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Getting CLOSE To Nature in Africa!

by Ian Proctor

African adventure safaris are one of the fastest growing segments of the travel market. However most travellers are unfamiliar with this vast and untamed land. Many people ask "Aren't the wild animals dangerous?"

Safari activities are diverse - from white water river rafting to elephant back safaris. Some clients enjoy learning about Africa's flora and fauna on casual walks with professional guides. More adventurous travellers may enjoy canoeing past hippo as they snort in the water only yards away, or getting treed by a black rhino while tracking on foot. But don't worry - while on safari travellers enjoy the company of professionally licensed guides who are incredibly well trained & armed with an amazing understanding of the wildlife with which they share their lives on a daily basis.

I recall a recent November evening I spent with my wife and professional Zimbabwe guide Steve Carey. From our small tented camp set within Zimbabwe's Matusadona National Park the three of us ventured out on an afternoon wildlife viewing drive in Steve's open 4x4 Land Rover. Within
minutes we came across a pride of 24 lion (yes 24) relaxing on a small rise overlooking the shore of Lake Kariba. As several young lion played amongst themselves and harassed their elders only a few meters from our vehicle Steve explained how he had followed the growth of this pride over several years. He noted how they would often lie up on this small hill waiting for an evening meal to wander by. I looked into the distance and noticed an elephant drinking from the lake.  Nearby a large crocodile slowly disappeared below the water surface as if hiding from my inquisitive eyes. Steve explained how the lion would often corner impala (a small African antelope) along the shoreline. The impala would be at a loss to escape as jumping into the water would mean certain death by crocodile.

As Steve began to describe each of the lions' personalities an older female lion stood and stretched. Looking at her front paw I noticed it was larger than my entire hand! As if on cue several other lion roused themselves and began scanning the nearby lakeshore. A lone impala was quietly foraging with its head down. Steve started the Land Rover and we drove towards the shore to position ourselves for the impending attack. Before we had driven 10 meters the lion were off and the chase was on! The impala headed
inland and the lion swung around from behind in pursuit. Steve slid the Land Rover around and switched the engine off. As we rolled to a dusty stop we heard a muffled cry and several loud growls. Steve grabbed his rifle and jumped out of the vehicle. With a waive of his hand he urged us from the vehicle and quietly explained that we would be walking slowly around the rise to gain a view of the lion's kill. He whispered that we must all walk slowly, in single file behind him. He noted that if he wanted us to retreat we must do so quietly and SLOWLY - a lion's hunting instinct will be triggered by running.

We walked roughly 20 meters towards the kill on the opposite side of the rise. We peered left and right to make sure other lion were not behind or to the side of us. Then the largest female lion appeared on top of the rise - only 30 meters away. She stared intently at our small group and let out a low growl - the sound was at one time incredibly frightening yet instinctually familiar. She took a slow half step forward and stopped. Steve casually motioned for us to turn and back away towards the vehicle.  As I looked over my shoulder I watched as Steve walked slowly backwards talking quietly to the female lion. She stood her ground. We reached the vehicle and climbed inside. Steve casually walked up to the vehicle. As he settled into the driver's seat and turned the key to start the vehicle he looked over his shoulder and he subtly commented "Another day in Africa".

Later that evening he explained how the female lion had left the kill to investigate our presence. He explained that good guides know that each animal has a comfort zone that, if entered, is likely to cause the animal to attack or flee. By reading an animal's behavior you are able to get close to wildlife while remaining outside of this zone. As he spoke I peered into the darkness just beyond the light of our campfire - a herd of elephant were busy foraging in the trees (only 5 meters away!).

Speaking of animals around camp it is not uncommon for a lion or other animal to wander through as camps & lodges are typically not fenced. This past December I had two elephant eating outside my tent in Botswana less than 1.5 meters from my bed - only the tent canvas separated us for 3 hours! This leads to another common question - "Won't you get eaten in your tent at night?" You might think so, but an attack on a sleeping traveller would be highly unusual, occurring rarely when an animal has been frightened or provoked. Actually the majority of animals are comfortable with the safari camps and the human presence.

Having noted that attacks are very rare, they can occur. As you can minimize the risk of being struck by lightning by following a few simple guidelines you can greatly minimize your chances of being attacked by a wild animal. It is important for all travelers to follow the guidelines below:

Always follow your guide's instructions with regards to wildlife.

Make sure that the entrance/s to your tent or room is/are kept closed at all times.

Never leave the safety of your tent or room without the approval of your guide, especially at night. As most tented camp and lodge rooms have en suite toilets and showers there is no need to venture outside.

Always ask for an escort to walk with you to and from your tent or room. The guides will set pick up times so that you may have a shower after your evening wildlife viewing activity before having dinner.

Never leave the safety of your safari vehicle without the approval of your guide.

Always remain with your guide during activities (game drives, canoeing, walks). Do not wander off.

In general do not take flash photos of wildlife as this may frighten or spook the animal/s.

Do not make loud noises or act in a manner, which may upset or surprise any animal.

Do not attempt to pet or touch any animal no matter how cute it may appear. Hippo are very dangerous. So are lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, crocodiles, baboons, monkeys, and others.

Lastly - respect wildlife and keep your distance. If at ANY TIME you are uncomfortable please tell your guide immediately. Your instincts may be correct.

By following the above guidelines the risk of a wild animal attack can be nearly eliminated.

As of March 2001 Botswana provides the best opportunities for getting close to Africa's wildlife with exciting activities such as canoeing, tracking wildlife on foot, horseback riding, day & night open vehicle wildlife viewing drives & elephant back safaris!

(This article was written by Ian Proctor, managing director of Ultimate Africa Safaris in Seattle, Washington.)