The Gambia is a great place to visit, especially to escape Europe’s winter, if you are after sunshine and beautiful, uncrowded beaches. However, as those of you who have followed me for a while will know from my previous posts, this wonderful, West African country has so much more to offer that it would be a crime if you didn’t get out and about to explore.
In previous posts I’ve covered local cuisine, traditions and festivals, visits to schools and so much more but I don’t think I’ve done justice to the wildlife. Although there is no big game (they left many years ago following a long period of drought) there are many wonderful animals to see.
Over 560 species of birds
The Gambia is most well-known for its amazing bird life and with over 560 species of birds found in a variety of habitats including mangrove swamps, open grasslands and forests, it’s no wonder that BBC’s Springwatch presenter Chris Packham quotes The Gambia as one of the best birding destinations in the world and he’s lost count of the number of times he’s been here. This February he will be once again leading a bird-watching tour with The Gambia Experience. There are also tours available with Chris’ favourite local guide Malik Suso who I was lucky enough to meet earlier in the year for an introduction to the bird life of The Gambia. With over 20 years experience he can lead you to the rarest and most beautiful species.
Above: I didn’t feel so lucky when this cattle egret pooped on my camera while I was photographing the Kairaba hotel’s swimming pool.
If you don’t want to go on an organised tour many of the hotels in the tourist area of The Gambia have extensive grounds where numerous species can be spotted. At the luxurious Kairaba hotel there are daily feedings of hooded vultures. Peacocks, cattle egrets and vervet monkeys are also regular visitors to the hotel gardens. However, one of the best hotels from where to bird-watch is the more modest hotel, Bakotu with its tropical garden and nature walk beside the Kotu stream.
Better still hire your own guide and visit one of the many areas within easy reach of the tourist area that are perfect for bird-watching. If you are staying in a hotel they will be able to recommend a good guide.
There are six primate species found in The Gambia – the vervet monkeys, red colobus monkeys, red patas, bush babies, baboons and chimpanzees. Bijilo Monkey Park is a good place to start to look for these, especially if you are staying in the Kololi area, but to do some more serious wildlife spotting spend sometime at Abuko Nature Reserve. It’s easy to arrange a trip there independently so don’t worry about booking it with a tour operator (which will be more expensive) but I would suggest you take a good guide with you to get the most out of it. Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to visit. Other animals you can find here include antelopes, monitor lizards, 3 types of crocodiles, cobras, pythons and, if you are lucky, the green mamba!
Alternatively head to Makasutu Forest to visit the large troop of baboons there. The local guides will soon track them down for you.
Above: Green Vervet Monkeys, Below: Red Colobus Monkey
For a real treat venture away from the main tourist area, which only occupies a small region hugging the coastline, and journey up-country where you can spend a few nights under canvas at an eco-friendly camp at the Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Project. As well as the chimps you’ll have the chance to see hippos, crocodiles, baboons, bush babies and a great variety of birds in an unspoilt jungle setting on the banks of the River Gambia.
This is the only place in The Gambia where you can find chimpanzees. You can stay here for 2 or 3 nights but no longer as it is closed to visitors for a few days each and every week so that the staff can concentrate on looking after the chimps.
Other wildlife that is easy to find include crocodiles which you can visit at the Katchikally crocodile pond, near Cape Point, which is rich in tradition and it is said that your wishes will be granted here. There’s also a nice little museum. Be warned though this is a serious tourist trap and the crocodiles are hardly what you could call ‘wild’.
In fact, they are so tame people touch them. I, of course, had absolutely no intention of touching one of them when I went but some how these things just seem to happen and before I knew it I was smiling for the camera while stroking a croc!
For really lazy wildlife spotters you could do worse than spend a few hours relaxing at the Calypso Beach Bar on Cape Point where you can spot crocodiles and many bird species from the comfort of your chair with a cool beer in hand!
Update 2015: I have recently heard that the crocdiles at Katchikally are drugged but whether or not this is true I couldn’t say. Either way, I now prefer to see my animals in the wild. For a natural and more responsible crocodile experience I urge you visit the creek by Calypso Beach Bar instead. Of course there is no gaurantee that the crocs will show but that is the nature of responsible wildife watching.
As you can see, The Gambia has something for everyone interested in wildlife, from the mildly curious to the most dedicated enthusiast!
But remember, even at Katchikally….
No, seriously! I do in no way encourage you to touch any animal in The Gambia (not even the hotel cats!)
View Wildlife in The Gambia in a larger map