We happened upon him in dense bush, this fine young loner. He must have been pushed out of a breeding herd by the matriarch a year or two earlier and now he was wandering the days till he is able to step up as a worthy sire himself.
We were only a few paces away when I spotted him. A brisk wind had kept our scent from him; the noise of his feeding combined with the rumble of the wind through the foliage masked our sound – as it did his from us. He was still unaware of us, but it was too close. We spent a few minutes admiring him and then quietly moved off.
Out in the wild on foot I prefer that animals are not aware of me, but even if they are not, I don’t like coming too close to them. Out of respect I try not to disturb or influence them in any way by my presence and to stay well out of their personal space.
This encounter was a bit unusual. Animals in the African bush have an incredibly keen sense of hearing – and smell, but one can usually counter that if you are constantly aware of the wind direction. When you are walking in a group of 2 or 3, even quietly, you generate noise and ground tremors and animals mostly hear or sense you at a distance. They have a (perhaps natural) aversion of humans and they typically move off – this is in contrast to game reserves, where they are accustomed to cars with humans in them and you can get quite close.
Animals generally have amazing eyesight too, even though they see mostly mono-chromatically and rely heavily on shape and movement. That’s why, if you keep dead still when you think they might have spotted you, they become uncertain and will stare at the spot for a long time – usually longer than your patience can bear.
Generally one can build quite a good picture of animal presence by the signs they have left. Sometimes one can become aware of them from their sounds. Elephant, for example, are quite noisy when they feed and sometimes even when they rest in the shade over the hot hours of the day. If they are relaxed their tummies rumble and they flap their giant ears to cool themselves, with a sound like the sails of a galleon in an uncertain wind. Buffalo are noisy too, especially when they are in a herd, snapping branches and snorting and breaking winds and shuffling. They’re quite arrogant, buffalo – because they are so powerful, I guess.
The exceptions to excellent eyesight in my experience are elephant and rhino, which do not see all that well – but mark my word, they see a person running away extremely well… With the latter two, if you have cover and make sure of the wind and don’t make a sound, you could get right up to them if you wanted to – which is why they are relatively easy targets for poachers.