If you work as a guide for long enough in a Big 5 area, you’re going to get a fright or two. Some of these may just be gentle reminders that out here the animals run the show, but occasionally an incident will leave you shaking like a leaf, white as a sheet, and have you pouring yourself a stiff whisky at eight in the morning. Invariably these incidents will take place when you’re on foot, as for the most part, animals on Londolozi and its surrounds have grown used to the presence of vehicles.
I’ve often wondered, though, what the immediate afterthoughts are for the animals on the other side of these incidents. Ultimately, most creatures out here are afraid of people on foot; go on a bush walk and try get close to a herd of impala and you’ll see what I mean. The same herd that hardly deigned to move out the way of the Land Rover when you drove past them only ten minutes before will be running if they so much as catch a glimpse of you on foot from 100 metres. Even the creatures one would never imagine to be afraid of people, things like elephants and lions, won’t let you get close. Sure they have it in their power to send a warning that they don’t want you to approach any further, and of course there is the off chance they could become aggressive, but for the most part, discretion is the better part of valour out here, for both humans and wild animals.
I remember the first time I saw a male lion of foot; the species I was most nervous about confronting on even terms was legging it away from us across a clearing after we had inadvertently walked towards the bush he had been sleeping under. This didn’t make any sense to me, as why would this fearsome animal be afraid of us? Surely he could see how useless and slow we were, lacking any real natural weaponry? We can’t run fast, we can’t climb well.. we don’t have sharp claws or teeth or anything that could defend us against a big cat. Yet there was this fully grown male, who probably tipped the scales at around 200kg, running away!
The reasons animals fear us we could debate ad ifinitum. Most schools of thought revolve around A) people being viewed as predators due to our upright stance, eyes pointed forward etc. B) people aren’t part of the natural order of things out in the wild, and as such are viewed with a certain amount of suspicion by its natural inhabitants. If something is foreign, animals show distrust, as they are yet to ascertain what level of threat it represents.
The final argument deals with people as persecutors of wildlife for centuries in Africa, and the wildlife has developed an instinctive fear for all things human. This is certainly possible, although just how much so-called genetic memory plays a part, its obviously hard to say.
Strong cases can be made for and against all three points of view, but, as with many arguments, I’m sure it’s more a combination of the above rather than any single factor. Point B) probably holds the strongest weight for me; the whole system of animal habituation at Londolozi is based on it. Very small cubs are only ever viewed from a distance and one vehicle at a time – sometimes one per day – and only if the mother is present. This ensures a gradual building of trust towards the game viewers from an early age, until eventually when they are a couple of years old, most of the predators won’t even spare a glance for a Land Rover if one hoves into view, so used are they to our presence, and so sure that we represent neither a threat nor a food source.
If one visits Mana Pools in Zimbabwe – the only National Park in southern African in which you are allowed to walk unescorted – one will encounter animals that are far more used to seeing people on foot. This isn’t to say that they are tame – not by a long shot – but people walking around are simply part of the animals’ natural environment, and are consequently ignored. I once saw an elephant literally step over my friend as she was sitting on the ground; the elephant wanted to move past to get to a better collection of Albida pods. Obviously this wasn’t the best scenario, and our hearts were in our mouths for a second, but my point is that to that elephant, my friend was just an obstacle to bypass, nothing more. A level of trust has been built up between the wild animals and the people who wander freely through their domain.
I’m digressing here, so let’s get back to question at hand, which is who really gets the bigger fright: you, or the animal you’ve just stumbled into? I’m talking more about a dangerous animal here, one with which a close encounter could have potential consequences (although I can relate countless incidents in which we were on foot tracking dangerous game when some bird erupted out of the bushes next to us, nearly causing heart failure!).
We discussed a similar topic a year ago in a post entitled Does Fear Linger? in which we looked at the potential for animals to experience anxiety. The conclusion then, whether correct or not, was that animals living in a dangerous environment like Londolozi need to be far more concerned with immediate threats than what may or may not happen in the future. I guess the difference in the question we’re posing today is that immediately post-fright, we want to know the capacity of the various animals to look back on what’s just happened, and whether that affects them, rather than the anxiety of looking ahead.
For people, with our analytical minds, a close-call with a dangerous animal could have us confronting our mortality, shaken for days and inwardly very much impacted, whether we display it or not. Sometimes it would make us laugh. Whatever the case (and obviously each encounter is different), any review at a later date would most likely conjour up some of the same feelings you felt in the aftermath of the incident.
The leopard you almost tripped over though, would, I suspect, see things differently. He or she would probably get a huge fright in the moment, emit a huge growl or roar, and hurtle off into the nearest thicket in order to avoid the danger that it perceives you to be.
Lacking our powers of retrospection though, I’m sure the leopard would in no way be put out by the incident. Within a very short time, any adrenalin it may have had flood its system in the moment would have dissipated; it will not in any way be showing adverse signs of its encounter, and it would more than likely simply find a nice bush to lie under, and go to sleep.