Dr. Les de Villiers – January 30, 2014

Hunter, photographer, author, publisher and African safari organizer Dr. Les de Villiers spoke on what he calls Safari 101 – the basics of what a safari is, what to expect, and how to get the full safari experience.

He began with a slide show of pictures on the theme of the Circle of Life – the amazingly varied and rich animal life to be seen on safari and the patterns of birth and survival in the African wild. There are lots of safari groups available, but many fall short of providing the full safari experience. You may see more humans than animals, and animals may be gathered in small preserves to facilitate sight-seeing, perhaps by bus, without the full natural experience. You get what you pay for, Dr. de Villiers said, and it is worth it to pay a more to get the full experience.  It is best to go in small groups, in open vehicles carrying no more than five and led by a capable guide.

Safari organizations tend to emphasize the importance of seeing the Big 5 – elephant, rhino, leopard, water buffalo and lion – but there is much more to Africa. The hippo, although a vegetarian, is the greatest killer because hippos tend to deal decisively with those who wander in their way. It is a fascinating beast, as is the giraffe.

Dr. de Villiers advised to pay attention to the flora as well as the fauna. He mentioned the baobab tree, ubiquitous over much of East Africa, and a pod that one needs a machete to cut and that has a medicinal effect when rubbed on skin. He expressed a fascination with the way in which patterns of life have developed, such as the way monkeys and birds pick through dung for undigested morsels and dung beatles roll, bury, and lay eggs in it so that their young have a source of food. Some animals use termite towers as perches to seek prey or detect enemies, while others use abandoned termite towers for homes.

He mentioned a variety of ways to go on safari, including by elephant, train and balloon, a great way to see animals. Helicopter tours are also available. If you embark on a walking safari, you will want to go with experienced people who understand the dangers.  He commented that elephants born in zoos are brought back for use on the safaris, but they too have been known to act up.

If you go on a trek, you will need a field guide. Good guides go through extensive training so that they know the animals, their patterns of movement and other necessary field skills. The field guide is the most important person on the safari.

Accommodations can range from rustic and simple tents to more permanent fixtures and quite luxurious camps.  The rustic can be quite romantic and far from Spartan.

Dr. de Villiers addressed some basic questions:

Where do I go?  East and Southeast Africa, from Kenya down to South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

How do I get there?  A variety of international airlines have flights to major cities, from which you take a smaller plane to the safari site.

When should I go? The best time to go is our summer and their winter. During this dry winter period in the safari regions of Southern and East Africa, foliage is sparse and the animals can be seen more readily.

What should I pay?  For a first class safari with meals, lodging and local transportation, $800-$1,000 a day plus the cost of international flights, say, $13,000.

Where do I start? With experienced companies that know local conditions.

Dr. de Villiers commented that he prefers photography to hunting but does not oppose hunting per se. The great parks in Africa were founded by hunters. Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, the largest in the world according to Dr. de Villiers, is divided so that the top 20% is sectioned for photographers and the bottom 80% for hunters, because, park managements says, photographers cannot support the whole park.  That said, Dr. de Viliers commented that he cannot stomach hunters interested in killing in volume, such as the man who crowed of killing 500 elephants, and those who hunt in private preserves stocked with tame lions. This hunting is big business in Africa.

In the Q and A, Dr. de Villiers made the following points:

Male elephants in rut can be dangerous, as can mother elephants that feel their young are in danger. Otherwise, elephants are not so dangerous.

Dangers related to political unrest in certain areas are very real. Dr. de Villiers has avoided Kenya for the last ten years. Tribal conflict in Kenya can be brutal. He believes Tanzania and places further south are safe, but parts of South Africa are problematic. He has also been avoiding Zimbabwe, but he was pleased to find the people friendly on a recent visit.

Most photographers do not bring fancier equipment on safari. You shouldn’t need the longer lenses for animals, because you get quite close, but may need them for birds. Most visitors just want pictures to show they have been there.

Animals in zoos are not in a natural environment and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by occasional violent outbursts.

Elephants used in circuses are trained from a very early age. There are horror stories of the cruel methods used to train these animals.