The most asked question for me as a South African field guide:
Why are almost all wild animals afraid of us when we encounter them on foot, but the same animals do not seem to care about us being close, when we are sitting in an open game viewing vehicle?
Well, let me explain why. This is a theory (as we do not really know what happens in animals’ minds), but I think it is a sound one.
First, why are almost all wild animals afraid of us on foot?
For thousands of years humans have been hunters. We are the only creatures on earth that can cause harm from a significant distance. For thousands of generations the individuals of any species that ran from us were more likely to survive and have off-spring than the once hanging around or approaching us. And so over these thousands of generations the fear of humans (their sight, their smell and their sound) has become part of the instinct of most living creatures on Earth.
One result of this is that, accompanied by a qualified guide, we can walk in dangerous game areas, as long as we behave like a predator and not like prey (e.g. never run in the bush …). And that is also the reason why wild animals need to be afraid of us and why we need to be respectful of them. That ensures that everyone is safe!
Never walk in dangerous game areas without a properly trained guide. If you have not been trained, how to behave in dangerous animal encounters, you could find yourself in mortal danger.
Second, why do animals ignore us when we are in a vehicle?
Animals brains are not as developed as ours. The limited capacity is used for the really important things in life. Their main aims are to eat and drink, pro-create and defend themselves when and where require (by either fighting or running). For most species anything around them, that does not fall into either of these categories, is of no interest what-so-ever. If something is no threat, cannot be eaten or drunk and is no potential mating-partner then it is usually ignored.
Vehicle have only been around on Earth for a bit over hundred years. This time-span is to short for the animal-car relationship to have become instinctual. So all reactions to vehicles are based on learning, either during the individual animal’s own lifetime or by behavioral instructions passed on by the parents. A game viewer cannot be eaten, cannot be drunk, is no valid mating partner, and – in game reserves where there is no hunting done – presents no threat. Therefore the interest of animals in these vehicles is zero.
If a Lion lies under a tree, which starts falling over, the Lion will move out of the way. It will not attack the tree. If a game viewer drives a bit to close the Lion will move away and not attack it.
If the game viewer is stationary and the Lion walks past, it will ignore the vehicle as long as there are no sudden movements within. And even in case of such movements the reaction is to move away rather than confront the unknown. Animals will avoid conflict as much as possible, because even a small wound obtained in any conflict can lead to death (no hospitals, no doctors and no medication for wildlife :-).
Proper game drives operate solely with the purpose of viewing animals in their natural environment. Animals are never fed from the vehicle and are never harassed. Their are very strict guidelines on vehicle etiquette and all guests get briefed on this before their first drive, so they can help to maintain the “neutral behavior” of the vehicles!
And last but not least a word of caution. There are a few species which either by intelligence (e.g. Elephants) or ignorance (e.g. Black Rhino and Buffalo Bulls) can be a threat to vehicles. So the above rules do apply most of the time, but as with most things in life there are exceptions! 😉
Experienced guides (and experienced self-drive guests in National Parks 🙂 ) always err on the side of caution!