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Safari 101: How to Survive an Attack from Africa’s Most Dangerous Animals

by Jodi Lucas

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With the increasing popularity of walking safaris in Africa, the question of how to survive an animal attack is a reasonable one to ask. Humans have impressive brainpower but, let's face it, we’re pretty useless at defending ourselves against wild animals. (Bear Grylls is probably the only exception to this.)

Thankfully, we have the internet to help us out! So, if you want to make sure that your survival skills are up to scratch while on a wildlife safari in Tanzania, then keep reading! We’ve put together a list of the deadliest animals in Africa, that you can encounter while on a safari, and how to survive an attack.

How to Survive a Lion Attack

Pride of Lions walking in bush

Lions tend to have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to safari attacks. Thanks to social media, there has been an increasing amount of lion attack videos circulating the internet.

Although it looks (and is) incredibly scary, these animals would rather just be left alone than go out of their way to attack you. It is good to know what to do in the worst-case scenario though.

When we find ourselves in danger, the flight or fight response kicks in and our bodies do one of two things; stand our ground or run away. While common sense will tell us to run away, lions typically see this as prey behavior and will most definitely run after you. Unless you can run faster than 80 km/h, you will be lunch.

Here’s what you should do in a human vs. lion situation:

1. Pay attention to your surroundings! When a lion is angry or feeling threatened, it will sweep its tail from side to side. If it is hunting, it will keep its tail stiff and twitch it from time to time. They also mock charge, gruff and paw at the ground to determine whether you are a threat or prey. 

2. Stand still! Even if the lion charges you, do not run and resist the urge to point at it! Running will kick in the lion’s hunting instinct while pointing will make the lion think that you’re challenging it. 

3. If you have frozen and the lion is not approaching, but not leaving either, then start to back away slowly while still facing the animal. If it starts to move, then freeze immediately. 

4. If you see stalking indications, then raise your arms above your head and wave them and most importantly SCREAM YOUR HEAD OFF! This makes you appear bigger and more of a threat rather than prey, which could potentially save you from becoming dinner. 

How to Survive an Elephant Attack

elephant

Elephants are, in my opinion, the most beautiful of the Big Five. These amazing animals are incredibly intelligent, friendly and emotional. Sadly, they are also on the ever-growing endangered species list due to ivory trade.

While an ethical elephant encounter should definitely be on the top of your bucket list, it is also good to know what to do in case you end up on the wrong side of one of these gentle giants.

Here’s what you should do in a human vs. elephant situation:

1. Listen for warnings. When an elephant is feeling threatened, you’re likely to hear trumpeting as a warning.

2. Watch the elephant's ears. If their ears are flapping or are fanned out, it is usually indicative of a mock charge. But, if their ears are pinned back, then you best brace yourself as it is likely that the charge is real and will often be accompanied by a trunk that is curled inward.

3. Do not show your back to the elephant and do not run! Instead, make yourself seem as big as possible. I know it sounds weird when you’re facing off with the world’s biggest land animal, but making loud noises and even shaking trees might help ward the animal off.

4. If you must run, then zigzag your way out of there in order to confuse the animal, as they find it difficult to change direction due to their bulky size. Keep in mind, though, that elephants can reach speeds up to 35-40kph. 

How to Survive a Leopard Attack

Leopard in Botswana

Spotting a leopard while on a safari in Tanzania is a rare gem! These majestic cats are incredibly elusive because of their perfectly camouflaged coats and the fact that they are mostly nocturnal.

Leopards are solitary animals and spend their days resting, camouflaged in the trees or hiding in caves. The great news is that, of all the Big Five species in Africa, leopards are the least likely to attack humans. But, it is still good to know what to do, just in case.

Here’s what you should do in a leopard vs. human situation:

1. Never approach a leopard, especially its cubs, too closely.

2. Make plenty of loud noises by clapping your hands, shouting and waving your arms. This increases the chances of them backing down and walking away.

3. Don’t run! This can kick in the leopard’s chase instinct and I bet you can’t run faster than 58 km/h. 

4. Back away slowly when it is safe to do so, but make sure to stop if they take a step closer to you.

How to Survive a Buffalo Attack

cape buffalo

Although wildlife television shows portray the buffalo as prey, these behemoth animals are so dangerous that not even a lion will pick a fight with one while alone. Found in herds of up to several thousand, these perpetually furious-looking bulls are not to be messed with!

Unlike most prey animals, buffalos don’t flee from a threat instead they turn and fight using their sharp horns and astounding numbers to gore and trample anything that poses harm to the heard.

After hippos, the Cape buffalo kills more people in Africa than any other animal and charges at approximately 56 km/h. This means that you definitely don’t want to end up on the wrong side of these beautiful but deadly animals.

Here’s what you should do in a human vs. buffalo situation:

1. The truth is that, unless there is a tall tree to climb up, you pretty much have no chance of facing off with one of these beasts.

2. If you’re unarmed, run like your life depends on it, because it will. Buffalos don’t mock charge and give no warning at all, so your best bet is to get a head start and find high ground.

3. Not even shooting it in the heart will stop a buffalo from charging. One wildlife expert had a close encounter with buffalo and witnessed it run up to 80 meters after being shot through the heart! That just shows you how powerful they are.

4. The best way to survive a buffalo attack is to avoid one altogether. When on a walking safari, make sure that you’re always with an armed and qualified guide who knows how to track (and stay away from) these animals. Or, go on a Jeep safari and view them from a distance.

How to Survive a Rhino Attack

Rhino with baby calf - Tanzania travel

If you spot a rhino while on a safari in Africa, then count yourself lucky. These amazing animals have been the face of anti-poaching efforts for years now, due to the constant decline in numbers.

Black rhinos are among the top of the endangered species list, with approximately 5,055 black rhinos left in the wild. Not far behind them are the white rhinos, which are considered "near threatened," meaning they may face extinction in the very near future.

Due to their large size, thick skins and intimidating horns, adult rhinos are not threatened by other animal predators, for the most part.

While brave big cats by the likes of lions and leopards may attempt to take down an adult rhino, they pose little threat to the population numbers. In fact, the rhino’s number one predator is a human.

Keeping this in mind, it is best to admire these majestic animals from a distance in order to avoid confrontation and help preserve the species.

Here’s what you should do in a human vs. rhino situation:

1. A rhino’s eyesight is relatively poor and they often run into objects. So try to put as many obstacles between you and the animal.

2.  Try and run for a thick scrub bush. Rhinos are less likely to follow you into it and you’re better off with a few cuts from the throns than being impaled by a rhino horn.

3. If there are no trees to climb or scrub bushes to hide in, then stand and face the animal while waving your arms in the air and screaming like your life depends on it. Rhinos tend to stay away from noise.

4. If a rhino is charging at you and you have the chance to escape, then run in the opposite direction that it is charging from. Their bulky size makes it difficult for them to change direction, meaning they have a very low chance of turning around and coming back for another attack. 

How Safe Are Safaris?

People on a Jeep Safari in Africa

Before you panic and throw away your dreams of exploring the African wilderness, it needs to be said that your chances of being attacked by a wild animal while on a safari are extremely slim. Known safari deaths are so few that they don’t even feature on country statistics.

Safari attacks occur mostly because someone has not paid attention to the safety guidelines. The good news is that your safari guide’s number one priority is to keep you safe! These khaki-clad, unsung heroes aren’t just full of fascinating knowledge about wildlife but are also trained to read animal body language and to keep you, as well as the animals, out of dangerous situations.

Truth be told, there are risks when going on a safari. But, you’re also taking a risk each time you put the stove on, drive to the grocery store, take the subway or walk to work. Without taking a chance in life, we tend to miss out on all of its glory.

I’ve been on safaris many times and have survived. So, don’t let anything get in your way of watching the Serengeti’s iconic sunset or the once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing a rhino in the wild.


Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. So, step out of your comfort zone and go on an African wildlife safari!
 

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