Last month, we had the opportunity to chat with Tristan Phipps, African safari guide turned Made in Chelsea star!
Tristan shared stories of his adventures in the bush, his views on the main conservation issues facing South Africa’s wildlife, and the reasons why he is passionate about conservation.
Quick fire questions!
Con Con: Favourite animal and why?
Tristan: Easy, elephants, hands down – intelligent and emotionally intellectual animals.
Con Con: Painted wolf or wild dog?
Tristan: Wild dog – it will always be a wild dog. I don’t know where painted wolf came from... no I don’t agree with it, sorry BBC!
Con Con: Favourite country and why?
Tristan: Botswana. The people are amazing, so friendly and charming, and they have amazing wildlife and natural areas, both of which are diverse. As a country, Botswana is also a big hitter in conservation in southern Africa, it is leading the way within this area.
Con Con: What got you interested in becoming a safari guide?
Tristan: I was born in South Africa - I was there for 2 years and then we moved back to England. From when I was old enough, we would go back every year and do walking safaris. When I was younger, I always wanted to work in conservation, I wanted to be a zoologist or a marine biologist. I would always be trying to catch lizards and on holidays I would spend the whole time outside. After I finished school, I went to university briefly, and then I thought ‘No, I need to follow my dream’. I always had a passion for South Africa, and to go back and do it properly. It is fun being a tourist, but it is more fun, it’s also more intrinsically beneficial, to go out and actually do something. It was an easy decision to make.
Life as a safari guide and conservation issues
Con Con: What was the scariest moment you had as a guide?
Tristan: There were a few, but one sticks out for me. As a bit of background, there are certain levels in guiding, unit standards if you like: you start off doing your basic vehicle guiding, and then you have to pass lots of other exams and rack up lots of hours of experience in order to be able to move on to helping on walking safaris, and then to leading walking safaris. When you first move on to walking safaris you back up walks, you are the ‘second rifle’ (you always carry rifles in South Africa just in case) and then, after you’ve recorded 300+ hours on foot and a certain number of encounters with dangerous animals, you get an exam (a practical assessment) and if you pass that you can walk solo in the bush with guests. So, it was my second walk after I had passed, and it was the first time I had walked by myself (without a second rifle). I was on a walking safari with my uncle and my auntie (they came out to see me) and we had set up a little tented camp out in the bush (with standard 2-man tents and no fences).
One morning I woke them up early in the morning, before the sun rose, and we heard a big male lion calling east of the camp, by the river. So, still a little bit tired, I grabbed the rifle and we went out to find the big male lion (to view him and also, as guides, we monitored the lion activity alongside the anti-poaching unit in the area). We went over this little hill, walked down a sand back towards the river and saw the male far away, probably about 400m down the river, it was amazing. We then decided to get a little bit closer, as he was on the far side of the river. We went over another little hill and I looked down and saw 4 cubs about 4 – 5 metres away, each maybe a foot long, sat there looking at me (they were very cute). My brain then went, ‘If there are 4 cubs there, which are that small, where’s Mum?’, so I looked to the left and we had got bang in between mother and cubs. The lioness was down on all haunches, ears pinned back, tail flat, showing all the signs that she was not happy (this is whilst the cubs were sitting there super chilled!). In my head I thought, ‘Ah sh*t, this is not a good situation. The worst!’.
You should never get between mum and cubs, (in life, not just with lions, with any mum and her children!). The lioness then charged at us and I chambered the rifle. Usually I would be at the front and the person with the second rifle would try to remove the clients, in this case my family. However, it was just the 3 of us. For some reason, the lioness stopped. We gave all the warning signs, made ourselves big and loud and aggressive and she stopped at about a metre away. I could have poked her with my rifle. She was right there. Then she retreated about 10 m with the cubs, and we retreated about 10 m and then she charged again. Three times she charged at us and each time stopping at about a metre away. Somewhere in the back of my head I knew she wouldn’t go through with it. We managed to get away, slowly, you shouldn’t move quickly, it’s in stages, she moves back and then you move back. Don’t ever run – food runs! That was probably the most terrifying event. However, it was the first time those cubs had been seen on the property and all but one are still alive today. They were tiny, about 9/10 weeks we thought. Usually at that age they are hidden because they are very susceptible to predation, particularly by other males. We think the lioness was moving them to a different secure area (potentially because of the nearby male) and we managed to get in the way. It was pretty terrifying.
Con Con: How about the funniest story?
Tristan: We had an ostrich on the property called Trich (Os-Trich), and she was an amazing character. There were a lot of ostriches there but there was one, Trich, who used to just stay by herself. If we were ever out walking and we came across her, she would pop up and she would jump into line. You would be walking in single file and she would walk behind us. She wouldn’t go away, I would turn around and look behind me to make sure all my guests were there and there would be an ostrich following us. She was such a babe. If you were in the vehicle, she would also walk up to it and try to take your hat off. The weirdest animal!
Con Con: Now for the saddest story?
Tristan: I have a lot of poaching stories, we came across a lot of animals in snares and often those animals were past the point where they would survive if released. For example, if a snare gets caught around an animal’s front leg and the wound goes septic, they would not be able to walk again. We worked very closely with the South African National Parks (SANParks), and with them we’d have to make the call whether to put the animal down. Often it was the kindest, but hardest thing to do.
However, the saddest, natural story is an easy one. It was the beginning of the rainy season (the rains usually break around December/January time in that area of Kruger National Park) and there was a terrible thunderstorm one night. Trees fell down, our generators blew, it was mad. The next day we went out to patrol the area to make sure everything was fine, for example that there were no electrical problems or any fires. I remember we walked into this clearing and came across an amazing big Jackalberry tree (a very thick broadleaf tree). Underneath it there were 2 elephants, an old bull and a very young male calf, both lying on their sides with their feet up in the air. They had been struck by lightning and killed instantly.
By the time we found them rigor mortis had set in and they looked like they had been completely cooked on the outside, we had never seen anything like it before. As we were walking around them, not touching them but just observing, we heard a disturbance and another big bull came into the area. The wind had changed, he had picked up on the elephants’ scents and he was coming over to investigate. We retreated to a point where we were hidden and watched him discover the dead elephants. With his trunk he touched their tusks and feet. We could tell when he realised that they were dead because his behaviour was bizarre. I have never seen anything like it. He started trumpeting, defecating everywhere, and we could see that he was extremely stressed as he kept doing laps around the Jackalberry tree. I have never seen anything like it and neither had any of the other guides that were there. It was so sad to watch, you could see he was mourning. He was shaking his head, almost like he didn’t understand what was going on. That was hard to watch… Really sad but really interesting.”
Con Con: On the ground, what were the key conservation issues that you observed first hand?
Tristan: There were a few, but poaching was the main one. There were guys crossing into the park from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and from the local communities outside of the park and putting snares down. In Pafuri (in the Northern Kruger National Park, where I worked for over 2 years), we didn’t have as much of the big game poaching that happens further south, where poachers have high powered automatic rifles and are often funded by people from the Far East, Vietnamese or China. Where I was, the poaching problem was mainly due to bushmeat hunting, where people local to the area would come in, put down snares and hope to catch meat that they and their families could eat.
In the southern area of Zimbabwe, there is not much wealth and so there are not many opportunities for the people living there. Even though the snares would be put down with the aim to catch antelope, we came across a lot of big game animals that had got caught accidentally. We found elephants, lions, leopards and even buffalos that had got caught in snares. Another problem was that there was a hunting concession just across the border in Zimbabwe and we had issues where sometimes people would come in to try and encourage animals out of our concession into theirs. This was because as soon as animals were across the border, those people were able to shoot them. Unfortunately, we had lions that went over and disappeared, probably shot, and big elephants that would come up through the Kruger Park being chased across and shot. However, the main problem was the volume of snares that were put down in that area.
Con Con: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Africa’s wildlife and do you think we can tackle it?
Tristan: Space. As soon as you put a fence around something, it is a farm essentially, it’s being managed, and animals cannot freely move through the wild areas they used to travel through. For example, elephants used to be able to pass through the Cape up to northern Botswana, and into the Kalahari. Space is the biggest issue I think.
Another challenge is local government and awareness. It’s all well and good creating a large money-making operation in which external investors put a lot of money into, but if you are not sharing that slice of the pie with the local people who have been there for years, then what incentive do they have to look after the area? It is essential to include the people who have been there from day one, the people who live there and operate in those areas. If you can involve them in sustainable tourism and explain to them why it is really important to look after these wild areas, I think that is the best bet moving forward. Along the education lines, we also need more education in the Far East. We are destroying our natural resources at a rate that is completely unsustainable. We need people to realise this, take a step back and think why they are actually doing it and what the benefit of it is – easier said than done obviously! It is just education – it's telling someone that sniffing rhino horn is not going to make your sex better – promise you it’s not... not that I’ve tried. It is about spreading the word and getting in contact with as many people as possible - which is why this is really cool from you guys.
Con Con: Are there any African animals that you didn’t think you’d like or have a bad reputation but are actually really cool?
Tristan: Hyenas – Disney has really given them a tough one! The Lion King is probably guilty of that. They are such cool animals and really interesting. Termites as well – I love insects. I think a lot of the animals that we don’t really focus on are really cool. We focus on our headline species, like rhinos and elephants, but most people don’t know what pangolins are, which are one of the most heavily poached animals in the world. A single pangolin scale can fetch $150 on the black market and they have hundreds of scales. I think everything is great. I love all of them there! Everything is so important. Vultures are also really cool, and they are facing serious problems now because they are being poached at crazy rates. Some people believe that eating their brains lets you see the future because they have such amazing eyesight and they are being poisoned in their hundreds at waterholes. It is easy to focus on an umbrella species such as an elephant because everyone can relate to it, but there are lots of other things that are struggling as well, including birds and insects. I like them all. Dung beetles are also great!
Con Con: Walking safaris vs driving safari - do you think the animals get habituated to walkers and do you think this could have negative consequences in terms of animals no longer being afraid of humans?
Tristan: That is a very good question. First, I think that walking safaris and driving safaris are completely different experiences, with different clientele. Certain people are better suited to driving, some people better suited to walking. The aim of a walking safari is to view/observe animals without them ever having an idea that you are there. Will it affect the way animals behave around humans? No, I don’t think it will as long as it is done in the right way, for example having the correct group size and respecting the animals’ comfort zone. Humans have been interacting with animals for millions of years; we forget that before we built cars and houses, we used to live alongside animals, so they have evolved over millions of years to naturally be cautious of us. I also think driving safaris are more environmentally damaging; think about the carbon emissions and the plants they are driving over, you are also not getting the full experience. On a walking trail, it’s very intimate, you are completely at the mercy of the bush, we haven’t got our armour up, we are not sitting in cars, we are not hiding behind screens and we are not looking at animals through panes of glass.
I think it is incredibly important for people to experience that connection with animals because I think if everyone on the planet did a walking safari and they spent time with the animals, the level of respect for wildlife would go through the roof. I think that is one of the best ways of educating people. It’s a sensual experience (I don’t mean that in a sexual way), it is about smell, sight, touch [not the animals], everything – it is all encompassing. Particularly in cities we live in a way where we filter everything out. I think everyone should experience the outdoors, not necessarily through walking safaris (that is quite extreme), but camping trips for example. So, back to walking safaris, if you can get out there and you have the time and the capacity, I know it is more expensive and there are less opportunities, but the experience is 10x better. But again, it’s different strokes for different folks. You don’t know what people like and what ticks their boxes, but I definitely say walking safaris are the one.
Con Con: Trophy hunting - good or bad?
Tristan: Everyone has an opinion on this. My opinion is, and this is from what I have experienced, that hunting, if used in the right way, can be a useful conservation tool. Fact. However, hunting in an ethical way and hunting in a money-making way are two very different things. There have been times, and I have been part of this as well, where you have to cull certain animal populations because they are having a detrimental effect on the environment (for example, if impala are eating too much grass, there will not be enough grass for everyone in the following year; also, hippos are very susceptible in times of drought and they have serious territorial battles, so sometimes a bit of population control is important). However, hunting a big elephant because you want to put its head on the wall is not my idea of a good time, I don’t understand some people’s obsession with destroying things that are beautiful. If that animal is past the point of reproduction, if he is really old and he does not have a position in the social hierarchy, people suddenly think you can make a quick buck by someone paying a lot of money to shoot it – yes you probably can, but you will make more money from people coming on photographic safaris and paying to view that animal.
The canned lion hunting situation is absolutely disgusting but some people are keen for a quick buck, so they will start breeding animals to be hunted. In some cases, trophy hunting is sold as an ethical way of shooting maybe the weaker part of the gene pool, but people want to go out and shoot the biggest and the best so over the years they’ve shot out all the big tuskers in certain areas and elephants now are being born with smaller tusks due to the genes they are inheriting. Black mane lions, the cape lion shot out in the Karoo, all these animals were the best, the biggest and the strongest and they have now become a target - that makes no sense in terms of making sure that the strongest animals genetically are able to reproduce. So, trophy hunting, no. I think people are pretending it is something that it is not. Sustainable game hunting for population control can be used as a good tool because that can put money into conservation, but if someone tries to sell me that it is a good idea to shoot a 70 lb tusker, why? Just to satisfy their ego? I don’t buy into it.
Con Con: For tourists, what can they do when they visit Africa to help protect the wildlife?
Tristan: When it comes to animal rehabilitation centres, tourists need to be conscious that what they are being told is probably not what is happening. If tourists go along and get videos/photos holding baby lions (cubs) and stroking cheetahs, that lion or cheetah is never going to be released into the wild. Humans have touched it now, it’s had an interaction with a human. The most likely scenario is that those animals will stay in the centre forever or be sold on for canned hunting. So be aware that what something appears is probably not what it seems. It is a business at the end of the day. Tourists need to be aware that this is not good conservation practise. However, there are places that you can go to where they take in animals that have been hurt in the wild and they administer proper rehabilitation (although they probably couldn’t be released back into the wild).
Con Con: From the lessons you learnt as a guide, what one thing would you want people in the UK to know about wildlife and conservation?
Tristan: Just the beauty of it. We have become so disconnected. I’d want everyone to know that you can connect with nature and have a healthy respect and understanding for it. I know not everyone is going to love the outdoors and wildlife, but it is really important to remember we came from that. We have obviously come on leaps and bounds since then, but at what cost? I think everyone needs to take a step back and look at the rate with which we are screwing this planet up. It would be amazing if everyone started making conscious decisions each day to be aware of this and make small changes every day (not necessarily change your life because not everyone is going to do that, but just be more aware of our decisions).
Con Con: If you could change one thing what would it be?
Tristan: I think I would want everyone to spend time in a natural environment. I am very privileged to have had the experiences I have had, and I understand a lot of people probably couldn’t do it due to time, families, etc., but at the same time I also believe you can make it happen. I went there [South Africa] with nowhere to stay, booked a one-way ticket and just kind of made a plan – I know that’s extreme though. Everyone should just go out and spend some time outdoors. Around here we are so focused on cities and urban life that we don’t realise that there are beautiful places out there, especially young people. With social media we are all so connected but we are also very disconnected at the same time.
Con Con: Why do you think people should care about wildlife?
Tristan: Because we are wildlife as well at the end of the day. The whole point of an ecosystem is to cohabit a place where you don’t have the damaging effect of someone else. Obviously, we have gone past that point, but we need to understand that once upon a time everybody lived in harmony and just because these animals and plants don’t have a voice doesn’t mean that they are not suffering.
Con Con: Would you recommend a career as a safari guide? And for everyone dreaming of becoming a guide, what's the best way for them to go about it?
Tristan: 100% yes. I was blessed and was really lucky because I have a South African passport, which made life very easy for me. I think if you want to do it as a career there are definitely ways to do it but if it something you want to do as an experience or just get out there and make a big difference there are so many good volunteer programmes out in South Africa. I trained with a company called EcoTraining and they have loads of different amazing field guide courses. It was probably the best time of my life. You spend 6 months living off grid in the wilderness, completely in the bush, no cell reception, there is no external nonsense, you wake up every morning at 4 o’clock, you are tracking and learning flora and fauna – it was incredible. I think if you have got ideas about doing it, go and try it out, go and spend some time there, go and see if for yourself. It is very easy to just stay in England, or just stay somewhere familiar. I think the expression, “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone” is dead accurate – push yourself and get out there. Someone has to do it, so why not you?