"After graduating with a BSc in Zoology, Cristina Garcia traveled to Namibia to work with a jackal research project. It was there in Cape Cross that she discovered her passion for African wildlife. She and her husband, wildlife photographer Hal Brindley, founded Travel For Wildlife, a website dedicated to wildlife adventure travelers. Their goal is to promote wildlife conservation through responsible wildlife tourism.
Hi Brandon, thank you so much for having me!
I left Spain when I was 18 and lived in the UK for just over 10 years. I did my zoology degree over there and right after finishing I started traveling to work with wildlife projects. I’ve worked with dolphins in the Canary Islands, wolves in Romania, jackals in Namibia and cheetahs and leopards in South Africa. Since finding a paid job in zoology is very difficult I decided to invest my time in creating our site, Travel For Wildlife, with my husband Hal who is a wildlife photographer. Through our site we aspire to promote wildlife conservation through responsible wildlife tourism.
–I’m curious... Do you solely focus on wildlife travel? Or do you like to mix up your experiences? For example: Adventure travel, backpacking, or luxury travel.
Right now we only focus on wildlife travel, but that can encompass a wide range of travel styles from adventure backpacking to luxury wilderness lodges. I’ve done some adventure travels, like climbing an active volcano, dog sledding for a week in the Finnish wilderness, and white water rafting…but when Hal and I began to travel together, we really honed in on wildlife. As an example, when we were in Namibia together for the first time we were on our way to Sossuvlei (a salt pan surrounded by the world famous red dunes) when we stopped half way and realized we didn’t want to go there. We were going because it was a famous tourist attraction but there wasn’t any wildlife we were excited to see. Even though we were half way there, we stopped dead, turned around, and drove 6 hours in the other direction until we got to the Kalahari Desert, which is teeming with wildlife.
–What inspires you to travel this way? Is it your aim to see as many animals as possible? And do you travel this way for your own personal enjoyment or in hopes of inspiring others to perhaps volunteer in the salvation of endangered species?
When I travel I like to stay in one place for a while. I don’t want to just see an animal and move on to the next species. I linger at a place to see how the animals live. I like trying to understand what it must feel to be them, how would it be to live in the trees or having to live around predators all the time. It gives you some perspective about your own life.
With our site we hope to inspire people to visit these places and to see these animals. When you learn about animals you start to care about them and then you become passionate about their conservation.
–To see a lot of animals in their natural habitat, you have to put yourself in harm’s way... Because you must get up close and personal at times, right? Do you take a lot of chances in your observations? What was the most dangerous situation you got yourself into?
We always try to keep our distance, because these are wild animals and they need their space. I’ve only put myself in risky situations when I worked in the field as a zoologist. One of the most memorable days was when a drugged (and angry) cheetah woke up on my lap while we were in a car. I will never forget that day.
But when we are just watching wildlife, we never take any chances. If people get too close this could be devastating not only for the people involved but for the animal. For example, if you get too close to a bear because you want to take a photo and the bear has a cub, she will do her job and protect her baby. But if that bear hurts somebody, she will most likely end up being put to death as she is now seen as a dangerous animal. On top of that, it gives bears a worse reputation and makes it even harder to gain public support for their conservation. We never put our own desires for excitement or adventure or a great photo ahead of the animal’s needs, because that would be working against the very wildlife that we’ve come so far to see. We need to keep a distance, not just for us, but for them.
–I’m sure you see a lot of interesting and strange natural phenomena... Could you tell my readers about one in particular?
One of the most memorable was to witness a troop of banded mongooses killing a black mamba next to a lodge swimming pool in the middle of the day. That was wild when you consider that a black mamba is the longest venomous snake in Africa and its bite can kill a human in less than 30 minutes.
Hal had the most amazing sighting during his first trip to Kruger in South Africa. He saw a leopard attacking and killing a crocodile! Luckily he had his camera ready and took tons of photos and then put them together in a video that went viral on the internet. He’s still the only person to have ever documented this behavior.
–What are your favorite animals to watch? What’s your least favorite, and why? What animals are on your ‘wish’ list?
My favorite animals are social mammals as they are always busily interacting with each other. I especially like jackals and meerkats. Jackals are always on the run, looking for things to do and I always enjoy watching their funny relationship with lions. Meerkats, on the other hand are always on the lookout for predators and busy grooming each other and are specially fascinating when they are on the move.
My least favorite to watch for more than 5 minutes I think is the lion. I know, I know…shame on me! But 90% of the time they are sleeping and they are not too active. So we tend to leave these guys in peace after 5 or 10 minutes.
My wish list… there are a few animals that I really want to see like orangutan, pangolin, Ethiopian wolf, snow leopard and a jaguar would be nice.
–For those travelers who want to begin traveling more to see wild animals in their natural habitats, what advice could you offer them? What is the biggest mistake newbies make when starting out?
I would say that you don’t need to go on an expensive tour to see the animals you want to see. If you do your research you can (in most cases) do it yourself. You don’t have to be rich to see your dream animals.
–What are some destinations and animals that are must visits and must sees? And what are best to avoid, and why?
For me the destination that is a must is the Kalahari Desert. It overlaps Namibia, Botswana and South Africa and it is a predator-watchers paradise. It’s the only place in the world we’ve seen five different species of cats. In the Kgalagadi Transfontier Park of South Africa, you are almost guaranteed to see lions, cheetahs, leopards, spotted hyenas and African Wild Cats in high numbers. You can also see caracals, brown hyenas, bat-eared foxes, jackals…If you are into predators and birds of prey the Kalahari is definitely the place to go.
An animal I would recommend visiting is the West Indian Manatee in Crystal River, Florida. This is a wildlife encounter like no other. Citrus County (where Crystal River is) is the only place in the US where it is legal to swim with this federally protected endangered species. Manatees are very curious and docile and they will approach you to study you. If they feel like interacting with you they will grab your arm or leg or “kiss” you on the face. It all happens on their terms. There are very strict rules that must be followed in order to maintain this special relationship and rare privilege. If you do, you will end up having one of the most amazing animal encounters of your life.
The best things to avoid are captive animal attractions like “Lion Walks” and “Pet the Cheetah” and “Swim with the Dolphin.” Most of these places will claim to be doing some good for conservation so that you can tell yourself it’s OK and not feel guilty. But in reality, many of these animals are captured from the wild or bred in captivity just to earn money from tourists. Yeah it’s fun to pet a big kitty, but that’s what your pet cat back home is for. Again, put the animal’s needs ahead of your own. Spend your money visiting a wild place where wild animals live in freedom, and support local people and businesses who support the conservation of that habitat.
–I saw on your website that you feature your wildlife photography as well... How big of a part does photography play in your travels and blogging career? Could you give some advise for aspiring wildlife photographers?
I would say it plays a big part. Since Hal is a wildlife photographer I am learning a lot from him and since we started Travel For Wildlife I have also started selling my photography.
My advice for aspiring wildlife photographers is not to get put off by photographers with big expensive lenses. Just because you have a big lens doesn’t mean you are a great photographer. You can be a great wildlife photographer with shorter lenses. In fact, I believe the best wildlife photos are the one that effectively capture the animal’s environment as well, and that’s pretty hard to do with a super long lens. Also knowing your subject makes a big difference when photographing wildlife. If you are familiar with the behavior of the species you can anticipate their movements and actions and prepare for it.
-What is your next adventure? Where are your travels taking you?
We are pretty excited about this one. In mid-July we are embarking on an American Safari. We are taking three months to visit four wildlife hotspots across the US and Canada and to see North America’s most stunning wildlife. We’re starting with the coast of North Carolina where there is a big black bear population and the only population of highly endangered red wolves. There are only 100-120 red wolves in the wild and if we see one I will feel pretty lucky! We are also going on a dolphin tour. After that we are driving to Manitoba to swim with beluga whales, see polar bears, wolves, foxes and snowy owls. Then the trip will take us to Yellowstone where we will join a wolf specialist who is taking us on a week backcountry camping trip to search for wolves and grizzly bears. Then we take a little break of about two weeks before flying out to British Columbia where we will explore Vancouver Island and the inlets along the coast. We’ll be kayaking with orcas and humpback whales and searching for the elusive coastal wolves and “spirit bears” (a rare population of black bears with creamy white coats). We’ve named it Wolves, Whales & Bears: The American Safari.
I can’t wait to get on the road!
–Before I ask my final questions... I wanted to say that I appreciate you taking your time from the wilds to be here with me today! What have you found to be the most inspiring aspect of your travel lifestyle?
The most inspiring part of our travels is meeting people who are really making a difference for wildlife. People who dedicate their lives to helping preserve habitats and the creatures that live in them. These people may be making beautiful works of art like photography or films, or they may be running an ecolodge that hires local people, giving them an incentive to preserve their natural heritage instead of looting it. They may be dedicated researchers or they may be giving tours of the places they love and passing on their passion for nature. These people continually inspire us to follow our dreams and to do what we believe in, whether or not it makes us any money. Seeing that there is still wilderness out there and that conservation can (and does) work, inspires us every time.