Venturing into the great (virtual) outdoors

Heather Djunga

THE WASHINGTON POST – Being in a coronavirus lockdown has not stopped adventurous kids from heading daily into the great outdoors – to escape home in a safari jeep for an unforgettable experience with boisterous baboons, majestic lions or other African animals.

There’s no plane ride needed, however, to take part in safari tours at two South African game reserves. The twice-daily safaris are shown online as they happen.

While the tours in the northeast corner of the country have been featured on the Internet since 2007, their popularity has boomed as people around the world stay home to help stop spreading the novel coronavirus.

During April, more than 1.1 million viewers went along on Safari-Live, which is broadcast by the company WildEarth. That was five times as many as in March.

When viewers join a tour, they ride “virtually” with rangers on dusty roads. They visit locations that wild animals frequent, such as watering holes where elephants, rhinos, leopards and other animals go daily to drink. Each safari guide is paired with a camera operator, who films from the back of the vehicle.

An extremely rare white lion cub is spotted at the Ngala reserve. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The main goal is “game spotting”, a safari term for finding and identifying wildlife off the beaten tracks. When there is a sighting, the vehicle pulls over and the camera zooms in as the ranger explains what is happening.

Last week, viewers witnessed “ellies”, as rangers refer to local elephant herds, playing in a river, and viewers saw wild dogs running swiftly through grassland areas.

Children, as well as parents and others, can ask questions by email. These are sent to the broadcast centre, which sifts through them and sends them to the rangers to answer live.

Each person on the team of about 30 specialists knows a lot about South African wildlife and the ways of the wild. Among questions in the past month: Is the elephant related to the dinosaur? (No. Dinosaurs were reptiles, and elephants are mammals.) How big is the lion’s brain? (The lion has a brain that would fit into a cup.) Are rangers ever scared of the animals as they ride in vehicles without tops or backs? (They prefer the word “cautious”.)

The animals that live on the private game reserves – special places where they are protected from hunters – are obviously not in lockdown and are free to roam. In March, viewers met two white lions from a pride in the Ngala reserve. Last month, they saw hyena cubs in the Djuma reserve.

Elephants remain children’s favourite, said WildEarth’s leader, Graham Wallington, “because they are so big and powerful and yet seem so gentle and kind”.

He and his wife, Emily, started WildEarth so that many others, inside and outside their country, could see South Africa’s natural beauty. The initiative started with just webcams set up at watering holes before the organisers decided to arrange virtual safaris. Over the years, WildEarth has continued to run webcam projects and has worked with groups far beyond Kruger National Park. In the United States (US), it has helped set up webcams to watch black bear cubs in Minnesota and peregrine falcons in Pennsylvania.

The live safaris have mostly attracted US viewers, but many more South Africans have started watching during their lockdown.

Wallington is with his family in Johannesburg. But because many rangers call the reserves their home, they can continue the online tours as long as they take the required precautions not to spread the novel coronavirus.