The scale of Asia, its vast range of habitats and extremes of climate go a long way to explaining the continent’s rich array of life. It is arguably the most varied place on Earth, encompassing landscapes as diverse as the cold deserts of Mongolia, the humid wetlands of Bangladesh, the wind-raked steppes of Central Asia and the sultry rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Biodiversity runs riot through this complex framework of ecosystems with India, alone, home to 1,200 species of birds and 340 varieties of mammal. But how, in a continent of around four billion people, has this wealth of wildlife managed to survive?
The answer lies, in part, to the special relationships many Asian cultures and religions share with nature. To Hindus, for example, it is not just the cow that is held sacred, but many wild animals, such as elephants, tigers, monkeys and snakes. Even plants, like the fig tree, are revered in parts of India. Asia also has a strong, if relatively young, system of protected areas. Project Tiger, in which reserves were set aside across India to help protect the endangered big cat, was launched as recently as 1972 – about the same time as Nepal created its fl agship Royal Chitwan National Park.
The big question is whether these (and other) conservation initiatives and deep-held religious beliefs will be enough to resist modern-day pressures on Asia’s wildlife – whether it’s the poaching of tigers to supply the trade in Chinese traditional medicine, or the destruction of the orang-utan’s native rainforest in Borneo to fuel the worldwide demand for palm oil.
Although indigenous people have long celebrated the diversity of Asia’s natural wealth, it is only within the last 150 years or so that scientific expeditions have revealed just how spectacularly diverse its flora and fauna really is. One man in particular – Alfred Wallace – did more than most to shed light on Asia’s biodiversity. In 1854, Wallace embarked on a collecting trip to the islands of Malaya, returning eight years later with an astonishing 125,000 specimens – many of them new to science. Published in 1869, Wallace’s account of his travels, The Malay Archipelago, not only proved riveting reading (due in no small part to the chapters devoted to popular subjects like the orang-utan and birds of paradise), but it also broke new ground on theories delving into the distribution of animals. Wallace concluded that the Malay Archipelago represented the frontier between two distinct faunal provinces – an Indo-Malayan one to the east and an Australasian one to the west, and that the two zones could be separated by an imaginary line running between the Philippines, Borneo and Java on one side and Celebes, the Moluccas and New Guinea on the other. The so-called ‘Wallace Line’ still recognises the explorer’s defining contribution to biogeography – but in many ways he should also be remembered as one of the great early exponents of biodiversity.
Asia: Wild Places
18 wildlife destinations in Asia
The Russian Far East reaches its most spectacular in the Kamchatka Peninsula (1) where an expedition voyage is the best way to see Ring of Fire volcanoes and observe wildlife ranging from brown bear and sea otter to orca and Steller’s sea eagle. The Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan (2) are the haunt of snow leopards, but far easier to see are the spectacular displays of spring flowers (especially wild tulips) and birds such as ibisbill and Himalayan ruby throat. Key locations include Aksu Dzabagly Nature Reserve, easily accessed by overnight train from Almaty. As well as giant pandas (see box, left), wildlife highlights in China (3) include golden snub-nose monkey and crested ibis – endangered species that can be sought in Shaanxi Province. In Nepal (4), Chitwan National Park protects one of the few remaining tracts of undisturbed terai, a wildlife-rich region of swamp and sal forest, while Bhutan (5) is renowned for mountain forests of oak and hemlock, teeming with rare birds. Tigers find refuge in both Nepal and Bhutan, but the national parks and reserves of India (6) remain the best places to see this majestic big cat. The high mountain valleys of Ladakh (7) are a stronghold for snow leopard, while Kaziranga National Park in Assam (8) provides sanctuary for the Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros. Three more Indian rarities – the Asiatic lion, Indian wolf and Asiatic wild ass – can be found in the little-explored region of Gujarat (9). For its relatively small size, Sri Lanka (10) boasts a wealth of wildlife, from blue whales and sea turtles to leopards and elephants. In Thailand (11) you can explore the tropical rainforest of Khao Sok National Park by elephant-back and snorkel with whale sharks at Ko Tao. Over 130 million years in the making, the ancient rainforest of Taman Negara in Malaysia (12) is home to tapir and elephant (best seen at clay licks), highly elusive leopard, tiger and sun bear and over 350 species of birds, including the impressive rhinoceros hornbill. The parks and reserves of Sarawak and Sabah (13) provide easy access to tropical forests, coral reefs, turtle-nesting islands, enormous bat-filled caves and the botanical treasure chest of Mt Kinabalu. Sabah’s Danum Valley is one of the best places to see wild orang-utans, while Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra (14) is also a good place to find the ‘man of the forest’. The world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia lies on a biodiversity hotspot with an astonishing range of endemic species – the most famous being the Komodo dragon, found on just five islands off Flores (15). An array of unique wildlife can also be found in the Philippines (16). The islands of Cebu, Mindanao and Palawan are particularly rewarding for birds such as Philippine eagle, Palawan peacock pheasant and various flowerpeckers. Between February and May, Donsol (on the southern tip of Luzon) is one of the world’s best places to see whale sharks. Whale watching in Japan (17) is particularly good in the Ogasawara Islands, while Ras Al Hadd in Oman (18) is renowned for its humpback whales, dolphins and nesting green turtles.
Read the latest posts on Asian wildlife travel
HOW TO BE A RESPONSIBLE WILDLIFE TRAVELLER
When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your wildlife holiday in Asia, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.
Asia: Natural Zones
Habitats of Asia
The world’s largest continent stretches from north of the Arctic Circle to south of the equator. Spanning these extremes are ecosystems ranging from the taiga forests of the Siberian wilderness to the tropical rainforests and coral reefs of Indonesia.
The great conifer woods of Siberia cover a vast area of northeastern Russia – a mantle of spruce and pine in which several species of large mammal thrive, including caribou, moose, brown bear and wolf. Victims of poaching, critically endangered subspecies of tiger and leopard are found in the Amur region of the Russian Far East, while the steppes, deserts and mountains of Central Asia are a refuge for rarities like the Bactrian camel, Przewalski’s horse, saiga antelope and snow leopard.
The Himalayan region contains a wealth of habitats, from subtropical foothills to the cold, desertlike Tibetan Plateau. Great rivers like the Indus and Ganges flow across the Indian subcontinent where wildlife-rich forests and wetlands are closely attuned to seasonal changes brought by the monsoon. Stronghold of the giant panda, the temperate forests of southwest China are botanical treasure chests. It’s in the tropical forests and seas of Southeast Asia, however, that biodiversity runs amok. Ancient jungles on the Malay Peninsula support an incredible array of species, while islands like Borneo, Sumatra and the Philippines have high levels of endemism.
Asia: Wildlife Travel
HOW TO PLAN A WILDLIFE TRIP
For all its natural riches, only a handful of countries in Asia excel as wildlife destinations, with experienced local operators, a readily accessible networks of parks and reserves and a good range of places to stay. India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Malaysia (especially its Bornean states of Sarawak and Sabah) are top of most wildlife travellers’ wishlists. All four countries promise spectacular wildlife experiences on well-established circuits. More specialised trips await adventurous travellers in search of bears and whales in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, giant pandas in China, Komodo dragons in Indonesia, whale sharks in the Philippines and snow leopards in Kazakhstan.