African Safari Animals & Wildlife
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For all the beautiful lodges and luxuriant impressions of wilderness, it's the wildlife of Africa that ultimately makes the safari experience. Without the animals, there would be no safari. Without the wildlife, the vast majority of visitors wouldn't have considered traveling to Africa. From zebra or kudu standing like sentinels on the open savannah to dik-diks that hide behind broad acacia trunks; from a lion mane flowing in the sunset breeze to a mongoose scurrying from an underground burrow. Elephants, rhino, hippo, giraffe... there's a continual reel of the large and famous, but never discount the remarkable diversity of Africa's wildlife. It's often the unusual and unknown that dominates future memories, endemic sights that define the vibrancy of a destination. Look up from the mammals and birds soar, some national parks home to over 500 individual species, vivacious wings piercing the blue sky. Then look around, marveling at the multiplicity that meanders into forgotten pockets of a landscape.
African Wildlife Really is Wild
An African safari isn't about the idolized photos, the single exemplifying shots of a beautiful animal in its habitat; a lion's mane at sunset, three zebra drinking in unison, elephants with ears extended. Stills only begin the story. In these landscapes everything is wild. Each animal is not viewed in isolation. It's admired in the context of a landscape's kaleidoscopic scale, a tiny piece in a resplendent jigsaw. Everything out here is continually interacting, both with its habitat and the other four-legged mammals that roam nearby. And every idyllic safari sight is not just a scene of visual indulgence. It's accompanied by sounds and smells. The senses are alert to the feelings of the landscape; trepidation, languid gratification, belligerence, panic, serenity. Most of what you will see in Africa can be seen in zoos and safari parks around the world. But these are controlled environments, animals removed from threats and placed in isolation. This is a huge critical difference in the experience and what a safari can offer.
In a zoo, animals are no longer defined by the need to survive. In the wild, survival dictates every movement, every sense. This manifests in exceptional safari snapshots, the most famous being predator against prey; like when lionesses out on a hunt, rumbles of dust kicked up and a yelp immediately silenced; or an eagle diving onto the savannah, opening boundless wings as something indistinguishable hangs from the mouth. For most species, survival is dictated by size and strength. Males must continually fight in a bid to reproduce; antelope horns lock together as the strongest seek to control a harem; bachelor buffalo test their strength with marathon battles, adrenalin and aggression pockmarked across scowling faces; aging monarchs are forced from a herd, resigned to the nomadic isolation of retirement, left to roam free with their impressive horns.
Spend a few days on safari and the layers of survival are peeled away. Herds standoff at a floodlit waterhole, the same congregations appearing each night as you watch on from a tented camp terrace. Hippos boisterously grunt after dusk, two males hidden behind darkened wisps of emerald trees; for three evenings you only hear, then the defeated emerges in a flurry of belligerence, flapping and marauding with a haunting intensity. Game drive at midday and the ungulates graze uninhibitedly, free from fear. Game drive at sunset and each mouth chomps with apprehension, knowing that predators lurk.
Watch closely and these survival movements become your guide. A herd of Thompson's gazelle stands in unison, eyes alert and ears searching for clues. Grazing is interrupted, and you sense the nerves. A single sharp noise and they're spooked, looking for leadership, unsure of which way to turn. A predator must be close; the gazelle doesn't know where and neither do you. Keep watching and the gazelle gradually returns to their grazing, just a couple of sentinels with their heads poked above the grass. The threat has passed. But the next safari truck to rumble past discovers a different scene, the ungulates fearful and hesitant once more, camouflaged spots slithering through the grass to pounce.
Your experiences aren't scripted. After a few days on safari, you'll learn the behavior of certain animals; what likes to hide far from the trail, which grazes together in a timid harmony, where a particular species prefers to hide, or who is responsible for those echoed sunrise calls. There's undoubtedly a pattern to how wildlife interacts, something that's evolved over millennia. But this truly wild wildlife never provides a completely predictable experience. And it's this raw capricious climate that makes African safari so thrilling and so softly seductive. You're constantly engrossed in the feeling of a habitat, not just marveling at those dramatized stills that lured you to Africa in the first place.
Diversity of African Wildlife
Think of Africa and a few giants immediately spring to attention. Everyone has their own iconic ideas, images that symbolize the potential possibility of safari. Lions, elephants, hippos, rhinos, giraffe, all those famous animals that dominate wildlife documentaries and fictionalized movies. Dreams of African safari are undoubtedly dominated by these largely irrefutable figures; almost everyone wants to encounter such famous sights, something that's epitomized by continuing notions of the big five. As guests gather around a campfire it's these iconic animals that are the focus of conversation, everyone elucidating their favorite memory from a day of safari. African wildlife is bafflingly diverse. On a single game drive, you might see 20 or more mammals. In one national park, there could be over 50, even 100. The famous symbols of African safari are slowly forgotten because there's so much else to discover.
The most iconic wildlife broadly inhabits the whole continent, large and powerful animals that can survive in most conditions. Their strength as a species lies in their ability to dominate the world they inhabit. For example, lions and elephants are common on almost every safari itinerary. In some destinations they're famously abundant, in others, the sighting isn't guaranteed. But it's rare to find safari destinations without these mammals. They don't hide because they don't need to. Nothing challenges their repose, other than each other. Leopards are elusive and secretive but broadly inhabit Sub-Saharan Africa. Buffalo and zebra are also extremely common across the whole of Africa. If you could scroll back 500 years then rhinos were similarly widespread; human influence has changed this.
Think beyond these iconic species and diversity manifests in different national parks. Take Thompson's gazelle, one of the most populous antelopes found in Africa. Their range is remarkably small, concentrated on just a slither of East Africa in and around the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara. Unusual and rare mammals might only be found in one or two national parks, for example, the Iringa red colobus and Sanje crested mangabey endemic to the Udzungwa Mountains. When you visit their habitat, they're often found abundantly, a day of safari defined by this strange creature that is never seen again once you leave to another national park. Some national parks are dominated by a particular habitat, making it a haven for a handful of species. Others are famously disparate, merging a succession of habitats into a compact area that can be explored in just a few hours.
Different Animals in Different Places at Different Times
Expectations and anticipations create idealized impressions. There are so many animals to see, and you want to see them all of course, but a single safari activity can't introduce you to the complete cast. Nor can a single national park or reserve. Each prefers its distinct habitat and is active at different times of the day. This helps provide the irresistible repeat appeal of safari. After one trip to Africa, most are already planning the next, thinking about alternative habitats and destinations for experiencing another side to the continent's wild.
It's something that manifests throughout a multi-day safari. By visiting a series of destinations, you quickly immerse yourself in different realms, each distinctive landscape home to a distinct cast. Even within a national park, guides understand where particular wildlife roams, tailoring each game drive to your interests. While certain iconic animals are at the core of safari reverie and a destination's marketing, there's always an idiosyncratic collection to discover.
Sometimes the most memorable moments come from animals you've never even heard of before you lay eyes on them. A single glimpse and you're hooked, striving for another encounter with the elusive mammal that briefly graced your experience. Then a popular mammal wanders past, and you're equally enchanted, recalculating the plan; after all, you can never tire of the sight of some majestic animals. Now something flickers in the periphery, a mysterious scent of movement and you're favorite mammal list is reconfigured once more. Regardless of how many times you go on safari, there's always something new to discover. When it's your first time, the delight of discovering is unrelenting.
Africa's big cats are icons of their environment, symbolizing the rawness of the wilderness. Majestic and mesmerizing, they're the ultimate sights on an African safari, especially when you spot them in full hunting mode. Broad adaptive diets enable them to flourish in all of Africa's habitats, and you'll find them in a huge number national parks and reserves. Lions are one of the easiest to spot, the prides lounging with the authority that comes from regal power. Leopards and cheetahs are more elusive and solitary, mystical sights that are redolently memorable. There's more, from hyenas on the scavenge to small mongoose jumping out on a nighttime safari or wild dogs in ferocious packs. These carnivores are what everybody wants to see, and they never disappoint.
Kings and queens of their landscape, lions are probably the most famous of Africa's animals. They're also the easiest large predator to find, elegantly lounging without thought of hiding. Lions have been immortalized in animations, and they continue to dominate documentaries about the continent. Out on the savannah a mane flutters, nuanced tones surrounding eyes that remain ever-watchful. The lion is sleeping. Or is it? Four lionesses prowl, gracefully moving across a grassland they effortlessly command, small cubs lurking nearby. A group of bachelor males reveals the scars of battle, teeth marks sunk into hind legs, open wounds jumped upon by insects. Sometimes the scene couldn't be more revered, a lone lion peering out from an elevated rock. Other times it comes as a surprise, like a mating pair seeking solace in thick bushes, or lions that climb high into trees to inspect their hunting environment. Everyone will have seen a photo of a lion. But that can't prepare you for their size; lions are bigger and broader than most anticipate. And there's a grace that belies their promise of power.
Lions are found in parks and reserves all across East and Southern Africa. They're comfortable in almost all habitats, always rising to become the rulers of their landscape. Lions are obviously dependent on the availability of food, but their very broad diets ensure they're flexible about where they live and hunt. While prides naturally prefer certain species – those that are easier to hunt – lions are happy with whatever meat is on the menu. They live in prides, with one or two dominant males and some lionesses. Young males are forced out before they become a threat, living in small bachelor groups until they're strong enough to challenge supremacy and take their own pride. In some cases, two males will work together maneuver themselves into a position of supremacy and a chance to reproduce.
These large majestic cats spend their days resting in the shade. In the semi-desert or endless grasslands, there's little shade to find, making the lions very easy to spot. After all, who will argue when a lion pride comes over and seeks to steal a tree's shade. It's not uncommon for them to approach the safari truck and then rest in the shade that's been created. Many associate lions with images akin to the Lion King, of the predator perched on a rock overlooking grassland or savannah. This isn't fictional. While lions occupy many habitats, they're most visible in these open environments, especially the kopjes, or rocky platforms that randomly grace the landscape. However, there's a lot of shady places in woodland and denser savannah, making the big cat far more difficult to find. As they don't need to fear other predators, the lions will happily slip into very concealed places, unafraid of anything the landscape might offer.
Approach a pride and your heart rate rises. A lioness stands and walks closer, inspecting the strange visitors that have interrupted their repose. Others lie on the rocks, resting with bellies full, eyes ever-alert, watching the world that passes by without an emotional response. They don't hide. They stay in full view, an almost arrogance to their domination. At nighttime their rumbling growls pierce the darkness, echoing for over two miles, especially when rival males emit their call. Then in the still of dawn, they emerge, their prowling movements the most evocative of safari images.
Lions hunt at night and in the early morning, with the lionesses doing the hunting. They'll predetermine a specific individual in a herd with the pride working as a skilled unit, one or two harassing the target towards the waiting jaws of another. Lions aren't especially fast. They rely on teamwork to strike. Early morning and late afternoons offer a chance to see this spectacle, as well as a better opportunity to encounter lions. Nighttime game drives are also a chance to see any of the cats in hunting mode. If successful, a pride will only feed every three to four days. First slices of meat go to the alpha male, even though he had nothing to do with the hunt. Full and satisfied, the lions will spend the next couple of days lazing about doing very little. But if a meal isn't finished, the soon to be snoring cats are tormented by scavengers who daringly rip away pieces of meat or even the whole carcass.
Somewhat surprisingly, lions are perhaps the easiest to find of Africa's big cats. Living in prides makes them easy to track. It's rarely just one lion that's beneath a tree; you're guided to up to a dozen. They're not secretive, happy to lounge just about anywhere, knowing that their slumber won't be interrupted. As the apex predator, they instill a certain fear and are potentially dangerous, meaning they can only be encountered on game drives. Any sign of lions will quickly change a walking safari route. It is more enchanting to see them on the move, in the dawn or dusk hours before they relax during the midday hours. Rising early is always worth it on an African safari.
Elusive and solitary, leopards radiate a certain mystique. They're challenging to find and a rare safari treat, probably the hardest of the big five to spot. But what a treat! Elegant paws silently explore the grass, an effortless camouflage keeping the cat from view. The neck dips, coldly, solemnly, and the leopard stalks with astute expertise. Suddenly they're gone, disappearing from the panorama, only to emerge with a surprise that's reflective of Africa's most intelligent hunter, a carcass that's quickly carried to a secret lair. Sometimes you find their resting place, a leopard lounging on a tree branch, watching the world through thoughtful eyes. Beautiful rosette patterns mark the fur, and they always impress the camera, whether captured for macro detail or against a hypnotic backdrop.
Like lions, leopards are found all across Sub-Saharan Africa, their broad diets enabling adaptation to most environments. They rest and hide in the trees, whether that's an isolated acacia on an open grassland or in the heart of a thick woodland. Almost every park or reserve in Africa will claim to have leopards, and there will be truth in these claims, even if it's been months or years since the last sighting. These cats have a large range that's controlled and patrolled with fearful precision. It's very unlikely that you'll see more than one in an area, the exception being a mother with a cub. Being solitary adds to the challenge of finding them. As does their highly clandestine nature. Leopards don't like to alert anything of their whereabouts and will stay away from areas with motorized traffic.
Two iconic scenes are found. Both require excellent eyes and the following of clues. Especially in the woodland, you'll need to move slowly to spot the tiny movements that betray the camouflage. Perhaps a tail that flicks, or the lucid white of eyes that shine from afar. One scene is of the leopard at peace, usually viewed from a distance as it rests in a tree. The other is of leopard prowling, perhaps on a hunt or perhaps just exploring and inspecting its home range. The latter is normally only seen on a nighttime game drive or during the cooler daylight hours. Striking with stealth, the leopard is Africa's greatest hunter, able to hunt prey that's far larger than itself. Whereas the other cats hunt when their hungry, leopards are known to attack when they feel like it. They'll silently creep up on a target before pouncing. Its intelligence is matched by an inspiring power and jaw strength. Once the jaw snaps, there is no escape and leopards can pull prey that's over quadruple its weight up a tree. Taking the carcass up high keeps it away from scavengers. Leopards are often seen in the exploratory stages of a hunt, flickering through the grass before disappearing, their camouflage rarely betrayed. Seeing one actually pounce is extremely rare.
Africa's fastest mammal is another of the elusive and solitary kind, the cheetah providing an enchanting highlight on any safari. Standing taller and with a longer tail than the leopard, cheetahs are agile hunters preferring small antelopes. Their spots are more definitively seen as spots, rather than the leopard's rosette patterns. They hide in the grasslands and savannah, effortlessly camouflaged when rain brings profuse rising grasses, elegantly standing above the plains when the grass is short. Speed brings the cheetah fame. This is the world's fastest land mammal, accelerating up to 60mph in just a few seconds. However, speed isn't the primary tool in the cheetah's armory. Slender and skilled, they rely on agility and intelligence for most hunts. Sprinting at such incredible speeds is tiring, and cheetahs can't follow prey over large distances.
Cheetahs have a broad diet and inhabit parks and reserves all across East and Southern Africa. They prefer open landscapes, like savannah, semi-desert, and grasslands, however, you'll often find them hiding in the bushes and trees that surround a plain. They're secretive and veer from away from noise, making them relatively difficult to find. With their excellent camouflage, you must often rely on other animals to seek out a cheetah. Birds shout raucously to warn the antelope herds, squawking and screaming when they locate a hungry cat with spots. Herds protect themselves by encircling the young members of the herd, every set of ears and ears pointed towards the cheetah's hiding place. Cheetahs don't have the same strength as leopards and must hunt the smaller herd members, only challenging horned adults when options are limited.
The grass moves, a head emerges, and out comes the cheetah. The birds have done their job and today's hunt isn't going to continue, but the elegant frame crosses the trail in front of you then skips off once more, returning to a taciturn hideaway. The next safari truck won't locate this cheetah, but roll forward 30 minutes, and the grass moves once more, revealing the cheetah to another lucky safari goer. And some on safari are treated to the electrifying sight of a cheetah accelerating across open grasslands.
Hyenas dapple the plains of Africa, rumbustious hunters with a bold confidence and ferocious bite. They're relatively easy to find, scurrying and scavenging in an ongoing search for food. While hyenas are famed for their scavenging, they're certainly not cowardly, openly stealing meals from lions and working in packs to scare cats off a carcass. A piercing laughter accompanies their snarl, regularly heard when you're sleeping deep within national parks; it's a wonderful contrast to the lion roar.
While genetically closer to felines, hyenas behave more like canines, living in large groups with complex social structures. Confident and sometimes brash, they're easily spotted out in the open, covering huge distances in a single day. When the great wildebeest migration rumbles through the Serengeti, it's only the hyenas that can keep up, tracking the herds over huge distances and revealing a staggering stamina. Hyena packs tolerate the presence of others packs that are passing through, although they won't allow others to hunt or scavenge in their realm.
Spotted hyenas are the most common in Sub-Saharan Africa, found in national parks and reserves all over the region. Striped hyenas are found across North Africa and parts of East Africa while the rarer brown hyena is only found in parts of Southern Africa, particularly Botswana's Kalahari Desert. It's rarer to find them in private reserves; hyenas don't have the aesthetic beauty of the big cats and challenge for the same food, so they're not always the most liked of predators. Hyenas rarely hide and are regularly spotted out in the open. Follow them across the landscape and there could be a confrontation to observe, either with other predators or the hyenas mischievously encountering a larger mammal.
Out on a savannah, you spot one scampering, its half-canter led by scents of blood and flesh. You see them congregating, four, five, six, now more, circling a lion pride's kill and waiting for a moment to steal. One approaches, another gets daringly close, and the male lion emits a deep rumbling grunt. Unnerved, the hyenas regroup and continue their harassing, working the pride until the scraps arrive. Hyenas out hunting are equally seductive, something ingenious that defies their rough and fierce appearance. While these audacious hunters don't offer photographic show-stopping of their predatory rivals, they remain a classic sight on any African safari.
Virtually extinct around the world, Africa retains a couple of havens for the truly wild dog. Living in large packs, these ravenous hunters are an ode to the wildlife world of yesteryear, baring teeth and appetite as they maraud across the savannah. Wild dogs have been hurtling towards extinction over the last century, and only a few havens remain; notably, Tanzania's Selous and the concessions in and around Botswana's Okavango Delta. Shabby and wide-eyed, there's a surreal and understated beauty to them, barely little similarity to any pets at home. But like all dogs, there's something indelibly intriguing about their behavior and interaction, both in a pack and within the environment. Seeing them hunt is extremely rare but an all-time highlight of safari, the pack displaying exceptional teamwork to isolate and attack.
A small photogenic canid, the jackal is a scavenger and hunter found all across East and Southern Africa. They're almost-adorably attractive, thick black and yellow fur rolling down to a long bushy tail, somewhat akin to a large fluffy fox. Comfortable in most habitats and able to cover large distances, you'll spot them on both daytime and nighttime game drives. They're smaller than the hyena or wild dog but a real pleaser on the eye, luxuriant fur almost compelling you to stick out a hand to try and stroke. You could almost imagine having one as a picturesque pet until you spot them hounding lions in audacious attempts to pick up the scraps from a kill. These are brave fiery characters, apt at scavenging from fearsome cats as well as hunting tiny mammals, birds, and reptiles. A rarity amongst Africa's wildlife, jackals are monogamous and usually live as a mating pair for life; another reason they seem to collect adoring looks from safari goers.
Black-backed and side-striped jackals are found in both East and Southern Africa, most easily spotted in open woodland and savannah. They're adept at covering large distances, so expect to see many when seeing the great wildebeest migration or another mass movement of ungulates. However, jackals also become opportunistic prey for hyena, leopard, and even eagles, so they're quick to hide and become crafty when competition for food is fierce.
Almost resembling a miniature cheetah, servals are small spotted cats that are rarely seen during the day. One of Africa's unknowns, they hide and prowl in dense areas, as secretive as felines can be. Nighttime game drives provide the chance to see them, luminescent eyes glowing as you shine a torch into the darkness surrounding a river or waterhole. They're native to East Africa and savannah areas of Southern Africa, especially those with lots of cover.
This nocturnal lynx is another to find on a nighttime game drive. Pointed ears and charming complexions make the face, with smooth golden fur making them seem even more adorable. But power far outweighs their size, especially when the caracal picks off young gazelle-like springbok and impala. Although they inhabit most of Sub-Saharan Africa, it's rare to see them during the day, this elusive loner hidden and evasive. It's a popular highlight after dusk.
Small Nocturnal Predators
When night falls a new cast assembles, a series of small predators emerging to pick off even smaller nibbles from the landscape's floor. Some arrive with comic brilliance, like the mischievous wanderings of mongoose or the much-lauded Meerkat (itself a Southern African version of the mongoose). Others wander with calm precision, like the bat-eared fox seeking out a small meal. These small predators are sometimes spotted during the day, a rare treat that emerges then scampers away before the camera shutter can click, like colonies of small furry rock hyrax. Most are tiny, easily engulfed by a habitat's grass and rarely seen out in the open. Like the wildcat, a furrier version of the domestic tabby, they make similar unknown journeys throughout the day.
While these are skilled hunters, they could also be on the dinner menu, falling prey to larger predators, especially when young. The threat comes from the sky and the ground, with everything from eagles to hyena picking them off. This keeps them underground and difficult to spot in the daylight. It's on nighttime game drives that these tiny predators begin to dominate memories, unusual frames and short sharpened movements illuminated by a torch.
Visitors are most likely to see a selection of smaller predators in savannah and semi-desert habitats, the openness aiding visibility and revealing the pock-marked havens of individuals. These are animals that most don't consider before a safari. But there's something delectably quaint about these miniature hunters, a smirk, a smile, a flick of the head that confirms the eclecticism of the continent's predators.
Safari reveries are dominated by the large and iconic, those majestic mammals that retain an air of mystique despite their supreme size. Elephants in unison, the trunk swinging babies scampering to keep pace with glorious tuskers. Endangered rhino, effortlessly graceful as they bashfully return your camera's stare. Giraffe, hippo, buffalo; each as distinct and delightful as the next, elegantly patrolling their specific piece of habitat. These mammals defy preconceptions about size, appearing far larger and authoritarian than most people expect. And they're usually unmissable. These iconic animals aren't found everywhere in Africa, but their towering size makes them difficult to miss in parks and reserves.
One of Africa's great symbols, elephants are virtually unmissable on an African safari. While their numbers fell dramatically during the 20th century, there's been an overall increase in elephant numbers in recent years and they inhabit almost all parks and reserves. Less than subtle differences occur, from the huge tuskers found in South Africa's Tembe National Park to the phenomenal size of those that converge on Botswana's Chobe National Park, then the diminutive (in relative terms) elephants of Uganda's montane forest. African elephants are bigger than their Indian counterparts, with their larger ears resembling the shape of the African continent. Wild African elephants are considered impossible to tame, another contrast to those in Asia that become the focus of tourist elephant riding. Where elephant riding is offered in small private reserves, it's with elephants bred in captivity.
One elephant is always an impressive sight, the ears flapping and the eyes marked with melancholy as the pachyderm walks lonely. As a herd, there's something wonderfully intimate and enigmatic. Babies scamper beneath a mother's watchful gaze, swinging their trunks with the enthusiasm of youth. They're still to be accustomed to their size, nervously chasing warthog from a waterhole in a bizarre game of cat and mouse; understanding of their potential authority will only come later. Herds chaperone and shepherd, protecting their young with matriarchal ease, keeping them within sight and away from predatory snarls. Emerging males reveal the impatience and audacity of youth, testing their strength in gently combative duals. Then the dominant male, its two elegant tusks standing as a symbol of Africa. Spot a herd and you're easily transfixed, watching how they intimately communicate and share, admiring their intelligence and serenity. When two herds collide, there's increased intrigue, a showy stand-off flittering around the waterhole.
Elephants feed on the bounty from a multiplicity of trees, something that naturally lures them to woodland and denser savannah. Evidence of their devouring scars the landscape, vast areas of savannah marked by uprooted trees and gaping open pathways found in the forest. They're extremely easy to find across Southern and East Africa; a four-ton elephant finds it difficult to hide, especially when it's in a herd of 20. Almost all parks and reserves will have an elephant presence, and you're virtually guaranteed to come across them. However, bountiful food is required to maintain an abundance of elephants, and the largest most impressive herds are found in a handful of visually spectacular parks; especially Botswana's Chobe National Park, Tanzania's Tarangire National Park, and South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park. Where Botswana and Namibia converge near the Zambezi River, they're that bountiful you can see them crossing the main highway. Estimates suggest around 100,000 congregate in this oasis for a few months each year. And if one elephant will struggle to hide, this kind of population is going to grace virtually every panorama.
Elephants are continually on the move, following a matriarchal structure and constantly searching for fresh food. You can get extremely close, the elephant towering over the safari vehicle with an exhilarating parade of enormity. Guides love them because their behavior is predictable. An elephant will give two warnings, flapping its ears, stamping its feet, and semi-grunting a disapproval. On the third the elephant charges and you're in trouble. But the guide will have backed away on the first. This predictability means they can be encountered in many different safari activities, including from a distance on walking safaris. But it's not always the safari activity when elephants leave their most indelible memories. From your accommodation you watch them ramble across the horizon, a slow procession dappled between acacias and baobabs. Some come close, returning each night to slurp from a camp's waterhole, or migrating past on an evening jaunt. It comes to epitomize the immersion of safari, the great three-ton tusker appearing as you're sitting down to dinner. And it graces the experience into the night, a trumpeted call echoing from the blackness as you lie captivated in bed.
Wandering elegantly across Africa, rhinos are an eternal emblem of any safari. They move with guile and grace, belying their prehistoric frames with elegant journeys across the savannah. A mother and calf emerge, two pairs of eyes watching intently as you prepare the camera. But before the photo comes a moment of sublime calm, the rhinos trotting past, baby carefully shielded by the self-effacing female. Horns point skyward; their faces gently reveal emotion, and there's a fluidity to the rhinos' movements, every footstep keeping you engrossed and enchanted.
Black Rhino / White Rhino – What's the Difference and Where to Find Them
Black and white rhinos are both gray or dark gray in appearance. Both are equally enticing spectacles, gracious exemplars of Africa's natural splendor. Black rhinos are smaller and distinguished by their hooked-lip, something that aids their browsing. These rhinos feed of small trees and bushes, picking away at low-lying vegetation. Critically endangered, there are less than 2000 of these sublime mammals left in the wild (around 10% of Africa's total rhino population). Historically, they inhabited most of Southern and Eastern Africa, although they're now found in just a handful of destinations across the continent. East Africa is considered more of a haven for the black rhino, perhaps because white rhinos are not native here. There are some residents in Namibia and South Africa as well as reintroduced black rhino in Botswana. Black rhinos are bashful, rare, and easily spooked, found in just a few select parks; spotting them often requires an early morning start before they retreated to a woodland hiding place. As they can feed deep in the woodland, it's unlikely the black rhino will emerge until the next morning.
White rhinos are almost twice the size, adults measuring around four meters and weighing over two tons. Such size immediately draws gasps. Their straight lip indicates that they are grass grazers, preferring the grassland and savannah. These are native to Southern Africa, with over half of their total population living in and around Kruger National Park and the northeast of South Africa. White rhinos are easier to find, unsurprising given there's ten times more of them in the wild, but also because these rhinos graze in open areas and aren't quite as shy. While the common black rhino photo is of the mammal trotting away in the distance, white rhino aren't perturbed by your presence. You'll have a chance at spotting them in many Southern Africa parks and reserves after the sub-species was successfully reintroduced to Namibia and Botswana.
Rhino Conservation in Africa
Before colonial explorers landed in Africa, rhinos were one of the most abundant of the big mammals. They had no natural predator, and there was a respectful peace between tribes and rhinos. Rhinos were subsequently hunted for their trophy and horn, but also shot in their thousands due to the damage they caused crops (another factor why browsing black rhino suffered more). While publicity of their plight is helping to slow the decline, the numbers lost to poaching continues at a staggering rate. A population of black rhinos was moved from East Africa to Southern Africa in the 80's as they couldn't be protected. They have since been reintroduced along with the non-native white rhino. Now Southern Africa is struggling to protect their rhinos, with a reported one rhino a day being lost to poachers. Sporadic well-protected reserves are emerging as havens for one or both sub-species, and the critically endangered black rhino are now growing in number. However, there's now less than 20,000 in the wild, adding another layer of mystique to every encounter.
The endangered status makes spotting rhinos even more poignant and impressive. With such rare animals, there's always a fleeting feeling that these could be the last generation of Africa's symbolically majestic mammal; this makes spotting them an undoubted highlight. This scarcity is well-publicized by national parks; anywhere that's home to rhinos is certain to advertise their iconic specialty and guides will tailor the activities to maximize chances of encountering them.
The forgotten member of the big five, African buffalos impress with their rumbustious power and ferocious stare. Many would argue that they're ugly, big balls of fur and horn that chomp and chew their way through the day. But that would be an injustice. There's something seductively fearful about them, the way they meet your eye and snort with a resonant huff. Weighing well over a ton and dominated by curled horns, these powerful mammals leave impressive conceptions of scale and size. They don't back down and are willing to charge, as showcased by buffalos mauling lions to protect their young or preempt an attack. Fully grown, these are rarely prey, and big cats would only hunt the young and old when food is scarce, resulting in colossal collisions between prides and herds.
Note that the African buffalo – or Cape buffalo as they're also known – are distinct from the water buffalo of Asia. The one you see on an African safari is much larger and hasn't been tamed to plow fields. Buffalos feed on grass and inhabit grasslands, savannah, and semi-desert habitats. They're consistent across Africa and found in almost every safari destination, always happy to graze out in the open. Of all the big five, buffalo and elephant are the easiest to spot. A large herd provides a gentle experience, the young males occasionally rutting but little overt displays of aggression. Encounter a bachelor herd and it's very different, snarls accompanied by the echoing sound of snorting from the nose. Photographing these often boisterous beasts is notoriously difficult, their deep-set dark eyes and blackened fur challenging to expose correctly. It's also harder to get close; unlike elephants, buffalo don't give a warning before charging, so they're always best kept at a distance. Buffalo are dangerous, counting for more incidents with people that lion or rhino. So while they can be spotted on walking or horse riding safari, guides will ensure you're far from their potential rampage.
Rumbustious yet delectably cute, hippos are one of African safari's easiest finds, a succession of eyes and snouts peeking above the water. They consistently inhabit the same bodies of water, large pods grunting and grumbling their way through the day. Often, this is all you see, the iconic set of snouts and the watchful eyes that can exude both danger and cuteness. From a distance, the scene resembles a series of gray stepping stones or a sequence of round rocks that dominate the water. Get close and there's emotion in those eyes, something thoughtful behind their languid demeanor. Then one rises and yawns, a monumental opening of jaws that has everyone clambering for the camera.
Hippos are easily spotted across most of Sub-Saharan Africa. They live in lakes, waterholes, and slow rivers. Bizarrely, they can't swim; instead, rhinos walk across the bottom and can hold their breath for up to ten minutes. You'll also see them rising and falling in movements a little similar to a whale breaching. There's a predictability about hippos' behavior, and guides will be well aware of the water they inhabit. During the day it's also easy to get close to the water without danger, making the hippo filled waterholes a great picnic or coffee stop.
Hippos rest through the heat of the day, wallowing in the water and bathing with the languid lolling of a species without predators. Occasionally one emerges, wandering out of the water to reveal a prodigious lump of flesh. Perhaps one is entering the water, humping and grunting as it seeks for prime wading space. Young males fight and wrestle, testing their power as they seek to win over the harem. During the day, spotting one out of the water requires a fortunate turn. It's easier during the wet season when consistent cloud cover reduces the temperature and draws them away from the water's coolness. Even during in the dry season they occasionally emerge, a hungry individual or lonely young male taking the chance to feed. But such sights are rare, and only the succession of eyes and snout are admired. At night, they spider away from the water to provide wonderfully wild images. Nighttime game drives are obviously a good chance to see this, as are dusk and dawn hours.
They look undoubtedly cute, and there's a series of fictional hippos that suggest these are friendly harmless characters, especially amongst children's games and television. Statistically, hippos cause more human fatalities than any other large African mammal. Part of this can be explained by them living in such proximity to human settlements. But while they are relatively shy creatures, hippos are fiercely protective of their young and will charge anyone or anything that gets too close. Standing between hippo and water is incredibly dangerous.
Through the night come hippos' wheeze-honks, the indicative noise easily sailing through canvas walls. Shine a torch and you see one, a round bulk of flesh feasting on the profuse grass. On a nighttime safari, you spot more, a large pod softly munching a path across the landscape. They're round and fleshy, robust balls that plod through the night. Accommodation besides lakes is especially good for this nighttime enchantment, the hippos sometimes gently illuminated by a spotlight as you dine on the verandah.
Ascending above the landscape with serene grace, giraffes are another iconic African image. They're easy to find, heads poked above woodland and long necks visible for miles across the plains. Get close and they're easily spooked, these silent mammals preferring a life of peace and tranquility. But don't be fooled. While giraffes exude an effortless tranquility, they're not easy prey, with their strong hind legs making only the babies realistic targets for predatory cats. Giraffe will even attack when they sense danger, and there are instances of them kicking lion cubs to death in retaliation.
The world's tallest mammal can be found in a much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Nine distinct sub-species exist, each identified by the pattern of their markings that run across the body. Maasai giraffes are the most common, some 40,000 existing in Southern Kenya and Tanzania. Others like the Rothschild and the Thornicroft number less than 1000. The range of these sub-species don't overlap, other than when multiple giraffes are found in private game reserves, so you'll mostly only see one or two sub-species during a safari.
They can stand over five meters tall, the astonishing necks providing access to the bounty of the landscape's taller trees. Get close and their height is staggering, the giraffe rising high above a safari truck. On a walking safari, they seem even taller, standing like giant sentinels above the landscape. Despite their diet, giraffes are most commonly found in open woodland and savannah, rather than the dense forest. Each of Africa's major safari countries has a population of giraffe, but they're not as widespread as some other ungulates. You won't find them in all of a country's parks and reserves, and this fleeting presence offers another layer of charm to the experience.
Across the savannah you watch them lope, seeming to move in an almost comical slow motion. Even when cantering they move at such a gentle pace, huge strides all they need to get around. If threatened they'll reach phenomenal speeds, but such sights are rare; giraffes are one of Africa's calmest characters. One stops and watches, still chewing as it eyes meet yours. Then it's off again, walking with languid strides that coat the landscape in serenity. Woodland trails bring intimacy, the giraffe just a few meters away as they munch on the high branches. Keep driving and the whole tower emerges, up to a dozen congregated before moving on to the next set of acacias. A baby giraffe provides idyllic moments, delicate creations meandering close to their mothers, a diminutive version of Africa's tallest bringing continual enchantment. Turn another corner and there's an even younger baby, barely taller than a person and still to develop the vibrant colors. When you find giraffe such sights are relatively common, the giants clustered together as they leave an unforgettable mark on the safari.
From the distantly blurred stripes of a zebra herd to the peculiar antics of a tiny dik-dik, Africa's ungulates are at the core of its ecosystem. It's the antelopes and grazers that form the bulk of the continent's mammals, millions of them roaming across savannah, desert, and woodland. Each is distinct and specialized, evolving to repel the predatory threat and flourish in their habitat. For while ungulates dominate Africa, most sub-species find an idiosyncratic space and only a few are widespread across the whole continent. These animals aren't originally on a must-see list of wildlife, yet they indelibly impress with their calm and grace. Furthermore, the antics and charm of large herds are always on offer, something that's inspiringly celebrated when millions migrate across the African plains.
Widespread and abundant, zebras provide a gracious sight on any safari. They cover Africa's plains, regularly spotted grazing in herds or wandering elegantly to fresh pastures. Each has unique stripes, a zebra-style fingerprint of originality that distinguishes individuals. In a large herd, the young must use these stripes to find their mother. A thousand stripes mingle, distinct cuttings of black and white coalescing into a mass that confuses predators. From a distance, they look black, regularly confused with wildebeest or buffalo as they gather in mass herds. Predators are also confused, and the stripes are a major part of the zebra's defense. Get close and the detail separates, each stripe apparent and every face covered in emotion. Around camps and lodges, they graze just meters away, suggesting you can walk out and touch them. But don't get too close; they will provide a bite and a kick for anyone who mistakes zebra for a gentle horse.
Three sub-species of zebra are found in Africa. Plains, or Burchell's zebra as they're also known, stretch from Southern Ethiopia to South Africa, inhabiting almost all wild savannah, semi-desert, and grassland. The tightly compacted stripes of the Grevy's zebra are much harder to find, this endangered sub-species only seen in Central and Northern Kenya. Squat mountain zebras occupy the wooded slopes of Namibia and South Africa, a rare and diminutive character that has fought back from the brink of extinction. They're all grazers, moving with the rains and perennially searching for fresh grass to feed.
Most zebras live in small groups of six to eight, either a harem controlled by a single stallion or a bunch of bachelors building their strength to mount a challenge. These groups often travel and graze together in enormous herds; something spectacularly witnessed during the great wildebeest migration through the Serengeti and Maasai Mara. While the wildebeest take the initial limelight, the sight of hundreds of thousands of zebra is amongst Africa's most unique experiences. Another phenomenal zebra migration crosses Botswana's desert pans; such is the wilderness here that this movement of 30,000 – 40,000 zebras has only been known to scientists for the last 15 years. Moving together they create great panoramas of monochrome; the youngsters shepherded to safety within the herd and the identified sentinels keeping an eye and ear for danger. Once shout, one loud noise and they're all spooked, hundreds galloping in different directions in a few brief seconds of panic. Calm returns. Then another hint of danger and a flurry of dust accompanies the anxious jump from trouble.
Zebras are undeniably cute, one resting its head on another's back so four eyes that watch for danger. Another iconic shot is of the line of black and white heads at a waterhole, the concentration of stripes a favorite scene for wildlife photographers. They're usually congregated together, providing ample time to frame the shot of black and white. But for all their policy of safety in numbers, zebra make the premier meal on a big cat's menu. Spot a fresh kill and black and white limbs are thrown into the air, unveiling a bloody red juxtaposition beneath the skin. It's extremely rare not to see a zebra on an African safari. Very few parks and reserves are without this ungulate, even if they're densely wooded and seem infertile for a zebra herd. They breed rapidly, mares giving birth annually, the babies emerging with soft brown and white stripes. Most are enchanted by their first sight, relentlessly snapping photos of graceful faces and iconic bodies. By day three of the safari, zebras have almost blended into the landscape and most rarely raise an eyebrow as they pass.
Scurrying around with their mischievous faces and pointed tusks, warthogs are widespread across most of Sub-Saharan Africa. They're an endearing sight, trotting through the grass or dropping to their knees to graze. Warthogs are easily spooked, regularly seen scampering away from the trail with tails in the air like an unruly flagpole. Such a scene isn't surprising; warthogs are tasty and a highly sought-after meal for most of Africa's predators. They're not particularly fast and not large enough to pose a challenge to any of the big cats. Such continual predatory attention makes warthogs prone to sparks of aggression, like when they charge a wandering baboon troop or face down a cheetah with their pointed tusks. This pugnacious defense is a wonderful sight, especially when those tusks are jutted around in belligerent displays.
The Lion King movie gave the world Pumbaa and Timon. Many mistakenly believe that Pumbaa is a direct Swahili translation of warthog, much like Simba means lion. Pumbaa is used by locals to describe warthogs, although the word translates as being foolish or stupid, something that's risen from their often comical movements across the savannah. Drive close to a warthog and it might stare back with an adrenalin-felled show of dominance. Out of nowhere, sensing danger, it turns and wildly sprints away to everyone's amusement.
Almost every safari will encounter these adaptive pigs. On the first game drive the camera clicks relentlessly; by day three warthogs are as common as an acacia tree and hardly noticed. The exception comes when they're mistaken for stealthy cats in high grass. From a distance, there's a solitary blur hidden amongst the grass. The heart rate rises, expecting, hoping, for a leopard. However, the swishing flagpole tail indicates that it's a warthog you've found. A more enchanting sight is outside the camp or lodge, the warthogs scurrying past and adding a dose of entertainment as you relax at the end of a day.
Almost all of Africa's parks and reserves are dominated by antelopes, usually a diverse set of distinct species that flitter through grassland, savannah, woodland, and desert areas. Congregating in large herds, they're the most common of safari sights, impressively encountered as they graze in their hundreds and sometimes thousands. Each park and reserve will have a different cast, a distinct selection of antelope species and sub-species dependent on the habitat. So even after a week on safari, a rare or new antelope might be spotted.
Antelopes provide prey for Africa's predators, and hunting scenes offer unrivaled drama; on a successful hunt, there's still a tinge of sadness towards the cute antelope that's been picked off. In some parks and reserves, walking safaris enable you to get extremely close to these species, the antelopes not frightened if you move slowly and silently. Long necked gerenuk, wading lechwe, spiral horned bushbuck, tiny duiker...perhaps no other species can symbolize Africa's wildlife diversity than the antelope. At first, they're just names that you struggle to distinguish on safari; hartebeest, bongo, impala, wildebeest, kudu. But antelopes are so plentiful that after a few days, you can correctly identify each species without the guide's assistance.
Bushbuck, Bongo, Sitatunga, and Nyala
Widespread across the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa yet relatively elusive, bushbucks inhabit forest and woodland. Males have sharp spiraling horns and will charge when hunted, something that makes big cats think twice and has made them an idolized trophy for human hunters. Being solitary and shy makes them difficult to spot, although there's an air of self-assurance which allows you to get very close, especially when not in a safari vehicle. Their burning red coats are marked with thin white stripes, which makes them one of Africa's most picturesque large antelopes.
Three similar species are also found in the woodland. Bongo are even more striking, almost bright orange in appearance with blazing white stripes. Critically endangered, they're found in Central Kenya and the forests of Central Africa. They're related to bushbuck in both behavior and general appearance, although they're larger, and the females also have horns. Sitatunga are another forest antelope relative, inhabiting the woodland and swamps of East and Central Africa. While not as visually impressive, they're an unusual find out on a safari, often seen wading through deep water and showcasing their aquatic skills. Nyala is another that can be easily confused with the bushbuck, scattered across northern South Africa and the less-visited reserves of Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Wisps of white and flowing manes make the male bulls indelibly photogenic.
Africa's smallest antelope is easily missed, often hidden in the grass or merging into part of the savannah. Less than a half a meter in height, they draw a chorus of adoring safari fans, especially if you ever get a chance to see a youngster. Few characters are as cute, the tiny almost-frail looking dik-dik combining elegance with the delighted face of an explorer. They're widespread yet challenging to find. You generally have more chance in East Africa's savannah, although dik-dik can also be spotted in parts of Southern Africa's savannah. Moving in monogamous pairings, they're effectively covered and camouflaged by their surroundings. You're unlikely to see many of these adorable creatures, and the dik dik is often quick to skip away, but it's always an enchanting sight. Being on the predatory menu of cats, dogs, birds of prey, and even large lizards makes them naturally bashful and secretive. Incidentally, the strange name is onomatopoeic of their unique warning call, a high-pitched half-whistled sound that repeats a regular intervals.
Usually hidden deep within a forest or bush, duiker is a very elusive safari find. There's 22 different sub-species of these small antelopes, each with stubbed horns and identified by distinct color markings. Many of these duiker subspecies are endangered and have a limited range, with deforestation and human settlements removing their ability to migrate. As such, some are now endemic to a single national park. They've evolved to survive in the forest, squat little creatures that are usually far from any vehicle trail. Such rarity gives them a lofty status for safari aficionados, especially any sub-species other than the common gray duiker.
The largest of Africa's antelopes, eland are bashful creatures inhabiting savannah and plains all across East and Southern Africa. They're usually spotted from a distance, far from other mammals. While they weigh close to a ton, they're slow and relatively defenseless, meaning they choose to stay far from noise or sign of predators. Distinguished by their size and two spiraled horns, they dapple many parks and reserves, feeding off shrubs and grass. Unfortunately, these majestic animals are rarely seen in large herds, their low density the cause of continual poaching and encroachment on their habitat. While they prefer to stay far away from any vehicle track, their size makes them easy to identify. Go slowly and silently on a walking safari and you're able to get much closer.
Often spotted jumping across the savannah, the gazelle is a small and fast antelope with impressive ringed horns. They're native to East Africa, gracing all the open habitats; grassland, semi-desert, and savannah. Two distinct subspecies are identified by size and body markings. Thompson's gazelle are the most common sub-species although they have a compact defined range around Tanzania's Serengeti and Kenya's Maasai Mara. Over half a million live in this short grassed ecosystem, effectively blending into the landscape until they hop and jump across the horizon. Remarkably, they are East Africa's second most abundant antelope (after the wildebeest) despite being endemic to just a tiny fraction of the region. Grant's gazelle are larger and not as plentiful, but they remain a constant on many East Africa safaris. Majestic ringed horns are a trademark of both, their length indicative of their age, with an extra ring produced for each year of life. The two sub-species can be seen together, grazing on short grassland and preferring to stay out in the open. However, the offspring of crossed Grant's and Thompson's gazelle are not fertile.
With speed as their defense gazelle gather in wide open spaces, using the eyesight of sentinels to alert the rest of nearby predators. Drive past a herd and their necks seem to extend, individuals straining to see and hear any possible hint of danger. Everyone stops their grazing to calculate threat. Ears pop out, and necks swivel when a brief rustling sound comes from behind them. Stop, stay silent, and the gazelle return to their grazing. This alert behavior can help you find predatory cats that might be lurking nearby. When a gazelle herd remains spooked, there's a good chance that something is hiding in the grass or trees. The harem's male will go and inspect, shooing the herd off as it stands in defiance. If the predators look big, then the herd skips away, bouncing across the grass with huge elegant jumps.
Gemsbok and Beisa Oryx
Beisa oryx and gemsbok are large gray-brown antelopes with extremely impressive ringed horns that sometimes grow to almost a meter in length. These horns rise straight and true, dignified markers of an individual's age and status. The two are very closely related and sub-species of the oryx genus. The Beisa oryx can be found in a safari in Kenya and parts of Tanzania while the gemsbok inhabits arid areas of Southern Africa, notably Namibia where it features on the country's coat of arms. A small population of gemsbok was introduced into the Tularosa Basin of the United States where they've flourished. Both species are an ode to adapting to desert conditions, able to roam for long distances without water. You'll see them in semi-desert areas, regularly out in the open, just as you thought a landscape was completely desolate. For centuries, these animals were hunted for their horns and the Beisa oryx is now on the endangered list. Gemsbok are more abundant and a common sight on any safari in Botswana or safari in Namibia.
Standing on hind legs and stretching their neck to a tree's branches, gerenuk is a bizarre sight. They're very much the giraffe of the antelope world, their elongated necks reaching towards food that would be out of reach for other antelopes. Found in a safari in Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia, they're a near threatened species that you could watch for hours without pause; their spindly legs and hypnotic necks causing most to continually press the camera shutter. They're found in arid landscapes and have evolved to survive solely off trees and plants. Not only are their necks indicative of evolution and diversity, but gerenuks have also developed to be independent of fresh water. All the fluid required is taken from the vegetation.
Thin faced and burning a thick amber color, hartebeests are an attractive antelope scattered across both East and Southern Africa. Standing over a meter high and gathering in large herds, they provide some of the most spectacular photos of large antelopes together. Distinct sub-species are recognized by their colors, the most striking being the red hartebeest found across Southern Africa. Coke's hartebeest and Lelwel hartebeest are native to East Africa while Lichtenstein's hartebeest inhabit the woodlands of both regions. Males are often spotted roaming solitary, challenging the territories of rivals and occasionally locking horns. Females graze in groups, regularly spotted nervously drinking at a waterhole. Unfortunately, hartebeests are picky eaters, surviving off the good quality grass. The expansion of farmlands has had a huge impact on their numbers, meaning that while widespread, the majestic characters are dwindling. While widespread, you're most likely o encounter them in abundant environments, particularly volcanic grasslands and savannah that's dominated by water.
Graceful and slender, impala have adapted to flourish in grassland and open woodland across East and parts of Southern Africa. They're plentiful and widespread, often seen in herds of ten to 100 individuals. Impalas are very similar to gazelles; the name comes from the Zulu word for gazelle. You can easily confuse the two. Impalas are a plain sandy color while gazelles are distinguished by a single black stripe across their underbelly.
Impala are spectacularly encountered when they're jumping in zigzags at the scent of danger. They leap high above the landscape, accelerating away and seeming to dance through a series of jumps. Predators or the rumble of a vehicle engine can ignite this response, but you'll also see it when stimulated males are chasing less than interested females, or dominant males are driving bachelors from their territory. Males have rising horns with distinctly ringed notches, with one ring representing a year of its life. Females don't, but in their large herds they remain an aesthetically pleasing and delightfully regular part of the landscape.
Nimble and agile, klipspringer adeptly jump around the rocks and kopjes of East and Southern Africa. They inhabit the areas that the Lion King portrayed as the lion's realm, the iconic collection of boulders and rocks that dot a grassland or savannah. You'll also see them jumping across the rocks of mountain areas. One of the smallest antelopes, klipspringer mate in pairs, with one standing as a sentinel, while another feeds. Although widespread, they are difficult to find, with the sight of them deftly jumping at speed an inspiring sight. This nimble footwork means they're a challenging meal for any big cat, the biggest threat coming from eagles instead.
Impressive twisted horns mark out a kudu bull, a large antelope found in the acacia and commiphora savannahs. Their striped brown body provides camouflage in the shrubs and trees, meaning you'll rarely see them roaming in the open. Males are adorned with wispy beards and manes while cows are hornless, their ears jutting out in almost comical unison when threatened. You'll find the greater kudu in parks and reserves all across Southern and East Africa while the smaller, lesser kudu is restricted to East Africa. Bachelor groups are particularly impressive, the succession of horns and beards making an adorable photo. Then two fight for the camera's attention, locking horns and pushing heads in tentative displays of strength.
Inhabiting the swamps and wetlands of Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia, lechwes are normally easily spotted with their legs submerged in the water. A small antelope with a soft orange coat, they prefer the wetlands as a means of repelling predatory threat, knowing that they can run faster in water than the big cats. Most predators aren't keen on swimming either, so there's a chance to graze without worrying about a threat. A small herd isn't a remarkable sight. But when hundreds gather in a swamp or marsh there's something hypnotic about watching them splash through the shallows. This is far more possible during the wet season when floodplains and marshes stretch across flat landscapes.
Oribi and Steenbok
Solitary steenboks are found all across Southern Africa, along with a series of parks in Tanzania and Southern Kenya. Small orange antelope with squat horns, they resemble many people's preconceptions of an impala, graceful and charming yet perilously vulnerable. As most people preconceive, they will zig zag skip and jump away from potential danger. Shorter horns distinguish steenbok from the impala. Oribis are taller than the steenbok with bushy tails and slender legs, mainly found in national parks of West and Central Africa, although also in isolated reserves in Zambia, South Africa, and Eastern Tanzania. Oribis are also seen on their own or in pairs, another bashful antelope to discover on an African safari.
Wanderers of Southern Africa's plains, reedbuck are spotted hiding in grass or flourishing reed beds around water sources. It's the southern reedbuck that most people encounter, a silky-coated brown antelope where males have ringed horns. Relatively large but always well camouflaged, they form small herds with one dominant male trying to maintain a harem that rarely numbers more than four. The mountain reedbuck sub-species is rarely seen on safari, inhabiting thick mountainous forest that most safari itineraries don't explore.
Sable and Roan antelope
With its shimmering black and red fur, and its enigmatic straightened horns, Sable antelope are a large and visually striking antelope found in Southern Africa, along with the southern reaches of East Africa. They dot the edges of woodland and gather in savannah, barrel-chested and fearsome in their stare. These are strong, powerful antelope, best showcased when males drop to their knees and clash heads with a thunderous echo. Once grown, they're unlikely to be bothered by predators, their size, and horns a dangerous undertaking for any big cat. The young are targeted, especially males who've been cast from the safety of a herd.
Roan antelope are similar in appearance and their range does overlap with the Sable. These towering antelope are most commonly found dotted across Africa's most famous parks, notably South Africa's Kruger and the parks of Zambia. You find them in open woodland and grassy savannah, rising almost 1.5 meters at the shoulder, standing proud with long horns and black and white faces. Roan are lighter in appearance than Sable and slightly larger. While classified as not-threatened, numbers of both these species are dwindling. They've become a relatively elusive safari sight, a majestic mark on the environment that has everyone transfixed.
This Southern Africa gazelle takes its name from Dutch settlers; springbok essentially translated as “jumping antelope.” Remarkably fast, these bouncing gazelle species are spotted springing around most open scrubland, desert, and savannah. Spot one jumping around and it's virtually guaranteed that more will be nearby, with some herds numbering into the thousands. There's an estimated 2.5 million in South Africa alone, and they're not restricted to designated parks and reserves. They can be readily found in the arid areas immediately north of Cape Town, and some are treated to springbok beneath a Table Mountain backdrop. The huge abundance is in spite of springbok meat being a Southern African delicacy and their furs being a well-touted tourist souvenir. These antelope are adept breeders and adaptive creatures, helping them repel both human and animal threat. Springbok are a symbol of South Africa and have become the nickname of the country's rugby team.
A tiny antelope that hides in dense bushes and savannah, suni are a real collectors item. While they are plentiful they're difficult to find, wonderfully camouflaged in the grass and adept at hiding within the woodland. Furthermore, they sleep during the day, another factor that puts them on the list of elusive finds for any safari. This could be one of those unusual sights that greet you at the end of a multi-day safari, a unique little addition to round off a week of exploring.
Topi, Tsessebe, Bontebok, and Blesbok
Similar in appearance to hartebeest, topi graze in a few isolated parks and reserves of East Africa, notably the Serengeti and Maasai Mara. Rising over a meter at the shoulder and capable of some astonishing speeds, they move in herds and continually migrate to fresh pastures. They are a rarely cited addition to the mammals that form the great wildebeest migration. Moving in a herd numbering five figures, they join one of the large groups of wildebeest that heads towards the Maasai Mara. Seeing such a large antelope on the move is a wonderful sight, especially when the slow walk turns to a canter or accelerates into a short gallop.
Tsessebe are their close Southern Africa relative, an unmarked and dull looking antelope that's elevated into an iconic sight when they're spotted on the move. These are known as remarkably social animals and it's worth admiring the interaction; dominant males aggressively grunting, challengers waltzing with erect high-steps, horns clashing, females attracted to winning strength. You'll find sporadic herds of them in many large parks and reserves across the region.
Bontebok and blesbok are also common in appearance and behavior, although these are only traditionally found in South Africa. Blesbok are endemic to the country, smaller than the topi with a bright white face and forehead. Bontebok dot the coastal fringes of Southern Africa and have recovered from numbering less than 100 individuals. Namibia's Etosha National Park is probably the best place to see them in the wild.
The most abundant of Africa's mammals, wildebeest are famed for their migratory behavior and large herds. Some 1.5 million of them maraud around the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, unfurling great balls of dust as they rumble towards fresh grazing land. Elsewhere in Africa you'll still find big herds, the scraggly horned antelope always preferring safety in numbers. Like zebra, these mammals can easily become a mainstay of the landscape, especially on a safari in East Africa. You don't need to witness the great wildebeest migration to spot them.
Wildebeest are scientifically within the antelope genus but seem more closely related to cattle than traditional notions of antelope. These slender mammals have exceptional stamina, able to continually move across huge stretches of wilderness. Males demonstrate their strength by continually sprinting in short exuberant bursts, thus showcasing their stamina and appeal as a potential mate. While the horns of bulls can be a menace, the young and the old are consistently picked off by Africa's predators, separated from the herd and pounced upon in a ball of flying dust.
As individuals they're rarely impressive, not that far distinct from the skinny domestic cows herded in Africa's deserted areas. But wildebeest herds are phenomenal sites; strong males galloping and rutting, babies chaperoned between shaggy manes, confusion reigning when the herd momentarily lacks leadership. As grazers they are most abundantly found in grassland and savannah, often migrating to and from semi-desert dependent on the season. Blue wildebeest are most common. Black wildebeest are only currently found in South Africa after being hunted almost to extinction. This sub-species is smaller and browner in appearance.
One of Africa's iconic highlights is the great wildebeest migration, where huge herds annually move from Tanzania's Serengeti to Kenya's Maasai Mara and back. Not all migrate and not all migrate together, the wildebeest tending to move in batches that number 200,000 – 300,000 or more. Their interaction with predators elevates the experience, a menagerie of hunters feasting on the herds. The great wildebeest migration continues all year, and it can be experienced regardless of when you go on an East Africa safari. However, these mammals inhabit and move around different parts of the grassland during different months. There isn't a perfect time to see the show. But you will need to be in the right part of the Serengeti or Maasai Mara dependent on the time of year.
Africa's landscapes are never quiet. From the dense forest come the calls of primates, rumbling beaten chests or squawked indicators of whereabouts. Primates emerge, jumping across the high branches or scurrying past with a look of mischief. A myriad of monkeys species covers the continent, from rare sightings of colobus or mangabey to the inquisitive vervets that surround picnic tables. Baboons are an equally hypnotic sight, huge intelligent troops daringly rampaging around with unperturbed daring. Then there are the idolized species like gorillas and chimpanzees, which can be experienced on unique safaris.
Noisy and unperturbed, baboons can often be a dazzling sight, hundreds of them gathered in loose troops. They patrol their landscape, striking fear and causing most wildlife to vanish quickly into the trees. While they prefer forest and woodland, these are adaptable animals, evolving to survive in a variety of landscapes across Africa. They're not just found in parks and reserves. It's common to spot baboons along the road or emerging from the forest that's far from any gazetted area. Five subspecies are known; the chacma baboon of Southern Africa, East Africa's olive and yellow baboons, then the beautiful hamadryas baboon of Somalia and Ethiopia, and the Guinea baboon of West Africa.
Baboons are rumbustious and deliver an aggressive stare, something that many experience at national park gates or picnic sites. Particularly in popular parks, baboons have learnt that tourists are fearful of them. So they go on the rampage, jumping through car windows to steal food or harassing someone out of their picnic packet of crisps. There's something intriguing and enchanting about it all, along with the laughter that's too follow: Those “beware of baboon” signs are there for a reason. Baboons are inquisitive and intelligent, something you quickly learn to respect when they've ignored the banana and stolen your chicken leg. Unlike most of Africa's mammals, they are happy with human contact, especially when it's on their terms. For example, a large resident baboon population has developed at Victoria Falls, feasting on the scraps and steals they can make from tourists. There's a number of stories of baboons stealing a camera or pair of sunglasses and then refusing to return it unless some kind of edible compensation is thrown.
Moving in large troops they provide delectable safari moments; 30 of them running across the trail after a howling shout, an almost hairless baby tucked onto a mother's stomach, males shaking branches and creating commotion to scare another troop. They're ever-watchful, scampering away yet always looking back to see if you're still staring. You'll see them in almost all of Africa's parks and reserves, usually without even looking for them. Camps and lodges are one of the most common places for them to hang out. While the swollen reddened bottoms of mating females aren't pretty, baboons still have a certain visual attraction. Furthermore, the complex interaction within a troop could keep you occupied for hours.
Often heard but rarely seen, bushbabies provide a resonant introduction to many East Africa safaris. These tiny, wide-eyed primates have a distinct piercing call, one that's heard in both urban and rural areas. Land for a safari and the bushbaby is part of the evening soundtrack, although it's rare you'll get to glimpse the tiny mouths that can make such a ferocious racket. These are shy and taciturn primates, rarely seen during the day but spotted on nighttime game drives or when camps have teased them into the open over time.
Regularly forgotten as tourists seek out the mountain gorilla, chimpanzee provide an equally seductive hour of travel reverie. These unique primates have a spooky similarity, so many features reminiscent of your own. Their intelligence is immediately apparent, individuals carrying sticks to throw at enemies (occasionally humans) and providing wonderful shows of affection within a troop. These our man's closest relative, sharing a common ancestry and over 90% of our genes; scientists had once believed the figure was around 99% but that's since been revised. Hands and faces are especially redolent, laced with dexterous detail and impression.
In recent years, researchers have habituated chimpanzee groups, providing virtually guaranteed sightings in the forests of Uganda and Western Tanzania. While they also inhabit some forests in West Africa, it's in East Africa where chimpanzee related tourism is based. You'll need a specific chimpanzee tracking permit to see these groups. They live in large troops, which often consist of a series of smaller troops traveling together in a mass of 50 or more. Dedicated chimpanzee safaris are recommended to see this remarkable primate, although there is a rare chance of spotting non-habituated groups in both Uganda and Western Tanzania.
A line of fur rumbles through the forest, shimmering black contrasted against green. Gorillas are on the move, moving through the mountainous escarpments of East Africa, trailed by a select group on a gorilla safari. Africa's largest primate is also its most endangered, critically in the case of three of the four sub-species. Almost all gorilla safaris provide an intimate hour with the habituated mountain gorilla groups of Uganda and Rwanda. Less than 1000 of these primates exist in the wild and they form one of the ultimate highlights of African travel.
Eastern and western lowland gorilla inhabit the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo and other Central African nations, while the virtually extinct Cross River gorilla hides in Cameroon and Nigeria, captured for the first time on video in 2009. Tourism remains undeveloped in these Central African countries, and these gorillas are rarely seen by tourists. By nature, gorillas are shy and private, inhabiting thick forested areas far from human settlements. The chances of spotting these creatures randomly are near non-existent, even if you were to trek through their Uganda stronghold of Bwindi National Park; note that exploring this park without a permit leads to getting a huge fine.
While they live in the forest they are land dwellers, only climbing trees to obtain food. Babies climb with amusing mischief, rising through the trees then falling to the floor with faces solidified in shock. Mothers watch on, elegant, reflective, gently picking at the fruit found nearby. Now a silverback, distinguished initially by its gargantuan size, then you see the white shock of fur that runs across its back. He's a ball of muscle, broad chested and dominant, tearing down branches with relentless abandon. Few animals ignite the imagination like these East African giants, and yes, they are discovered in forests that are coated in meandering layers of mist. A dedicated gorilla trekking safari is required to see them.
Dappled across Africa's forests are the antics of monkeys, dozens of distinct species swinging and foraging a path through the trees. While they're often seen on safari, the really enchanting moments come when a monkey troop passes through a camp, their interaction easily observed as you lounge after a safari day. East Africa's habitat supports greater numbers of monkeys and monkey species, with hundreds of forested areas providing a small haven. Many are inhabited with the popular favorites, usually vervet monkeys sharing the space with baboons and bushbabies.
It's difficult to miss vervet monkeys in East Africa, their impish black faces daring to break into a camp's kitchen for an easy meal. These abundant monkeys inhabit many woodland areas, both in and outside national parks. Moving in troops of 20 or more, they're equally adept on the ground as they are in the trees. They are the monkeys of popular mythology, cheeky, daring, and packed with charm. Colobus monkeys are more bashful, preferring higher branches and staying clear of confrontation.
A myriad of sub-species offer delightful sights; the striped tails and flowing beards of the black and white colobus, or the distinguished orange backs of the critically endangered red colobus. Pretty and photogenic, colobus monkeys provide the serenity that vervet monkeys always seem to shatter. Head into Central Africa's forests and there's many unique species to find, although very few tourists get the chance to make it this way. Some areas, like Tanzania's Udzungwa Mountains, are home to unusual endemic species that shout from the trees, including mangabeys that have only been identified in the last two decades. There are other parks that specialize in a peculiar macaque, monkey, or mangabey, best experienced on walking trails. Many monkey species veer well clear of noise and are difficult to spot on a game drive, so it's on foot that you traditionally encounter them.
The diversity of Africa's bird life is staggering. Some national parks are home to over 500 species, a series of delightful wings flickering across a single lake or open woodland. The continent's parks and reserves provide a world highlight for enthusiastic bird watchers, although most people on safari haven't even considered the enchantment that these wings can provide. With the focus primarily on mammals, Africa's birds come as an indelible surprise, from colorful flutters to the soaring sight of hunters and the raucous shouts of a stork flock.
The Diversity of Africa's Birds
To list or detail all of Africa's birds would run into thousands of pages. It's widely estimated that some 2,500 birds from over 100 bird families inhabit the continent, with some of these being endemic. In South Africa alone you'll find 10% of the world's total bird species. The juxtapositions are remarkable; a tiny buffalo weaver flying past a small flock of ostrich, guinea fowl exploring on the ground as vultures circle in the sky above, or a boisterous maribou stork charging about a campsite as yellow-collared lovebirds brighten an acacia. What about penguins in South Africa's Western Cape, sunbathing beside people after waddling around Boulder's Beach? Cormorants, egrets, herons, geese, ganets, hamerkops, ibises, falcons, cranes...The list journeys through colors and style, size and form, rarely slipping into the mundane as it reveals the multiplicity of Africa's birds.
Many species have a favorite haunt, becoming the staple sight in a particular national park or even a lake within a park or reserve. Like the superb starling in Northern Tanzania, a flashy blue bird that's adored at first glance. After a few days, these starlings are as common as the trees they build their nests in. Others rea more widespread, most famously the flamingo, millions of them creating a hazy pink blanket that dominates a panorama. Some species are endemic to a small reserve, offering a final haven and a flourishing display of the unique. Still more become predictable visitors to your camp, their charming colors as energizing as the morning coffee. Migratory species arrive during Europe and Asia's winter, while other rarely stray further than their home waterhole.
There's a harmony that these thousands of species bring to the environment. At an ecological level, they're in cohorts with the mammals. For example, the yellow-billed oxpecker is one of many birds that feeds on ticks, eating them directly from the fur of big mammals and regularly catching rides across the savannah on a buffalo or giraffe. Flocks also support the hunted, shouting from the treetops when a cat is on the prowl, warning the ungulates of potential danger. When birds are loud you know something is happening, and following their lead also guides you to idolized big cat scenes.
This menagerie of birds also provides the landscape with a visual harmony. As the focus is often on the ground, with eyes seeking out Africa's mammals, a vibrant set of wings pulls you away from the floor and into the wider panorama. They contrast the sky with displays of flamboyance or brighten a tree that's been demolished by elephants. Gaze up and a dozen sets of wings could be flying at eye level, keeping your attention of the whole rather than a dedicated search for a particular mammal. They become a visual representation of Africa's diversity, a reminder of how precocious and abundant this wilderness can be. And while most will struggle to capture the wings on camera, they often float permanently into long-term safari memories.
Experiencing Africa's Bird Life
Africa's bird life is unmissable. It comes as standard on almost every safari, even when you're deep in the arid, dusty plains of Botswana or Namibia. Guides display an inspiring knowledge, able to name virtually each set of wings without having to scan through the birdlife book. Some sights are highly prized and memorable, like an eagle swooping or the mass flight of pelicans. Most are a quaint surprise, another idiosyncratic set of wings to add to the list. All safari activities will provide glimpses at dozens of species; game drives cover more distance but going on foot gives you more time to inspect the trees and get closer to different birds.
Tailored bird watching safaris are also available, to both Africa's famous safari destinations and some of its less-visited countries. For example, Uganda and Malawi are home to a staggeringly diverse collection of endemic species while South Africa's Kruger National Park has created a series of dedicated bird watching routes. These safaris mix big game with a focus on birding, something that adds an extra dimension to bird watching vacations elsewhere in the world. Specify an interest in bird watching and itineraries can be easily tailored. This could be when the itinerary is designed with more of a focus on parks with high diversity and rare sights. It's also part of the daily program, with guides focusing the route towards bird life.
Africa's Birds of Prey
Much like Africa's mammals, it's the hunters that become the highly-prized sights, the birds of prey offering the dramatic moments out on safari. Eagles soar with enviable grace, curving their flight into the sky before descending with exacting precision. 25 sub-species are found across the continent, along with dozens of buzzards, kites, and hawks. They fly against the blue, creating their own space in the sky with a fearful reputation. The sight of these birds hunting is relatively common, especially when you're looking for it and not traveling with your eyes glued to the grass. Birds of prey are usually a daily piece of the itinerary and like the rest of Africa's birdlife, different parks and reserves have their specialisms.
Perhaps the most evocative image is of vultures swarming around a kill, either on the ground or as they constantly ring the carcass. Six, seven, eight, and more vultures circle, attracting each other and attracting the attention of scavengers and safari goers. Follow their immense wingspan and you're almost certain to encounter a bloodied body. There's sometimes a stand-off, vultures creeping closer as predators or ground scavengers continue their pickings. Get up close and they're fearsome animals, wings stretching up to two meters across and scowling eyes causing a brief second of panic.