Attacks by animals on safari vehicles are incredibly rare. I have spent literally thousands of hours on game vehicles and I have never once experienced an attack by an animal.
Each and every time that I get onto a safari vehicle with international visitors they ask the same question – do the animals attack safari vehicles?
Measures are in place to ensure your protection and your guides and trackers will advise you on the different animals’ behaviour patterns and will steer you clear of trouble.
This article gives you some information, as well as pointers on the animals you may expect to encounter on your safari.
Why are you safe on a Safari vehicle from animal attacks?
Here are the five reasons you can feel safe from animal attack while on a safari vehicle:
National Parks and private reserves, irrespective of the country you are visiting, have clear safety guidelines that tourists and guides must follow. Some of the most basic rules are:
- keep all parts of your body inside the vehicle at all times
- do not shout or whistle at the animals and keep talking to a minimum
- wear appropriate clothing – neutral colours
- do not leave the vehicle unless given permission by your guide
- do not attempt to feed the animals
Tourism is a crucial contributor to the economy in many countries in Africa and the safety of visitors, both on and off the safari vehicles, is taken extremely seriously.
Animals are used to Tourists
Most of the animals that you will encounter when on safari have grown up around vehicles.
The number of vehicles operating in reserves and parks differs from country to country. So do the rules around the numbers of vehicles allowed at sightings at any one time.
Many of the predators you will see on safari would have been exposed to vehicles from when they were babies. This is arguably not a good thing and there is an ongoing debate about how wild some of these animals actually are.
Some predators have learned to use the vehicles as cover when stalking prey and others simply use the vehicle as shade.
Many herbivores see the vehicles as part of the environment and usually ignore the presence of the vehicle.
Humans are not a prey species
The predators that inhabit the African bush do not see us as prey. That does not mean that we are free from attack, it just means that animals have been programmed over thousands of years to prey on species that are readily available in their natural habitat.
Some big cats have developed reputations as man eaters but these are isolated situations – one thinks of the man eating tigers in India and the infamous Tsavo lions who killed a number of people working on a railway in Kenya in 1898.
On the very rare occasion that vehicles are charged by animals, the act itself has nothing to do with predatory behavior – it is usually territorial behavior.
In fact, most animals have a natural fear of humans and will avoid coming into contact with us if at all possible.
The guides and trackers on your vehicles will all be experts in animal behaviour and have years of experience driving the game viewing safari vehicles.
They are all experienced in interpreting an animals’ body language and audible signals and will keep you and the vehicle at a safe distance at all times. Most animals give a clear indication that they are starting to get stressed and your guides will pick this up straight away.
Confrontations between vehicles and animals are extremely rare. Sometimes it occurs when an ignorant visitor driving their own car does something silly – usually by driving too close to an elephant who has already sent warning signals.
Your guide will not make this kind of mistake, and will err on the side of caution when at a sighting as their only concern is your safety.
Abundance of natural prey
In most of the parks and reserves that you will visit there will be an abundance of prey species for the predators to hunt.
The big cats in particular always seem to have plenty of antelope to hunt. Leopards, who prefer warthogs and small antelope, are also incredibly adept at finding prey even in extreme drought conditions.
The parks and reserves in southern Africa are all part of a global conservation effort and ensuring that there is a balance of species, keeps the entire eco system in harmony.
In times of severe drought and other natural disasters this balance is sometimes interrupted but even then, predators are extremely unlikely to substitute their natural diet with humans.
Animal Interactions on Safari
Each animal that you come across on safari will exhibit completely different behaviors’ and this is largely dictated by the spot they occupy on the food chain.
Animals that have few or no natural enemies are the most likely to tolerate the presence of vehicles. Great examples of this are elephant, rhino, lion and buffalo.
Species that spend most of their lives avoiding being eaten are usually more skittish, and will move away to a safe distance when safari vehicles approach.
So what can you expect when you come across animals on African safari?
Here are some pointers on the animals you are likely to interact with when on a safari vehicle.
Africa’s apex predator – the lion – seems to be the animal that most people are truly afraid of.
Not without reason. A male lion can kill a zebra with one swipe of his paw, weighs over 250 kg (550 lbs) and is very territorial.
Lionesses do a lot of the hunting but it is a myth that male lions do nothing. Male lions spend their waking time defending their territory against other males and they fight to the death to protect their position as dominant male.
Lions spend about 20 hours a day sleeping and mainly hunt at night. They are however opportunists and will take down prey at any time given half a chance.
The lions that live in the national parks and private reserves are very comfortable around vehicles and often walk right past them.
There is nothing quite like the chill you get when a lion stares straight at you when he walks past only feet from the safari vehicle!
My advice would be to keep very quiet, do not make any sudden moves and, most importantly, keep all of your body inside the vehicle.
This secretive and elusive big cat usually stays well away from safari vehicles in general and humans in particular. Much smaller than the lion, the leopard is however considered to be one of the strongest animals pound for pound.
There are leopards in some of the private reserves that will not run away when a vehicle approaches and even use the vehicles as cover when they hunt.
Many of the leopards in the reserves in South and East Africa have lived in one area their whole lives and are relatively predictable in their behavior.
A leopard can climb a tree carrying prey double its own weight and is incredibly adaptable. Leopards are found wherever there are prey species and can suddenly appear in a tree, on the road or even lying by the pool in the camp!
Leopard attacks on humans are incredibly rare and even then only when someone is on foot. Leopards have killed humans in the past, and one highly publicized example was the killing of a Kruger Park ranger in 1998 by an old and starving male leopard.
A leopard will always see you before you see him and he is most likely to disappear long before you know he is there.
Cheetahs seem to enjoy being around safari vehicles and have even been known to jump up on them to take a look!
These cats are no danger to humans and there is no record of a cheetah ever attacking a human.
You may see them perched on a termite mound in open grassland or walking in pairs along the road. Cheetah brothers often form a hunting coalition and they prey on small antelope like springbok, impala and Thompsons gazelle.
Cheetahs are the only big cat that can purr. This is quite startling when you hear it for the first time!
Your guide will ensure that you can get close enough to cheetah to get a good view but will not approach too close, particularly if they have cubs.
Elephants are very habituated to vehicles however, they are big enough for your guide to pay very close attention to their body language and general demeanor. This giant is very curious and I have often experienced them coming up to the vehicle to check us out.
Bull elephants can be aggressive, particularly when they are in musth. This is when their reproductive hormones increase dramatically and they go in search of females to mate with. Elephant cows can be aggressive when they have their babies with them and they are to be given plenty of room.
The African elephant has been known to flip cars over and an angry elephant will trample you if you walk into his personal space.
This is one animal that I am personally very wary of, particularly when self – driving.
Both black and white rhinos can be aggressive – particularly if they have a calf with them. White rhinos are more territorial than the black rhino although the black rhino is considered to be the more aggressive of the two.
Weighing in at over a ton, rhinos can reach speeds of 40 mph (60 kph) over short distances. If a rhino hits the vehicle at full tilt you can be sure that he will cause serious damage!
Their eyesight is very poor and I have seen them half charge a vehicle before realizing what it is and then stopping. Makes for good photography but not good for the heart!
White rhino walk with their calves in front of them whereas the black rhino calf walks behind its mother.
Black rhinos usually stay in the cover of thickets where they browse for food. You will often see white rhinos out in the open as they are grazers.
Poached to the edge of extinction, the rhinos of Africa are truly something to see, and you should feel privileged every time you are fortunate enough to get close to one.
Buffalo never attack vehicles and are only dangerous to people on foot.
Guides will tell you that buffalo are at their most docile when in a herd and it is only the lone bulls or ‘dagga boys’ as they are known that are very dangerous.
I have never had a bad experience with buffalo although I have yet to come across any on a walk.
These massive herbivores think nothing of attacking lions that threaten the herd and they can cause huge damage with their sharp horns.
You will be able to sit quietly in your safari vehicles as a herd moves around you, an experience that I always enjoy. Your guide will be able to point out the bulls in the herd with their unmistakable large bosses between their horns.
Baboons can be a pest in camp however you seldom see them near safari vehicles.
If a baboon approaches your vehicle make sure that you have no food visible. A male baboon is not easily intimidated and so it is best to give him no reason to approach you.
If you do encounter a baboon, either in camp or on a game drive, do not feed them as it just emboldens them.
I am often asked about the danger hippos pose to humans.
Presumably this is because they have been credited with killing more than 500 people a year – which is double the number of people that lions kill a year.
Bull hippos are very territorial and aggressive, however they pose no danger to you unless you are on foot and get between them and the safety of the water.
There are recorded incidents of hippo attacking mokoros (traditional canoes) and small boats in the Okavango Delta, but you are 100% safe on a safari vehicle.
Hippos come out of the water at night in search of grass to graze and they can walk up to 30 km a night. Care needs to be taken if your camp is near a river or dam where hippos are present as you don’t want to be caught on foot anywhere near one.
Always make sure you are escorted back to your room at night by a staff member carrying a torch.
The Nile crocodile is without doubt one of the most dangerous animals in Africa.
They can grow to 5 m (16 ft) long and have the most powerful jaws of any creature in Africa.
They pose no danger to safari vehicles and will only be a threat if you get too close to river banks or the edges of dams when on foot.
Your guide will always park in a safe place when you stop for snack or for nature breaks, so you have no need to worry about being attacked by a crocodile.
What about Mosquitos?
The biggest killer in Africa is malaria. Take precautions when you are outside, particularly around dawn and dusk when the mosquitos are at their most active.
I have written a more detailed article on this subject which you can read by clicking the link below.
Do Safari guides carry guns?
It is common practice for safari guides in South Africa to have a weapon on the vehicle when operating in a big 5 reserve.
They are there primarily to protect the trackers when on foot, and a rifle is usually kept secured in a bracket on the dashboard of the safari vehicle.
The safari guides do not carry guns in many of the reserves in Botswana and Kenya, however there are exceptions, particularly on bush walks.
All rangers and guides have to pass a strict accreditation process before being allowed to carry a weapon on the reserve and they are retested regularly, including on their marksmanship, in order to keep this accreditation.
In conclusion: Do animals attack safari vehicles?
No matter which animal you encounter on safari, it is highly unlikely that you will have an unpleasant experience as the chances of an animal attacking the safari vehicle are incredibly slim.
Any animal gets stressed if they feel cornered or trapped, and will react with aggression under such circumstances. Leave them to their own devices, respect their space and they will leave you alone.
Your guides have been highly trained to not only observe but to anticipate animal behaviour so listen to, and obey, their instructions for the entire time that you are on a safari vehicle.
Above all, enjoy the sights and sounds of the African bush with respect but not fear!