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Mammal-watching: one man’s obsession to see the world’s mammals

There are more than 5,000 different mammal species across the globe, but with this number being dwarfed by the 10,000 bird species, it is little wonder that bird-watching has become the most common wildlife watching hobby in the world. While there are thousands of websites dedicated to ornithology enthusiasts, with information detailing the best places to see particular species and how to find them, similar resources about mammals remain scarce.




This lack of information inspired Jon Hall to start mammalwatching.com, a place where mammal aficionados can discover the top destinations for spotting their favorite species, and pick up tips on how to catch a glimpse of those that prove to be more elusive.




Mongabay.com caught up with the founder Jon Hall following a recent trip to Brazil, and discussed his website and his experiences finding mammals in the wild.





A lowland gorilla in the Central African Republic. Photo by Jon Hall.



INTERVIEW WITH JON HALL

Mongabay: What is your background?




Hall: I grew up in the UK (North Wales) and moved to Zambia for a year after University. Safaris there reignited an interest in mammals I’d had as a little kid. I couldn’t settle when I returned to the UK so moved to Australia in the late 90s (mainly for the mammals) and became a citizen. I’m now genetically British, spiritually Australian, legally both and globally nomadic. In 2005 I moved to France and last year to New York. I’m a statistician and have spent the last 15 years developing alternative measures of progress, wellbeing and happiness. An interesting job that’s also given me the chance to travel to some great mammal spots.




Mongabay: Why did you start the mammalwatching.com website?




Jon Hall with his two children in New York City. This photo is courtesy of Humans of New York, a site with a different take on mammal-watching.

Hall: When I got more seriously into mammal watching and started planning trips, I found the best sources of information were usually birding trip reports (usually a list of mammals in the “by-catch” section at the end of the report if I was lucky). I was frustrated that the birders had all the best info and I wanted to develop something similar to the big birding sites, so that people like me could share information. It was also a way to promote the hobby (something I am ambivalent about) but – more importantly – a way, therefore, to raise the profile and importance of mammals and so help their conservation. (My ambivalence in promoting the hobby stems from my dislike of experiencing nature as a part of a crowd: one thing that attracted me to mammal watching in the first place was that it was a lot less popular than birdwatching. The thought of queuing to get into a hide to see a rare bird is not my idea of fun).



Mongabay: Birdwatching is a hobby for millions of people around the world, some of whom spend a lifetime trying to see every species. Why do you think mammal watching has yet to become as popular?


Hall: A couple of reasons. First, there has for a long time been a birding community which has created a critical mass of people, information and resources necessary to popularize the hobby. There’s nothing similar for mammal watchers. Every week or two I get a message from a birder who writes to me to ‘come out’ with a message like “You know, I have always been interested in mammals but didn’t realize there were others like me …” I suppose there are several reasons why birding has been more successful in attracting people historically. Perhaps its origins were in relatively bird-rich/mammal-poor countries? Perhaps it’s more convenient to fit in with a regular life. It’s hard to mammal watch in your backyard. But I think a key reason is that birds are much more visible in our day to day lives and so we make the assumption that mammals are hard to see. In fact many mammals are not all that hard to see, you just have to change the way in which you look (more time looking at night for example). But the outlook for mammal watching as a hobby is positive I think. I have the impression that there are now more commercial tours than ever with a focus on mammals, and the community of mammal watchers is growing too. And many mammal species are now easier to see: 10 years ago the thought of seeing a snow leopard, a giant panda, an Iberian lynx or a jaguar in the wild was a pipe dream. Now all are quite easy to see in the right place at the right time. And mammalwatching.com has helped share this information.




Jon on the search for Narwhals on Baffin Island. Photo by Ken Balderson.


Mongabay: Do you have a favorite mammal-watching anecdote?



Hall: I have so many – I’ve seen more than 1,300 species in the wild and can remember each sighting. Some I remember for the effort involved (be it success or failure): sitting in a small box in Finland for 48 hours and failing to see a wolverine, climbing Mt Bartle Frere in Queensland 3 times to camp the night and being attacked by leeches each time and always failing to see a masked white-tailed rat, or driving 1,600 kilometers in a day in Australia to spend an hour on a beach with an elephant seal (the first time I admitted to myself that my ‘hobby’ was becoming more of an obsession). For others I remember the danger (or my own stupidity) – climbing some extremely steep and slippery cliffs in Thailand using extremely frail ladders to see bats, almost treading on a sleeping elephant in the Central African Republic, actually treading on several snakes. And others I remember for the sheer romance of the moment: sitting on the back of a skidoo on Baffin Island under the midnight sun as we tear across the sea ice to see a polar bear. Or the funny ones: waking up in Namibia to find the dormouse I had been looking for curled up in my bed with me, much to my kids delight.


Mongabay: What’s your favorite mammal? And what’s your favorite non-mammal species?



Hall: That’s a really hard one. I think there are three factors which make a mammal extra special: there’s a uniqueness factor. Animals that are in a genus of their own (like an aardvark say), with nothing similar, are special. Then there’s a rareness factor: seeing something that is hard to see is a draw in itself. And then there’s a cool factor: big carnivores are cool. Small herbivores less so. Anything with “giant” in front is usually pretty cool. And the fun of each sighting itself is also determined by the adventures and experiences of getting to the location. If I had to pick just one sighting I’d choose the giant panda I saw in 2005. I was one of the first westerners to visit the giant panda project in the Qinling Mountains of China and had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know anyone who had visited or knew anything about it. I wasn’t even convinced it was legitimate. But I had to find out. The week I spent in those mountains was as good as it gets with the giant panda the highlight, which you can see here It’s also very hard to pick non-mammal favorites. But snorkeling with Whale Sharks and cage diving with great whites were both a lot of fun.




Mongabay: You recently went on a trip to Brazil to find the elusive giant armadillo. Could you tell us about that?



Hall: Ever since I saw a polaroid of a Giant Armadillo stuck to a cafe wall in Brazil 6 years ago they have been high on my wish list. They pass the rare, weird and cool tests so I rate them as one of the top 5 mammals in the world to see (and the least well known of my top 5). I had the good fortune to be able to see two in the wild in August when I visited a research project in the Pantanal in Brazil run by the Giant Armadillo Project. The research team are among the most dedicated, brilliant and friendly people I’ve met, and the Cattle Station is also a fabulous place to visit. A great species to see for my 1300th mammal. Details are here




Mongabay: Which species is next on your agenda? Why?



Hall: Oh I have always got a very long list of species on my agenda. Some of my most wanted at the moment include the Eurasian lynx, wild camel and okapi. But my most obvious big next target is snow leopard – one of the most iconic of all mammals and a species which is now relatively easy to see if you can make the trip in winter to Hemis National Park in Ladakh. It’s a species which, 10 years ago, I would have thought was next to impossible to see in the wild. I am just having some problems scheduling a trip there. In the meantime I try to see 50 new species each year.




One of the more elusive mammals, a leopard walks along in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler / mongabay.com.




Mongabay: What effects do you think your website will have/is having on eco-tourism?



Hall: It’s very hard to be able to say what effect my website is having. But it is safe to say it’s a part of a general trend towards greater interest in mammal watching. A well known birder recently told me my site had “revolutionized mammal watching” which I’d like to think was true though I suspect this would have happened anyway. I think the site has certainly helped form a community of people, who share information and – in turn – help promote some great locations, lodges and guides. There are some brilliant people around the world who are so skilled at finding mammals – I think of people I have met in Ghana, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Madagascar, Brazil, Chile…. It is such a privilege to spend time with them and see them in action. Those who contribute to the site do not have any commercial interest so I like to think that the information on it is trusted by all as impartial, reliable and appropriate for fellow mammal nuts. Moreover there is much more to mammal watching than chasing the Big 5 – so the site has helped promote interest in many unsung mammals too: I’m always trying to promote more interest in bats for example.




A Long-tailed Pangolin in Ghana. Photo by Jon Hall.



Mongabay: How would you suggest people start mammal watching?




Hall: Well it depends on where they live. But they might start by taking a look at mammalwatching.com and seeing what mammals there are to see in their region or country. Getting involved with a local wildlife group, or national park, is also a good way to meet knowledgeable people and also might offer a chance to take part in small mammal trapping projects or bat surveys. And I encourage everyone to post a message on my forum (just contact me to become a contributor) and ask if anyone is in their area and ready to show them around. We are a friendly bunch.









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