you would have done pre-kids. We’ve now accepted that we won’t be doing much spotlighting and dawn starts are for people way more organised than us (2) keep things varied e.g. follow a day in the car with some walking/biking/hanging out in the beach etc. Destinations that offer lots of different experiences are great for that (e.g. somewhere like Costa Rica is perfect as you can spend time in the rainforest, visit the beach, go on a boat trip, head to the cloud forest etc).

    I agree with others that South Africa and Costa Rica would be great destinations for little kids, as would the US national parks, particularly for those living outside the US (we live in the UK). One of our favourite family mammalwatching trips was to Yellowstone a couple of years ago. We’re also planing a trip to California this summer in the hope of seeing some cool cetaceans, elephant seals, sea otters, beautiful scenery and whatever mammals come our way…

    Good luck – I’m sure you’ll have an amazing time.


    PS. Micheal – we’ll definitely make an illustrated checklist for our kids this summer, can’t believe I didn’t think of that before!

  • Ian Thompson

    One of our children`s favourite places was Danum Valley Field Centre in Borneo. Lots of the trails lead to waterfalls and other spots to have a swim, which always helps motivate our kids. Sirena station in Corcovado is good for this too. The hike to Rio Claro for a swim will undoubtedly produce some good sightings on the way. Sri Lanka was also good in allowing for a combination of wildlife viewing plus days on the beach and other distractions. Tayrona National Park in Colombia is also good for time on the beach plus trails through the forest. Several places in Mesoamerica allow for combining wildlife observation with exploring Mayan ruins which was a hit with our kids. Calakmul in Mexico was probably our favourite in this regard. If you are looking for a resort-type trip, staying at Gamboa Rainforest Resort in Panama allows those who want to walk to explore Pipeline Road day and night while others can hang out by the pool.

  • Tao

    Wow, thank you all for so many wonderful replies over the weekend. This is even more tips and ideas than what I expected. I am more excitedly looking forward to the years to introduce this beautiful world to the kids.

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