Is wildlife tracking on foot safe?

You don’t have to run faster than the bear to get away. You just have to run faster than the guy next to you.
- Jim Butcher
It’s true that no encounter with wild animals can ever be declared 100% safe. Then again, things go wrong at zoos from time to time as well, as anyone that’s seen the acclaimed 1993 documentary ‘Jurassic Park’ can attest. Surely then wildlife tracking on foot, where you’re often in the vicinity of large carnivores that could easily outpace you on the flat, is not a wise idea? Actually, while there are clearly some risks involved and you’ll want to make sure you have adequate insurance cover, a walking safari is generally very safe, for two clear reasons:
  1. You will be escorted at all times by expert guides and trackers, who will be armed when necessary.
  2. Hollywood rarely lets the truth get in the way of a good story; a wild animal would need to be pretty desperate to attack a human, especially a group of them.
In all likelihood a wild animal will know you’re there well before you get within eyeshot, and will keep a wary distance from any human. The Big Five in Africa are usually only spotted on driving safaris for exactly that reason – they’re accustomed to jeeps, but seeing groups of humans approaching on foot unnerves them. For that reason, you’ll be asked to bring clothing that blends in with the background: perhaps white if you’re in a snowy landscape, khaki for the desert, and to walk as quietly as possible, otherwise by the time your guide draws your attention to an animal, the target will have already disappeared. Bright blocks of colour are not recommended, and neither are black and white stripes in lion country for hopefully obvious reasons. Beyond a flask of water, drinks and snacks will be kept to a minimum because animals can be alerted by even the mildest of scents, and of course smoking is a big no-no.
You will be accompanied at all times by highly trained and skilled professionals, whether they be expert rangers in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan drawn from the surrounding community and knowing exactly where to look for snow leopards, or San Bushmen with years of experience in guiding people around their lands. In some cases, depending on the level of risk involved, your guides and trackers may be armed, with someone positioned at either end of the column.

How fit do I need to be?

Don’t worry, you don’t need to be able to outrun anybody. In fact, running is to be avoided at all costs – you don’t want to indicate to a carnivore that you’re some form of prey. Tracking wildlife on foot in Africa, you will usually be walking only for an hour or two, over uneven but fairly flat terrain – your main issue is staying hydrated. In other parts of the world such as the Himalayas or the French Alps, some hill-walking experience will naturally come in handy.

Wild animals sensibly tend to stick to easier ground whenever possible, so following them is usually not too challenging. Depending on where you are and the nature of your itinerary you might be trekking for between four and six hours, sometimes with a few ascents and descents involved, but always at your own pace. You might jump in the jeep from time to time when needing to cover longer distances, and in deep snow you could be snowshoeing or even riding on horseback.

Our top Wildlife tracking on foot Vacation

Snow Leopard searching vacation in Ladakh

Snow Leopard searching vacation in Ladakh

An exciting search for the elusive snow leopard

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Are these trips suitable for kids?

Again this is a question for types of animals you’re tracking, and where you are. In South Africa for instance, even though you will be walking for only an hour or so, under-14s must stick to the vehicles instead, because although the wildlife prefers to keep clear of humans, you are still talking big game out there. In Kyrgyzstan and India when you’re tracking snow leopards, the elevations involved and the harsh conditions mean the minimum age is usually 18. But tracking wildlife can be a fantastic and unforgettable experience for families, so if you want to bring the kids along then you might consider tracking wolves and moose in the forests of Sweden, where the easy-going pace makes it suitable for anyone aged eight and over.
Before taking any wildlife safari on foot you can expect to be given a thorough safety briefing. Probably the most important rule is, do what your guides say at all times. Other things to bear in mind when wildlife tracking on foot? Keep your voice low, keep your eyes open at all times, and keep your hands to yourself – picking plants or flowers is frowned on.
Hopefully your questions have been answered here – wildlife tracking on foot, so long as you’re with a responsible operator, is generally considered just as safe for people and animals as a standard game drive. But if you have any more concerns, feel free to have them put to rest by contacting your operator, or indeed our own dedicated travel team.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Pascal Mauerhofer] [Top box: Venture Uganda Travel] [Suitable for kids?: Artur Rydzewski] [Suitable for kids?: Artur Rydzewski]