Livestreamed safaris, coming to a laptop near you

Why We Wrote This

Elephants and adventure: two things that probably seem hard to come by during a lockdown. WildEarth’s livestreamed safaris are providing both to people around the globe who are missing nature while cooped up at home.

Courtesy of WildEarth
WildEarth, an organization based in South Africa, streams live game drives twice daily from a private reserve near the country's Kruger National Park. The organization has seen its viewership skyrocket since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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On a recent afternoon, guides at a South African nature reserve idled their truck alongside a pack of sleeping wild dogs. Rangers pointed out a nursing hyena, and watched a leopard named Tingana sitting sphinx-like in the tall grass.

“Isn’t he the best?” gushed ranger Lauren Arthur.

And meanwhile, thousands of people watched – from the safety of their homes around the world.

The country’s national parks have been closed for more than a month, amid a lockdown against the spread of COVID-19. But as cooped-up people look for an escape, interest has soared in this reserve’s livestreamed game drives, with rangers fielding questions as they jostle along the dirt tracks.

“Since this outbreak started, human beings have lost two very crucial things – one is a connection to each other, and the other is a connection to nature,” says Graham Wallington, who founded this company, WildEarth, with his wife Emily in 2006. “This is one nonconfrontational way of satisfying both.”

WildEarth has been livestreaming safaris all along. But during the lockdown, more viewers than ever are South Africans – hungry for a glimpse of a world that while still close by, now feels very far away.

It’s 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, and in a game reserve in northern South Africa, a baby elephant lumbers across a dirt road, ears flapping. Nearby, her mother hungrily scoops trunkfuls of grass into her mouth, chomping loudly as she goes.

No one should be here to see this. After all, South Africa’s national parks have been closed for more than a month, since a nationwide coronavirus lockdown closed public spaces here.

But as the elephant pair continues their meander, they have an audience of 11,322 people – all of them tuned into the livestream of a game drive through a private reserve near the country’s Kruger National Park.

And they’ve got questions for the ranger.

“Do elephants have feelings?” an 8-year-old in Singapore wants to know.

“Do they sleep standing up or sitting down?” asks a 6-year-old in India.  

How big is an elephant’s foot? How close can you get to them before they get scared? Do elephants eat different things in the winter than in the summer?

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

As the queries pour in, ranger James Hendry jostles along one of the park’s dirt tracks, simultaneously fielding questions (yes, they have feelings, and they typically sleep standing up, though babies in particular sometimes lie down) and navigating his truck toward the next watering hole.  

For a decade and a half, a company called WildEarth has been livestreaming game drives in South Africa and Kenya, and selling the footage to National Geographic and other broadcasters. They have long had a loyal following of viewers, most of them American, who tuned in each morning and evening.

But over the last month, as countries around the world have issued stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19, their popularity has ballooned. Between three and five times as many people are now tuning into the game drives as before the start of the outbreak, estimates Graham Wallington, who founded WildEarth with his wife Emily in 2006. And more of them than ever are South Africans – hungry for a glimpse of a world that while still close by, now feels very far away.

“Since this outbreak started, human beings have lost two very crucial things – one is a connection to each other, and the other is a connection to nature,” he says. “This is one nonconfrontational way of satisfying both.”

Since the coronavirus outbreak began, outdoor spaces around the world have searched for “virtual” alternatives to their normal programming, from 360-degree photos of American national parks to a video tour of the Grand Canyon led by Elmo. But arguably few at-home journeys are as visceral as watching a mother hyena cuddle her hours-old babies or a hippo snap his enormous jaw to warn off would-be predators.

“It’s a way for people to feel a sense of escape at a moment when they can’t really escape,” Mr. Wallington says. And because it’s happening in real time, without a script or a highlight reel, there’s a reason for viewers to keep tuning in each day.

That’s been especially important, WildEarth’s organizers say, for kids, millions of whom are now stuck at home without a lot to keep them busy. The first 45 minutes of each three-hour WildEarth safari drive are dedicated to questions only from kids, which are vetted and answered by rangers from their safari vehicles as they roam the reserves.

The set-up for the tours is simple: Cameras mounted to the back of safari vehicles give viewers a perspective on the park that mimics what they’d see if they were really on a South African game drive.

On a recent afternoon, guides idled alongside a pack of sleeping wild dogs, pointed out a nursing hyena, and watched a leopard named Tingana sitting sphinx-like in the tall grass.

“Isn’t he the best?” gushed ranger Lauren Arthur.

For viewers, no matter how far away, the experience can be surprisingly intimate.

“When I first heard about it, the idea of watching a game drive on YouTube didn’t sound very appealing to me,” says Heather Mason, an American travel blogger in Johannesburg who writes frequently about South African nature reserves. Wouldn’t a streaming safari be a shadow of the real thing, she wondered? “But it’s actually amazing. It feels like you’re really on a game drive, and that’s very relaxing.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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