A general rule to remember about encountering dangerous animals is not to panic and to stay absolutely calm. This is easier said than done but it is worth remembering. Evaluate the situation before acting. Just because you are viewing a potentially dangerous animal on foot, that does not mean you are in a dangerous situation…yet!
Typically, with all types of game, you should freeze and stay absolutely still and silent, even if the animal makes threatening gestures or noises. Particularly with predators such as the big cats - if you run away you will trigger their instinctual chase reaction, and they will go after you without a second thought. Remember too, humans are amongst the slowest creatures in the bush and virtually all the bushveld animals can outrun a human.
All animals are highly protective of their young. If you encounter a mother and her young of any species, give them space and be very cautious, particularly if you're on foot. Animals are most dangerous when protecting their young, and when it comes to the high-profile species such as lions, elephant, rhino and so on, you must take sensible precautions and keep your distance, even if you are in a vehicle.
When animals have sustained injuries, particularly serious ones, they become highly aggressive and defensive. These animals should be avoided and given plenty of space. Another point to remember is that although an animal may appear to be in good physical health, that animal may be stressed due to a previous incident, for example a buffalo who's just escaped a lion attack, and the animal could still be in a fearful state by the time you come to see it. Never make assumptions about the mind-state of any animals until you've had time to observe them.
Elephants can be gentle, docile creatures. They can also be extremely dangerous and have been responsible for many attacks on people and vehicles.
They usually exhibit very clear warning signals when they are unhappy with your presence. This involves flapping of their ears, holding their ears out to the sides in a fixed position, and moving towards you threateningly.
The most dangerous situation to be in with elephants is when you get amongst a breeding herd, something all guides will avoid. Elephant cows are extremely protective of their young. Breeding herds walk through the bush in a single-file manner, so if you observe a group of elephants walking out of thick bush across a park road, it is best to wait a while to make sure there are no others following. If you happen to get in between the first group and the second group, particularly if there are young elephants in the second group, you are likely to incur a charge.
Bull elephants go into what we call ‘musth', which is a hormonal phase that gets the bulls ready to mate. The younger bulls in particular become very aggressive and agitated in this state and all bulls in musth should be given a wide birth. When a bull is in musth, you will notice wet patches on the side of its head, and its penis will be dribbling constantly.
Elephants will often mock charge to show that they are very unhappy with your presence. However, it's not wise to stick around to check what the outcome will be. A serious charge is usually demonstrated by the elephant tucking its trunk under its chin. It puts its ears flat against its head, lowers its tusks and charges forward at full speed. This is a terrifying sight to behold and if you are in a vehicle the best way to deal with this is to put your foot down and leave the area in the opposite direction!
If a serious charge occurs when you are on foot, there is not a lot you can do other than dive into a ditch or hide in some thick bush where the elephant can't see you. There is no way a human can outrun an elephant. Some people try shouting, waving their arms and making lots of noise to put the elephant off, but this is usually done at the stage before the elephant decides to charge, or during a mock charge. As elephants have bad eyesight, your best chance is to run to either the left or right of the charge direction, preferably to a position out of the wind so that the elephant will lose your scent.
One of the best places to see Elephants is at Amboseli National Park.
The lone male buffalos are colloquially known as ‘Dagga Boys' (pronounced with a flehm sound on the ‘gg' part). They are aggressive and unpredictable creatures. Many guides and rangers regard the buffalo as the most dangerous animal in the bush, and with good reason.
Buffalo are the largest of bovine species, and the only true wild bovine in the bush. When the old males become too aggressive they get kicked out or leave the herd, and stomp around the bush alone or in small bachelor groups.
Buffalo are unlikely to be a threat when viewing them from a vehicle, but when viewing a large herd, you will notice them staring at you. Typically at least one buffalo will always have his or her eyes on you at all times. This staring can be quite disconcerting!
On foot, the lone male buffalos present the greatest threat. They like to rest in thick bush and in reed beds on dried up rivers. If you happen to surprise a buffalo, it's anyone's guess whether it will charge you or run away.
They are intelligent animals and they have been known to stalk and trample hunters who have been trying to shoot them! If you see a buffalo on foot, the guide will tell you to freeze, be quiet, and watch. When he feels the situation is safe, he will tell you to move away in the opposite direction. Please remain calm, do not talk, and do not start taking photos or pulling sun cream out of your bag!
Hippos, despite their comical appearance and their bumbling portrayal in cartoons, are actually one of Africa's most prolific man-killers. Hippos are very aggressive creatures, and they have one of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom.
A hippo is most dangerous when out of water (unless you're in the water with it!). If you get in between the hippo and its path back to the water, it may panic and charge you. They have also been known to raid camps near to their watering holes, and there is a myth that they like to stamp out fires, although more probably they are just showing their displeasure at having humans on their patch!
Hippos need to be treated with utmost respect. The best place to view them is from a vehicle. If you are on foot, remember that hippos can run very fast – faster than a human! When viewing hippos from a boat or a canoe, pay attention to what the guide instructs you to do.
They can be seen at Mzima Springs in Tsavo West, where there is a submerged viewing hide which allows you to see underwater and watch the Hippos walking across the bottom of the pools.
The hook-lipped, or ‘black' rhino, is the smaller of the rhino species, but also the more aggressive one. Rhinos have very poor eyesight but a good sense of smell and hearing. If you happen to surprise and scare a black rhino, they will run away in whatever direction they happen to be facing. Often this means they will run straight towards you, and people often mistake this for an aggressive charge, but actually the rhino is just scared and confused and wants to be left alone.
If a rhino does run towards you, either dive out of its way, or throw a large object such as a big piece of dead wood or clothing in its path if you have time. This will often frighten the animal into changing direction.
White rhinos are the larger species, but generally more placid. They are most dangerous when you encounter a mother with its young. They are very protective and they will charge if they feel threatened and cornered.
When a rhino intends to charge you with serious intent, it will first give you warning signs. It lowers its head and scrapes the ground with its hoofs, sending dust flying up behind it. If you do not move away during this warning, it will launch a charge.
If you see a lion, keep your distance, remain calm, don't turn your back, and don't run. Move your arms, head, and feet around, and clap your hands together to avoid them coming closer. Slowly back away from the lions while continuing to face them.
Although lions can be extremely intimidating to see in the wild, especially if you're by yourself and lost, there are a variety of other animals to be careful of including buffalos and black rhinos. Both species need their space, which is why it's important to always keep your eyes open and stay clear of these animals. Rhinos have a fantastic sense of smell and hearing, which makes up for their lack of good eyesight. Because of their keen sense of smell and hearing, it's important to be extremely quiet and know the direction of the wind to prevent your scent from lingering in their direction.
Hyaenas are curious creatures, both in nature and to look at! Generally they are fearful of humans, but this doesn't stop them from coming into camp sites, especially if they smell your cooking.
Hyaenas are in the dangerous animals category because they are known to venture into human areas, such as camps, and grab whatever food they can find before running away. Sometimes this ‘food' is someone's face, arm or leg!
If a hyaena comes into your camp, stand up and make sure it sees you. Do not run away from it. Hold your ground and stare at it, and this is usually enough to send it slinking off into the bush. Alternatively, you can shout at it and wave your arms around, and even throw a stick towards it. This is sure to send it scurrying away! Though often they will return again, so it is wise to keep an eye out for it during the night if you are sleeping outside in the bush.
On occasion a hyaena will ‘test' its subject by loping towards the animal, to see what it will do. If the animal runs away, the hyaena will regard it as fair prey. If a hyaena lopes towards you, hold your ground. In fact, if you take a step towards it, it will probably turn on a six pence and disappear into the bush.
Hyaenas are very capable hunters (as opposed to their image in popular culture as being scavengers), but they will not hunt humans. They are opportunists like many animals, but so long as you are awake and aware they do not pose any great threat.
When walking through the African bush, it's crucial to keep your attention on every element around you. Being observant will help you to avoid unwanted "surprises." Depending on which animal you see in the bush, you want to know different tactics and movements to avoid becoming their dinner.