A recent post on a Facebook page dedicated to the Kruger National Park in South Africa caught my attention. It expressed what many people might be feeling – a concern about safety on safari and, in particular, near elephant sightings. Speaking of an upcoming trip to Kruger, the poster said, “I am very excited but also fearful of the elephants (been watching too many YouTube videos). Fearful is not the correct word. I am getting to the stage where I am praying we do not see any elephants – that is how anxious I am.”
What a heart-wrenching admission and what a pity that what should be the experience of a lifetime should be marred by such levels of fear and anxiety that she might not even enjoy her Kruger Park safari.
Sadly, this tourist is not alone in her anxiety about safety on safari. And the reason is hidden in her question – YouTube videos! Or to be more accurate, social media in general. We see stuff we never used to be aware of in the past. It seems that nothing exciting happens on safari without it appearing on social media within 24 hours.
Over the last 10 years, news has started to spread very differently compared to before the age of social media, but the one thing that has not changed is that shocking or bad news runs around the world seven times before good news has even had a chance to put its shoes on (with apologies to Mark Twain).
On social media, we hardly ever hear about all the millions of successful, safe, incident-free safari trips and game drives that are conducted across Africa every year. The videos are there, but they never go viral. Here’s an example, of an elephant coming extremely close to a vehicle, without incident or danger:
Of course a video like this does not go viral. We only hear about the scary incidents, and we only get to the see the videos that go viral – of a lion mauling a tourist in a lion park, a leopard grabbing a safari guide by the arm during a game drive, an elephant overturning a tourist vehicle in Kruger.
With such videos filling our timelines and no word about the millions of game drives and bush walks that are conducted safely, without incident, it is easy to start thinking that an African safari is more unsafe than it is. It is easy to get the impression that dangerous incidents or scary encounters with wildlife are very common, when in fact they are very rare and isolated.
By their very nature, any close-up wildlife encounters have an element of risk because of the unpredictability of animals. That said, animal behaviour has been thoroughly researched over the years and is well understood, and therefore an experienced safari guide is able to “read” each situation quite accurately, and avoid dangerous situations by keeping a respectful distance. The vast majority of nasty incidents with wild animals involve ignorant tourists or guides who were not adequately trained or experienced, or who ignored their training and took unnecessary risks, for example by not respecting the animal’s space.
A typical example of this (and there are several videos like this on YouTube) is when an elephant or lion mock charges a group of tourists on a bush walk, warning them to keep their distance, but the warning is ignored by the guide. The animals almost always do a warning charge first, and give the humans a chance to back off. Most guides know and respect this, but if the guide fails to respect the animal’s warning and continues to push the group closer, the elephant or lion may charge again (usually another mock charge, but not always). Pushing boundaries like this is the most common reason why an incident occurs.
Usually, the unfortunate result is that the charging animal has to be shot by the ranger, but very rarely an injury or death occurs that could easily have been prevented. Of course, fatal wildlife incidents are not always caused by poor judgement on the part of the guide or tourist. And knowing that some guides might take unnecessary chances, does little to calm the nerves of an anxious tourist who doesn’t know what kind of guide they will end up with on their upcoming safari.
But it helps to know that, like plane pilots, safari guides are rigorously trained and tested, and it is not that easy to be qualified as a safari guide (in particular a walking safari guide). Of course, even among pilots there are some reckless idiots, and the guiding profession also has its mavericks. But by far the most guides I have met (and I know many) are very professional, responsible and respectful of nature.
Another helpful argument is to look at statistics. Finding accurate statistics with regard to fatal incidents on an African safari is very difficult, because generally deaths caused by wild animals (a slightly easier statistic to obtain) are grouped together as one category, but these deaths normally do not involve tourists.
The vast majority of such deaths are locals and villagers who live in wildlife areas or adjacent to unfenced game reserves and come into contact with wild animals during their normal daily life, for example while farming their land or walking down to the river. Known deaths of tourists while on safari are so few that they don’t even feature on country statistics for African safari destinations. While millions and millions of tourists go on safari in Africa, on average perhaps one tourist per year dies as a result of wild animals.
In fact, most tourists’ deaths (around the world, not just in Africa) are due to car accidents. Vehicle accidents provide an excellent contrast to compare with, in order to get some perspective. As a tourist coming on safari, you are far more likely (by orders of magnitude) to be involved in a serious car accident than to be harmed by a wild animal on safari. In fact, driving from your house to the airport in your home country is far more dangerous than going on a game drive in one of Africa’s big game reserves, or even going on a guided bush walk with an armed ranger.
Lastly, our own statistics are purely anecdotal in the bigger scheme of things, but our experience is multiplied many times over by other safari operators with similar stories to tell. Between us, the staff of Wild Wings Safaris have been on countless game drives and bush walks in Big Five game reserves like South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
Over the last decade and more, we have hosted thousands of clients who have enjoyed tens of thousands of game drives and several thousand guided bush walks. These walks and game drives were conducted throughout Southern and East Africa, in prime safari areas, involving hundreds of different safari guides at different destinations.
Not once have we had any incident involving a wild animal that was even remotely life threatening, or caused injury to our guests. Frankly, mosquitos are in fact the most dangerous animals you will encounter on safari. The risk of getting malaria should be a bigger concern than being attacked by a wild animal during a game drive or bush walk. Yet even this risk is very small and manageable, and to our knowledge none of our guests have ever contracted malaria while on safari, as it’s easy to prevent.
The point therefore, is not to be misled by the YouTube videos that go viral, or be scared off by yet another Facebook post about an elephant attacking a tourist vehicle on safari. These incidents are very rare and isolated, and usually preventable.
Like the tourist whose Facebook post we started with, don’t let fear and anxiety stop you from enjoying your African safari. All things considered, Africa’s track record with regard to safety on safari is excellent. The chances of death or injury while on safari are so slim that, statistically, you are much safer while on safari than while driving to work on Monday morning.