As my clients well know, I don’t approve of walking safaris anywhere in East Africa, today. Tuesday morning another tourist was killed by an elephant near Tarangire National Park.
Thomas McAfee of San Diego was on a guided walking safari arranged by Tarangire River Camp where he was lodging.
The details are not complete, but reports of the local police report claim the incident occurred at 8 a.m., Tuesday, when McAfee and two others encountered about 50 elephant on their walk.
The report continues that the other two escaped by running away but that McAfee tripped and fell and was then killed by a charging elephant.
Tarangire River Camp is a respectable camp located just outside the park itself. Many similar excellent camps and lodges throughout sub-Saharan Africa located just outside the boundaries of a government reserve are not restrained by park regulations restricting walking. So as a sales tool they offer walking safaris.
Park regulations are strict regarding walking. Walkers must pay a special fee and must be accompanied by an armed ranger, but for the last several years in Tarangire, the main northern ranger post has declined to lead walking safaris.
I can only speculate as to why the rangers have declined to lead walking safaris, since there has been no official reason. But I suspect it’s the same reason I have: there are too many elephants, they are too stressed, and it’s too dangerous.
Be cautious, now, about unqualified criticism of Tarangire River Camp. Virtually every off-reserve camp I know in Tarangire, including my favorite, Oliver’s Camp, promotes walking safaris.
Walking safaris strike consumers as an attractive option to remaining in the car all day, and that’s understandable, and nowhere at no time have they been offered without the understanding of added risk.
The finest and most professional walking safaris in Africa are led by remarkably professional rangers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
And even those have had serious incidents, but notably the professional has been the one who has suffered most, and in all cases in recent memory the tourists were uninjured.
And, of course, incidents occur to vehicles, too. Most of these, in fact, are reported again in Kruger National Park, and the reason is quite simple: There are many more tourists, there, and many self-drive cars, unlike in East Africa.
In my long forty years of guiding safaris I’ve been threatened by animals, mostly elephants, dozens and dozens of times. Three times were very serious. Game viewing – anywhere in Africa – is not a walk through your local county forest preserve.
But times started to seriously change 10-15 years ago. Today the risk of an animal attack while on safari is greater than ever. The risk is easily avoided, but it requires a change in tourist behavior from what for so many years has been considered acceptable.
There are qualifications, of course. If you recognize the added risk, then there are places where that risk is less and where the professionalism and heroism of its rangers has a long history. And that’s in southern Africa, especially Kruger.
Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is also a place where walking safaris have been the featured form of game viewing for more than half century, and where the guides have avoided serious incidents for a remarkably long time.
And in very remote locations, for example in Kenya’s fine Bush ‘n Beyond camps in the distant Northern Frontier, walking is probably OK.
Why is it less risky in some places? Because of different animal behaviors in different places, and because of the skill and professionalism of those who might guide you walking.
East Africa, Kenya in particular, has made great strides in the skill and professionalism of its rangers. Tanzania much less so, and Uganda is horrible. But no country in East Africa has the training or supervision that passes my requirements for a safe walk in the wild.
And East Africa’s wild animal population is out of control. Both in terms of simple numbers (which is a main reason I enjoy going there), and because of unusually rapid increases in human/animal conflicts that are not occurring in southern Africa.
Last night I was reading my precious first edition of Theodore Roosevelt’s Game Trails. The book is fascinating on many levels but is mostly an account of his incredibly extensive big game hunt through Kenya and Uganda in 1909.
Many, many times he and his professional hunters, Cunningham and Tarlton, approached elephant on foot, and not always just to kill them. Sometimes, just to taunt them, as when Teddy jovially reports throwing sticks and rocks at one.
To be sure Roosevelt was an accomplished hunter and sportsman, but he was careful about hunting without Cunningham or Tarlton with him. But when he accidentally “ran into” his old friend and fellow conservationist, Carl Ackley, on a private journey released from his professional hunters, he didn’t hesitate accepting Ackley’s request to kill an elephant for the New York Natural History Museum.
In those days, with the prairies and forests and velds literally saturated with game, and few if any people living anywhere, including indigenous people, the human intrusion into the animal paradise was a clear and unmitigated risk – not to the people, but to the animals!
Elephant had been hunted for ivory for centuries, and no human approached them except to kill them. It was virtually the same for anything wild, a bird as small as a wheatear was a target. Roosevelt’s arsenal contained a variety of weapons capable of downing a mole rat.
The relationship between animals and man was clear. Hunter and hunted. And man was supreme. The list of hunter injuries was great as world sportsmen defied death by challenging wild animals: Lord Delamere and Governor Jackson enjoyed showing Roosevelt their wounds from great hunts gone awry, and I definitely felt that Roosevelt tried and failed to be so heroically scarred himself.
But every animal on the veld knew that ultimately there was no contest with man. Man always, always won.
Protecting animals has tamed them. And it’s important to remind ourselves that “tame” is our definition, not theirs. We have manipulated wild animals so that we can approach them more closely and enjoy them, even as they wander in the wild.
We’ve now had more than a half century of this, and that means a good two generations of elephant and far more in the lesser animals. Wild animals in African parks grow up far less afraid of man than their wild and natural behaviors would otherwise intuit.
That worked beautifully for many, many years. But about 15 years ago it became apparent there were too many wild animals too densely packed into these protected reserves in East Africa, where the most exciting and supreme game viewing occurs.
That’s logical, of course. You protect something and it will prosper. And to be sure “too many” is my own assessment and nothing more scientific than that. Reading Roosevelt it’s quite clear there were more animals then, than now, but they were spread all over the place. Roosevelt reports “zebra attacks” within the Nairobi city limits. Nowhere did he wander, even over the volcanic rock of the northern frontier, without encountering herds of animals.
But they were never as densely packed together as they are, today, in a national park.
Over population has its own inherent risks. It stresses the animals as they compete for the same food sources and breeding areas. Tarangire in particular has the most serious problem, because its principal wild animal is the elephant.
Normal elephant behavior broke down in Tarangire about 15 years ago. That’s when we began to see unusually large groups of elephants (more than several hundred together at once), multiple families, feeding, breeding and moving together. That’s not natural for elephants, but it was mandated by their reduced space.
Global warming has radicalized the feeding cycles. Increased human populations on the periphery of reserves primarily pursuing farming exacerbates the human/elephant conflict.
So the tension between man and elephant increased substantially over the last 10-15 years. A terribly frightful incident on one of my own safaris in 2007, when a dear client was pinned on the ground by an elephant was the final determination I needed. (Stephen Farrand suffered only cuts and scratches after professional and quick action by one of my drivers.)
And since then the situation has been aggravated even further as unusual rains increased animal herds too fast, and as the Great Global Recession sparked increased poaching. And the poaching as I’ve often written is quite different from the corporate, helicopter, big-truck harvest poaching of the 1970s/80s.
The poaching today is generally by a small group of raiders on foot, because the value of a single tusk is so great, the small scale ad-hoc poaching proves economically worth it.
Imagine a generation of elephants, tamed to the point of putting their inquiring trunks through the top of my opened vehicles (as often happens), suddenly confronted one night by 4 or 5 men on foot trying to kill it.
Pursuit as was man’s only role in Roosevelt’s time is new to a young elephant in today’s world. Man is supposed to be that pretty admirer in a steel box. Suddenly that man is trying to kill it.
Contrary to many researchers and general mythology, elephant aren’t smart. They’re beasts, reactive, powerful and now … terribly confused.
Don’t walk among these tembo. We’ve known this for a number of years, now. We’ve been unsuccessful stopping the camps from offering the activity. It’s now your responsibility, and an easy one to embrace.
wow, what a shame. I loved our walking safari in ’99, enjoyed being up-close w plants, bleached bones of prey, hyena scat, etc. Very educational. Biggest game we saw: giraffes who always walked further & further away from us. We knew the risk & signed waivers. We thought it was well worth it. Sincere condolences to the family of tourist who was killed.
Thanks for the thoughtful article Jim. I was one who pushed for walking on the infamous 2007 safari – and had a lesson that I will never forget: wild (and domesticated ones as well I think) animals are unpredictable and must be respected as such. That said, in my recent grandparent-grandchild trip to Kenya with energetic 10 to 13 yo children, we had two wonderful walks, at Lake Elementaita, and at the Crater Lake Tented Camp walking to the Crater Lake Wildlife Sanctuary. We saw and learned much – but there were no elephants in either area. These were great places, lots of birds, plants, some animals – but I don’t think that one would say they were “on Safari” in either place. My point is: guided nature walks are possible in certain places, but I would not get out of a vehicle on Safari.
Firstly my condolences to family and friends of Mr McAfee. It is clear that not all the details about this incident have yet been released and there for it is misleading to say that these clients where in fact on a “guided” walk, just as it is misleading to suggest that Oliver’s Camp is an “off reserve” camp- it is very much within Tarangire National Park. Walking on safari is an amazing experience and thousands of folk every year do it without incident- just imagine a world where no risks, however small, were ever taken. I am sorry Jim but I completely disagree with you- and by the way- I live in Tanzania.
Dar es Salaam. The American tourist killed by an elephant on Saturday while on vacation in Tanzania was an adventure-loving doctor who died just days before he was due to take up a new executive position in the US.
Dr Thomas McAfee, 58, who was a dean at the University of California’s San Diego campus, was on vacation in Tanzania before taking up a new role as chief executive of Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) Medical Foundation.
“He had an accidental encounter with an elephant,” said Ms Skyli McAfee, who identified herself as Dr McAfee’s sister, adding that she had been notified of the accident.
She said her brother was a regular world traveller who had been to Africa several times and knew that wild elephants can be unpredictable.
“My brother certainly was aware of those risks, but he was doing what he wanted to do,” she said. “He was very supportive of conservation efforts and his family continues to be.”
Tanzania National Parks (Tanapa) clarified yesterday that Dr McAfee was killed by an elephant in a hunting block outside Tarangire National Park.
“He was attacked outside Tarangire National Park,” he said, adding that Dr McAfee was rushed to Tarangire Health Centre where he was pronounced dead.
Dr McAfee was in the company of two compatriots when the incident took place, according to acting Manyara Regional Police Commander Mussa Marambo.
very very sad… As you know we offer walking at Tarangire… however, we do have 2 armed rangers that are employed by Safari Legacy… Very highly trained by Pratik himself.
However, yes, the risk is always there as is staying at a camp where wildlife roams in camp… We walk a short distance to Kikoti Rock. That is basically it…
Our staff at Kikoti are fully aware of these risks… and take extra precaution.
Whilst I appreciate your comments, that is a bit like saying “lets not fly as there have been fatalities.” An incident on Lewa over the same time period which resulted in a young rouge bull being shot in full charge, illustrated that walking can be dangerous, but like ones choice of private aircraft and pilot, the risks can be minimized. Walking is a wonderful way to experience the bush, there are many many examples of guides, outside of your favorite Kruger, who have led walking trips for many years without any harm to man or beast. Suggesting that walking safaris should be stopped is throwing the baby out with the bath water. What is needed is a drift away from fantasy safaris, and a more sensible approach from those booking trips. Whilst the internet has driven prices down, it has also led to horrible corner cutting and this incident should serve as a quality wake up call. Choose your walking guide carefully and if you are offered walks as part of a package, learn to ask the difficult questions and understand the risks.
I lived 6 years in Kenya and animals are animals. You are not visiting a Zoo. Judy Miller was “Lucky” when she had her walk in Crater Lake. On our picnic/walk in Crater lake that is near Naivasha my son of 4 said to me mom look a big cat! It was a leopard already moving towards my son. Nothing happened but it could have gone bad. After living 6 years in Africa I would suggest to no one to go walking in the wild. Take people along with shot guns! You are not in Disneyland! At one occassion I had to go to Nairobi hospital for donating my blood a Buffalo attacked an employee of KWF and no Kenyan people have bloodtype 0 negative. So if you go on safari walks and have O negative make sure to have your own blood with you on holiday or make sure that travelling compagnons can give you some of theirs.
I notice you write nothing of Botswana. Do you safari there? I was a tourist on walking safari led by a local guide in the Okavango Delta 2years ago, & by God’s grace, survived a herd charge. I agree – go on safari from a vehicle – never walk among them.
Listen and listen good folk. I’ve been on Safaris both in India and Africa.
It’s wonderful to be immersed in the raw wild elements among the variety of wildlife.
Going on hikes even with armed guides is not worth the thrill/experience. You get away with it once, twice and perhaps more times. Now you’re hooked and let your guard down w/o even realizing it.
In India a newly turned man eating Tiger attacked a Safari group killing four and mauling their guide. He later recovered to tell the horrific story as best he could piece together.
In S.Africa a nature hike ended when a Rhino gored two people so badly they died on the spot in a remote area with no help.
Caution when exercised unhurriedly is always going to bring you home safe. Leave the temporary thrills to those destined for a short yet tragic life. I say this knowing accidents are always just around the corner. But, don’t hasten the process.