Dangerous Animals




In order to study spoor, one must inevitably go to places where one will most likely encounter wild and often dangerous animals. It is therefore necessary to prepare oneself for such an encounter, so that one can avoid possible confrontations or, in the case of an accidental confrontation, know how to deal with it.

Professional conservationists, rangers, veterinarians and researchers must, given the nature of their work, expose themselves to an element of danger. Sometimes it may be necessary for them to take calculated risks, otherwise they will never get their work done.

People who take unnecessary risks, however, are not 'brave' - they are simply stupid. There is no place for bravado in the wilds.

Recreational walks in the wilderness are becoming increasingly popular. In this way people gain first-hand experience of nature and develop positive attitudes towards conservation. Those going on such walks should at least know about the possible dangers involved, so that they will know what to do and not give way to irrational fears.

The inexperienced naturalist should at all times be accompanied by an experienced ranger or tracker.

The shooting of dangerous animals should be left to experienced rangers who know what they are doing. Unless one is an excellent marksman and knows exactly when and where to shoot an animal, it may be better not to shoot at all, since there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal. Even if unarmed or armed with only a throwing stick/club and a knife, the appropriate reaction may save your life. Furthermore, it is not always possible to carry a firearm. Visitors to Botswana, for example, are not allowed to carry firearms.

One's first priority should always be to avoid confrontations. The advice given in this section should be followed only as a last resort in the event of an accidental confrontation.

Never test a dangerous animal, since there are always exceptions to the rule. While animals may generally conform to certain characteristic behaviours, it must be remembered that individual animals have their own 'personalities', and that some individuals may deviate from the norm.

Although the author has endeavoured to ensure that the information given is as reliable as possible, neither he nor the publisher assumes responsibility for any action taken as a result of information contained here.

The inexperienced naturalist who intends spending a lot of time in the wilds may go through several learning stages.

Initially you may experience irrational fears of unknown dangers because of your lack of knowledge. Such a state of mind can result in panic, which may have fatal consequences. You should avoid this at all cost by gaining as much knowledge as possible.

Over a period of time, when nothing serious happens, you may grow careless. Such an attitude is dangerous because if you do encounter a dangerous animal, you may be caught off guard at a time when you should be in full control of yourself.

As you begin to encounter dangerous animals, while as yet no serious incidents have occurred, familiarity breeds contempt. And if you are at an adventurous youthful age, you may even be inclined to become slightly reckless. However, when you have reached the stage when you disregard natural fear, you are in even greater danger than ever before.

At one point I had the foolish habit of picking up scorpions by their stings to put them down on smooth sand so that I could study their spoor. I thought that as long as I held a scorpion by its sting, it couldn't sting me! It seemed to work very well, until the day I was just a little too careless and was stung. Luckily it was a Scorpionid and not a Buthid.

You may be lucky enough to survive a few 'close shaves', but sooner or later recklessness may prove to be fatal. And if you are unlucky it may happen sooner rather than later.

After a few 'close shaves' you will probably become increasingly cautious as you begin to appreciate real dangers for what they really are. As you gain experience, knowledge diminishes irrational fear, but you will also develop a growing respect for dangerous animals, based on rational fear of real danger.

If you are well informed about the possible dangers, the appropriate cautious attitude may be adopted from the very start, and the dangerous initial learning stages can be avoided.

To minimise the chances of being killed by a dangerous animal you need to overcome an irrational fear of the unknown, while avoiding irrational fearlessness of what you think you 'know'. You should at all times maintain a rational fear of known danger.

This requires an optimum combination of caution and curiosity. A healthy curiosity leads to an increase in knowledge, which diminishes irrational fear, but should always be tempered by adequate caution.

Natural fear is important, as long as it is kept under control. It keeps you alert, and when confronted by a dangerous animal, it intensifies the senses, makes you think faster, you seem to lose your emotional feelings, you don't feel pain and the adrenalin gives you additional strength.

You need to prepare yourself psychologically for a possible confrontation. No matter how small the chances are, always be prepared for the worst, because when it does happen, you won't have time to think about it.

When you are suddenly confronted by a dangerous animal at short range and the intense ice-cold sensation of fear shoots through your whole body, it is very difficult to react in a rational way. Furthermore, every muscle in your body will he tensed up, including your vocal chords, so your voice will come out in a high-pitched squeak. In order to sound aggressive when shouting at a charging animal, you have to force your voice tonality down. A high-pitched voice that sounds like a panic-stricken scream may well encourage a wild animal to attack you.

The intense fear makes the animal appear much bigger than it is, and time seems to stand still. Yet you must react instantly and intuitively, and your intuition must override your instinctive urge to flee.

To prepare yourself psychologically you should visualise an animal attacking you and in your imagination act out the appropriate response to that particular animal. This mental exercise should be repeated until it becomes second nature. It must become part of your intuitive way of thinking so that when the worst actually happens you will be mentally and psychologically prepared to react instantly, without having to think about it.



Lions usually move away when they become aware of approaching humans. Cases of Lions preying on humans are rare, though it is more common in some parts of Africa than others. Old or disabled Lions may take to killing humans, although healthy individuals may also turn to this practice. Unprovoked attacks on humans may also be accounted for by injuries from wire snares.

When you are moving into the wind, there is the danger of stumbling onto sleeping Lions. If suddenly disturbed, they can quickly become aggressive. Avoid thickets and dense tall grass, especially near waterholes and rivers. Lions spend the heat of the day sleeping, so you should be careful not to walk right into their midst.

Lions are particularly dangerous when you inadvertently come too close to them, if they are pursued or harassed, and when you encounter mating Lions, feeding Lions or Lions with cubs. Old or ill Lions are more aggressive. Lions are also more dangerous at night.

Avoid Lions by noting fresh spoor, vultures, the roaring of Lions and the laughing of Hyaenas. Their presence may be indicated by zebra and wildebeest that are hesitant to go near water, especially if they are staring at a thicket. Giraffes also indicate their presence by staring at a thicket.

It is important to recognise the sounds made by Lions when they are hunting, feeding, mating or have cubs with them. Feeding Lions should be approached with care (or not approached at all), since other Lions may be lying in the thickets in tall grass in the vicinity. When mating, their growls are initially soft and something like faraway thunder, increasing in intensity and eventually erupting in one or two very loud and ferocious snarls. A Lioness with cubs may reside in the vicinity of waterholes where they hunt and stay until the cubs are big enough. Their presence may be indicated by a soft umf call of the mother and the cat-like miaow of the small cubs.

Lions are most active around dusk, with hunting done largely at night. Lions do not roar while hunting, but at night the alarm calls of plovers and dikkops may indicate danger. When camping out at night one should have a big fire going and have someone to keep watch. While Lions may enter a camp when everyone is asleep, the presence of someone who is awake, will keep them away.

Getting out of a vehicle close to Lions is much more dangerous than actually coming face to face with a Lion in the bush. Suddenly appearing out of a vehicle may frighten them, which may prompt an attack in self-defence.

Never run away when you encounter Lions. If you run, they will run you down, as Lions instinctively charge and kill a fleeing animal. Stand still and slowly back away downwind until you are out of sight. If the Lion does not like the movement, stand still. The outcome of a surprise meeting is unpredictable. Male Lions usually avoid confrontation and quickly disappear. A female with young may be more aggressive. She may merely adopt an aggressive attitude, flicking the tail briskly while growling in a threatening way. At close range she may charge.

If the Lion's tail is twitching or jerking, but the ears are still cocked, it is probably just nervous or excited, but not angry. An angry Lion flattens its ears, crouches low, and whisks its tail ever more rapidly from side to side, while uttering a nerve-racking series of coughing grunts or slurring growls. As its anger mounts, its tail is jerked stiffly up and down, and it initially comes at a trot before charging.

Wounding the Lion at this critical stage can be as dangerous as turning and running. Unless you are sure you can stop it before it gets at you, it may be better not to shoot at all. There are two methods of dealing with a charging Lion (unless it is already wounded, in which case the only way to stop it is to kill it before it kills you). If you can keep your nerve, you should remain absolutely still, facing the charging Lion and not taking your eyes off it. It may then suddenly stop, only a few metres away, crouching flat on the ground while emitting nerve-shattering growls and roars. The display may last for only a few seconds, and when failing to unnerve you, it may suddenly turn and disappear into the bush. Be prepared, however, for another charge, and only back away when you are certain that it is safe to do so.

!Xõ trackers of the Kalahari maintain that if a Lion charges you, you must stand still and shout loudly and aggressively and throw sticks and stones at it. You must look it in the eyes, and not move back or try to run away. If you react aggressively towards it, the Lion will lose its nerve and back off. When it backs off, slowly move backwards. But when it charges again, once again stand still and shout at it. You must repeat this procedure, moving downwind, until you reach a safe distance.

To call a lion's bluff you need to work yourself up psychologically into an extremely aggressive frame of mind in spite of the fear you experience. !Xõ trackers deal with their fear by combining aggression with tension releasing humour. On one occasion, a group of trackers and I stumbled onto a lion that was busy stalking our camp. The trackers decided to chase it away, so we set out on its spoor, armed with throwing sticks, spears and clubs. As we followed the spoor, the trackers would shout aggressively, working one another up, and then hurl abusive insults at the lion, followed by laughter and joking to release the tension.

If you are charged by a Lion, it may happen very quickly, so you will not have time to think. Never be caught unprepared in such a situation. Condition yourself so that when it does happen, you will be able to react intuitively and instantly.


Leopards usually shy away from humans, and are normally not dangerous if you leave them alone. They are only likely to become aggressive when threatened or provoked. If wounded, cornered or suddenly disturbed, they can become exceedingly dangerous. Stumbling across a female with cubs can also result in a dangerous situation. !Xõ trackers of the Kalahari maintain that it is dangerous to follow a Leopard's spoor, since it may ambush you if it realises you are following it to where her cubs are hidden. And following a wounded Leopard is one of the most dangerous situations a hunter can encounter.

In certain parts of Africa healthy Leopards have preyed on humans, usually killing women and children. Such behaviour is, however, atypical of Leopards in the southern African subregion. Old and sick Leopards, unable to catch wild prey, may, however, very exceptionally attack humans.

Apparently one can pass close by a hiding Leopard and as long as your eyes don't meet, it will allow one to pass. But the moment it is aware that one has noticed it, it will flee, or if cornered, may attack. !Xõ trackers maintain that you must never look a Leopard in the eyes when confronted by it, since you will infuriate it. By pretending to ignore it, it will most likely choose to avoid contact.

If you see a Leopard and you are not walking towards it, continue walking and do not look at it or stand still. If it realises that it has been seen, it may feel threatened and attack. When you encounter a Leopard at close range, and if it warns you by roaring, retreat slowly, moving sideways away rather than directly backwards, and don't stare at it. Try not to frighten the Leopard, and don't throw anything at it. Don't feed it as this is likely to make it bolder and possibly even aggressive.

Once committed to a full attack, only a fatal bullet will stop a charging Leopard. It charges very fast and low on the ground. It embraces its victim, with claws extended, and full use is made of the powerful dew claws. The victim is mauled with teeth and all four clawed feet, and the killing bite is directed at the back of the head or neck or the throat, the victim being throttled or has the jugular vein severed.

In one instance a Leopard attempting to attack a young Baboon was mobbed by the troop from which it fled. The noise created by the troop was sufficient to deter the Leopard. I know of one incident in a private nature reserve where a charging Leopard was, shouted down, but apparently the Leopards in that area have become so used to people that they are relatively 'tame' compared to Leopards in the wilder regions of southern Africa. In the Kalahari, for example, !Xõ trackers maintain that shouting will not stop a charging Leopard, and that you will have to kill it to save your own life. It would therefore appear that the reaction of Leopards may vary in different areas, depending on the amount of contact they have had with people.

There have been cases where people successfully defended themselves against Leopards with knives and even used stones to hit them on the head. In some cases unarmed people have been able to choke the Leopard to death or make the Leopard retreat by punching it on the nose. There are probably few people capable of such feats, but since one does not always carry firearms in many of the areas where Leopards are found, one might well keep in mind that in the extremely unlikely event of being attacked by a Leopard, it is possible to defend oneself.


The White Rhino is temperamentally quieter and more placid than the Black Rhino. It usually tends to run away, often circling downwind to investigate an intruder from a distance. There are, however, the odd White Rhino that may be dangerous, and may even track you down to charge you.

The Black Rhino, on the other hand, is known for its nervous, unpredictable temperament and can be extremely dangerous. This is particularly the case with bulls associating with receptive cows and cows with calves. Its eyesight is very poor, but its hearing and scent especially are good. When disturbed, it will stand still with its ears cocked and head raised. It may either utter a few snorts and trot away, or it may come at a lumbering gallop towards the intruder. Such a 'charge' may be merely to investigate a possible source of danger. Human scent will normally make rhinos move off, but their reactions depend on whether they have been hunted or molested or left in peace. In areas where rhinos have been disturbed they can become extremely vicious and dangerous. Black Rhinos also differ greatly in individual temperament. The rhino charges with its head held high in order to give it better vision, lowering the head in the last few paces to batter or throw the object of its rage.

When you encounter rhino, do not run away, but stand still and then move downwind. Meanwhile look for a suitable tree to climb. If there is no tree, slowly walk downwind and take off some article of clothing or rucksack to throw at it. If it charges, climb the nearest tree, or if there is no time, get behind it and freeze. If there is no tree, a rifle shot (into the air) or (at close quarters) a loud shout may make it swing away from you. If it still comes at you, then throw some article of clothing or rucksack at it to divert its attention before leaping sideways at the last moment so that it charges past you. If you lie perfectly still, it may lose interest and leave you alone. Black Rhino are very fast and agile, so do not risk a charge if you can help it.


The Hippo is a placid and inoffensive animal when left alone, but if provoked can be extremely dangerous. Solitary bulls and cows with calves can quickly become aggressive and there are many reports of small boats being overturned and the occupants bitten to death. Hippos demonstrate aggression by opening the mouth, displaying the imposing teeth and by making short charges through the water. Such charges are sometimes directed at intruders who venture too close to the edge of the water. When a grazing Hippo is disturbed, it is dangerous to be between it and the water, as it will blindly run alongs its path, trampling anything in its way. When confronted by a charging Hippo the best one can do is to dive out of the way. Avoid thickets near water and take note of their characteristic paths. Do not camp at or near Hippo paths or waterholes, since Hippos are attracted to fires and lights. During droughts when Hippo are concentrated in small waterholes, they feel threatened in the shallow water and may charge out.


Elephants are normally quite placid and usually avoid confrontation, but may charge if approached too closely or molested and when there are small calves or ill-tempered individuals in the herd. Individuals that are sick or injured or have been wounded or hunted in the past can be aggressive and extremely dangerous. Tuskless Elephants have a bad reputation for being aggressive. Young bulls are inclined to be 'playful' and mischievous, and may demonstrate with mock charges.

When moving on foot, don't get too close on the upwind side of Elephants and be careful not to find yourself accidentally amongst members of a herd. If you encounter Elephants, don't run, but quietly move away downwind. Elephants have poor visual perception, but they have keen hearing and a highly developed sense of smell.

Mock charges, especially by old and lone bulls, are characterised by the ears spread out and a loud trumpeting display, and may end a few metres from the intruder, after which the Elephant retreats. To run away maybe fatal. If it demonstrates, stand still until it stops, then slowly move away downwind.

In case of a real charge, which is characterised by the ears flattened against the body with the trunk curled up, run for your life. However, running straight away from it, especially upwind, could aggravate the situation. A charging Elephant can reach a speed of up to 40 km/hour, so you won't outrun it. Start running soon enough and fast enough to stay out of its field of vision and suddenly turn sharp left or right, whichever is towards the downwind side, to run out of the charging Elephant's way, in the hope that it will rush past you. Trying to climb the highest tree will not help. Apart from being able to push down fairly big trees, an Elephant standing on its hind-legs and stretching its trunk into the branches can reach to a considerable height.


In normal circumstances Buffalo are generally inoffensive and usually rather avoid confrontation. They are inquisitive, and individuals may break away from a herd to examine vehicles. If disturbed, they will race back to rejoin the herd, which is quick to stampede. Their tendency to stampede when frightened, often in unexpected directions, call be highly dangerous. Cows with small calves, old solitary bulls, bulls that have been hunted and wounded in the past, and those who are harassed can be dangerous and may charge without provocation. It is also dangerous to stumble across and startle Buffaloes resting in a thick patch of bush, since their reactions can be unpredictable. Avoid thickets and reeds in or near rivers. When you encounter Buffalo, stand still and move away slowly. If an aggressive Buffalo charges, it will complete the charge, so do not stand still. Try to climb a tree, since you won't outrun it. The alarm calls of oxpeckers or egrets and the breaking of branches may be the first sign of a charging Buffalo, so be alert for those signs. A wounded Buffalo is extremely dangerous, and may even double back and lie in wait for its pursuer. When charging, only a fatal shot will stop it. While tracking Buffalo, remember that Lions may also be on the spoor and that you may well encounter the Lion before you find the Buffalo.

Honey Badger

While normally shy and retiring, Honey Badgers can sometimes without provocation become extremely aggressive. Normally docile individuals can suddenly, and for no apparent reason, develop 'fury moods', and return to docility just as suddenly.

I once encountered a Honey Badger late at night and out of curiosity wanted to have a closer look at it. As I pointed my torch at it, it suddenly and aggressively came towards me. When I intuitively switched off the torch, it turned away and disappeared into the dark. It was probably annoyed by the sharp light and intended to deal with it, but when the source of annoyance was removed its 'fury mood' dropped as suddenly as it flared up. It would appear that Honey Badgers are best left alone.

Their temperamental extremes are apparently related to their natural habits, contributing to their reputation for ferocity and fearlessness. They are courageous, and with their tough and loose hide, dangerous teeth and long strong claws, they are formidable opponents when aroused. There are accounts of a Honey Badger killing a Wildebeest, another killing a Waterbuck, and another killing a three-metre Python. An encounter between a Lion and a Honey Badger has been reported in which the Honey Badger was only killed after putting up a fierce defence. In encounters with dogs, Honey Badgers invariably come off best.

Spotted Hyaena

By day Spotted Hyaena usually avoid people. At night they will not enter a camp while people are awake, but will wait until everyone is asleep. There are many records of Hyaenas attacking sleeping people. They may sneak up as close as possible and then rush in and bite off a portion of their victim, with which they retreat. They are also prone to enter tents if they smell food inside.

They are, however, cowardly and will run away if you make a noise or adopt an aggressive attitude. Do not sleep in the open and do not let food or dirty dishes lie about. Under certain circumstances Spotted Hyaenas have been known to attack humans during the day and in some areas apparently specialise in this type of behaviour. In Malawi there have, for example, been instances where Spotted Hyaenas have attacked humans by day.

Wild Dog

Wild Dogs usually avoid humans and are unlikely to attack. They are also easily driven off a kill.


In the wilds Cheetahs are not dangerous to humans. When you approach them on foot, they will only give you one look and run off. Although they are timid and retiring, they can, however, be unpredictable and aggressive in captivity. There have been several reports in the press of Cheetahs in captivity, including 'tame' Cheetahs, attacking small children. Some may even attack adults. I once made the mistake of turning my back on a captive Cheetah, at which it suddenly charged me from behind. When I turned to confront it, it stopped dead in its tracks right in front of me and darted off.


It is sometimes argued that there is greater danger in driving a car than being killed by a snake. This argument is, however, a fallacy. It may be true for the reckless driver who hardly ever goes into the field, but the careful driver who carelessly walks around barefoot in the field may be at greater risk of being killed by a snake. Furthermore, if you are a keen naturalist who spends a lot of time in the field, the chances of being bitten sooner or later are not insignificant (especially if you try to track down snakes). I myself have had more 'close shaves' with dangerous snakes than with cars. And people who handle snakes are certainly at great risk (over 90 per cent of known bites have occurred in people handling snakes). However, as long as you take the necessary precautions, the risk of being bitten can be minimised.

It is important to know snakes and to be able to identify at least all the dangerous snakes you will expect to find in a particular area. Snakes known to have killed people in southern Africa are:

  • Puff Adder, Bitis arietans
  • Gaboon Adder, Bitis gabonica
  • Egyptian Cobra, Naja haje
  • Cape Cobra, Naja nivea
  • Forest Cobra, Naja melanoleuca
  • Black-necked Spitting Cobra, Naja nigricollis
  • Mozambique Spitting Cobra, Naja mossambica
  • Black Mamba, Dendroaspis polylepis
  • Green Mamba, Dendroaspis angusticeps
  • Rinkhals, Hemachatus haemachatus
  • Coral Snake, Aspidelaps lubricus infuscatus
  • Boomslang, Dispholidus typus
  • Bird or Twig Snake, Thelotornis capensis
  • Rock Python, Python sebae.

Learn to recognise dangerous snakes by studying photographs, and visiting museums and snake parks. Memorise their characteristic features so that you have a visual image of what to look for. If you don't know what to look for, you may never see them, even if you are looking straight at them at close range. Once when I was still unfamiliar with snakes, I bent down to pick up a log, only to discover a Puff Adder curled up right in between my feet. Luckily it was early on a cold winter's morning, so it was still frozen stiff.

Also learn as much as possible about the habits of snakes, so that you will know what to expect when you encounter them, and what to do to avoid being bitten.

However, even when you get to know snakes, you cannot rely on your ability to see them, since most snakes are very well camouflaged. I once followed the spoor of a Puff Adder up to a bush where it went in and did not come out the other side. In spite of the fact that I knew what I was looking for (although I was unfamiliar with the different Cape colour morph), by the time I found it I realised I had almost stepped on it and must have looked straight at it several times without recognising it. One's mind tends to perceive the light colours on the snake as standing out and the dark colours as shadows receding into the background, so one doesn't recognise, the shape of the snake's body. Only when one recognises the characteristic chevron pattern as being that of a Puff Adder, does the snake itself come into focus.

Snakes prefer to flee, and only molestation will cause attack. Bites usually result from unwitting disturbance or physical contact such as when they are unexpectedly surprised or when, as in most adders which rely on immobility to escape attention, they are too closely approached or stepped on. Because they rely on their camouflage to remain undetected, Puff Adders account for the greatest number of serious snakebite cases.

Most bites occur on the feet and the lower half of the legs. Suitable footwear, preferably calf-length boots, and loose-fitting trousers, will therefore provide a large measure of protection. To tread warily is not enough. An alert attitude and watchfulness will help to avoid snakes. Look ahead and scan the path. Keep to paths and avoid long grass, rank undergrowth and riverine bush, or other situations where visibility is limited. Step onto logs or rocks, not over them, because a snake could be, lying on the other side. Pick up rocks and pieces of wood so that the underside faces away from you, leaving an avenue of escape for a snake. Never put an unprotected hand down a burrow or hole, as a snake may be using it as a lair.

Camps should be made on open ground. Food stores, which may attract rodents and therefore snakes, should be kept away from the sleeping area. Never walk around at night without adequate footwear and never without a good torch.

If you encounter a snake at close range, freeze. Snakes have poor vision and usually strike at moving objects. Any quick movement may precipitate an instinctive strike. Stand still and allow it to move away, or if it doesn't, back away slowly. Never run when you encounter a snake.

If a cobra or Rinkhals rears up, immediately close and cover your eyes and look away, in case it is a spitting cobra (by the time you have had a 'closer look' to identify it as a spitting cobra, it may be too late). Slowly back off to a safe distance. Some species can 'spit' up to three metres, and since the poison is ejected in a spray, some of it will invariably get into your eyes if unprotected. Wearing glasses (or sunglasses) will help to protect your eyes.

Never tamper with seemingly dead snakes, since some snakes feign death.

When someone has been bitten by a snake, a calm and confident demeanour is essential for both first-aider and victim, as emotional upset can be damaging in many ways.

Some people are allergic to antivenoms, so ensure victim receives medical supervision. Since complications may arise, it is inadvisable for the first-aider to inject antivenoms in the field. The use of a tourniquet is dangerous.

When applied immediately, suction can extract some of the venom, but it is useless later. A mechanical suction syringe, such as 'Aspivenin', may be used, but strictly as a first-aid measure only. Suction can also be applied for scorpion and spider evenomation.

For first-aid treatment, carry at least four 100 mm-wide crêpe bandages on all outings. If no bandages are taken, you will have to tear up clothing to use instead. Immediately apply the crêpe bandage over the bite and continue to wind it up the limb until you reach the groin (or armpit). Apply it as tightly as you would for a sprained ankle (just short of full stretch). Keep the bitten limb as still as possible. Do not remove clothing, simply apply the bandage over it. Apply a splint to immobilise the limb. It is believed that venom is dispersed via the lymph glands, and the application of a broad crêpe bandage inhibits the spread of the venom. In case of a bite on the trunk, neck or head, apply firm pressure to the bitten area if possible. Carry the victim to the nearest vehicle, or bring the vehicle to the victim. If the victim has to walk, he or she should do so calmly and slowly. Get the victim to the hospital as soon as possible. In the case of a cobra or mamba bite, give artificial respiration if necessary. Keep the victim's throat and air passage clear by swabbing with a handkerchief. If the snake can be killed without endangering anyone's life, it should be taken along for identification.

The use of a crêpe bandage is also effective for scorpion and spider envenomation. A crêpe bandage should, however not be used for adder bites, since the cytotoxic venom causes tissue destruction. Simply treat the victim for shock and get him or her to a hospital as soon as possible. In the case of a Puff Adder bite it may take up to 48 hours for the patient to develop a serious condition, so you should have adequate time to reach a hospital. In the case of a Gaboon Adder bite, which may result in sudden death, a crêpe bandage is unlikely to be of any use in any case.

If the poison of a 'spitting' snake gets into the eyes, do not rub the eyes. Holding the eyelids open, flush eyes with water or any bland fluid. Consult a doctor as soon as possible.


The presence of a Crocodile under water may be indicated by small air bubbles rising to the surface. Do not go near any body of water which may contain Crocodiles if you can help it.

Crocodiles are notorious for killing humans, usually attacking people wading in the shallows. If attacked and you don't have a firearm, your only hope is to stab it in the eyes with a knife, or sharp object, or even your fingers.


The dangerous Buthidae are characterised by their small pincers and thick tails, while the relatively harmless Scorpionidae have large pincers and thin tails. The most dangerous buthid genera are Parabuthus and Buthotus. The venom of scorpions is neurotoxic and may result in respiratory or cardiac failure. Young children and old people suffering from heart or respiratory ailments are particularly at risk. Some species of Parabuthus can squirt their venom for a distance of up to a metre, causing envenomation of the eyes or any open cut on the body. When aggravated, many scorpions are able to make a loud hissing noise similar to that of a small adder.

To avoid being stung by a scorpion, wear long trousers, and boots with socks tucked up over trousers. Do not put your hand into a hole, tunnel or bird's nest into which you are unable to see. Take care when picking up rocks and logs, and roll them towards you. Avoid picking up scorpions that appear to be dead, in case they are alive. Do not allow your face to come too close to a scorpion, since some can squirt their venom into your eyes. Check bedding and sleeping bags and sleep on a camp stretcher rather than on the ground. Leave boots in an upright position during the night and shake out clothing and boots before putting them on the next morning. Check loose-lying rocks and dead leaves and wood around your campsite. Never walk barefoot outside at night.

Being able to recognise scorpion spoor may also help one avoid being stung. When doing fieldwork in the Kalahari, I one morning found scorpion spoor close to where I was sleeping. Following the spoor, I discovered the scorpion underneath the spare wheel that I had been using as a seat.


Only one local species, the Black Widow, or 'button spider', Latrodectus mactans indistinctus, is known to be potentially lethal. The poison is neurotoxic, with the possibility of the victim dying of respiratory failure of heart failure or both. Less than 5 per cent of untreated bites by this spider may result in death. Young children and elderly people with heart or respiratory ailments are particularly at risk.

Most accidents occur when people lift objects or plants harbouring the spiders. If the spider is hurt in the process, it will bite in self-defence. When molested in their webs, they often sham death, rolling up into a ball. If picked up (while shamming death), they will bite. To avoid being bitten, the same precautions as with scorpions should be taken.


An Ostrich may attack humans if they get too close to its nest. It does not help to run away, since one will never outrun it. The best defence is to shield yourself with a branch from an acacia thorn tree or to lie face downwards protecting the nape of one's neck with one's hands until it goes away. The Ostrich has sharp toenails and can give a powerful kick. Most deadly wounds are to the head, since it continues its attack even after the victim is on the ground.

Rabid animals

Rabid animals are often characterised by unusual behaviour, which may include attacking humans. An animal may wander around aimlessly with saliva dribbling from the open mouth. Wild animals may appear tame or aggressive, or may show signs of convulsion or partial paralysis. Someone who has been bitten by a rabid animal must be taken to a hospital as soon as possible. The bite wounds must be washed and disinfected immediately.


Old male Baboons are very powerful and have large canines. They may have unpredictable tempers and can quickly become aggressive if suddenly frightened or thwarted in any way. In areas where Baboons have become accustomed to humans, they can be aggressive, especially if people have been feeding them.


Apart from the Buffalo, other antelopes that can be dangerous under certain circumstances include the Black Wildebeest, Blue Wildebeest, Tsessebe, Roan, Sable, Gemsbok, Eland and Bushbuck.

While usually inoffensive in the wilds, Black and Blue Wildebeest may become aggressive and dangerous in captivity. When cornered, they will defend themselves courageously.

Roan, Sable and Gemsbok can be aggressive and dangerous when wounded or cornered. They will charge when approached too closely. Their sharp horns can cause serious injuries, and Gemsbok may even spear to death large predators, dogs or humans.

Bushbuck can be very dangerous when cornered or wounded, and have been known to kill Leopards, dogs and even humans.


Bushpigs will not usually attack humans, but can be extremely aggressive if wounded or cornered, or when they have piglets.


Malaria is transmitted by the bite of an infective female anopheline mosquito. It occurs mainly in the summer and especially during years of good rainfall. Anti-malaria tablets should be taken before going into a potential malaria zone. In areas where malaria has become chloroquine-resistant, alternative drugs should be used. Pregnant women should avoid malarial areas.

Mosquitoes feed from dusk to the early hours of the morning. Camp on heights such as hills where a cool wind blows and where the grass is not very thick, away from standing water and not near densely vegetated areas at pans or rivers. Sleep under a mosquito net and use mosquito repellants. Fire and smoke help, and burning Elephant or cattle dung apparently drives mosquitoes away.

The symptoms appear approximately 12 days after the infective bite. Early symptoms include fever, chills, sweating and headache. Prompt treatment is essential even in mild cases, since irreversible complications may appear suddenly. If the early symptoms are not recognised, the victim may become critically ill with cerebral malaria.


When visiting areas where Bilharzia (Schistosomiasis) is found, contact with contaminated water should be avoided. Bilharzia is found in shallow water that is stagnant or flowing slowly, along the banks of rivers, dams and pools, and especially where plants are growing in the water. If you wet yourself with contaminated water, clean yourself immediately by rigorously rubbing yourself dry with a cloth. The parasite may penetrate the skin within minutes. Contaminated water should be boiled or purified before being used for drinking or washing. Bilharzia infection can be severely debilitating and unpleasant and is not easily cured. In rare cases it can go to the brain, with lethal results. As the skin is penetrated, the first symptoms may be a skin reaction, although this may be mild or may not even show. Other symptoms include persistent fatigue, bodily discomfort, fever and vague intestinal complaints. If in doubt, a doctor should be consulted.


The tsetse-fly, which transmits sleeping-sickness, has been virtually eliminated in southern Africa and only small populations exist. The fly can inflict a painful bite, and the symptoms of the disease, which include headache and a fever, develop after about two weeks.

Bees and wasps

With repeated exposure to stings, some people become hypersensitive, after which another sting could be much worse, if not fatal. People allergic to bee and wasp venoms should not wear floral-scented cosmetics or nail varnish. The solvent (amyl acetate) in nail varnish is the alarm pheromone of bees and provokes aggression. Don't wear brightly patterned clothes. If bees are about, remain calm and move slowly.


Of the more than 70 viruses and disease-carrying organisms known to be carried by ticks, tick-borne relapsing fever, tick-bite fever, Q-fever and Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, and tick-bite paralysis represent the best known and most important tick-borne disease conditions in humans.

To avoid being bitten by ticks, wear long trousers and boots, with your socks tucked up over your trousers. Rubbing paraffin on your legs or using various tick repellants may help prevent them getting on your skin, if possible, avoid long grass, or when walking along a path, avoid brushing against the tips of long grass stems as ticks usually sit on these tips waiting for an animal to walk past. When you have moved through long grass, inspect your body for ticks. Don't pull them off, since their heads may break off and remain underneath your skin. Burn them off with a cigarette, or smear them with vaseline, grease, commercial sealant, disinfectant or alcohol.

Tick-bite fever may develop about a week or two after the bite. The site of the bite may become swollen and red. The symptoms include listlessness, headache, fever and swollen glands.

The symptoms of Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever include a sudden onset with fever, malaise, weakness, irritability, headache, severe pain in limbs and loins, and marked anorexia. Vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea occurs occasionally.

Soft ticks

The sand tampans live in sandy areas where shade is provided by trees or rock outcrops. They burrow beneath the surface of the sand, waiting for a potential host to rest in the shade. Humans are not very susceptible to the toxin but repeated bites over a period of time can result in hypersensitivity. If bitten again, hypersensitised individuals risk anaphylactic shock, which can result in death.

From A Field Guide to the Animal Tracks of Southern Africa by Louis Liebenberg