Mark Tennant

"When you get to Africa, it's a bit of a drug."

And Mark Tennant, one of Africa's most renowned private wildlife guides, wants you to become addicted. He talked with WDEL about some of the most amazing things he's seen on his journey to conserve wildlife by showing it to the world.

"If it's something that I've not read about, and I see it, it's always extra special, or if it's never been recorded, and one of the greatest thing I've ever saw was hippos--the male hippo weighs over two tons, so they've got to mate in the water because of his incredible weight, and so they always mate in the water, and in every book you read they mate in the water; however, hippos don't read the books we write.

"So one afternoon I had this female hippo who was running towards the water, and then she stopped. So she was running from me and was heading towards the safety of the water, and then she didn't want to go in the water because there was a big male that wanted to mate with her, and so she sat down just near the water, and this male got up and he actually mated with her out of the water So I have the first photograph of the hippo's penis, so that was a unique feature for me."

The founder of Journey Wild, which offers exclusive, private wildlife safari tours, is also a fan of observing the circle of life.

"I've often seen little predators fight against big predators, and little predators have got incredible speed, and you see the respect of those big predators while they're killing them to still be aware of the dangers of that. So that's also unique for me to see like a little mongoose fighting against wild dogs or lions--I've seen that a few times."

He said a keen eye and great ears are necessary.

"When you're on safari, paying for an extra or a private guide costs more money, however, it adds an extra value to the safari, and often, I will stop at something, and the other guides just don't see it, and they'll drive past it. So that's happened a few times, where I've positioned my vehicle in a place where I'd end up getting the action a half-hour later, and the others just didn't have that awareness of where it's going to happen, so basically, the more you pay, in Africa, the more you get."

In his decades of experience, Tennant has had some close calls and one fatal accident.

"To be really honest with you, I was involved in an incident...where one of the women was eaten in our camp. She was killed by the lions. It was in 1993, and you get to a camp, and you're under the impression that you have false security because a lion can just walk through the bush into a camp and walk out. And we think because there's a building here, it's safe, and it's not necessarily the case. So what happened in 1993? We put up this new luxury lodge... and one of the women walked down to her room un-escorted, and she got killed by a lion."

But the incident changed the laws in all of Africa.

"Now, everybody has to be escorted in any camp that's not fenced by law. So that just one of the learning processes that we went through, and I sadly, was there at that camp during that process of learning--so that's my worst moment that I've beer head."

Tennant has had a few close calls, personally, too.

"I lived in Botwsana for a number of years, and the area that I worked in is a hunting area, and I don't mind hunting. Hunting plays a critical role in the survival of conservation in Africa, but we had an opportunity to get a lot of land and turn it back into tourism. So I went up to go and work there to try and 'take back' what belongs to conservation and wildlife, and in the process, I had an elephant attack me because they did a lot of elephant hunting, and unfortunately, the hunters are not as ethical as a conservationist. So they used to cheat a little a bit, and they used to come into my areas to shoot elephants, so that created a negative thing--when you mix tourism and hunting--and one of the elephants came and stuck its tusks through the side of my vehicle and got really aggressive. I got a few scratches from that."

But believe it or not, insects, he said, are the most dangerous things in Africa.

"They kill more people than the wildlife, but our interpretation is big elephants are going to kill you, or a big lion is going to kill you, but you know, they've learned man is a dangerous being, whereas malaria is the biggest killer in Africa."

"We just had a recent incident in one of the forests in Central Africa, where they got attacked by black wasps...everybody ran away, and one of the ladies couldn't run fast enough, and she had an allergic reaction to the wasps, and she died in the mountains. Your wasps are wimps here in America. these wasps are in big, big colonies, in the tens of thousands."

But he called bizarre incidents like "rare" while making a political statement.

"You guys have got many more deaths by gun than we have from all the creatures that kill you put together."  

But his motto remains--the best way to conserve wildlife is to come see it for yourself. There's also one other, controversial way.

"There's two ways to save wildlife--and I know I'm saying risky stuff here--the one is go on holiday and see them. And the other one is work for a dictator because a dictator can move a community. If I really wanted to save wildlife, I'd rather work with the Chinese than the Americans because you guys are so, you don't don't know what you want. Half of your country hates your president, and the other half loves him...you can't make a decision.

"None of these wildlife organizations--they're just awareness programs, so they spend 80 percent of their money making you aware or 80 percent on 'stuff.' What are you saving? Yourselves. You're not actually saving the wildlife."

But growing up with wildlife on his doorstep, the Johannesburg native, said his favorite moment for first-time safari-goers is giving them the opportunity to see an animal they've been waiting to see their entire life, in its natural habitat.

"If somebody comes to see an animal and you work hard for it, it's incredibly rewarding to know that we've achieved the goals in getting what he needs to see, and especially with the gorillas because sometimes the gorilla works incredible hard, and as many times as I tell people train and exercise--and it may be unfair for me to say that--but you guys don't have the opportunity to do that because the gorillas start at high altitudes. So we start walking at 4,000-5,000 ft., and most people live at sea level, so they don't have that opportunity to actually prepare properly."

"I keep telling people 'train for the gorillas, walk for the gorillas.' When they get there, they don't realize how hard it is. And when it's rained, and the slopes are slippery, and you're sliding up and down, and you've got porters pulling you and pushing you--it's hard work--but when you get those gorillas, the reward is fantastic, and that's just awe-inspiring."

"When I work with the gorillas, you only have an hour with the gorillas, I always tell people I'm not going to talk, I'm only going to position you for the photography cause when we get back over dinner I'm going to do the talking because you don't want me talking when you should be taking photographs. The moment is get in there, get your close-up...keep you safe, get you out of the forest, and then we have the moments."

"What I'll do is I'll say: 'See that,' [and] talk about it later. 'See that.' And I'll point out things and then when we get back to camp, I'll then talk about it and it puts it into perspective."

Assistant News Director

Amy Cherry is the Assistant News Director and an investigative journalist at WDEL. She joined WDEL's award-winning news team in 2010 from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and has received national accolades for reporting.