Beginners Mammalwatching

Hi, I am currently living in the UK and taking a gap year before I start university next year. I was wondering which locations are suitable for an 18 year old looking to start mammalwatching?

This may entail an inexpensive location (where the cost of living is not too high and mammals are relatively accessible) where not a lot of equipment is required to find mammals.

For example Central America and South-East Asia are typical gap year destinations as they have a lot to offer and have a low cost of living – is there potential for good-value mammalwatching in these regions?

If anyone can recommend anywhere (maybe there are expeditions or trips that are great for mammalwatching, although most I have come across are quite expensive), or just general tips for mammalwatching, that would be greatly appreciated 🙂

35 Comments
  1. Lars Michael Nielsen 2 months ago

    Hi Willem

    I like your enthusiasm about starting up with mammal watching. Before I’d come wit any recommendations I’d like to have a little info on where you live and what gear you have, do you have a car or are you planning to travel for the mammals. This will make it easier to help with good advice.

    All the best

    Lars Michael

    • Author
      Willem 2 months ago

      Hi,

      Thank you for your response! I am currently living in the UK and looking to go traveling abroad, meaning mammalwatching would be a part of my travels. I am also looking to order a new spotlight but in terms of equipment I do not possess anything too extravagant (e.g. no thermal imager). In terms of traveling I am hoping to explore regions, for example Central America or South-east Asia, therefore it would be useful to identify locations within regions that are successful for mammalwatching.

  2. Vladimir Dinets 2 months ago

    Also, what is your definition of inexpensive travel location? For some people low- orbit space travel is inexpensive, for others hiring a rikshaw to get to the next village means going hungry for a week.

    • Author
      Willem 2 months ago

      I do not have a specific budget but perhaps somewhere with a relatively low cost of living or where mammals can be easily accessed – for example mammalwatching in West Africa might be expensive due to a lack of mammalwatching infrastructure and accessibility to national parks.

  3. David Robichaud 2 months ago

    Yellowstone?

    • Vladimir Dinets 2 months ago

      Yellowstone currently has 3-hour queues at the entrances.

    • Lars Michael Nielsen 2 months ago

      Yellowstone would have been expensive and hard to get to for me as an 18 year old as im living in Denmark…
      Lets see were the author lives and what budget he is on and then lets help give him an awsome start on mammalwatching. 🙂

  4. JamieElusiveimages 2 months ago

    Hi Willem

    I started backpacking/mammal watching on a budget 10 years ago when I was in my early 20s . If you are looking at a full year of travelling you should avoid Europe and North America as the price of living is high, unless you can work and travel.

    If you are on a budget and looking for an adventure you can’t go wrong with South East Asia. That is a good place for a beginner backpacker, cheap, easy to get around, relatively safe, English widely spoken etc. There are some great parks in Thailand and Malaysia. Also numerous Indonesian Islands have some of the best mammal watching on earth and most can be done reasonably cheap. Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi, Java, Komodo etc.

    South and Central America can also be done fairly cheap. The Amazon in Ecuador,Peru and Bolivia can all be done on a budget and all 3 countries are epic with lots of other mammal watching on offer! Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama all have good mammal watching too.

    Some African countries can also be done on a budget. Countries like Kenya have safaris to places like Masai Mara, Nakuru and Amboseli, where you can join a group safari, which keeps the costs down. Also mammal watching in Africa is out of this world!.

    • Author
      Willem 1 month ago

      Thank you for your reply! Central America is definitely somewhere I am considering as travel is less restricted than South East Asia (which may be explored next year).
      I was wondering if spotlighting is allowed in many Central American national parks – I cannot drive thus would only be able to spotlight with a headlamp.
      As a side note, is solo spotlighting by foot common or is it deemed too dangerous when carried out abroad?
      African countries are definitely something I will look into.

  5. Michael Johnson 2 months ago

    1. What do you have locally? In Australia we have groups such as the Field Naturalists Club and the Mammal Survey Group that go out weekends surveying wildlife, including trapping and spotlighting. Good place to learn skills and start your list with all those small mammals.

    2. Bang for buck the best value in mammal-watching is an African safari. As has been pointed out however it is pricey up front .

    3. If going to Asia the best country I have visited is Sri Lanka. Great mammal (and general) wildlife watching with a comprehensive public transport system and cheap accommodation. I think the reason is the Buddhist culture which discourages persecution of animals, so the wildlife is literally everywhere.

  6. Michael Johnson 2 months ago

    Regarding equipment, the only really essential item is a reasonable pair of binoculars. No need to go top of the range. I would recommend looking at the Nikon Monarch range as a starting point.

    Otherwise a headlamp is essential for night work. None are horribly expensive, and you will find plenty of advice on this site.

    Beyond that the sky is the limit, with camera gear, thermal scopes, bat detectors, camera traps, and so on. None of it is essential though, and certainly I would never put off an overseas trip because I wanted a thermal scope, for instance. At the end of the day you won’t see mammals unless you are in the field. I find the biggest problem is getting there, rather than not having the right gear when I am there.

    • Author
      Willem 1 month ago

      Thank you for your response 🙂
      A good pair of binoculars is definitely something I will be purchasing. I have looked at headlamps, notably the Fenix HL60R, however I was wondering how easy spotlighting is for beginners (potentially carried out solo).
      Sri Lanka definitely looks like an option – I have seen the Bird and Wildlife Team company recommended however such tours are often quite expensive.
      Are there any mammal-related fieldwork trips in other countries?

  7. Lars Michael Nielsen 2 months ago

    I’d make at least two plans if I were you Willem, especially do to the Covid virus and posible travel restrictions. One were you go to the destinations youre lining up above and one were you make plans for traveling in your “backyard”. I’m sure Jon, Vladimir and others can come with great recomendations to both SE Asia and South America.

    If youre not able to go far abroad Europe has some great spots as well. Spain has some “iconic” species such as wolf, (cantabrian) Brown bear, Iberian lynx, Genet, Pyrenean Desman, Several hare species etc plus a lot of other species. And many of them live in beautiful landscapes. One can also go on Whale watching tours as well.

    Eastern Europe has a lot to offer as well and living is quite inexpensive. And offers a lot of interesting species as well. Several not found in W Europe.

    If your not up for a massive amount of species but amazing nature and carismatic species Arctic areas could do it for you as well.

    Binocolars and spotlight are good to have (I use Leadlenser MT18), but i’d recomend a headlamp as well.

    If your up for it participating in different (serious) projects regarding mammal and/or nature conservation in the areas you go to it might be a way to get good local contacts and more amazing experiences.

    • Author
      Willem 1 month ago

      Thank you for your reply!
      Eastern Europe definitely sounds like a good option and is quite easily accessible unlike many Asian countries currently. I was wondering how accessible mammalwatching is in Eastern Europe, my concern is that in order to see mammals a guide or expensive tour might be required. Due to a relatively tight budget I may need to do more independent mammalwatching which I hope is possible!

      Mammal projects would definitely be of interest! Can you recommend any conservation/mammal projects on offer?

      • Lars Michael Nielsen 1 month ago

        I was in Estonia earlier this year and im going back in a week. Car hire and accommodation is cheap the roads are good and you should be able to see some good animals there including European Mink, Brown Bear, Wolf, Lynx and Flying Squirrel with some effort. Bears, Wolf an Lynx can be seen in the NE, Soomaa National Park and Wolf as well in the NW wich is probably the best area for that species. I saw bear from a hide in July but driving and walking along forest roads in the NE is a good option for seeing bears as well. Moose are easily seen in the Matsaalu NP as i Beaver and otter. Flying squirrel is in the NE and you need a guide and European Mink is only on the island of Hiiumaa. If you go out to the islands you can also see Grey and Ringed seal. Using hides can be an advantage for seeing some species and the prices arent always that much different from other accommodations.

        I was in Romania as a teenager and remember it as good. There’s a good variation of species from the cooler mountains to the warmer southern part of the country.

        I don’t know of any programmes but you could contact the universities or (serious) ZOO’s in the countries you’re going to. They can probably help you. Perhaps WWF can as well.
        If you want to go on a tour in Estonia i recommend either NatourEst or Estonian WIldlife tours.

        Have a look at the reports here at the site and do also check out cloudbirders.com . It’s primarily birding reports but many of them contain good spots for mammalwatching as well.

  8. Jurek 2 months ago

    India is a good place for mammals. Thailand and Malaysia including Sabah as well. Both are inexpensive and popular among budget travelers from Europe.

    Other great places for watching mammals yourself are South Africa (all African megafauna, although India also has elephants, rhinos, big cats, antelope…) and Australia. In the latter, one should really rent a car.

    For watching mammals you need binoculars and also a strong spotlight. If you are a freshman, it is good to get contact with somebody in England, and learn a little bit about techniques of British mammals. There are several active mammal watchers on the birdforum.net.

    • Author
      Willem 1 month ago

      Thank you for your reply 🙂
      India is definitely somewhere I will be in the next 12 months, however I was wondering how accessible mammalwatching is (e.g. is a guide/private tour necessary, is spotlighting allowed).
      Mammalwatching in SE Asia appears to be relatively established in terms of accomodation being close to areas with mammals and several tours. I was wondering if spotlighting is a group activity or whether it is possible to do it alone on trials through national parks?

  9. Stefanie 2 months ago

    I always try to travel to places where you can see a maximum of mammals on a budget. I usually go for a month and although I do spend occasional nights in classic, more expensive reserves, I keep the total cost, including all transport, meals, sleeping, … under 100€ per night (worked pretty much everywhere, from Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Southern Africa – and Thailand even for much less).
    One of my major advises for successful “budget mammalwatching”: make sure that you have your own transport, at least every now and then during your trip. Young people travelling on a budget are often part of the backpacker’s circuit. Backpackers are taken advantage of. They have to take inflexible tours – often crowded with noisy people, with the wrong focus and often not at the right time of day (imaging sitting cramped in a minivan, during the heath of the day, racing past interesting habitat to get to a totally overrated “paradise” waterfall to swim with tons of other noisy backpackers instead of using your time to actually search for and observe wildlife). You’ll probably see a monkey, or a turtle or whatever, but you’ll never be able to match the trip reports on this site. With a rental car and a flashlight, you can go on night drives and that gives your trip a wonderful new dimension! If you travel far from location to location, you could use public transport in-between and rent a car at each location (even just for a day or two per location). Of course if you stay longer in one location, you can reduce cost, as transport is often the most expensive part of a trip.
    If your budget is very low, I’d try to find a select number of locations where you can maybe do some volunteering (but do your research, because often volunteers have to pay to stay somewhere). If you stay in a place with nice habitat for a few weeks, you’ll certainly see a lot and you’ll get to learn people you work with, maybe even some new skills, … . A while ago I was in Brazil in the Pantanal and there was a German girl who worked at the lodge. Her main skill was languages as she spoke Portuguese, German, English, … She stayed there for free and wasn’t paid, but went on all the cool trips with the guests and her only job was to translate and to make the guest feel understood.
    Also: don’t underestimate wildlife in Europe. As was said before, there is a lot to see here! And with your experience from here, you could go on trips further away later on (maybe with more budget?).

    • Author
      Willem 1 month ago

      Thanks for your response!
      Your daily budget is definitely something I will be aiming for! Central American, South and South East Asian countries are currently of most interest. How easy is it to mammalwatch solo? My concern is that mammals are only accessible by tours which, as you mentioned, do not always have a strong mammal focus. The companies that do offer mammal-focused tours such as Royle Safaris and Green Tours are sadly too expensive.

  10. Jon Hall 2 months ago

    Lots of good advice here Willem. If you are time rich/cash poor then I think the strategy has to be to make the most of all the time you have and head to places where the mammals can take time to find but are inexpensive to stay in. If COVID permits then SE Asia can be excellent – Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. You can usually stay close to the parks very cheaply, eat well for next to nothing and you can do stuff on foot without having to worry too much about Tigers and Elephants (in most places). Australia is another great option if you can get a student work permit (it is very expensive): you can cover your costs with casual work and explore the enormous country on your own. Mammals can take time to find there but you will have lots of that! Palmari in Brazil (but closer to Leticia, Colombia) would be a cheap place to stay I think especially by Amazon standards. You could spend weeks there and not get bored.

    • Author
      Willem 1 month ago

      Thank you for your response 🙂
      SE Asia is definitely of interest. I am currently looking at India, Sri Lanka and almost certainly Central America as well. As you mentioned, accommodation at close proximity to parks is essential for budget travel and independent mammalwatching. As I cannot drive, I was wondering if spotlighting by foot is still beneficial or is it only worth it when going with a guide? Is it perhaps too dangerous to solo spotlight by foot?
      In addition to this, could you reccommend mammal-focused tours/fieldwork trips. I have looked at some but most organized tours are very expensive! Perhaps a research-focused trip is better?

  11. brennig 1 month ago

    As you’re young you have a lot of time (a year) and not so much money, so use that to your advantage. Yes, you can go for wildlife tours with a high success rate, see a lot of mammals briefly, but these are designed for folks with some money but not much time. I imagine you don’t have a career, a mortgage or children, so you can escape for more than a weekend.

    I would go for a long trip, without many expectations, and try and watch mammals on your own terms e.g., go camping for a month or so in Romania or Spain. Learn how to look after yourself, how to travel around terrain, how to track mammals and how to talk to locals! Immerse yourself in a landscape, culturally and ecologically. Learn how mammals survive in these places, what habitat they need, how they relate to people there. Who knows what will happen? You may find a family of bears and follow them for the whole month, or you might get one fleeting glimpse of a wolf, but you’ll know why and how you saw them.

    Especially being from the UK, it can be difficult to understand how different species of mammal fit into the world e.g. how does a puma control 150 square miles of mountains? How do huge herds of antelope migrate across a steppe? What do monkeys have for breakfast? You have a unique opportunity to really understand a place, rather than quickly chasing down mammals for a quick photo.

    The main thing is respect the animals, respect the place and respect the people who live there. Wildlife tours can be great because they should guarantee this. You’re providing a livelihood to locals to show you wildlife in a sustainable way (hopefully!). It sounds like you have a lot to learn, so don’t just get fixated on finding some charismatic mammals. How about making a trip in the UK first? Go to the Forest of Dean to find wild boar? The Isle of Mull for otters? Tayside for beavers?

    You have so much time that you don’t HAVE to see specific mammals. Maybe in 20 years you’ll have a stable job and can afford to go for a one week tour to India for example. I’m in the same boat as you. I just got back from six months in Kyrgyzstan where I spent less than £100 a month. I saw snow leopards, bears, lynx, etc. It was a lot of hard work e.g. camping below -30C, walking 14-16 hours a day, carrying 30kg on my back, etc. But we’re young and we can deal with it.

    Have a look at working or volunteering somewhere e.g. help out on a farm in Cantabria, speak to locals about wolves and bears, go out early in the morning for walks, sit out in the evenings with a scope, learn the lay of the land. I imagine a lot of people on here would give an arm and a leg for a “gap year”.

  12. Lennartv 1 month ago

    Hi Willem,

    Nice plans! in 2019 I did something a bit similar with a 3.5 month trip to South-America (Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador) and another three weeks in Borneo. As has also been pointed out by others I would recommend you focus on the places where a long stay and nightwalks on foot give you an edge. With most of us now the money is less a factor than the time you have to spend. This results in most people going to the places that gives the highest odds of seeing a certain species often with the best guide available, but those trips can be very expensive. It’s a smart way to go about things though if you can afford the costs and not so much investing, say 3 months in a certain mammal. Myself I’m not quite there yet but I try to mix it up and only reserve the really expensive trips for the mammals that I have no other way to get to and that I really want to see.

    However in your case you’ve got a whole year! What I would then recommend you do is go to a (tropical rain)forest and just spend a lot of time there. Just go out on foot and spend time on the trails. You’ll be able to see stuff that most of us will have a difficult time seeing because there are certain species that are far from guaranteed even with a focused trip and a very capable local guide, stuff like Margay, Giant Armadillo and Bush Dog to name a few from South-America. For rare rodents it’ll be even more so. For those you just need to spend as much time as you can in the right places and (in most cases) on foot.

    Also if it is really a year you have available you would need to go to a place where you can stay for a long time against really low costs per day. And then I mean really low, because if you spend an average of 50€ per day and you have a whole year to cover you’ll probably easily pass 20.000€. I don’t know what your budget is but for me that would be an amount I couldn’t afford when I started studying and an average of 50€ is really low, most lodges will easily charge double and that’s not even counting the food.

    So what I would recommend you do is find an organisation that does research in tropical rainforests and is looking for volunteers. If you are lucky you might be able to stay against costs. This’ll mean you won’t have all the time of the world doing what you want but you will still have plenty of time to look for mammals and other things yourself and there is a good chance that you might encounter something while doing the work. You wouldn’t be the first one to encounter a jaguar while doing a routine round of checking the cameratraps.

    Finding an organisation suited to your budget might still be tricky, but is not impossible. I volunteered myself with the organisaton Armonía in Bolivia and with Fauna Forever in Peru. Armonía was very affordable, although I’m not sure it would suit your needs or if they could use you as a volunteer since the organisation focuses mostly on birds . But you can always look at their website (https://armoniabolivia.org). Fauna Forever is very suited to volunteers, also for a longer time and you would be able to work in a specialized teams (mammals, birds, herps etc.). They are quite affordable and can also adapt the prices if you stay there for a longer time. You could always get in to contact with them through faunaforever.org. Then I know there are similar organisations in Costa Rica because I read about them in some tripreports, but I couldn’t point you to a specific one right now. I recently looked in to a lot of lodges/research stations in Ecuador and I know they have some volunteering programs there too. You could also try this organisation in Peru: https://www.amazonconservation.org/.

    As you can see I am mostly familiar with the options in Latin America, but I’m sure those options exist too in Asian countries. I also know that Sangha Lodge in CAR sometimes asks for volunteers, but I’m not sure if you could get in there, at least I once responded to such a position but they never replied to me. In any case if I were you that would for me be the way to go: spend time on foot in rainforest for a low price. If you go do things where you need vehicles it will probably get considerably more expensive unless you can land a job as a guide.

    One last thing: you don’t need a guide to spotlight on foot, in fact I would even say the less people the better. If you don’t have any experience you’ll get the hang of it quite quickly I think. This is also where it helps to go to a place with other people in an organisation that does research in to mammals. They will most certainly be able to give you advise on how to best approach. Also the more realistic danger of going out on your own in the jungle will not so much be the big animals, but more the smaller ones like spiders and snakes and such and even then, the danger I would mostly worry about is not getting lost. This is why most organisations will be reluctant to let you go out on your own in the first nights you are there, but once they get to know you you’ll probably have more freedom. In any case the dangers of the jungle shouldn’t discourage you to go, as long as you know what the risks are and how to avoid them, you will be pefectly fine.

    So I hope that helps a bit :).

  13. Mattia from Italy 1 month ago

    Willem, maybe you can firstly try with Spain and other parts of Europe: safe, lot of good mammals, easy travelling, cheap accommodations, and you don’t need a guide.

    You have a lot of time to spend, very lucky. Most of us that have to fit short – too short – wildilife trips wit many – too many – job and family commitments. And this “jigsaw puzzle”-game is the most difficult part of the issue…

    Spain (Iberian Lynx, Wolf, Bear, Genet, Mongoose, Desman, Deers, Boar, Otter, local specie Ibex and Chamois etc.), French or Italian Alps (local species of Ibex and Chamois, Marmot), Romania (Jackal) and Estonia (Moose, again Bear, with lot of luck Eurasian Lynx, etc.). Scandinavia, especially Norway, is sadly very expensive.

    If you find that mammalwatching is your perfect hobby, than you can try South Asia or South America. Africa would be the best, but sadly not easy, nor cheap, for independent travellers.

    • Lars Michael Nielsen 1 month ago

      As Matti says Spain is an awsome place to start. The animals are quite easy to see as well (at least the larger ones) 😉 I’ve got GPS points for goog spots for Iberian lynx, Bear, Wolves and Genet and on top of that you’ll see lots of more common species. I’m sure other members of the community will be glad to help as well. I know a reasearcer working on wolves in Spain. I can ask him if he knows of any way you can help as a volounteer in som kind of project down there.

      • Lars Michael Nielsen 1 month ago

        *Mattia.
        Sorry 🙂

      • Author
        Willem 1 month ago

        Thank you for your great advice!! Spain definitely looks like a great option, do you know if mammalwatching there in November is any good? Also if you could recommend any volunteering options that would be really useful! Thank you very much.

  14. Mattia from Italy 1 month ago

    Let me just say that independent travelling is sadly becoming more and more difficult. Even In S America, India and S Asia many protected areas require entry tickets and the presence of a guide and maybe a car/boat (officially for safety reason, in reality for creating jobs for local people). Sadly the politics of international travel companies are minimizing the chances for independent travellers with low budgets. On the other hand, only the big income from those companies can persuade local Indian or Brazilian people, for example, not to shot Tigers or Jaguars who eat their livestock. It’s a complicated issue.

    To join a voulunteering project, as other already said, is maybe the best option for you. Be only aware that 90% of your time, as a junior member without experience nor good knowledges in the academic/conservation world, will NOT be spent mammalwatching, but handling datas, organizing things in the camp and other much more boring stuffs.

    • Vladimir Dinets 1 month ago

      Mattia: I am not sure independent travel is becoming more difficult. It’s true that some places have become unsafe or prohibitively expensive, and some species are essentially privatized, but my feeling is that on average, travel today is much safer than 20-30 years ago, and the internet makes it easier to find cheaper alternatives and new locations. For example, South America is now almost as safe and easy to get around as North America (well, except Venezuela, but you can’t have everything). Of course, it is possible that I have this impression because now I have more money and can rent cars and stay in hotels instead of hitchhiking and sleeping on park benches…

      • Mattia from Italy 1 month ago

        Hi Vladimir! Safer? Surely, now many countries in S America and Asia are much safer than 20-30 years ago, just think about Colombia (Middle East is the opposite… in 2000 I travelled widely in Syria without problems…). But now there are many more things like entry tickets in protected areas, fixed routes, mandatory guides and cars, strict timetables ecc. And the prices in a low level accommodation (with a true bed and a wc, for example) are much higher.

        As you said, you can’t have everything: not good for travellers with limited budget, but usually better for wildlife protection because locals learn that mammals, and birds, are much more worth alive than not.

    • Author
      Willem 1 month ago

      Thank you for your reply 🙂 Europe looks like a very good option, especially Estonia and Spain. Do you know if most mammals are only visible with guides or whether I stand a good chance finding mammals myself?
      Also I wonder if Central America (namely Costa Rica) is a good option for mammalwatching.

      • Mattia from Italy 1 month ago

        Hi Willem, in Spain you don’t need a guide. Maybe only for Wolves (try to ask to Wildwatchingspain.com, they are very good and the price for one single day is not high). Surely a car would be very useful, if you live in UK you can travel with ferry and bring you car to Spain.

        November is good for Iberian Lynx and the wildlife in the southern part. In this mammalwatching.com site you can find many trip reports with detailed infos, Spain is one of the most covered country. Summer (August is the best month) is better for the wildilfe in the northern part.

        Regarding Costarica, sadly I’ve never been there and I can’t help you, but it’s definitely a very good place for mammals (and wonderful for birds). For volounteering in C – S America, Asia or Africa try to check at Universities and ONG organizations in your country, I think there are no Universities in western Europe without a conservation project in the “third world”.

        • Mattia from Italy 1 month ago

          This is a good source for finding conservation projects that need volounteers (for Africa is the only way for watching wildlife without to spend a lot of money):

          https://www.gvi.ie/volunteer-abroad/wildlife-conservation/

          I think in those times you can find a place almost everywhere…

        • Lars Michael Nielsen 1 month ago

          Hi Willem

          I was on a nine day trip in the beginning of September to Spain a couple of years ago starting out in Sierra Andujar for Iberian lynx and then driving to Picos de Europa watching bears and then a little south west near Boya to Watch Wolves. As Mattia says a car is probably needed.
          Got all three species plus a lot of other good stuff.

          An have a look at the reports on this page. There’s lot of inspiration.

  15. Vladimir Dinets 1 month ago

    Expensive entry tickets and obligatory guides were already a problem in many places in the 1990s. I have a depressing feeling that the cheapest acceptable accommodation today is more expensive not because the prices are up, but because our level of acceptance is not the same 🙁

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