Britain’s a great country, but it’s a little short on reptile watching opportunities. There aren’t many native species to begin with, and although conservation efforts are gradually turning the tide, habitat loss has taken its toll on populations over the last fifty years or so. It’s hardly surprising then, that for most British reptile enthusiasts, the chance to spot some interesting lizards, snakes or tortoises makes a welcome addition to any holiday in the warmer parts of the world, while some dedicated reptile fans select their venues on the basis of what’s to be seen.
While any attempt to compile a “top” list always risks missing out someone’s favourite, and provokes endless debate about why this was in, and that was out, here are our suggestions of the world’s top five reptile watching destinations – see if you agree.
Africa – Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, Madagascar
The island of Madagascar is home to around half of the world’s 160 species of chameleon, including examples of both sub-families – Chamaeleoninae, the “typical” chameleons and Brookesiinae, commonly called dwarf chameleons. There is no better place to see these remarkable animals than the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, 60-square miles of hot and humid primary forest in the island’s eastern Toamasina Province, where it rains on more than 200 days of the year.
Here, if you’re lucky and you can see through its camouflage, you might spot Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsonii) – arguably the largest of the group at around 27 inches – but even if you don’t, there are plenty of other impressive specimens to keep your interest.
Australasia – Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
Think ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and you’ve got the picture. Australia is a treasure-trove of fascinating (and often incredibly deadly) reptiles and, with nearly 120 species recorded to date, Kakadu certainly won’t disappoint you, whether it’s snakes, lizards, tortoises or crocodiles that you’ve come for – though with 7,600 square miles to explore, you probably won’t get to see them all!
It’s obviously not the sort of place to go wandering off by yourself – and the warnings about those “salties” Crocodylus porosus are absolutely serious – but with a good local guide and a bit of common sense, the Kakadu experience is not to be missed.
Europe – Philerimos, Rhodes
There are, of course, excellent reptile watching opportunities to be had much closer to home. A trip to almost anywhere in Europe opens up the chance to watch a range of creatures that never quite made it across the Channel, but one destination in particular stands out – Philerimos, on Rhodes. The reason? In the language of those old seafarers’ maps, because “here be dragons” – and the walls around the restored Byzantine church of our Lady of Philerimos and the ruins of the Castle of the Knights hold more of them per square foot than anywhere else on the island.
The Rhodes Dragon is, in truth, a kind of agama – Laudakia stellio, also known as the “hardun” – and this is one of the few places in Europe where an example of this important group of lizards can be so easily seen. Sit peacefully on a warm afternoon and watch as several generations – youngsters, right up to big old males a foot or so in length – slowly emerge from their hiding places. It’s worth the walk for that sight alone!
North America – Everglades, Florida
With over 50 species of reptiles to be found and the comforts of civilisation never far away, the Everglades make a great place to mix a little reptile watching with more conventional holiday pursuits. Home to everything from giants like the rare American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus) and the alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), through a whole range of terrapins and snakes to diminutive lizards such as the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) there’s always something different to see.
An added bonus – or irritation, depending on your point of view – is that not all the species you may encounter actually belong in Florida. A number of deliberate and accidental introductions over the years means that Burmese pythons, Tokay geckoes and green iguanas, to name but a few, can also now be seen alongside the truly native reptiles.
South America – The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Last but most definitely never least, comes nature’s own island laboratory that was to ultimately inspire a certain Charles Robert Darwin to turn the scientific world of the day on its head! There is nowhere else on the planet quite like the Galapagos and from the giant tortoises that gave the islands their name, to the only sea-going, seaweed-eating lizard in the world – the marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) – reptiles play a big part in that unique ecology.
The Galapagos simply have to be on every reptile fan’s wish list of places to visit.
There are, of course, many other places across the globe where you can do a little reptile watching – and some of the best opportunities can be had on the heaths and moors of Britain, if you know where to go. What makes these destinations top, however, is the uniqueness of the experience they offer, which makes the effort involved in getting to them so very well worth all the bother. If you are lucky enough to visit any or all of them, you’ll see why – but wherever you travel, take care and have a great time looking out for a few of our scaly friends!