When I left for Africa, stories in the U.S. media were reporting Bigfoot sightings in Oregon, Alaska and even Connecticut. Among the questions I have about Bigfoot is why one never gets accidentally shot during hunting season the way hunters and dogs do. Surely Bigfoot doesn’t wear an orange hunting vest.
Another Bigfoot question: why have such legends not reached Africa? I now know the answer to that one. Africa needs no Bigfoot myths because it already has plenty of the real thing – very large animals with very big feet. I actually saw two African wild dogs drinking water out of a rhinoceros footprint. Bigfoot indeed.
While visiting South Africa with Mike Dorcas, a professor at Davidson College, I heard no stories about the sort of creatures that reside in people’s imagination rather than in the real world. Stories about legendary animals may exist in some parts of Africa, but they are certainly not needed where we were. At least seven species of large mammals that roam wild have been documented as killing people without remorse. When you throw Africa’s large vipers, mambas and cobras into the mix, the I-can-kill-you-if-I-so-choose list passes a dozen.
We visited the world-famous Kruger National Park and surrounding nature preserves in South Africa where predators and prey alike are protected by law. Upon entering Kruger, visitors are given strict instructions not to leave their vehicle. If you were to be fined for disregarding this rule, you would be considered lucky, because that would mean you were still alive. The prohibition against leaving the vehicle is intended to protect visitors who might otherwise be trampled by massive hooves, gored by something the size of a Volkswagen bus or eaten by a beast with claws and teeth that would rival the Iron Chef’s knife collection.
Among the memorable animals we saw that helped us understand why it would be risky to leave the vehicle were two predators (lions and leopards) and three herbivores (African buffalos, rhinoceroses and African elephants). These are known collectively as the big five. The term came into being back in the day when safari-goers were interested in shooting animals with a gun rather than a camera. Ernest Hemingway and other big game hunters of the 1930s considered the big five to be the most dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot, in part because they have little respect for human beings. Apparently they do not realize that people are special.
Any one of the big five can run twice as fast as the speediest Olympic runner, which means your odds of escaping on foot are exceedingly poor. A vehicle provides a substantial measure of safety. No one is quite sure why if people today stay inside their car or safari vehicle, they are usually safe. The assumption is that the animals view a vehicle as a sort of moving rock. Usually they simply ignore vehicles and the people inside. I saw this many times as lions, hyenas and leopards went about their business, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that we were watching them from an open safari bus only 10 feet way.
One animal not included in the big five, despite having the qualifying traits of enormous size, an ill-tempered nature and the surprising speed of 40 miles an hour, is the hippopotamus. Every safari guide we talked with confirmed that a person who ventured into the terrestrial area between the water and where a hippo was grazing should be sure his funeral arrangements had been made. This is not to say that hippos have a grudge against humans. Any animal that gets between them and the water is in imminent danger.
I was greatly impressed with South Africa. The conservation attitudes in the country are outstanding. Our safari guides were highly trained professionals. And the animals themselves provide the greatest wildlife show on earth.
Meanwhile, if Bigfoot does exist and should happen to visit South Africa, I suggest that he stay inside the vehicle.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.
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