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  • Writer's pictureBushwise Trainer

Anthropomorphism and the safari experience

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

In this blog, Bushwise award-winning trainer Nico Brits discusses anthropomorphism (the act of attributing human qualities to animals) on the African safari. Does it have a place in guiding? Let’s see what Nico has to say about it…

3 min read

As a guide and trainer, anthropomorphism is something that I must deal with more than I would have thought. Not only with guests and students but for some reason for myself as well. I would like to share two experiences where anthropomorphism was prevalent in my career.

What is anthropomorphism?


It’s easy to attribute human qualities to animals when they have big eyes and cute faces, like this impala. 

In simple terms relating to animals, anthropomorphism is when we attribute human emotions, traits and intentions to animals.

From what I have learnt and experienced in my years of guiding and training, is that nature is brutal but also incredibly beautiful and amazing. We often like to imagine ourselves in the situation animals are in. This could be good for us because we feel certain emotions that we would not get otherwise. 

For example, have you ever watched a great nature documentary where a baby animal got lost and despite all the odds stacked against it, it managed to survive? This gives us this feel-good emotion that lifts us up. So then why is anthropomorphism a bad thing?

The role anthropomorphism plays


When looking at a cute animal, we might predetermine that it has an amenable personality, or is actually very sweet – this is an example of anthropomorphism.

Before we get to why anthropomorphism can be negative, I would like to share an experience from my early days of guiding when I started to realise the role anthropomorphism plays with the guest that I’m guiding. This all played out within a single sighting where guests had the feel-good emotion as well as extreme sadness. 

We were out looking for lions one morning and in particular lion cubs. This was a special request from the guest as I have told them that one of the prides has a 5-month-old cub. After about an hour, one of my colleagues found the pride and we did not hesitate to join them. 

As we approached the sighting, we drove past a brand-new red hartebeest calf that was probably less than 48 hours old, just lying in the grass.


A lion cub stalks through the grass in a wide open African plain.

As we were watching the hartebeest, we could also see the lions walking in its direction. Already I could hear the guest saying, “Oh NO”, “NO NO NO”, but as we were watching the lions did not notice the little one and proceeded to walk straight past. There were cheers all round the vehicle and very happy faces. 

But as quickly as the feel-good emotions for this baby hartebeest came, it left even quicker when the hartebeest got up and was spotted by the lions. This all ended with the lionesses catching the hartebeest calf and not killing it, but letting the cub learn to take it down and play with it. We eventually left without knowing what the outcome was – even though we all knew what it was going to be. 

The downside to anthropomorphism


A lion looks on while a lion cub practices stalking and catching a hartebeest calf.

After all this, I had to have a good hard think about what was going on with the guests on my vehicle. The see-saw of emotions was something strange for me because as far as I was concerned this was a once in a lifetime thing to see. And the conclusion I got to was anthropomorphism.

My opinion is that from a very young age we read these children’s books about “Dumbo” the elephant, “Bambi” the deer and the biggest of them all “The Lion King”. And from that age we start to attach emotions to all animals we see, and we relate our feelings to their feelings. 

From our point of view, this hartebeest calf is all alone and so young, immediately we start thinking this baby hartebeest is feeling what a human baby would feel in that same situation. And when the lions approach it, this feeling intensifies. But as they walk past this great feeling of relief and happiness comes over us – with the odds stacked against this hartebeest, he survived. 

A lion watches from the right side of the frame as a red hartebeest calf stands still on the far left.

We forget to think about this lion cub that must eat and start to learn to hunt so that it can one day contribute to the genetic wealth and growth of lion populations. 

A lot of times anthropomorphism is responsible for poor conservation decisions and prevents certain conservation practices from taking place because we think animals feel, think and behave like us.

As field guides, we need to know when anthropomorphism is appropriate in a sighting, and when it should be avoided. 

Knowing how to tell the difference comes with experience, like the kind you can get on a Bushwise Professional Field Guide course.

Words by Nico Brits, photos by Louise Pavid

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