A Morning in Jeddah, by Ted Cookson

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A WILD WORLD TOUR:
EIGHT YEARS IN SEARCH OF EXOTIC WILDLIFE ON SEVEN CONTINENTS

by Ted Cookson
Published in May 2010
Masked booby flying in the South Atlantic Ocean off Brazil, 120-second video clip
Polar bear at Hudson Bay, 63-second video clip
Gentoo penguin mother with two chicks and brown skua predator, 71-second video clip

7 baby giant pandas playing together, 138-second video clip
6 baby giant pandas playing together, 92-second video clip
3 red pandas, 93-second video clip
 

I have been fortunate to have been able to seek out exotic wildlife on all seven continents over an eight-year period from 2001 to 2009. 

I first fell in love with koalas after cuddling one of those furry little creatures at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Brisbane, Australia in August 2001.  Then I was entranced by African wild dogs after watching a pack of wild dogs hunt while on safari in Botswana in September 2004.  In March 2005 I became interested in masked boobies after seeing this bird species dive for fish in the South Atlantic while cruising off the remote Brazilian island of Fernando de Noronha. 

 

I developed a soft spot for polar bears after viewing those majestic white creatures "up close and personal" from a tundra buggy in Churchill, Manitoba in October 2005.  In March 2006 I was astounded at the diversity of tropical fish in the aquarium of Monaco's Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium.  Later I became enamored of penguins after confronting several gentoo penguin colonies while walking ashore during an Antarctic cruise in February 2009.  Finally, it is giant pandas which have fascinated me since I flew to Chengdu, Sichuan in April 2009 to visit one of China’s three dozen panda reserves.

 

AUSTRALIA

 

Koala cuddling is no longer permitted in the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria.  However, holding a koala is still allowed in Queensland where the law specifies that each koala can be handled for no more than 30 minutes a day and that koalas must be given one day of rest for every two days of work!  Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, the world's first and largest, is situated on the outskirts of Brisbane.  Established in 1927 with just two koalas, Lone Pine now boasts about 130.  Lonely Planet has called Lone Pine "one of Australia's best-known and most popular animal sanctuaries" and Frommer's has said that Lone Pine is the "best place in Australia to cuddle a koala."     

 

AFRICA

 

"'Whiskey delta' on Hyena Alley," whispered Andre, my photo safari guide, into his two-way radio.  "We're following nine adults!"  After a three-month absence, a pack of African wild dogs had returned to the flood plain around Zibalianja Camp on the eastern edge of northern Botswana's game-rich Okavango Delta.

 

Seasonal flood waters rising in Angola flow south into arid Botswana, creating the 15,000-square-km (5,192 square-mile) Okavango Delta, the world’s largest inland oasis.    This unique ecosystem plays host to a large variety of African game animals and birds.  The Delta is also home to a great many safari lodges and camps.  Until June 2004, guides from Zibalianja Camp had frequently sighted wild dogs.  However, as the flood plain had dried up and the game had thinned, the pack had moved away.  Working co-operatively to bring down small animals such as impala, packs of wild dogs typically hunt over extensive and ever-shifting territories.

 

That morning we came upon a sub-group of nine wild dogs hunting in tall grass.  Strung out in a long line while attempting to flush out game, the dogs employed their seemingly oversized ears to their best advantage, listening carefully for the sound of potential prey or for a call from another member of the pack.  It soon became apparent that the dogs were returning from a morning hunt to the pack's den, which was now situated above the flood plain on a tree-shaded mound.  After parking our Land Cruiser and studying the dogs' activities at the den, we counted 16 month-old pups and 14 adults.

 

SOUTH AMERICA

 

I was captivated by the scores of masked boobies (Sula dactylatra) which followed Silver Shadow, our cruise ship, on 13 March 2005 as we circumnavigated and then sailed away from Brazil’s remote Atlantic island of Fernando de Noronha. 

 

Early mariners, who found that boobies exhibited no fear of humans, killed them easily for food.  Because these birds appeared tame, they were called boobies after the Spanish word bobo which means "stupid."  The masked booby prefers deep water for fishing, executing near-vertical plunge-dives in search of flying fish and squid.  In fact, boobies are seldom found in regions where flying fish and squid are not plentiful.  I noticed that a booby would often let out a duck-like squawk prior to plunging deep into the Atlantic as if it were a vertical torpedo.  Other boobies, upon hearing the squawking, would plunge into the ocean nearby.  The masked booby, which is pan-tropical, is a colonial breeder on islands, including the south Atlantic islands of Fernando de Noronha and Ascension..

 

NORTH AMERICA

 

"Bear with me," joked "Stu" Kelsey, our driver/guide, as he slowed to navigate a rocky patch on the unpaved track leading from Churchill, Manitoba to the shore of Hudson Bay.  I was sitting comfortably in a massive 48-seat, butane-heated tundra buggy while en route to view the annual autumn polar bear migration.  After spending one night at the gateway city of Winnipeg on 21 October 2005, I had flown north on a 40-seat Hawker Siddeley prop jet early the next morning from Winnipeg to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world.

 

After fasting for several months on land following the mid-July break up of ice on Hudson Bay, polar bears begin migrating back to the shore of Hudson Bay in late September.  More bears continue to arrive during October and early November.  This is the best season for close-up viewing of polar bears near the shore in the vicinity of Churchill.  With their natural sense of curiosity, the bears generally will not flee a slow-approaching tundra buggy; and, in fact, sometimes they will even lean up on a tundra buggy to try to sniff the occupants!  In November when the ice finally forms again on Hudson Bay, the bears go out to hunt for ringed seals, their main prey.  At that point polar bear viewing can only be done at a great distance with binoculars as the tundra buggies cannot follow the bears out onto the ice. 

 

EUROPE

 

Monaco's Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, a scientific research institute long directed by Jacques Cousteau, is well worth a visit.  The building has a beautiful classical façade and there are some fascinating exotic species in the tanks inside.  The museum was inaugurated in 1910 by the current prince's great-grandfather, the scholar-prince Albert I, who was an explorer with a strong interest in marine biology.  In addition to preserved specimens, the collection includes artifacts from Price Albert’s polar expeditions, including a mounted polar bear and an early manned submarine vehicle.  The aquarium’s primary focus is on tropical and temperate marine species although some freshwater species are also included.  The spectacular focus is the shark tank.  This museum is highly recommended for anyone touring the French Riviera.

 

ANTARCTICA
 

On 26 February 2009 I made a wet landing by Zodiak on the boulder-strewn beach at Neko Harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula.  Behind the beach was a rocky outcrop which led up to the foot of a permanent snow slope, and the glaciers surrounding the bay calved several times while I was ashore.  A colony of gentoo pentuins (Pygoscelis papua) breeds annually on this lonely pebbled beach.  That morning I learned first-hand that life is not easy in the Antarctic.  I watched while a gentoo mother protected her two adorable chicks, one of which kept flapping its tiny wings.  However, unseen in the photo used in this article is a brown skua (Stercorarius antarctica) which lurked in the left background, hoping for a meal if the mother was not vigilant.  Skuas are known to feed on small mammals, chicks, eggs and carrion.  To view a video clip of this penguin family and the vigilant skua (as well as most other species covered in this essay), visit www.eptours.com and refer to the links posted above the online text version of this article under “Ted’s International Travel Articles.”

 

ASIA

 

On 19 April 2009 I toured the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Station and Breeding Center, which is situated at an altitude of 500 meters (1,640 feet) in a suburb just 10 km (6 miles) north of Chengdu, a metropolis of 11 million in the Chinese province of Sechuan.  Luckily my arrival coincided with the morning release of six giant panda cubs into their large outdoor exercise area.  I watched amusedly, chuckled and photographed as the cute and rambunctious cubs played together, climbing and wrestling with one another on their large wooden jungle gym.   However, within about 20 minutes the cubs had tired and their frenetic pace slowed considerably.

 

The giant panda, the cute black and white-coated icon of modern China, is a bamboo-eating mammal native to mountainous areas in the provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu in southwestern and central-western China.  An endangered species, only some 1,000 to 1,600 giant pandas now live in the wild, mostly in the mountains of Sichuan.  Giant pandas are threatened by habitat encroachment and destruction spurred by the growing demand for land and natural resources from China's large and ever-increasing population.  Nowadays the reduction in the giant panda's habitat has split the species into about 20 isolated groups.  The major habitat of this animal, termed the Sichuan Great Panda Sanctuaries, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   .    

 

Please consider helping to protect and preserve the great diversity of wildlife on our planet by making a donation to an active conservation organization such as the World Wildlife Fund.  Details of this organization's activities are online at http://www.worldwildlife.org.
    

 

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 314 of the 320 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com
 

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