Saturday, June 15, 2013

Top 10: Nature Destinations for Alien Eco-Tours

Over the last three decades or so I have queried, usually over a beer, some of the world’s top conservationists and field biologists for their Top 10 List of Wild Places to experience life of this planet. This is a synthesis of that list, a site itinerary suitable for a touring extraterrestrial-naturalist (alienaturalist) desiring to observe a sample of some of the most outstanding and representative expressions of life on Earth.

Not included are cities, villages, cultural centers, or human-dominated sites, which are now a prominent part of the planet’s life and extraordinary in their own way, nor are abyssal hydrothermal vents, pelagic bait-ball feeding frenzies, or the ubiquitous nightly migrations of mid-ocean sea creatures, both of which are a bit challenging for humans to experience (maybe spaceships can turn into submarines!). Long-gone sites and phenomena―Great Plains bison migrations and saiga antelope migrations across the Central Asian steppe, for example―are excluded, as well. And, sadly, many of the sites on the list are there because they are the last relatively intact habitats of formerly widespread ecosystems. The majority of these sites are under great threat from habitat loss, hunting, agricultural expansion, and a host of other insults―so go see them while you can and continue to fight for their conservation.


                                                                                                               Talamanca fungi

And we all know the tapestry of life on this planet is incredibly complex, ten or so sites simply cannot cover all this planet’s great diversity of realms, biomes, ecosystems, species, and natural phenomena. Interesting, complex, and beautiful life can be found everywhere―from one’s backyard to the local wildlife reserve down the street. However, what is recommended here are some of those rare places where even the most jaded naturalist, field-tested biologist, or jet-set conservationist gives pause and murmurs “How cool is that….”

Everyone’s list differs and is very uncomfortable with just 10, but some special places repeatedly come up:

 1.       Western Congo ― Rainforests of the western Congo Basin, especially sites where lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, red forest hogs, giant pangolins, drill, mandrill, and forest elephants still occur. Campo Maan, Loanga, Lokobe, Loango, Cross River, Dzanga-Ndoki, and Odzala are exceptionally exciting forests to visit. Salonga, where the bonobo chimps live in the central Congo, and Eastern Basin forests such as the Gola/Lofa/Mano complexhome of the okapi―similarly get hardened field biologists bubbling.

 2.       Borneo Rainforests ― The skyscraper-tall forests of the Borneo rainforests, home to more gliding and brachiating creatures than anywhere else on Earth, spur rapture in naturalists. A few sites (note we are down to sites in Borneo, rather than whole forests these days) like Maliau, Tabin, and Danum, still have remnant populations of orangutan, elephant, Bornean rhino, and clouded leopard. Northern Borneo contends with the Amazon as growing the most diverse plant communities in the world. A few forest refuges in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia still protect similar rainforest communities.

 3.       Western Arc of the Amazon ― The lowland and foothill rainforests of the eastern Arc of the Amazon Basin, especially regions that are still sufficiently remote to support harpy eagles, two species of bush dogs, the nomadic white-lipped peccary that roams in herds of hundreds, giant river otters, and healthy populations of jaguar, top most lists. Relatively intact forests still occur in the Madre de Dios and Yasuni regions and a few others still distant from the tidal wave of development. Northwestern Amazonian forests are THE richest forests on the planet vibrating with an exuberance of life. Vast landscapes of the Guianas, southern Venezuela, and Brazil still retain healthy wildlife assemblages, but the Western Arc remains the greatest diversification of terrestrial life on this planet.

4.       Valdéz Peninsula (Argentina) ― An extraordinary assembly of wildlife thrives in this isolated peninsula, including guanacos (wild South American camellids), maras (giant steppe rodents), rheas (South American ostrich-like birds), the furry, yet-armored pichi armadillo, southern right whales, elephant seals, Magellanic penguins, fur seals, sea lions, and orcas that surf waves to snatch dozing seals from the beach.

5.       East African Savannas & Miombo Woodlands ― The quintessential wildlife treasures of the Serengeti and Masai-Mara are on nearly everyone’s Top 10, the last of the Pleistocene menageries giving us a glimpse of those among which we evolved. The lesser-known, but equally amazing, communities of the miombo woodlands to the south in the Selous-Ruaha region are equal favorites, as are the drier wildlands of Samburu, Tsavo, and Amboseli.

6.       Redwoods and Giant Sequoia forests of the American West ― Awesome best describes these forests dominated by truly gigantic and ancient trees, nowhere else on Earth can one stroll through such enchanted forests. The giant ash forests of southern Australia come very close, as do some of the South Pacific’s giant kauri forests and Chilean alerce groves.

7.       Cape Floristic Province (South Africa) ― All of the five Mediterranean-climate regions (the Mediterranean, California, central Chile, southwest Australia, and the Cape Region of South Africa) are stunningly rich in extraordinary plants, and as they grade into drier regions each has the capacity for brilliant, landscape-covering floral displays in certain years. The Cape region, however, is the most diverse and blessed with exceptional flowering plants, making it a common choice if one had to choose just one to experience.

8.       Antarctica ― Beautiful frozen icescapes and waters teeming with wildlife―leopard seals, various penguins, skuas, whales―make Antarctica one of the last great wildlife destinations on the planet. With the Arctic icecap disappearing like an ice cube on a hot car hood, polar ecosystems may be the ones to see first on the itinerary before they melt away.

9.       Great Barrier Reef ― The sheer size and complexity of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef make for a must-see Earthlife destination. Eastern Caribbean atolls and Fiji’s Great Barrier Reef are similarly visible from space. The reefs most packed with species occur in the Coral Triangle of the western Pacific, with relatively intact reefs of western New Guinea and the remote Tubbataha Reef of the Philippine Sea being surviving highlights. The healthiest reefs on the planet now occur only on the far-flung island specks of the Pacific’s Line Islands and the Indian Ocean’s Aldabra reefs.

10.   Lake Malawi & Lake Tanganyika ― Fresh water fish evolved explosively in these African Rift Valley lakes, with some becoming so specialized that they feed on other fish’s scales and eyeballs. Underwater, the rainbow swarms of cichlid fish present a feast for the eyes. Amazonian, Congo, and Southeast Asian rivers support superlative freshwater communities, but the turbid waters generally make them difficult to observe. Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest lake, has evolved a rich array of crustaceans, sponges, and odd anti-freezed fishes. Rivers of southern China and the US Southeast support the richest temperate-climate faunas on the planet.

A few destinations repeatedly emerged: the lowland Terai savannas and foothill forests of the Himalayas, the distinct forests of India’s Western Ghats, the mountain forests of the Northern Andes, anywhere still in a natural state in Madagascar, and the floral displays of the mountains of Central Asia. For my very own Top 10 to where I have guided several alien-ecotours visit

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