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Chinese New Year: The best places to see the zodiac animals this spring festival

Helen Coffey
Animal house: the dozen members of the Chinese zodiac: Getty/iStock

The lunar new year spring festival is upon us, running for 40 days from 10 January to 18 February, with Chinese new year itself falling on 25 January 2020.

This year marks the Year of the Rat: the Chinese zodiac, known as Sheng Xiao, is based on a 12-year cycle, with each year within it relating to one of 12 different animal signs.

If you fancy catching the real-life wildlife represented in the signs, here are the best places to spot each one.

Rat: California, USA

Kangaroo rats are pretty cute (Flickr/USFWS Pacific Southwest Region)

Yes, rats are not usually the most popular of critters – we’ve never really stopped blaming them for the Black Death – but even their harshest of critics would have to admit that the kangaroo rat, found in North America, is pretty cute. These small, plump, desert-dwelling rodents hop on their hind legs, using their tails for balance (hence the name). Of the 22 species of kangaroo rat, many are found only in California. Head to Death Valley National Park to spot them in their natural habitat.

Ox: Norway

Go musk ox-spotting in Norway (Getty/iStock)

You may have heard of an ox, but have you heard of a musk ox? These majestic creatures are Arctic mammals that lived during the last ice age alongside the woolly mammoth and have long, curved horns and extremely thick coats. They’re native to Arctic Canada and Greenland, but have also been reintroduced to Alaska, Siberia and Norway. Head to the latter country and you can seek them on a musk ox safari at Dovrefjell National Park.

Tiger: India

Madhya Pradesh is home to 70 per cent of the world’s wild tigers (Getty/iStock)

With fewer than 4,000 tigers thought to be left in the wild, seeing one is quite the bucket-list activity. For the best possible chance, head to Madhya Pradesh in India, home to 70 per cent of the world’s wild tigers. It has a whopping 50 tiger reserves, including Kanha, thought to be the real-life setting for Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

Rabbit: London, UK

City farms are often home to rabbits (Getty/iStock)

Closer to home than some of the other zodiac animals, rabbits can be found right on our doorsteps. They can be spotted all over the UK, but even if you don’t have access to the countryside it doesn’t mean you can’t meet the stars of Watership Down: just head to any city farm in the capital. Alternatively, to meet more figurative rabbits, visit Lingholm Estate in the Lake District, Beatrix Potter’s beloved holiday home, where the Kitchen Garden served as the original inspiration for Mr McGregor’s garden in The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Dragon: Indonesia

Komodo dragons are the world’s largest living lizards (AFP/Getty)

The only dragon on our radar (outside the world of Game of Thrones) is the Komodo variant. This rare and unusual lizard species is found only on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores and Gili Motang, collectively known as Komodo National Park. Plans to ban visitor access to Komodo Island for the whole of 2020 after several smuggling attempts have now been axed, replaced with a new ticketed system that charges tourists an eye-watering $1,000 one-year membership fee to visit instead.

Snake: Florida, USA

The largest Burmese python ever to be removed from Big Cypress National Preserve (Florida Everglades National Park Service)

The Everglades in Florida has so many pythons that there’s even an organisation dedicated to hunting them down and culling them, known as Patric (the Python Action Team – Removing Invasive Constrictors). With tens of thousands of Burmese pythons estimated to be living in the Floridian wild, it’s a strong bet for snake spotting – though be warned, a video of one strangling an alligator went viral in 2016.

Horse: Montana, USA

A wild horse in the Pryor Mountains (Getty/iStock)

Wild horses wouldn’t drag us away. These noble, free-roaming beasts are protected by law in the US as the “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West”. There are several places to see them, including the Pryor Mountains, home to Montana’s only mustang herd. The horses are found on the East Pryor Mountain and in the desert lowlands.

Sheep: New Zealand

There are six sheep per person in New Zealand (Getty/iStock)

New Zealand’s sheep population is the stuff of legend, although it has dwindled in recent years. As of 2019 there were fewer than six sheep per person (down from 10 sheep per person in 2007). However, the ratio is still high by global standards – and with more than 27 million sheep in total, it’s unlikely you’d go without seeing one during a visit.

Monkey: Nagano, Japan

Japanese macaques bathing in hot springs near Nagano (Yblieb via Wikimedia Commons)

There are plenty of monkey species to choose from, but one of the most adorable has to be the Japanese macaque, or snow monkey. These red-faced, wise-eyed primates are known for living in cold climates (and taking dips in natural hot springs to warm up). See them firsthand at Jigokudani Yaen-koen park in northern Nagano, where a large open-air hot spring bath has been built just for the monkeys to bathe in.

Rooster: New York, USA

Red Rooster Harlem serves up elevated comfort food (Flickr/Edsel Little)

OK, we might have cheated on this one. After all, not many people travel the world to see a rooster. Red Rooster, however, is another matter. The Harlem-based restaurant founded by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson serves up stylish comfort food such as jerk octopus with coconut salsa and chicken and waffles alongside live music. Closer to home, a branch opened in Shoreditch, east London, to much fanfare in 2017.

Dog: Botswana

Painted dogs are endangered (Getty/iStock)

With beautiful dappled markings and patterns on their fur, painted dogs are a far cry from our domesticated breeds. They’re also far more under threat: they’re the second most endangered carnivore in Africa, with fewer than 5,000 painted dogs left in the wild compared to 500,000 during the last century. Botswana has what’s believed to be the largest and most stable population; head out on a safari in the Okavango Delta for the best chance of seeing them.

Pig: Kenya

Check out a real-life Pumba (Getty)

Brought to life by the character of Pumba in The Lion King, the warthog is a wild member of the humble pig family. Its natural habitat is the grassland, savanna and woodland of sub-Saharan Africa. While they can be found in various countries in the east of the continent, Kenya is home to both the common warthog and the desert warthog – so you can kills two pigs with one stone.