The best books on enjoying wildlife when travelling

The Books I Picked & Why

The Shark and the Albatross: A Wildlife Filmmaker Reveals Why Nature Matters to Us All

By John Aitchison

Book cover of The Shark and the Albatross: A Wildlife Filmmaker Reveals Why Nature Matters to Us All

Why this book?

In some travel writing, animals may be mentioned only in passing and are poorly observed, not so in this superbly written, sumptuous book. It is rich with icy imagery or steamy tropical atmosphere but there is humour, and how impressive that this successful wildlife cameraman and talented writer is so self-effacing. He seriously underplays the risks he faces, like his instructions if bitten by a seal on Bird Island: ‘Clean out the wound as much as you can with a scrubbing brush… and hope it is nowhere important… if it is really bad we’d have to radio for a ship to come and get you, but that could take weeks.’

Brilliant from beginning to end. I was totally immersed.


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The Running Hare

By John Lewis-Stempel

Book cover of The Running Hare

Why this book?

This is another absolute gem of a book: about the English countryside and its wildlife. It is atmospheric, evocative, authoritative, informative, fascinating, closely observed, and well-researched. It is sobering too though about how intensive agriculture is destroying our natural heritage, and it is food for thought for those of us who enjoy travelling to enjoy wildlife tourism when the key species in our own back yards are struggling so.

Lewis-Stempel is a lyrical writer: ‘Up on those dark but heavenly hills skylarks sang, otters swam in the brook, and polecats eyed up the chickens. Where our friend lived was beautiful, but as life-full as a cemetery. Someone had removed all the birds.’


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Where the World Ends

By Geraldine McCaughrean

Book cover of Where the World Ends

Why this book?

This wonderful piece of writing isn’t obviously a travel narrative or a book about natural history as it is marketed as a children’s fiction but it is based on a real event and the sense of place the author achieves is astonishing. A group of men and boys from St Kilda are put ashore on a rocky stac in the North Atlantic. Their mission is to harvest birds and collect fulmar eggs and oil which will sustain their little rural community through the harsh Scottish winter. No one comes to bring them home though and the unfortunates spend months huddled against the storms.

The narrative vividly captures the risks such adventurers took dangling from homemade ropes over cliffs above unforgiving seas with shearwaters and other seabirds screaming at them. It is a masterful portrait of the harsh life on the Scottish islands.


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Orison for a Curlew: In Search for a Bird on the Edge of Extinction

By Horatio Clare

Book cover of Orison for a Curlew: In Search for a Bird on the Edge of Extinction

Why this book?

Clare is another consummate wordsmith – he even managed to write an engaging book about spending months on container ships – but with Orison he manages to weave a fascinating story using beautiful prose and superb writing to bring intelligent discussions and good research to life while introducing us to key conservation personalities he meets during his journeys.
Clare sets out to search for the highly endangered and secretive slender-billed curlew in a range of wetlands in a troubled Eastern Europe and discovers inspiring if sometimes eccentric movers and shakers devoted to saving our wild places.
And how about this for a profound final sentence in a book: ‘Too much certainty is a miserable thing, while the unknowable has a pristine beauty and a wonder with no end.’


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Journeys to the Other Side of the World

By David Attenborough

Book cover of Journeys to the Other Side of the World

Why this book?

Attenborough’s books describing his early travels while making various Zoo Quest films in the 1950s and early 1960s were republished in 2018 and it is a delight to re-read about the many challenges he faced to secure footage of enormously rare animals, especially as his tales are all delivered with brilliant British understatement. Attenborough has an acute eye for wildlife as well as a talent for communicating the atmosphere of a place and sympathy with the people he meets and charms. His films and his writing including on the lemurs of Madagascar had me dreaming of my own expeditions and adventures, and which ultimately I was lucky enough to make real.


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