All in the last few weeks, a lion escaped from a park in South Africa, zoo animals were on the lose in Tbilisi, Georgia, and there was a fatal lion attack of an American within a South African game park — there have also been buffalo-gorings, moose-stompings, and bear-maulings happening with alarming regularity in within the United States. So the question is, who is at fault: the safari companies, park operators, and government agencies who make this wildlife too easily accessible to civilians unfamiliar with the dangers, or does the fault lie with tourists who ignore the warnings, risks, and common sense to do idiotic things like posing for a selfie in front of a charging elephant?
The danger of wildlife parks
With increased access to some of the world’s most remote and wild destinations, people are getting up close and personal with wildlife at levels never seen before — in more exotic, more experiential, and potentially more dangerous trips. What was once the exclusive domain of Stanley and Livingstone on multi-year massive expeditions to darkest Africa now just requires a couple of clicks on a website, and presto, you’re within paw’s reach of a lion.
Book a safari, or visit a wildlife park, and you’ll likely be handed a few pages of fine print with warnings and disclaimers about your trip. Many people will sign these without looking too carefully. But to what extent do tour operators properly brief their customers and visitors about the dangers, and then enforce these safety regulations?
Photo: Krysia Campos/Getty Images
Particularly in third-world countries, rules can be bent on behalf of visitors with ready cash. For example, when I visited Komodo Island in Indonesia, someone in our group tipped the Park Ranger five dollars to go over and whack a 12-foot long komodo dragon with a stick to get it to move, which he did with no hesitation (fortunately — or not — the guy who gave the tip was not eaten). In Myanmar, a tour operator told me of visiting Russian oligarchs who didn’t want their trip cancelled for safety concerns. The Russians pulled out a handful of hundred dollar bills and asked the guide “what will it cost for you to declare this trip is now safe.” Not all tour operators would resist such offers.
As a traveler, you don’t need to be completely paranoid about making a trip to an area with wildlife. Select a well-known tour operator with a record of safety — for country-by-country safari safety advice, look at a safari consolidator website to see their latest recommendations, as well as the latest updates from the U.S. Department of State. For tour operators, check to see if a tour company is a registered member of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, or the Adventure Travel Trade Association, and scan reviews at customer websites like TripAdvisor.
Then follow directions closely — just because you’re an Eagle Scout and expert in backwoods hunting in Wyoming doesn’t mean you know the first thing about dealing with deadly snakes in Australia or spiders in the Amazon.
While there are plenty of bears in Yellowstone, you’re far more likely to die in a traffic accident at the park than via bear attack. (Photo: 167/Barrett Hedges/Ocean/Corbis)
The reality is that animal attacks are very rare given the number of people visiting the areas. In fact, the most deadly thing in U.S. National Parks, according to one report, is the traffic: While Yellowstone had gone 25 years without a fatal bear attack, during the same 1986-2010 period 20 people died in traffic accidents there. During busy summer months, three people every day have to be airlifted out of the park after car crashes. So it turns out, despite the many ways by which one can die in Yellowstone, the most essential survival tool isn’t bear spray, it’s a seat belt.
The Danger of People
Photo: Robert Landau/Corbis
Yellowstone spokeswoman Amy Bartlett has implored people just to “use common sense” when dealing with wildlife. “Just because the animal is near the trail or boardwalk doesn’t mean it’s tame,” she told the Associated Press in an interview. Because particularly in well-traveled U.S. National Parks, the occurrence of foolishness is high. The combination of easy access to wildlife for the uneducated, and the seemingly docile nature of grazers like moose and bison leads to all-to-common death or injury as people leave the protection of their vehicles to take photos near these animals.
Traci Weaver, Public Affairs Officer for Yellowstone National Park told Yahoo Travel that even though the park does its best to educate visitors about animal danger with signs, brochures and ranger lectures, mishaps like the bison goring happen because “unfortunately some people can’t conceptualize these are wild animals because they look so tame.“
While Yellowstone is committed to the National Park Service mission of allowing people open access to nature, there are limits: after the recent viral video showing bears chasing tourists across a bridge at Yellowstone, the Park Service has declared the bridge off-limits to pedestrians. “Bears and bison regularly use this bridge to cross the river, and people can get trapped and hurt out there, so we’ve posted ‘vehicle only’ signs,” said Weaver.
And if people continue to ignore these warning signs and try to pet the bison? “Well, once a goring or some kind of animal attack gets in the news, we do see people getting a lot more cautious,” Weaver added, “but we’re going to keep doing our best to educate everyone and try to prevent that from happening.”
Up in Alaska, Denali Park Spokeswoman Kathleen Kelly, told the Fairbanks News Miner that after a couple of moose attacks on people: "We’re focused on managing the visitors rather than trying to manage the moose at this point. We’re really trying to send out a message on how to behave around wildlife.”
And that’s your safari safety program in a nutshell: listen to the messages from the experts about how to act when close to wild animals. Not only will this you help to ensure the safety of yourself and those around you, but responsible behavior will keep the parks from having to fence off every meadow, mountain and forest to protect everyone against the foolish impulses of the few.