These rare incidents serve as a reminder that animals can be unpredictable, even when you’re traveling with an experienced guide.
If you’ve got a travel bucket list, chances are there’s a safari on it. These eye-opening expeditions give us a closer look at animals and their habitats, from elephants to hippopotamuses to cheetahs. Unfortunately, even when you’re working with an experienced tour operator or staying at a reputable safari lodge, dangerous animal encounters can and do happen—even with tons of safety precautions.
Of course, the vast majority of safaris take place without incident and tourists return home safe and happy. But the following dangerous safari encounters, although incredibly rare, are a good reminder that wild animals are just that—wild—and can behave unpredictably.
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WHERE: Zambezi River, Zimbabwe
What was supposed to be a memorable birthday trip took a tragic turn when a hippopotamus attacked a Florida woman during an African wildlife tour. While they were celebrating her 37th birthday in December 2018, a woman and her husband were on a guided canoe safari along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe.
Though the group initially tried to paddle away from a group of hippos along the right side of the river, one of the animals came out of the water and capsized the canoe, dragging the woman underwater. Luckily, one of the guides on the trip was able to grab the woman and pull her to safety on the river bank.
As it turns out, the hippo was likely trying to protect her young calf who was hidden under the water. The hippo broke the woman’s femur, though she was expected to make a full recovery.
WHERE: Kruger National Park, South Africa
One group of people had the experience of a lifetime while visiting Kruger National Park in South Africa in July 2013. In video footage captured by a woman in another car, you can see an impala leap through the passenger window of a Toyota Prado—with people inside.
The impala was trying to outrun a cheetah, so naturally, it sought shelter in the quickest and easiest place possible. When someone eventually opened the door of the vehicle, the impala jumped out and trotted away—the cheetah, apparently, was so impressed that he gave up the chase.
“We watched the cheetah chasing the impala,” said Samantha Pittendrigh, who captured the incident on video. “We saw a few of them turn around in the bushes toward the road they were running from. All of a sudden we saw the impala jump out of the bushes and then someone started screaming ‘It is in the car, it is in the car.’”
WHERE: Kruger National Park, South Africa
Not even the most experienced safari guides are safe from dangerous incidents that can occur when wild animals interact with humans. Case in point: A leopard attacked a British field guide at Kruger National Park in South Africa in July 2015, though the guide managed to walk away with his life.
The guide was driving an open-top, four-wheel-drive vehicle when he spotted a leopard in the bush. As he instructed the tourists in his vehicle to look at the animal, it lunged and bit down on his arm. Unfortunately, the leopard was badly injured and had to be euthanized after the incident. The guide suffered serious injuries and had to be hospitalized.
“It is suspected that the leopard was fighting with another one as its hind was badly injured—the other leopard was spotted in the area watching from a distance,” said William Mambasa, general manager of Kruger National Park.
WHERE: The Serengeti, Tanzania
Though elephants are massive, they’re also incredibly fast—that’s a lesson one American tourist learned the hard way during a trip to Tanzania in 2009.
The man was on a walking safari when he and his guide came upon a herd of elephants grazing on some tree branches. Suddenly, and without warning, a female elephant turned in their direction and began running toward them. The elephant attacked the man, and though he was badly injured, he survived. He underwent more than a dozen surgeries and is hopeful he’ll be able to run, ride a bike, and play golf again.
“All of a sudden, one of the larger female elephants just spun around and sat on her haunches and put her trunk in the air and her ears out fully extended and just bellowed at us,” the injured man, Tom Siebel, told Forbes. “I don’t know if she could see us or smell us, but she pointed right at us. She paused for probably two seconds and then [made] a beeline right at us.”
WHERE: Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
It goes without saying that wild animals do not discriminate when and who they attack and, tragically, sometimes lash out at children.
The family of a 3-year-old boy was devastated when a leopard snatched and killed the toddler in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda in May 2018.
The boy’s mother was working as a park ranger that day and had left a nanny in charge of the boy. The toddler was reportedly following the nanny, who didn’t realize he was behind her, when the leopard pounced. Though the nanny tried to fight the big cat off, she didn’t succeed.
WHERE: Aloe Ridge Hotel and Nature Reserve, South Africa
Posing for a photo in front of two massive rhinoceroses could have cost a young woman her life, but fortunately, she suffered only serious injuries. The woman was with her husband on safari at the Aloe Ridge Hotel and Nature Reserve in South Africa in January 2013 when they got out of the vehicle to snap a few pictures of the giant animals.
Not long after they posed in front of the two white rhinos, one of the massive animals began goring the woman with its horn. The owner of the game park had reportedly instructed her to stand a little bit closer to the rhinos for the photograph shortly before the attack occurred.
WHERE: Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa
Not all animal encounters on safari end in tragedy. In fact, some are downright funny.
In August 2014, a field guide found himself stuck behind an elephant who wanted to spend a little quality time with a parked car. The guide captured some hilarious photos and videos of the elephant rubbing on the VW Polo at Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa. Meanwhile, the two people inside the vehicle were understandably terrified.
The elephant was most likely in musth, which occurs when testosterone levels skyrocket. He was likely just scratching an itch or trying to remove a parasite, though the vehicle was a little worse for wear after he was done with it—the elephant reportedly blew all four tires, broke the chassis, smashed the windows and dented the roof. Just imagine their car insurance claim!
INSIDER TIPThough animals like rhinoceroses and lions are impressive, keep your eyes peeled for birds while on safari—you might just be surprised by how colorful and diverse they are. Before your trip, buy or borrow a birding field guide for the region or download one of the many bird identification mobile apps so you can learn while you travel.
WHERE: Chirundu, Zimbabwe
Apparently, elephants are totally reasonable—if you’re just willing to apologize. A young couple claims that they were able to survive an elephant attack in August 2014 by repeatedly saying, “Sorry.”
The man and woman were walking their dogs near the safari lodge where they worked in Zimbabwe when a young bull elephant began to attack them. When the man began shouting, “Sorry,” the elephant tossed him aside.
“I don’t know why I said that word,” said Dylan Taylor. “But there was definitely a break, a change at that point.”
He was rushed to the nearest medical clinic and treated for an array of injuries. Despite the incident, the young couple decided to move forward with their plan to hold their wedding at the lodge.
WHERE: Limpopo, South Africa
Despite the fact that giraffes are often referred to as the “gentle giants” of Africa, they can sometimes behave badly. In December 2018, a giraffe kicked a local South African farm worker in the stomach, which ultimately resulted in his death. The man was feeding the animals at a safari lodge when the incident occurred.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that giraffe kicks are so strong they can be fatal, as giraffes regularly kick in self-defense when being hunted by lions. Giraffes become prey the moment they are born, so baby giraffes can stand within roughly 30 minutes of being born, which is truly impressive. Even as newborns, giraffes as massive—calves stand as high as six feet tall and weigh around 220 pounds.
Every year, Carol Kirken looked forward to taking a vacation with her family. Unfortunately, the trip this Michigan grandmother took to Africa in 2017 was her last. Kirken, 75, died in Tanzania after being attacked by a hippopotamus.
“Having (passed) 75 years old, she was resolutely shooting for 100. She would have surely achieved it if not for this accident. Carol died quickly in the arms of her son Robert. We are shocked and saddened at her early departure from our lives,” her family wrote in her obituary.
It’s not entirely clear what happened during the incident, but hippos are regularly regarded as some of the most dangerous animals in Africa. They can weigh between 3,500 and 6,000 pounds, and have been known to act aggressively when guarding their territories.
WHERE: Tarangire National Park, Tanzania
When you picture a safari, you likely imagine a group of people riding in a rugged all-terrain vehicle, gazing out at animals off in the distance. But there are also walking safari tours, and they can sometimes turn dangerous—even deadly.
One man was walking near Tarangire National Park in Tanzania in September 2013 when he encountered a herd of about 50 elephants. When the massive animals began chasing the man and his companions, he reportedly tripped and was trampled to death. Though walking safaris are not allowed inside the park because they are deemed too dangerous, the group was just outside the park boundaries.
“If you suddenly meet an elephant, it tries to defend itself,” said Stephen Qoli, a warden at the park. “If you bump into an elephant, it will charge. If they are not very close to you, they normally don’t charge. It all depends on how close they are to you. You cannot predict, sometimes, their behavior.”
WHERE: Blyde Wildlife Estate, South Africa
When you live in a wildlife sanctuary, you eventually become accustomed to wild animals living all around you. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean everyone is living together in harmony.
A woman and her three-year-old son are still recovering after they were attacked by a giraffe in South Africa in September 2018. The incident occurred at Blyde Wildlife Estate, where the woman and her husband lived and worked as scientists.
Since giraffes are typically peaceful, the estate’s manager believes the animal lashed out because it was protecting its young calf. The giraffe and her calf were transferred to another location, however, the calf did not survive the move.
WHERE: Badaling Wildlife World, Beijing
Africa isn’t the only place where dangerous wildlife encounters happen. In July 2016, a 57-year-old woman and her daughter were attacked by a tiger at a wildlife park in Beijing. Unfortunately, the woman died from the injuries she sustained at Badaling Wildlife World, which is near China’s Great Wall. Her daughter suffered serious injuries but survived, despite being dragged off by the tiger.
The incident may not have occurred if the women had stayed inside their vehicle; all visitors to the park must sign a written agreement acknowledging that they won’t open their car doors or windows.
The daughter later sued the animal park and claimed that staffers didn’t do a good enough job of informing her of the park’s dangers. She said she got out of the vehicle because she was carsick.
WHERE: Lion Park, South Africa
Even when tourists stay inside their safari vehicles, they may still not be safe from wild animals. An American woman was taking pictures from a vehicle at Lion Park in South Africa when a lion jumped up against the side of the vehicle and began attacking her.
The woman, who was in the country on a wildlife protection volunteer trip, died from her injuries. Unfortunately, guests at the preserve are not supposed to roll down their windows, however, there are conflicting reports about whether the tour guide also had his window rolled down.
“That’s absolutely forbidden at our park,” said Scott Simpson, assistant operations manager at Lion Park. “There are numerous signs, and we hand out slips of paper to all guests warning them to keep their windows closed.”
WHERE: Madikwe Game Reserve, South Africa
Even the most experienced animal handlers aren’t immune to the unpredictable nature of wild animals. In December 2018, a senior safari ranger was trampled to death by a bull elephant in the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. The elephant was reportedly in musth, which means he had very high testosterone levels.
The man tried to intervene after the elephant smashed through a fence and entered a tourist area at the reserve’s Leopard Rock Lodge. Unfortunately, the giant mammal turned on the experienced guide. His death is a reminder of the truly incredible power and strengths elephants have, though they are often very gentle creatures.