How to stay safe when tracking wild animals (dreamstime)
Article Words : Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth | 11 September

Staying safe around wild animals

They are the nine animals that travellers most want to spot – but could an encounter with one of these creatures harm your health? Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth investigates

Many travellers plan trips around seeing wildlife (and we've themed an entire issue of Wanderlust on how to see the best), but while encounters with big cats, wild wolves and more are incredible experiences, just how dangerous are they?

The fact is that humans do far more harm to animals than vice versa – very, very few species offer a serious threat to a healthy adult. That said, a lone lost child might be a tempting snack for some large carnivores, and scavengers could be attracted to someone who is injured and helpless. Any cornered animal or mother with young will fight to the death. And even the delicate-looking klipspringer – a diminutive antelope – can, if desperate, slash through clothes and flesh with its tiny horns. Generally, though, even the biggest beasts tend to avoid encounters with humans – they know people are bad for their health. It still pays to be prepared, though, so here are a few tips for meeting the world’s most magnificent creatures...

1. Polar bear

Danger rating? High. Polar bears are fierce, fast, well-armed and always hungry. They have the most sensitive noses in the animal kingdom so can sniff people out. They have the equipment to rip into huts and claw away metal reinforcements. Man is very much on their menu, if offered. Ensure you always have a safe refuge if in polar bear country.

Health risks while you’re there: Arctic weather is a big hazard so specialist clothing is needed, including good-quality eyewear to protect from snow blindness. Pack Vaseline to anoint dry lips and even the inside of your nose if you start to get nosebleeds.

2. Tiger

Danger rating? Significant. Occasionally tigers do turn man-eater, although those that do are usually sedated and put in zoos. Listen to local guides and wardens; it’s probably unwise to go on walking safaris alone. 

Health risks while you’re there: As tigers are found in south Asia’s jungles, consider the real risks of ‘Delhi belly’ and mosquito- borne disease. Ensure you wear long, loose clothes, preferably insect-proofed with EX4.

3. Leopard

Danger rating? High. In the regions in which they live, leopards are far more feared than other, bigger cats. They are stealthy, and turn to man-hunting more often than tigers or lions. Don’t become an easy food-source. 

Health risks while you’re there: Research the health risks of the region of Africa or Asia you are visiting. Use DEET-based insect repellent and proof your clothes – this will keep off ticks as well as flying biters.

4. Jaguar

Danger-rating? Low. It’s still probably best not to wander alone after dark in the forest.

Health risks while you’re there: Areas where jaguar are found are generally steamy and beloved of biting flies, including the tiny sandflies that spread the nasty leishmania parasite. Malaria may also be an issue. The Pantanal, where jaguar-spotting is best, has a good selection of venomous snakes.

5. Wolf

Danger-rating? Low. Wolves are pack predators but know encounters with humans always end badly for them. There are stories of wolves circling remote homes where children live, and of occasional child disappearances that are attributed to wolves. There may be odd attacks by rabid animals – this would be a bigger risk in the Americas than Europe.

Health risks while you’re there: In wolf country – indeed, on any wildlife-watching trip – be properly shod, to avoid turning an ankle. Also remember that you may be required to keep very still for long periods of time in cold places so your clothes need to protect you. Ticks and tick-borne infections are a risk – those going wolf- watching in Europe or Asia might consider getting the tick-borne encephalitis immunisation.

6. Gorilla

Danger rating? Low. Gorillas are enormously powerful and, if upset, could literally rip you limb from limb. But if you avoid eye contact and watch your manners, all should be well. Pay attention to your guide, who will tell you how to behave.

Health risks while you’re there: The key central African gorilla areas are malarious – check prophylaxis requirements before travelling. Human conflict has been rife in much of the region, and poverty can drive people to violent crime so seek local safety advice. Eastern mountain gorillas inhabit terrain up to almost 3,800m so altitude sickness is possible.

7. Rhino

Danger rating? Medium. Rhinos are dim and don’t see well. Their default position if confused is to charge, so take care not to disturb or surprise one by pushing through elephant grass. If one does charge, get up or behind a tree (if there is one) or lie down so it can’t see your outline.

Health risks while you’re there: Risks will depend upon whether you’re in Africa or Asia, savannah or jungle. Do your health homework before departure.

8. Panda

Danger rating? Very low. Pandas have a gentle demeanor, shun humans and will do their best to keep out of your way. 

Health risks while you’re there: Cutting through forest with machetes – as your guide will likely have to do on a panda-trek – can leave spear-sharp spikes, which can inflict nasty injuries if you fall. I treated one unfortunate chap who, in falling, impaled his forearm on a bamboo spike. This was impossible to clean and unfortunately the entry and exit wounds were stitched by a local health assistant; this sealed in the infection, which needed antibiotics to clear. Giant pandas occur up to an altitude of 3,400m so mountain sickness could be an issue for some.

9. Penguin

Danger rating? Minuscule. Theoretically there might be a risk of histoplasmosis or psittacosis if you get close to poo in a penguin burrow, but it is hard to imagine any real direct health hazards from penguins.

Health risks while you’re there: In the Americas, vampire bats visit seal and penguin colonies so consider rabies immunisation. If wild camping, sleep inside a tent. If you’re sailing to see penguins in Antarctica, be prepared for rough seas – pack seasickness remedies such as ginger-based preparations or Stugeron (cinnarizine) or even hyoscine patches (which need a GP prescription). Also ensure you have plenty of warm, wind- and waterproof clothing.

Top tips for wildlife trips:

  • Ensure you are insured for what you propose to do – even if travelling within the industrialised world.
  • Check any special rules–on some jungle trips, for example, clients are asked not to use DEET-based insect repellent.
  • Read upon the animals you expect to encounter and try to discover what to them is ‘good manners’.
  • Get fit for your trip–fit travellers fall less often.
  • Check www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk before you go, to read up on local health risks and recommended jabs.

To get close to primates, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth avoids eye contact and she has – surprisingly – managed to look fierce and dominant when faced with packs of half-wild village dogs in Nepal. See www.wilson-howarth.com