Wildlife Holidays: Look, it's a Brachytron pratense! (That's the hairy dragonfly, stupid)
There's more to wildlife watching than safaris. Mark Rowe picks the best new tours on offer this year
An announcement that you were embarking on a wildlife holiday used to conjure up visions of watching the Big Five roam at large, with the adventure finishing at sundown with a gin and tonic.
The conventional safari is still hugely popular, but as travellers become more demanding so travel companies are required to be more imaginative. Wildlife can now be tracked to all corners of the Earth, and while some destinations are far flung, others are on your doorstep.
You don't have to go thousands of miles for startling and breathtaking wildlife experiences. The UK is home to 90 per cent of the world's population of Manx shearwaters, and the best place to watch the spectacle of a mass launch of the birds at dawn is Skomer Island off Pembrokeshire ( welshwildlife.org/SkomerIntro_en.link ) from May to June. Visitors stay in bunk beds on the island's farm complex (£9 (€12) per person per night) then rise before dawn to see the birds fly out to sea.
If you prefer watching wildlife in a more luxurious setting, consider the new Natural Retreats (0161-242 2970; naturalretreats.com) residences that will open this summer in North Yorkshire. Nine residences will be completed in July, based in woodland and ancient meadows and will offer views over the Swale Valley, a mile from the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Wildlife in the woodlands includes redstart, nuthatch, and greater spotted woodpecker, while hay meadows are at their best in summer near Buckden Pike. Natural Retreats also stresses its eco-credentials by using organic paint. Two nights from £325 (€425).
Further afield, operators are increasingly combining wildlife holidays with a genuine rather than a token conservation element. Two new cruises offered by Peregrine Adventures (01635 872300; peregrineadventures.co.uk), offer the chance to support research into the movements of polar bears by researchers at the University of Alberta and to track tagged polar bears via the internet upon your return to the UK. The High Arctic Explorer trip covers Baffin Island in Canada and Qaanaaq in Greenland, while the Northwest Passage cruise explores the Arctic archipelago and the northern mainland of Canada. Prices start at £4,460 (€5,832) per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and full board.
World Primate Safaris (0870 850 9092; worldprimatesafaris.com) is another organisation rated by wildlife experts for the authenticity of the experience on offer. Visits to orang-utan rehabilitation centres may be worthwhile but nothing can replicate seeing orang-utans in the wild, an experience that, as yet, few people can claim. A hard trek through the forests of Borneo offers good chances of watching these creatures, along with the stately proboscis monkey. Eleven-day tours cost from £1,700 (€2,223) per person, excluding international flights and based on two sharing.
It is just about impossible to visit Brazil without being aware of the damage being caused to the Amazon and Atlantic forests. Wildlife Worldwide (0845 130 6982; wildlifeworldwide.com ) is offering a new Endangered Wildlife safari, which explores the Pantanal with a chance to see leopards, and the Poco das Antes Biologic Reserve, home to the endangered golden lion tamarin. Prices from £2,995 (€3,916) per person, including flights and accommodation, and based on two sharing.
In neighbouring Ecuador, the Machalilla National Park is opening up to visitors. Located on Ecuador's little-visited Pacific coast, this protected tropical dry forest is home to ocelots, large numbers of rare woody plants and surrounded by coral reefs. Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk ) offers three-night tours of the park from £427 (€558) per person, excluding international flights.
In the search for more unusual wildlife experiences, Sri Lanka, with a high density of wildlife for its size, is becoming increasingly attractive to visitors. Jetwing Eco Holidays (00 94 11 238 1201; jetwingeco.com) can take visitors to the Sinharaja Rainforest to see sloth bears, mugger crocodiles, jackals, mongoose and the Malabar pied hornbill and the painted stork. The company can also take you to Wilpattu National Park, which offers an unusual landscape of lakes called Villus surrounded by grassy plains, set within scrub jungle. The biggest draw here are leopards but time your visit for August and September if elephants are your thing, because this is when "the gathering", the largest concentration of elephants in Asia, takes place, with more than 300 congregating on the shores of Minneriya Lake.
Eastern Europe, nowaccessible through greater flight options and EU accession, is also offering the chance for visitors to explore the natural world. In Hungary, dragonfly watching offers an unexpectedly entrancing experienc. The country's limestone slopes and volcanic hills make it one of the richest countries in the Old Continent in terms of butterfly and dragonfly species. The country is host to almost 200 butterfly, 65 dragonfly and about 3,400 moth species. Ecotours (00 36 1 361 0438; ecotours.hu) offers an all-inclusive eight-day trip for £799 (€1,044), based on two people sharing and excluding flights.
In neighbouring Romania, you can spend time with a Transylvanian count who has a passion for bats. Count Tibor Kalnoky (transylvaniancastle.com) operates wildlife tours from his 16th-century hunting lodge and recently restored villas in the village of Miclosoara. Bears roam in the hill, while excursions incorporate wildflower meadows that recall the pre-industrialised landscape of Britain, sandstone cliffs home to bee-eaters and an exploration of an 11-mile cave system, which according to German folklore, was the destination of the children of Hamelin enticed away by the pied piper.
The caves are home to pippestrelle bats – one of at least 29 species of bat in Transylvania. The Count has also been asked by the Prince of Wales to manage his traditional property in the Saxon village of Viscri in Transylvania along similar lines this year. Tours are offered by Transylvania Uncovered (0845 3000 247; beyondtheforest.com), which offers a week at Count Kalnoky's guest houses from £949 per person, including return flights, based on two sharing.