Is there a way to summarize when you should play dead vs act aggressive when unexpectedly walking/swimming up on a large, dangerous animal?

Answer by Rory Young:

Professional Guide Dardley Tafurukwa doing an "open" approach on a wild elephant bull on the Bumi Hills shoreline in Zimbabwe. He is unarmed and the bull is "against" the water. This can be extremely dangerous if you don't know what you are doing. In this picture the bull is monitoring Dardley's movements and intentions and is ready to react accordingly.

Just as the bull gets ready to intimidate charge Dardley, he turns away from the bull and maintains an attitude of disinterest. This takes confidence as you can't know for certain that the bull is not charging you while you are looking away.

The bull understands that Dardley is posing no threat and moves off. If Dardley tried this with a cow with calf, wounded elephant or a bull in musth he would be a very flattened Dardley. If this bull had decided to mock charge then Dardley would have responded with intimidation, shouting at key moments and even throwing his hat.

In most African countries, the list of animals legally defined as "dangerous game" includes lion, leopard, elephant, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, Cape buffalo, hippopotamus and crocodile. Others, such as hyaena, numerous venomous snakes and such seemingly passive creatures such as ostriches and bushbuck are not classified as dangerous game but are potentially deadly.

The very broad rule of thumb is that predators are potentially, but not only, deadly if they see you as prey and non predators are potentially, but not only, deadly when they see you as a threat.

I would never recommend playing dead with African dangerous game. I have only heard of it being used with buffalo in East Africa and that is supposedly because they can't easily gore you when you are lying on the ground, not because they believe you are dead and therefore no longer a threat. Not only are most dangerous animals not easily fooled but they may just have a go to be sure.

Playing dead, or lying down rather, is a good way to get their curiosity. I have often brought a herd of elephants or buffaloes closer by lying on the ground and waving my arms and legs in the air. I think there is good reason for the fact that no African mammals play dead like an opossum does in North America.

Furthermore, lions, leopards and hyaena (but not cheetah) are all more than happy to eat really putrid carrion so will just see you as an easy meal.

If you encounter non-predatory dangerous game such as buffalo or elephants then get the hell out of there asap. With rhino or buffalo climbing a tree is a good option if you are fast and the tree is suitable but it is not a good idea with elephants as they will just pull you out. Standing down and intimidating an elephant is an option if you know what you are doing but I would recommend getting out of there if you are not an expert. Experts can read elephant gestures and body language and determine how to respond but this takes years of study and experience.

Rhinos are as blind as bats so standing stock=till can work as long as they definitely don't have you in their sight and as long as the wind is definitely in your favour. I have often used this technique. Black rhinos will sometimes charge in arbitrary directions to try and intimidate you into moving and betraying your position. Again, I recommend a tree.

 If you encounter predators and they are approaching you with interest then you need to threaten/intimidate them with noise and confident body language and attitude.

In the water with crocodile and also hippo your only option is to get out of there. They will both, albeit for different reasons, attack you whether you are playing dead or not.

For all dangerous game, unless you are an expert, steer well clear of them and leave them in peace. There are many good makes of binoculars available. The only two parks in Africa that still allow private individuals to walk are Mana Pools and Matusadona in Zimbabwe. Although most people prefer to hire a professional guide to take them walking in these parks there are still those who try to walk without any real knowledge and experience and every year there are a number of fatalities and serious injuries.

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