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How safe is a safari holiday?
Elephants can be the highlight of a safari holiday
The death of a British tourist, killed by an elephant in Kenya, raises the question of how safe it is to go on an animal safari.

Journalist Peter Gould recently returned from a trip to neighbouring Tanzania.

The first thing you realise on an African safari is that the usual relationship between animals and humans has been reversed.

In the national parks of countries like Kenya and Tanzania, you are on their territory, not yours. Forget that, and you place yourself in peril.

For tourists from Europe and America, used to observing wild animals in the controlled safety of zoos, it can be an unsettling experience.

On the wide open spaces of the Masai Mara and the Serengeti, the beasts roam free.

Unpredictable animals

It is the humans who are enclosed - for their own safety - in guarded safari lodges and four-wheel drive vehicles.

There is always the chance of an unexpected encounter on safari

Some holiday companies organise walking tours, which often involve staying in tented camps.

The attraction is the chance to get even closer to the wildlife. But the risks are obvious, and tourists are usually accompanied by an experienced guide.

However carefully such expeditions are organised, there is always the chance of an unexpected encounter, and animals like elephants can be unpredictable.

Even Africans, who grow up in this environment, sometimes get caught out.

So most tourists view the scenery from the relative safety of a safari company Land Cruiser, bumping across well-marked tracks in search of the animals.

You do not get out unless the driver says it is safe to do so. And even then you have to remain alert, ready to jump back into the vehicle.

Stampeding elephants

If you are not careful, the metal cocoon of the vehicle can give you a false sense of security. A few feet away, the lions stroll past with an air of studied indifference.

Elephants crossing a road
Families of elephants are often seen crossing the road

Then you see them tearing apart a wildebeest and you realise they are simply saving their energy for a more accessible prey.

Predators like lions and leopards may appear to pose the greatest risk, but an angry Cape Buffalo or a stampeding elephant can be just as dangerous.

For many tourists, the elephants are one of the highlights of a safari holiday. In a national park like Tarangire in Tanzania, you see them in family groups, frequently crossing the roads used by the safari vehicles.

We are fascinated by them because of their size, their social behaviour and their obvious intelligence. For the most part they appear benign, but they can quickly become aggressive, especially when they are protecting their young.

If you get too close, they let you know. The ears start to flap and they turn to face you head on, trumpeting their displeasure. You have two choices - either to remain very still and quiet, or to back away.

Tragically, the British man killed in Kenya was on foot and unable to get out of the way quickly enough.

Domain of the animals

The strength of the elephant was apparent when I saw a five-ton bull feeding beneath a large tree. Unable to reach the leaves on the top branches, it placed its forehead against the trunk of the tree and pushed. With a resounding crack, the 30-foot tree toppled over.

Safari jeeps
The safari vehicles can give a false sense of security

What, I wondered, could such an animal do to the thin metal skin of the vehicle I was sitting in?

The four-wheel drive safari carries its own risks, and you cannot assume you are safe when you get back to the lodge at the end of the day.

At one place I stayed, the staff insisted on escorting guests between buildings after dark. They explained that buffalo routinely wandered through the compound at night, and a leopard had recently turned up in reception.

So are these close encounters with wildlife worth the risk? Ask anyone who has been on safari, and they will probably tell you it was the holiday of a lifetime.

For a few days you are in the domain of the animals, a place not entirely conquered by humans. And that is part of the attraction.

Safari Briton killed by elephant
22 Aug 00 |  UK News

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