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Best Bets to See a Big Predator

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The mountain lion is one of the most common large cats but also one of the hardest to see. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lil Rose.

Just a few miles south, north and east of San Francisco, where I live, it begins. A vast unbroken range of wild country sprawls north into Canada, east across the desert and the Rockies and south all the way to Patagonia: mountain lion country. Also called the puma, cougar and dozens of backwoods names, the mountain lion, Puma concolor, is one of the most abundant yet elusive large predators in the world. Tens upon tens of thousands of them live in their enormous range, and California alone is home to about 5,000, though most of us would hardly know it if we weren’t told. I’ve hiked and biked throughout the state, covering vast distances of road and trail in mountain lion country. Along the way, I’ve seen a few bobcats, some black bears and many coyotes. I’ll bet that mountain lions have seen me. But in all that time, across all that distance, with so many of the cats tiptoeing through the woods and scrub around me, I have never seen even one mountain lion.

All of which is why it’s so amazing that people can reliably go to India and see a tiger. Just how many individuals of Panthera tigris still live in the wild isn’t entirely clear, but there aren’t many. Estimates place the count as low as 3,200 among all six remaining subspecies. Yet in Bandhavgarh National Park, many or most visitors touring the woods on the back of an elephant will see a Bengal tiger. Ranthambhore and Kanha National Parks are considered the next best places to see the animals, with Jim Corbett, Kaziranga and Panna National Parks all recognized as likely bets, too. (In the forests of Sasan Gir National Park, visitors may even see lions—the last of the nearly extinct Asiatic lions which once ranged from India to Italy but succumbed to human activity where leopards and tigers did not.)

How imperiled is the tiger? Scientists’ premonitions are dire when it comes to the tiger’s odds of going extinct at the hands—well, chainsaws and bullets—of people. In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, home to 75 million people, there were 300 tigers in 2006, according to an annual census. In 2011, biologists estimated there were just 257. Meanwhile, organized multi-national groups have recently announced a very ambitious goal of spurring a two-fold increase in tiger numbers throughout Asia. It’s a promising turnaround from the days not so long ago when the Russian government actively and, sadly, successfully advocated for extermination of the now-extinct Caspian tiger. But I wouldn’t take any chances. See this beautiful cat while you can.

Not in the market for a plane ticket to India? Don’t want to deal with the crowds? Already seen your tiger? Then other thrills in big predator viewing are to be had, with almost 100-percent success rates in some places. Here are some good bets:

1) Brown bears of McNeil River Falls, Alaska. From June to September, several dozen of the world’s most powerful bear, Ursus arctos, may gather at once at this famed sprawl of waterfalls to feed on salmon. Visitors have the incredible opportunity to stand as close as several yards from the bears as the animals hunt, lounge, play and fight, seemingly oblivious to their admirers. This rare dynamic between bear and person is due to the tightly regulated arrangement that allows small numbers of people to come, with a guide, and do little else but stand in a designated perimeter on the river bank and watch bears. Want to go? Apply in advance. Note: the bears, which local biologists and guides know by name and appearance, have declined in number, possibly due to bear hunting being allowed near the viewing site.

2) Polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba. The bears are just as big as the browns of southern Alaska, but they’re white, almost 100-percent carnivorous and not opposed to stalking humans. In other words, don’t leave the the tank-like safari vehicles that roll through the frozen scrub here as autumn visitors plaster their faces to the glass. Outside, bears roam the tundra, waiting for the waters to freeze and seal hunting to resume. Polar bears aren’t just a tourist attraction here; Ursus maritimus is an accepted part of life for locals, whose town is dubbed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” In Churchill, there is even a temporary holding cell for trouble-maker polar bears, and residents reportedly keep all doors unlocked at all times in case anyone should need to dodge bears wandering the streets.

Polar bears are almost a sure sight for tourists in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ucumari.

3) Great white sharks. On the set of Jaws, a very large—and real—great white shark unexpectedly destroyed a miniature diving cage. The footage of the shark, entangled in cables as it thrashed and tore the film prop to pieces before breaking away, was so thrilling to the film crew that they rewrote the script to make a place for the footage in the 1975 blockbuster, a movie that so impacted people’s fear of sharks that Jaws author Peter Benchley said later that he wished he hadn’t written the novel. Anyway, in the real world of modern great white shark tourism, the most feared inhabitants of the oceans don’t destroy cages. Rather, at the Farallon Islands, at Guadalupe Island, off Cape Town and in South Australia, the sharks swim gracefully around the cages, nosing out hunks of tuna and mammal flesh thrown from the boat while paying customers ogle through the bars.

4) Wolves of Yellowstone. In 1995, gray wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Canis lupus, known as livestock-killers, somewhat fictionalized as man-eaters, had been exterminated viciously from most of the lower 48 states. Though wolf opponents, many of them big-game hunters or ranchers, decried the effort, the predators are back now, numbering 1,600 or more throughout the Rockies and Cascades. In Yellowstone National Park, about 100 wolves are consistently observed, especially in the winter months. To see the wolves of Yellowstone, visitors can drive through the park and watch out the windows as they go, or hope to see wolves while hiking in the backcountry. Anyone stands the chance of seeing a wolf or even a pack, but the likelihood is improved by hiring a guide.

5) Crocodiles of Northern Australia. One of the nastiest creatures on earth, the estuarine crocodile is the sort of animal one should want to see from a distance, a large boat or a vehicle. The animals kill and eat people with some regularity in Australia. The huge reptiles, which may reach more than 20 feet in length, were once hunted almost to extinction for their skins, but restrictions on the trade and a crocodile ranching business have allowed the wild population to grow. Today, crocodile viewing is a tourist attraction, with the region to see them being the tropical north of the nation. And while not every excursion will be a success, other encounters can happen when you least want them to. Use caution in croc country—and stay out of murky sloughs and swamps.

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