Virus lockdown boosts South African virtual safari tours
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Johannesburg (AFP) –
A pride of lions flops lazily across a track at a South African game reserve, enjoying newfound tranquility since last month's closure of all national parks to support an anti-coronavirus lockdown.
Rather than the usual Land Rover, a lone elephant rumbles down the road, causing the felines to scatter into the surrounding bush.
A vehicle stands in the background, live streaming the scene for thousands of people watching the animals from the comfort of their homes.
"Since the lockdown occurred we have seen an amazing explosion in our audience," said Graham Wallington, head of a live safari broadcaster called WildEarth.
As the number of viewers tripled over the last days of March, Wallington noted that the audience -- typically American -- was increasingly from South Africa.
"It just happened overnight because all these kids at home with their families are watching these live safaris," he told AFP.
South Africa is almost two weeks into a 21-day lockdown meant to halt the spread of COVID-19.
The country is the worst-affected in Africa, with more than 1,700 infections recorded so far, including 13 deaths.
WildEarth operates from two vehicles in two private game reserves bordering the internationally famous Kruger National Park.
Guides take viewers along for a virtual game drive, finding wildlife and sharing facts about animals encountered along the way.
The cameras are positioned at the back of the vehicles, where passengers would usually be seated, in order to create a real-life experience.
"There it is," guide James Hendry whispered excitedly to the camera after stumbling across a mother hyena and her newborn cubs.
"Tell me, have you ever seen anything that cute in your life before?"
Participants can also send questions to the guides as they go along.
- Rare species emerge -
"You want to know how much water an elephant drinks in a day?" asked ranger Trishala Naidoo, as she drove along a bumpy bush track.
"Around 100 litres if not more," she answered, before pulling over to show viewers a leopard tortoise crossing the road.
Aside from providing entertainment, Wallington believes virtual safaris are an opportunity to observe how wildlife behave in the absence of tourists.
"It's kind of an interesting time where the animals are being left alone," Wallington said, adding that rare species such as the endangered African wild dogs had started venturing into his areas.
"Wild dogs coming in and hunting almost every day... is unheard of," he exclaimed.
"It's because there is no one else there and they've got the run of the place for themselves."
© 2020 AFP