Lion and lionness

Safari safety tips (not just for dummies)

We use this post to chat about how safari safety. That means talking about which African nations are the safest for visitors, malaria, how to stay safe in terms of the wildlife, and the pros and cons of self-drive versus organised safaris.

We all know that if you stick your head in a lion’s mouth, you’re asking for big trouble. So we’re not going to use this blog post to talk about the importance of not feeding or petting the wildlife on safari. We assume you know that already. Instead, we’re going to offer you some solid safari safety tips that are actually worth your time! 

There are two primary aspects to safari safety: 

  • ensuring you’re safe from the wildlife 
  • avoiding any dangerous or unstable regions 
Young adults sitting atop safari vehicle

An African safari is an unforgettable experience!

When it comes to African wildlife, there are many dangerous animals, both large and small. And many will happily bite, buck, sting or stomp you if you aggravate them.

So you want to be sensible in the way you go about game viewing, whether doing a self-drive safari or an organised one. We offer you advice for both types to give you the confidence to enjoy a safe safari. 

Cheetahs in the shade of a tree

Cheetahs don't hassle humans unless the humans hassle them first!

You also want to visit a safe country. We discuss which African countries offer good game spotting while also being safe for tourists. We know you want to see the Big Five (elephants, lions, rhinos, buffaloes and leopards), so we highlight the safest countries containing these magnificent animals.  

The main way to be safe on safari is to know what you’re doing, or travel with someone who does.

Black rhinos in green landscape

The endangered rhino is a favourite among many safari-goers

Is going on a safari dangerous?

Safaris aren’t dangerous by nature. That said, a safari – like driving a car or stepping out your front door – is not entirely risk free. We take our lives into our hands every day. But we’re happy to report that a safari isn’t dangerous if done right. 

So we all know that there are plenty of dangerous animals in Africa, right? And plenty of the wildlife you see on safari could quite easily kill you. 

The good news is that you’re not in danger from the wildlife unless you act recklessly or stupidly, or are massively unlucky. (We point out and explain the one exception to this rule below.)

 African leopard in a tree

Leopards are elusive, making spotting one on a game drive a real coup!

How to stay safe on a safari drive

The main thing for keeping safe is to stay inside your vehicle when in a game park (unless your safari guide says it's safe to get out). We repeat: your vehicle is your safety shield on safari. Stay inside it!

Even if you see a solitary, sweet, doe-eyed duiker next to your car, don't get out to snap a close up (use your zoom lens for that). You never know what else is lurking just beyond view. And even the animals that look super cute and cuddly can sometimes be dangerous under the right set of circumstances.

If you spot some exciting wildlife, don't jump out of the vehicle to photograph it – stay where you are and take a pic from there! #Safety101

Yellow sfarai vehicle

Always stay inside your vehicle unless your tour guide indicates it's safe to step out or pop your head through the sunroof

Which are the most dangerous African animals?

It’s surprisingly difficult to pinpoint the most dangerous animal in Africa. This is because danger comes in many forms. Some animals are hazardous because they have brute strength, others because of their immense size, and others because of their fearsomely strong jaws and sharp teeth. Still others are highly dangerous because of their speed, wiliness, venom or camouflage. 

So is the most dangerous African animal the lion? He’s the king of the jungle, after all. But what about the elephant, which can crush you like a petal? Or the giraffe, which can actually decapitate you with a kick? Or the hyena, which has the strongest jaws of any mammal?

And we mustn't forget to consider the hippo. In spite of its ungainly appearance, the hippo is surprisingly swift, and is also aggressive to boot. In fact, hippos kill more Africans on average than any other large land mammal. (But once again, they – like other animals – are only dangerous to safari-goers if you step out of your vehicle.)

But wait, we must consider some other gnarly creatures before crowning our Most Dangerous Animal winner ...

Submerged hippos

Hippos are the most dangerous of Africa's large land mammals_, not lions or any other obvious contender_s

The Big Five

Colonial-era hunters coined the term ‘the Big Five’ to identify the large game that they found to be the most dangerous when hunted on foot. This is because these animals (lions, bush elephants, Cape buffaloes, leopards and black rhinos) are very aggressive when aggravated or cornered. But we don’t, of course, advocate hunting the Big Five or any other animals for that matter. Spotting them is sport enough! 

Did you know that the Cape buffalo is actually considered the most dangerous of the Big Five? This is because they will actually pursue or ambush hunters when feeling under threat.

Adult male lion looking at camera

Lions are formidable predators, but they're far from being Africa's most dangerous animal

Other (surprising) contenders

But when we think of fearsome wildlife, we can't forget the terrible Nile crocodile! These beasts have jaws almost four times stronger than those of hyenas. (Shudder.) And there's also the puff adder, whose camouflaged skin and venom make an awful combination.

Another contender many might overlook is the honey badger. This small creature is one of the strongest, toughest and most ferocious creatures out there. In fact, a honey badger will take on pretty much any species if the need arises, from lion to leopard to hyena.

Honey badger carrying pup

A honey badger carrying its pup | Image by Derek Keats

Our pick for the winner  

But if the most dangerous creature were to be decided purely based on the number of human fatalities, then the tiny malaria-transmitting mosquito is the most dangerous of all African animals. Malaria is the scourge of Africa. According to WHO, it killed over 400,000 Africans in 2019.    

Africa and malaria 

Most people thinking of a safari want to know if they’re safe from animals, imagining irate lions and ticked-off rhinos. But really, it’s the tiny mosquito that presents the biggest threat. Female Anopheles mosquitoes that are infected with the malaria parasite bite and transmit the disease to hundreds of thousands of people in Africa every year.  

Map showing malaria distribution in Africa

The map below shows the regions in Africa where malaria poses a problem.

Map showing distribution of malaria in Africa

As you can see from the map, many African nations sit squarely in the malaria zone. So this isn’t an issue you can ignore when planning a safari. Instead, it should form an integral part of your travel prep. 

How do I protect myself against malaria?

There are two ways to protect yourself from malaria. Firstly, we recommend visiting your local GP to ask after anti-malaria meds.

Secondly, once in a malaria-risk area:

  • use insect repellent
  • wear long pants and long sleeves, as well as closed shoes
  • sleep under a mosquito net

Fit for Travel has a nice page on malaria prevention that we can also recommend for learning more on this important topic. 

Man in safari vehicle gamespotting

Follow Alice team member Sal is wearing a long-sleeved shirt on his safari drive – this is a great choice to help protect him from mosquito bites

Which is the safest country for safari?

Of the African countries that offer really good safari opportunities (and contain the Big Five), the following are the safest according to both the Global Peace Index and general consensus (in alphabetical order):

  • Botswana
  • Kenya
  • Namibia
  • Rwanda 
  • Tanzania
  • Uganda
  • Zambia

Kenya has had some security issues in recent years, but not in its safari regions. Botswana is considered the safest of all African nations. And Zambia is ranked as the third safest nation.

We personally would have no issue trotting off to any of the above-mentioned destinations! And we often do.

Elephant by water in Botswana

Botswana is Africa's safest country, while also being a seriously epic safari destination

At Follow Alice we currently offer safaris in both Tanzania and Uganda. We’ve led many travellers on memorable safaris in both countries, and have found them to be safe for tourists. So here’s a little more detail on safari safety in Tanzania, and then Uganda ...

Safari safety in Tanzania

Tanzania receives around a million visitors a year, many heading to one or more of its multiple game parks. By far the most popular safari area in the country is its Northern Circuit.   

The Northern Circuit

The Northern Circuit refers to the cluster of game parks and conservation areas in the north of Tanzania. These include world-famous reserves like Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, where you can see the Great Wildlife Migration

The small city of Arusha is the gateway to the game parks of the Northern Circuit. Most visitors coming for a safari here fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO), and then stopover at Arusha, a 55 km drive away.

Arusha is a safe city by most people's standards. But in How safe is Tanzania? we give some simple safety and security tips, most of which are really just common sense stuff.

Follow Alice safari vehicle Tanzania, safari safety

Our Follow Alice Tanzania vehicle on active duty inside the incomparable Ngorongoro Crater

Is the Serengeti dangerous?

Being the most famous Tanzanian game park, and home to the Big Five, we're sometimes asked if the Serengeti is safe. Yes, Serengeti National Park is a very safe place to visit. (Some of you might like to read What is the Serengeti famous for?)

First of all, tourist safety is a top priority for park staff. The park is well secured and monitored. And it's also encircled by a 3 m-high electric fence.

While some of the wildlife in the park are certainly dangerous, as mentioned, you have to behave recklessly or foolishly to place yourself in danger.

Safari safety in Uganda

There are many wonderful parks offering fantastic safari experiences in Uganda, like Queen Elizabeth National Park and Kidepo Valley National Park. Excitingly, there are some game parks, like Mburo National Park, where you can actually go on a guided walking or bicycling safari as there aren't any dangerous predators in residence.

The main point we wish to make about safari safety in Uganda is that some of the national roads are in poor condition. This is one reason why travelling with an experienced local safari driver-cum-guide is a good idea. They know which routes are best, which sections of road to be wary of, and so on.

4x4 vehicle and group photo by water, safari safety tips

Dan and some Follow Alice friends on a Uganda safari

Self-drive vs organised safaris

A big decision for would-be safari-goers is whether to do a self-drive safari or sign up for an organised one. The latter offers many perks, such as providing you with an appropriate safari vehicle as well as a driver and guide. Safari tour operators usually organise your accommodation for you too.

Whilst safari operators do, of course, charge for the service they offer, they deal with all the admin for you. And they know the what, where, when and how of excellent safaris.

Safari vehicle and two people by body of water, safari safety tips

The type of vehicle used for a game drive is very important, both in terms of comfort and safety and reliability

Advice for self-drive safaris

Some folks understandably enjoy the independence and thrill of a self-drive. That's totally fine. We just don't, however, advise going with this option unless you have done your homework thoroughly and know how to handle your vehicle really well in rough terrain.

Ideally, you should do a first drive with a guide before heading out on a self-drive. Use that initial drive to quiz your driver on how to stay safe and drive in a safe manner.

6 self-drive safari tips

Here are some further tips for those looking to do a self-drive safari:

  • Never get closer than 20 m (65 ft) to large game, especially Cape buffaloes, rhinos and elephants.
  • Give a wide berth to injured animals and those with young.
  • Don't hoot (honk) or shout at animals to try get them to turn, raise their heads, etc. Similarly, don't wave wildly at the animals.
  • Drive very cautiously around solitary elephants and buffaloes.
  • Don't rev your engine loudly around the animals, as this could startle or alarm them.
  • Don't bring foods like fruits in the car with you. Many animals have an excellent sense of smell, and may want a taste of what you're having.

Think of yourself as visitors to the animals' home; you should act respectfully and not make a nuisance of yourself. The less humans interfere with the day-to-day lives of the wildlife, the better.

In fact, sometimes animals are put down after attacking people, even though it was actually the latter's fault for provoking them. Don't be the sort of human who comes on safari and leaves a legacy of death.

Most incidents in game parks occur when people grow overly confident. Respect the wildlife, remembering that it is indeed just that: wild.

safari vehicle interior, safari safety tips

You need a 4x4 that can handle vast distances and rough terrain in order to go on safari safely

Why organised safaris are the safer option

From a safety point of view, going on safari with a tour operator is a very good idea. Qualified tour guides have in-depth knowledge of how to keep you safe (in all respects).

Specifically, the safety advantages of going on safari with a trained tour guide are:

  • They have the right sort of vehicle and training and so can safely and effectively navigate the often tough, muddy terrain. (Sitting in a broken-down 4x4 in a hot game park is no bueno.)
  • Safari guides know which animals are dangerous, and in what ways, so they can act sensibly and advise you of what to do and not do in all situations.
  • They know how close you can get to the different animals while staying safe and also not scaring them off.

Further to this, safari guides also know about the different animals' life stages and patterns. For instance, male elephants are particularly aggressive during musth (a period of heightened testosterone). One should drive extra judiciously when in the presence of such individuals to avoid being charged.

Male elephant, safari safety

Male elephants are more aggressive during musth, a period of heightened testosterone

Other perks of organised safaris

Some of the other perks of going on safari with a trained guide but that aren't related to safety are:

  • Safari guides are excellent at game spotting! They'll notice and point out animals you'd otherwise have missed.
  • Your guide is in touch with fellow guides and rangers about where the best animal sightings are.
  • They have intimate knowledge of the animals you spot, so can really make what you're seeing that much more interesting.
Safari tour guide by dirty safari vehicle, safrai safety

Kazi is our highly trained Tanzania safari driver and guide, and one of his core jobs is to keep you safe

Don’t pay a company you haven’t researched

As with any industry, the safari tourism trade has its share of shysters. There are tour operators who don’t train or pay staff properly, as well as full-on scammers and everything in between. Have nothing to do with them. While a safari is a perfectly safe enterprise when done properly, it can quickly descend into something unpleasant, even dangerous, if not done right.

We advise that you thoroughly research any safari operators you’re considering using. Check some independent review platforms such as Trustpilot and look on sites like Facebook to see what past clients have to say. Never pay any money in advance to a company you’re not confident is fully legit. 

Two bucks sparring in a sunset landcape, safari safety

Safaris don't come cheap, so be sure to do your homework before handing over any cash

4 tips for safari safety

Finally, here's a summary on safari safety by way of four tips:

  1. Never step out of your safari vehicle unless you know for absolute sure that it’s safe to do so (for instance, your safari guide says it’s safe to do so).
  2. Don’t poke your head or dangle your arms out of the windows. The wildlife can be swifter than you think!
  3. Wear plenty of sunscreen, even on overcast days, to avoid becoming a cliché. (Also, be sure to bring quality sunglasses to protect your eyes from glare.)
  4. It’s best to wear lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and long pants, as well as closed shoes, even when it’s hot. These protect you from being bitten by mosquitoes and other insects and bugs. Interestingly, dark colours actually attract mozzies as they rely in part on sight to find hosts, so it's better to wear pale-coloured clothing.
Herd of wildebeests, safari safety

Witnessing the Great Migration, which takes place in Tanzania and Kenya, is arguably the very best African safari experience

 

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