Wednesday, June 10, 2015

When Lions Don't Attack

I've been getting a lot of questions about the safety of going on safari. Last week, I explained why the woman who was killed in the Lion Park was doing something dangerous, in that she opened her window in a small artificial environment where lions associate humans with food. Today I would like to discuss in more detail the safety and dangers involved in regular game drives.

Here is a photo of an adult male lion, that I took yesterday:

Now, it looks as though I was really close to the lion. The explanation for this is that in fact, I was indeed really close to the lion. Here is a picture that I took of our other car:

Lions sometimes eat people, and there is absolutely nothing to stop him doing so. The driver has a rifle, but he would not have time to load it and use it. So why is this safe? Because lions identify cars as things that are inedible, non-threatening and uninteresting. A person sitting in a car - even the spotter sitting on a special seat on the hood - is simply part of that inedible, non-threatening and uninteresting item.

But if you were to step out of the car, or even stand up and thereby break the outline, it would be extremely dangerous. In fact, it would be even more dangerous than simply going for a walk in the bush to look for lions. Allow me to explain why.

Most animals have a "flight zone" and a "fight zone." The flight zone is the large area around the animal within which, if you penetrate that area, the animal will move away. The fight zone is a much smaller area around the animal within which the animal does not feel it has space to move away, and will instead fight to protect itself.

If you go for a walk in the bush, and enter a lion's flight zone, it will move away - they usually avoid confrontation with humans. But if you are in a land cruiser, you can enter the lion's flight zone and it will simply ignore you (assuming that it is accustomed to cars). However, if your car approaches the lion and you then separate yourself from the car, you have immediately entered the lion's fight zone, having entirely bypassed the flight zone. This makes the lion extremely likely to attack.

The upshot of all this is that game drives are safe, provided you remain seated in the car. Break the rules, and they are extremely dangerous.

What about in the lodges? There is no fence around the lodge that keeps wild animals out. Here is a picture of me outside my cabin, photographing a herd of impala at the waterhole that is about fifty feet from my room:

The waterhole is also visited by leopards and lions. In fact, a leopard passed through the lodge while I was sleeping, and sometimes I hear lions roaring at night. So how is it safe to walk around the lodge?

Again, it depends. Of course, historically there have been lions and leopards that were determined man-eaters, and would seize people under any circumstances. But most lions and leopards are not like that, and do not pose a threat to people except under certain conditions. At night I lock my room and it would indeed be dangerous to walk around, since there could be a leopard around that would seize me. But walking during the day or early evening is fine, since there are people around, and a leopard would not usually attack a person under those circumstances.

Tomorrow we fly back to civilization and end off our tour with some interactions with captive lion cubs, leopard cubs and hyena cubs. We just had a kumzitz around the fire and everyone agreed that this was the experience of a lifetime, and the greatest trip they have ever taken. If you'd like to join next year's Africa adventure, please be in touch! I would also like to take this opportunity to mention that I will be in NY for about two weeks at the beginning of August, and I am available for speaking engagements, then in LA for the third week in August; please be in touch if you would like to arrange something. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go; I hear a noise outside my cabin that I want to investigate.


  1. well the science is quite fascinating.

    do you have to sign a release form before going on such a trip and do you have to have a special insurance ?

  2. I was watching some animal shows that involved people in a truck and people saying we better get back into the truck because it was safer. Frankly I was confused how they could be safe in a pick up truck when a lion could have easily jumped in. Zoo Rabbi thanks for the timely explanation.

  3. I thought hunters like lions have terrific vision. If so, why are they sensitive only to the jeep's outline and not the fine structure inside (like the tasty passangers)


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