Strange beasts and where to find them
By Corinne Homer
When we’re looking forward to an adventure, many of us anticipate the moment we are confronted with much imagined wildlife up close - be it the sloths and toucans of Panama, the orangutans of Borneo, or the lions and elephants of the Kenyan savanna. But what about the more elusive - and frankly bizarre - fauna that you don’t expect to come across whilst ambling through forests or hiking mountain slopes?
Here at TravelLocal we discover all kinds of curious creatures when working closely with our local experts. Take a look at some of our favourite strange beasts and learn more about where you can spot them yourself.
Bleeding heart monkey (gelada baboon)
The distinctive red shape on the chest is the namesake of these baboon-like primates; a species of Old World monkey found exclusively in the Simien Highlands of Ethiopia. Most would agree they are somewhat intimidating to look at, not just for their hunched posture, frowning expression and thick cape of brown fur, but also their monstrous fangs which they expose by throwing their heads back when threatened.
Though their menacing demeanour makes them seem predatory and carnivorous, they are in fact one of the last surviving monkey species to only eat grass, and spend their time grazing on the high mountain meadows they inhabit. Best not to provoke them though, just to be safe!
Where to see them - Classic Inca Trail Experience
The bumbling furball that is the mountain viscacha appears to be part-rabbit, part-guinea pig, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it directly inspired the creatures of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro.
These fluffy rodents which scamper across the rocky trails of the Andes are closely related to chinchillas, and are most often found at elevations of 3,000m - 5,000m in Peru and Chile. They live in warrens separated into family units, much like a housing complex, and in a suitably mystical manner are most active at sunrise and sunset. Keep an eye out for them when trekking to Machu Picchu at dawn.
Where to see them - Rainforest and Savannah of Western Uganda particularly around Lake Mburo.
The Ankole-Watusi is a highly valued cow which originated in Central and East Africa. These days they are mostly kept in herds among the tribes and villages of Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. The most notable feature of these cows is their enormous protruding horns, which are vital in gouging lions and other predators. Rarely killed for its meat, each Ankole-watusi is seen by its tribe as a source of medicine, nourishment and protection, with owners even arming themselves and sleeping with their herd overnight.
Another baffling amalgamation of ears and limbs, the jerboa is a hopping, mouse-type rodent whose elongated legs bend backwards at the knee. It looks much like a mini kangaroo - in fact the Kazakhs call them a name which roughly translates to ‘noodle hop-hop’. Species vary in size, some as small as mice, while others are larger and have longer, rabbitty ears. Jerboas are nocturnal and inhabit the deserts of Northern Africa, China and much of Central Asia and the Middle East.
They also hold an intriguing place in history. Inspired by their speed and deftness across the desert plains, the British 7th Armoured Brigade adopted the jerboa as their mascot during WWII. They donned the speedy critter on their patches and called themselves ‘The Desert Rats’, a name which lives on to this day.
Pink fairy armadillo
Where to see them - Wine regions of South America if you’re lucky and have a beady eye!
Native to central Argentina, the whimsically named pink fairy armadillo is the world’s smallest armadillo, averaging a length of 3.3 to 4.6 inches (not including its tail). This rarely-sighted digger is as elusive as it is intriguing, with a tiny fur-covered body, sharp front claws and prawn-like armour. Its nocturnal, solitary behaviour is to blame for it rarely being seen, as well as its acute vulnerability; it rarely survives more than a couple of days when taken out of its home environment. Even locals have a tough time seeking them out, but you should still keep an eye out for this burrowing beast when touring Argentina - you could get lucky! They tend to dwell in grasslands and sand dunes, and have been found south of Mendoza province, north of Rio Negro and south of Buenos Aires.
Where to see them - Classic Kenya, particularly at Tsavo National Park
The word gerenuk means ‘giraffe-necked’ in Somali, and it’s easy to see why this oddly proportioned antelope is named as such. Found in northeastern Tanzania and Kenya through to Somalia, this four-legged grazer is most striking when it leans back onto its hind legs to pull down branches with its front legs, reaching up to eight feet tall in order to eat foliage in the trees.
Its head, much smaller than the rest of its body, holds powerful eyes and ears large enough to detect predators from afar. They also have no need to drink, getting all the hydration they need from fruit and leaves in the East African grasslands.
Where to see them - Wild & Wonderful Sumatra
The biggest of the world’s five species of tapir, the distinctive Malayan tapir is the only one native to Asia. This bulky, long-snouted pig-like creature is distinguished by its size, comparable to a donkey, and by its block colours of black and white which define its front and rear end.
With poor eyesight, Malayan tapirs rely on their markings to hide them from stalking predators; including the adorable baby tapir which sports elaborate brown and white speckles to emulate the dappled sunlight of the forest floor. Sightings are considerably rare, as is the case with all tapirs, as deforestation of natural habitat has rapidly reduced their numbers. An estimated 1,500 of this Old World species snuffle the rainforests of Thailand, Sumatra (Indonesia), Myanmar and Malaysia.
Where to see them - Hiking Trails of China (again, if you’re lucky)
White faces, enlarged lips and two nostrils pressed flat to the face mean these primates project both an alien yet starkly human appearance. Numerous species of snub-nosed monkey are found in remote, forested elevations in Asia, primarily the snowy mountain forests of China as well as some in northern Vietnam. In groups of mostly males they travel in numbers of up to 600, though are still quite hard to spot in the wild.
There are around 10,000 snub-nosed species scattered across Asia, but the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey has been reduced to as little as 200. So rare are their sightings that they were even believed to be extinct until the late 1980s. If you are travelling in any of their respective homelands, be sure to keep your eyes to the trees - they spend 97 percent of their lives in the forest canopy.
Where to see them - Early Birds, Uganda
With an unnerving glare and a beak as broad as a boot, the shoebill stork could easily take the crown for the most prehistoric looking of the world’s birds. Standing at up to 160 cm tall, it is memorable not only for its - let’s be frank - ugliness, but also for its cold demeanour (they will often leave their weakest chicks to die) and its solitary, statuesque form.
When hunting for fish it can stand still on aquatic vegetation for hours at a time, piercing and scooping passing prey with its imposing hooked bill. There are around 5,000 - 8,000 of these dinosaur-like birds left, living in the marshes of Uganda, Sudan, Zambia and the Republic of the Congo, and it is one of the most sought-after birds in Africa for birdwatchers.
Make it happen
If you’d like to venture a little further when it comes to spotting weird and wonderful wildlife, click on the itinerary links above, or get in touch by sending an enquiry. You can also speak to someone in our office by calling +44 (0) 117 325 7898.