This question relates to Field guides that take their guests into natural areas where they may encounter potentially dangerous animals while embarking on hiking Trails. These guides are generally referred to as “Trails guides” and in most cases Trails guides are required to carry a large calibre rifle whenever conducting hiking Trails within these areas.
The reason for the rifle is obviously to shoot and kill an animal that attacks the group for whatever reason. Trails guides have specialised training and experience to be able to accurately execute such a fatal shot into a charging animal. So this kind of potential threat is what the question basically revolves around.
Is it really a necessity to carry a rifle when out on these hiking Trails?
As you will see there is no simple answer to this. There are reserves where Trails guides do not carry rifles and there are areas where they do. But how dangerous is it really to be hiking inside areas with dangerous animals and what animals are considered to be dangerous?
If you look at how many incidents you hear about where animals were shot or where people were injured or killed, it seems to be pretty safe out there on foot. Just remember there is a difference between being out on foot to hunt potentially dangerous animals or to be out to view them. Most of the video clips you find on the inter-web where people were attached and killed or injured by animals, where during hunting excursions on foot. On the other hand there are not too many reports of this happening during guided hikes for the viewing of animals. But is still happens and this is where the argument starts.
Even the trainers at Bushwise Field guides have their own and different opinions about this which goes to show that there is no easy answer to this.
Potentially dangerous animals are any animal that may pose a potential threat to the safety of a group on foot. Just think of a Warthog. This interesting creature is equipped with some impressive weaponry. The tusks they carry are razor sharp and there are recordings where they flick a lion up into the air and another few where they almost took of the leg of a guide that where caught napping. People will generally think of the Big 5 animals when it comes to potentially dangerous animals but hippos and crocodiles do kill more people than the Big 5 combined! Even the elegant giraffe has killed humans before. As you will realise, when any animal is cornered, stressed, injured or weak and has no escape route or no other alternative, it will attack the threat. Many animals become especially dangerous when they are mating or females with young. If the animal has a choice it will rather conserve its energy and flee or escape rather than to risk injury and waste valuable energy.
Trails guides know all these risks and should avoid these situations at all costs. One of the first and most important rules of Trails guides is that you should always approach animals as if unarmed. The problem comes in when you issue someone with a rifle. Some people then change their attitude and mentality. Some then think that they now have a license to kill or they can now just shoot their way out of a sticky situation. It is here where the argument starts to heat up.
In my opinion there too much emphasis is placed on the shooting aspect of aggressive or charging animals. More time should be spent on training the prospective Trails guides in ways how to appease aggressive animals and actually make them to stop the attack. Another aspect of the training syllabus of Trails guides that I believe should be reviewed is as follows. They are currently trained and encouraged to approach animals in such a way that the animals do not become aware of the presence of the group. The reasoning behind this is that you want to view the animal to observe its normal and natural behaviour and obviously not to disturb it. This kind of viewing is then referred to as an encounter. Although I agree with this approach I also believe that it lacks the other component of viewing potentially dangerous animals on foot. That other component is can I actually deal with a sudden aggressive animal at close quarters without having to shoot it? Can I deal with it mentally and physically? Can I stop this aggression and make the animal to back away without having to use the rifle?
I believe that most qualifying Trails and back up Trails guides do not get enough exposure to actual aggressive and close encounters with aggressive animals. The problem I have with this is that when they are presented with such an aggressive animal while leading guests on their own one day, they panic, don’t know what to do, don’t know what the animal wants to do and this normally ends in shooting the poor animal. Sometimes because of the panic, the animal is only wounded or there are even accounts of guides running away from the threat leaving their poor guests having to fend for themselves. This is truly disgraceful and unacceptable to be frank.
These incidents prove that there are some areas that are not covered during training.
The animals do not know you carry a rifle so they will behave exactly the same whether you have a rifle or not. That is why personally I think that prospective guides should first be trained and mentored to approach and deal with dangerous animals without a rifle. Not only looking at them from a distance but also dealing with them at close quarters. This will also help to tell the trainee if he or she is actually mentally capable of dealing with such intense situations or not. This will also help them on understanding the warnings and threatening behaviour of the animals much better. This knowledge will become the mental confidence they need to be able to deal with those situations efficiently without using a rifle one day. This confidence will also be enough to give the guide peace of mind whenever an animal was shot. These guides will know that shooting the animal was definitely the only and last resort.
Theoretically a properly trained Trails guide and one with the correct attitude should not need a rifle.
BUT……. we are not only dealing with animals. We have the human factor to also consider. The paying guests also have rights.
It is very possible that one day a properly trained guide suddenly faces a charging Buffalo from close quarters. This guide is not aware of the fact that this old Buffalo bull was attacked and injured by a lion during the early hours of the morning. This Buffalo doesn’t give any warning as it is infuriated already. It just charges from without the shrubs from very close by and will not stop no matter what the guide does. There are also no adequate climbable trees around and no other safe ground. The guide has only about 2-3 seconds in which a decision should be reached. There is no way out. BANG!!!!
It is scenarios like this that could present themselves if you do enough Trails guiding. If this guide didn’t carry a rifle and was not trained properly to fire accurately within such a very short time, the law suits from injured or deceased guests’ estates would have been much more difficult to deal with than a normal investigation on an old injured Buffalo that was shot. Those who carry rifles should do so with the correct training, experience and attitude and always approach as if unarmed, avoid all risky scenarios to the best of your ability, always use escaping, evading, appeasing and taking cover as your first options in case of a threat. Always use fire power as an absolute last resort and this is what we try instil in the Bushwise students.
Blog written by Gerhard van Niekerk