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Safari holidays: Walking on the wild side

Anyone who has had the privilege of watching the world's largest mammals in their own habitat will know that safari holidays usually do live up to the hype.

Whether you encounter a pride of lions playing under a blood-red African sunset or a herd of elephants basking in a watering hole at dawn, wildlife watching is one of the most thrilling reasons to travel.

But a recent tragedy in the heart of Kenya's wilderness serves as a stark reminder that close encounters with wild animals always carry an element of danger.

Just before Christmas, Sharon Brown, a 39-year-old New Yorker, was walking along a nature trail at the foothills of Mount Kenya with her baby daughter and a small group of friends when disaster struck.

As they turned a corner, their unarmed guard suddenly froze. An elephant was standing with a newborn calf just a few metres away. Screaming at the group to turn back, the guide's cries came too late for Brown, who was burdened by the weight of her one-year-old daughter Margaux and unable to escape in time.

Feeling threatened by the group, the growling animal charged for the young woman, threw her into the air and gored her before dragging her fatally injured body into the forest. The baby was thrown out of her carrier and died minutes later.

While elephant attacks on tourists are extremely rare in Kenya, as population growth encroaches more and more on the animals' migration routes, there is an increasing threat.

Most national parks are unfenced in Kenya, meaning wildlife frequently comes into contact with humans, mostly farmers trying to protect their crops.

Injuries caused by animals are common enough that the government has a fixed compensation rate of about €2,000 paid out to families who lose loved ones.

Most victims are rural Kenyans, but one of the most famous cases involved British woman Wendy Martin, who was severely gored while jogging with friends near an exclusive resort in Kenya in 2000. She survived the attack and sued the lodge for failing to warn her of the dangers.

In 2008, she won more than €700,000 in damages after a judge found that the resort had failed to take the necessary precautions to protect their guests.

In December, a group of British tourists issued proceedings against a safari park in South Africa after the open-sided jeep they were travelling in overturned, spilling them into a pride of lions.

The group, who had been watching the animals at the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, 270 miles from Cape Town, claim their driver reversed suddenly, causing the vehicle to tip over.

As they tended to their injuries, the lions began to surround the wrecked vehicle. The tourists responded by throwing their shoes at them to try and distract them.

They managed to keep the animals at bay until they were rescued half an hour later by another vehicle, but some of the group claim they suffered post-traumatic stress as a result of the incident and are seeking compensation. The resort says it did everything by the book and plans to fight the case in court.

If a safari is on your agenda this year, it's important to remember that most African animals are still wild and can be unpredictable.

Don't go anywhere without an experienced guide. If you do encounter danger while on foot, step away slowly and quietly. Running away is the most instinctive thing to do but not the smartest - it can make you look like prey.

If all else fails, seek out a nearby tree, dive into the nearest bush and don't move a muscle.

Irish Independent