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Lions, and tigers, and bears: Encountering animals abroad

On my first trip into South Sudan in 2008 I flew from Lokichoggio on the Kenyan side of the border directly to the former Jonglei state deep in the heart of the country. I was working for an NGO responsible for providing health services at clinics dotted throughout the country. With me on the flight was a quiet and compassionate South Sudanese doctor who had served his country and people through the civil war with the North. He asked me about my travels and if I’d been to South Sudan before.

“Do you know how to kill snakes?” he asked?

“I know how to scream,” I replied.

“Well, when you see the black mamba,” he laughed. “You will be screaming.”

He then proceeded to tell me how to kill a snake. This was a reproach to my ‘live and let live’ mentality but he instructed me why having highly deadly creatures lurking about our remote compounds was a bad idea. Death from a black mamba bite usually happens in between 7-15 hours. The nearest anti-venom was at least that long a flight away.

As people responsible for security, we are always cognisant of threats and the ones which come to mind first are usually the ‘big bangs’ – terrorist attacks, bombs, kidnap. Then, we might think of the things more likely to happen like car accidents, theft and muggings. Rarely do our threat assessments consider encounters with wild or feral animals and insects; and yet there is a high likelihood that our staff will encounter these in the environments they are travelling or working in. I have yet to hear of someone at a hostile environment training put up their hand and ask what to do if they encounter a hippo late at night.

In addition to my snake stories, I have had friends stung by jellyfish and scorpions, scratched by monkeys and cats, bitten by dogs, a giraffe, a mongoose and others bucked off horses. Sadly, while I was in South Sudan another aid worker was killed by attacking bees. This is not to even mention the number of diseases carried by one of the world’s deadliest insect – the mosquito.

Animals, sea creatures and insects just rarely make it onto our lists of things we should be prepared to encounter and proactively mitigate against. So, what can you do to ensure that your staff are well prepared for any animal they might encounter?

Make sure you know if staff have allergies. If they’re going on short-terms trips and staying in hotels this is less of an issue but if they’re living in residential compounds together make sure you know if there are ‘house cats’ or dogs in the compound. This could be a problem for people with allergies or who simply dislike or are afraid of them.

Advise staff to avoid contact with wild or feral animals. People who haven’t travelled widely can be enamoured by animals they haven’t seen before. But simply because the bird or monkey isn’t afraid of them and seems friendly doesn’t mean it is! Befriending local dogs and cats is also a bad idea. Even if their posting is long enough it’s not responsible to take in pets and staff can’t know the diseases the animals might be carrying.

Don’t try to get closer to animals for a picture. Yes, new and different animals overseas are exotic but they should be treated with respect and given their distance. Never attempt to get closer to wild animals by walking or driving off accepted routes.

Don’t swim in areas where there are dangerous animals. This should go without saying but swimming in any water where it is known there are hippos, sharks, alligators or water snakes is simply a bad idea.

Have a plan for dealing with bites, scratches and stings. If severe enough (e.g. not every mosquito bite) staff should be required to report these as health incidences. They should also be required – if necessary – to have rabies vaccinations. If living in an area where snake bites are common then consider stocking anti-venom in-country and make sure staff know what procedures to follow if bitten.

By the time I had left South Sudan four years later I had put the doctor’s snake killing advice to good use. I had killed a cobra that wound its way into my room, several puff adders and, one night in Aweil North, a six-foot long black mamba. If safety and security advice is what we tell staff to keep them alive then my experience shows that threats presented by animals and insects are important ones to consider.

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