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Interview Words : Daisy Cropper | 31 May

Mark Carwardine on his ultimate wildlife experiences

Mark Carwardine is an expert on the world's wildlife – Daisy Cropper caught up with him to find out about his new book and what attracted him to a life on the road

What first attracted you to a career in wildlife?

According to my parents, I've been passionate about wildlife since I first started to walk and talk and I'm afraid I'm one of those people who eats, sleeps and talks wildlife from dawn to dusk. I'm also a great believer in doing what you love, on the basis that everything else will follow, so it seemed perfectly natural to do a Zoology degree (I might have been persuaded to do Astronomy, which is another passion, but I never did understand physics). I emerged from university just as the environmental movement was being kick-started, in the early 1980s, and have been working in conservation ever since. It's wildlife conservation that really drives me.

What was your first great wildlife experience?

I've been very fortunate indeed to have been able to spend so much time in the field with everything from great white sharks and blue whales to aye-ayes and jaguars – travelling, on average, about six to eight months every year over the past 30 years. But my first great wildlife experience was much closer to home, watching badgers eating peanut butter sandwiches on the lawn of a friend's house in Bath. I was probably no more than eight at the time, but still remember the thrill of seeing these extraordinary animals no more than a few feet away on the other side of their lounge window. I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade my parents to move to Bath.

What has been your most surprising wildlife experience? And your most disappointing?

The most surprising was on the first day of an anti-poaching patrol in Wolong, China, when a giant panda suddenly stepped out of the bamboo forest right in front of us. I saw it for about two seconds but, as far as snatched moments go, that was a pretty good one.

As for disappointing wildlife experiences, many years ago I came to terms with the fact that there are never any guarantees in wildlife-watching and the anticipation – the not knowing if you're going to see anything – is all part of the fun. It just makes you want to try again.

Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

One question I'm asked all the time is: where is your favourite place? I used to answer rather flippantly, saying that it was my bed because I don't get to spend much time in it. But then I started to think about it more carefully and eventually had enormous fun drawing up a list of the wildlife hotspots that have made the greatest impact on me over the years.

How did you pick the experiences featured in the book? Were there lots of others you had to leave out?

My original list was far too long, of course. In fact, it had 161 places on it altogether – all of which I had been to at least once and, in some cases, a great many times. I wanted to wax lyrical and rave about them all, but it was far too many. The whole point was to pick the really, really good places, my personal best of the best. To do that, I had to make some very difficult decisions.

How do you compare sitting quietly next to a bright red flower, watching hummingbirds, for example, with the adrenalin rush of a face-to-face encounter with a great white shark?

Which is your ultimate favourite? Why?

Do I really have to pick just one? It's almost impossible. But if I had just one trip left in my life, I think I would return to my beloved Baja California, in Mexico, for some of the best whale watching in the world. I've been umpteen times and still love it. But then I'd worry about not going back to the Antarctic Peninsula... Or South Georgia... Or the Great Bear Rainforest...

See what I mean? I have too many favourites.

Which experience would you suggest first-time wildlife travellers try?

It depends what you want to see, of course, and how you want to see it. These days, travel is so easy and there are so many outstanding opportunities for wildlife watching that almost anything is possible. You could trek through the jungles of Borneo, or join an expedition cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula, and be back at work two weeks later.

One place that does immediately come to mind, though, is one that tends to get overlooked – the Pantanal, in Brazil, which is mind-bogglingly superb for wildlife watching.

What wildlife experiences are left on your to do list?

So many! Despite spending most of my adult life travelling the world in search of wildlife and wild places, I can't claim to have been everywhere. Nowhere near. There are still vast swathes of the planet I have yet to visit and umpteen different animals I have yet to see.

I really should go to Cape May, in New Jersey, for instance, to witness what is reputed to be the greatest bird migration on the planet. And I've wanted to dive with thresher sharks in the Philippines for as long as I can remember. I see no end in sight!

Mark Carwardine's Ultimate Wildlife Experiences is on sale now Wanderlust readers save 20% on both hardback and softback copies with discount code: UWE128. Offer ends 20 June – order a copy here.

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