Nothing gets as much play in the media as people getting mauled or killed by animals. And while it may be true that people occasionally are killed by animals, in the overwhelming majority of these instances, the death was due not to the actions of a true predator, but to what I call an “accidental predator.”
An accidental predator (such as a black bear) is primarily concerned with getting its food, usually small or hoofed animals, fish or plants. Encounters with accidental predators occur when human beings invade their territories.
True predators (such as great white sharks or tigers), on the other hand, are opportunistic – they look at people as opportunities. Sometimes we serve them this opportunity on a silver platter by venturing into their territories unprotected.
Animals of every sort have an uncanny ability to sense your state of mind, whether you feel confident or fearful. Exude fear and they’ll be all over you. Act confident and strong and they’ll think twice about attacking. Sharks, for example, don’t like the idea of their prey fighting back, so the toughest way for a shark to come at you is from the front.
Make sure you’re familiar with the creatures you may meet before you head out on your journey.
You can prevent encounters with accidental predators by taking these steps:
- Make your presence known;
- When you’re traveling in an area where you know there are accidental predators, be as noisy as possible. Sing, yell, blow a whistle, wear a bear bell… Anything that will inform animals of your presence. If they hear you, chances are they’ll take off. Early in my days of survival training, I had to walk alone in a remote area of northern Ontario. I knew the area was thick with black bears (there was bear scat everywhere), so I simply played my harmonica as I walked along. It gave me comfort on a number of levels.
- Keep your camp area clean and free of excessive food smells.
- If you come upon a freshly killed animal in grizzly territory, give it a wide berth. Grizzlies will often wander some distance from their kill, but you can be sure they sense when something else is getting close to it.
- Don’t travel alone through the territory of large predators if you don’t have to.
There are as many strategies for dealing with large animals as there are animals themselves. What works in an encounter with a puma may not work with a grizzly bear. However, in general terms, here’s what you should do if you happen upon an accidental predator:
- Don’t panic! Turning and running may well incite an instinctive predatorial response in the animal, since you are telling it that you are prey. So if it wasn’t interested in you at first, it sure is now!
- Calmly and deliberately move away from the animal. Do not make jerky movements, which may startle it. Keep facing it, but do not look it in the eye. Some animals may interpret eye contact as a challenge. An exception to this rule is sharks, which will take much longer to attack if you keep your eyes on them.
- Make yourself seem as big and threatening as possible by waving your arms over your head, making lots of noise or joining arms with your travel mates.
- Remember that you are the visitor! No matter how intent you were on heading in a certain direction, taking a certain path or making camp in a certain spot, move elsewhere!
Even the most intimidating and dangerous of animals do not come into the world programmed to kill humans, nor are they taught to hunt us. Here’s what you can do to protect yourself in true predator country:
- Avoid detection: Humans tend to be loud, bumbling creatures in the wild. If you’re in true predator terrain, move as stealthily as possible. To avoid giving the predator an opportunity, try not to attract any attention to yourself.
- Make as much noise as possible: You’re going to hate me for this contradiction! Noise can scare animals away. This alternative is likely better attempted when you’re with a group of people, as there’s safety in numbers. These completely opposite methods indicate just how difficult it is to predict what an animal will do, or how you should behave, during an encounter.
- Create obstacles: When you’re stationary for any length of time, try to use natural materials to create a buffer between you and the animal. This is particularly important for your shelter. In Africa, I built a corral from acacia thorns around my shelter. It wouldn’t have stopped a lion that was intent on getting me, but it would have deterred one long enough to buy me time to plan my escape.
- Plan an escape route: Even with protection, sometimes the best route to safety is an escape route. In Africa, even with a fence of thorn bushes for protection, I made sure my shelter was built against a tree in case the pride of lions wandering the area decided to pay a visit. I hung a rope from the tree into my shelter so that I had the option of climbing the tree to get out of range.
African lions, polar bears, tigers, sharks and saltwater crocodiles – they’re all big and can kill us with little effort. It may seem that you have little chance against a 500- to 2,000-pound (227- to 907-kg) animal, but remember that perhaps more than any other wild creatures, true predators (just like accidental predators) cannot afford to get injured. Unlike benign creatures such as rabbits, which can sustain an injury but continue to forage for food, if a predator is seriously hurt, its ability to hunt – and therefore to eat – is impaired. For instance, a wolf that suffers a broken jaw from a tangle with a moose is as good as dead. Animals such as these will often retreat rather than fight.
But if a true predator attacks you, your only chance may be to fight back. If you end up in a body of saltwater during a survival situation, don’t create a lot of turbulence by thrashing about, as sharks are attracted to this type of behavior. While filming a TV special on sharks in the Caribbean, I was treading water with a number of lemon sharks beneath me and two tiger sharks close by (accidental and true predators). We posed the question whether it was better to swim as fast as possible to the boat or lie still and let the boat come to get me. When I made my move by swimming quickly and splashing a lot, a huge shark darted straight for me, excited by my movements.
Never enter the water if you are bleeding, as a shark can detect even the smallest amount of blood in the water. Finally, do not throw entrails or garbage into the water, as this too may attract sharks. Look behind any cruise ship that throws its food refuse overboard and you will see hundreds of sharks.
If you do encounter a shark, your only option is to defend yourself. A shark’s most sensitive place is its nose; direct your blows there. Remember that sharks like to attack from behind, so try to face the shark at all times. Keep your back against a coral reef or wreckage, if there is any. Go back-to-back with your dive buddy and put any object you have – your underwater video camera, for example – between yourself and the shark. Oh, and get out of the water!
This story is an excerpt from the book Survive! by survival expert Les Stroud, best known for his hit show “Survivorman” on the Discovery Channel.