African elephants walking

What animals you see on your African safari?

March 02, 2015

Are you going on safari for the first time? It can be really daunting to decide where to go unless you have a reasonable idea of which countries and parks have the greatest numbers of your favourite wildlife. Animal densities vary widely from habitat to habitat even within a single country or park. Just about every visitor to Africa wants to see the Big Five, made up of some of the world’s most dangerous and respected animals (lion, elephant, leopard, buffalo and rhino) and although a close encounter with one of these wonderful creatures could be the highlight of your safari. It would be a mistake to ignore the thousands of other equally majestic and fascinating animals waiting to make your acquaintance.

Here is a short introduction to some of the most eagerly sought animals the best places to see them in each country.

1. Lion

Lioness with puppies in Africa
Excellent lion sightings are just about guaranteed if you follow the great migration in Kenya and Tanzania.

The traditional king of the jungle is still the most popularly sought-after animal on most safaris. Lions mainly hunt at dawn or dusk, and spend the hot midday hours relaxing under a shady tree, which makes them quite difficult to spot.

Catch them on the move in the early morning and late afternoon; during the day, keep a look out for slight movements in the shady areas under shade trees; often a mere flick of the ear is enough to alert you of their presence.

Lions can still be seen in most protected areas in east and southern Africa, and excellent lion sightings are just about guaranteed if you follow the great migration through the Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara National Park between July and September.

Some of the best places to see lions from north to south are:

  • Kenya - Maasai Mara National Reserve
  • Tanzania – Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti National Park, Selous Game Reserve
  • Zambia – South Luangwa National Park (especially Lion Camp), Kafue National Park
  • Botswana – Okavango Delta
  • Zimbabwe – Matusadona National Park, Mana Pools National Park
  • Namibia – Etosha National Park
  • South Africa – Kruger National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

2. Leopard

Leopard lay on a branch in Africa
You are virtually guaranteed good sightings in Sabi Sand Reserve in South Africa.

These magnificent and elusive cats are very skilled nocturnal hunters, employing a “stalk and pounce” method to catch their prey, as they do not have the stamina for prolonged chases. Leopards are solitary hunters and are strong enough to drag their large prey up into the canopy of a tree to protect it from scavenging lions or hyena.

Leopards are shy and nocturnal, and spend most of their days hiding away in rocky outcrops on in the canopy of large trees. They are generally more relaxed and easy to spot in parks where there are few or no lions (their main rivals in the wilds), or where they have been habituated to man for a long time, like the Sabi Sand Reserve in South Africa, where you are virtually guaranteed good sightings.

Popular destinations to see Leopards are:

  • South Africa ‐ Sabi Sand Game Reserve in Kruger National Park
  • Zambia ‐ South Luangwa National Park
  • Tanzania ‐ Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area
  • Kenya ‐ Maasai Mara National Park, Lake Nakuru National Park
  • Botswana ‐ Okavango Delta

3. Rhinocero

Rhino in Africa
There are less than 30,000 rhinos left in the world, most of which can be found in South Africa.

Rhino have been wandering the plains of Africa since millions years ago and have no natural predators in the wild except man. Black rhino are a little smaller than white rhino and far more bad tempered. Both have very poor eyesight and rely on their superb sense of smell to identify danger, so you need to keep down-wind of them if you are tracking them on foot.

Unfortunately, rhinos have seen the most drastic population decline in recent years due to wide scale poaching which has left them on the brink of extinction. There are thought to be less than 30,000 rhinos left in the world, most of which can be found in South Africa. It is very rare to see a rhino in the wild nowadays and if you get the chance you should consider yourself very lucky indeed.

Best places to see them?

  • South Africa ‐ Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Kruger National Park, Pilanesberg National Park
  • Namibia ‐ Etosha National Park
  • Kenya‐ Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Lake Nakuru National Park
  • Zimbabwe ‐ Hwange National Park

4. African Elephant

Elephants in a river in Africa
Botswana has by far the largest numbers of elephant mainly in the Chobe National Park.

Elephants are often a favourite with visitors. These majestic and social creatures are the world's biggest mammal and one of the most intelligent animals on the continent. They live in large family groups with one matriarchal female who keeps all the others in their place. Remarkably adaptable, they live in several different environments - savannas, forests, woodlands, swamps and deserts.

Elephant numbers in Sub-Saharan Africa have fallen at an alarming rate due to poaching, but they can still be spotted in large numbers in several countries and parks. Botswana has by far the largest numbers of elephant (over 120,000), mainly in the Chobe National Park; however, since they use ancient migratory paths to move between several unfenced corridors numbers vary greatly by season. Kruger National Park in South Africa does not have the same numbers as in Botswana but you are guaranteed to view them as well.

Best places for watching them?

  • Botswana – Chobe National Park, Okavango Delta
  • Kenya - Tsavo East National Park, Tsavo West National Park, Amboseli National Park, Samburu National Park
  • Tanzania – Serengeti National Park
  • South Africa – Addo Elephant Park, Kruger National Park

5. African Buffalo

Buffalo in Africa
Buffalo need to drink water every day which makes them very vulnerable to the predators that patrol the water holes.

The sight of a huge herd of buffalo thundering across the dusty plains of Africa is a particularly rewarding, and somewhat frightening safari sighting. The buffalo is an impressive creature, moving around in huge herds which can number several hundred or even thousands. Buffalo need to drink water every day which makes them very vulnerable to the predators that patrol the water holes.

The buffalo is very adaptable and can be found in open woodlands, savannas, rainforests and forests and are native to most Sub-Saharan countries. They are particularly easy to spot during the dry season, when they congregate in very large numbers around popular watering holes.

Some of the best places to spot them include:

  • Botswana - Chobe National Park
  • South Africa - Kruger National Park
  • Namibia - Etosha National Park
  • Zimbabwe - Hwange National Park
  • Kenya - Amboseli National Park
  • Zambia - South Lungwa National Park

6. Hippopotamus

Hippos swimming in Africa
Hippos are reputed to cause more human deaths than any other large animal in Africa.

Hippos are the third largest land mammal but that does not stop them spending a lot of time in the water. They are very territorial animals and can become very aggressive if they feel they are being threatened so do not get too close to them. They are reputed to cause more human deaths than any other large animal in Africa and will easily outrun most people, even though they look so slow and clumsy.

The best place to find them is by a river, lake or swamp where their nostrils may be the only visible body-part that gives away their presence. Hippos generally leave the water at sunset to graze and will cover very large distances during the night to satisfy their enormous appetites.

Good destinations for Hippo spotting:

  • Botswana - Okavango Delta
  • Zambia – Zambezi River
  • Tanzania - Selous Game Reserve
  • Kenya - Maasai Mara National Reserve
  • South Africa – Kruger National Park
  • Uganda – Murchison Falls National Park

7. Cheetah

Cheetah lay in Africa
Cheetah are hugely threatened in the wild by other predators which scavenge their kills and kill their cubs.

The magnificent cheetah is the fastest animal on the earth, and catching a glimpse of a cheetah running at full speed would be the sighting of a lifetime. Like leopard, cheetahs are solitary animals and prefer to hunt and live by themselves. They are hugely threatened in the wild by other predators which scavenge their kills and kill their cubs, a fact which leads them to be very secretive and shy.

Cheetahs are diurnal (active during the day) and typically hunt early in the morning, making this the best time to look out for them. Namibia has the highest cheetah population in Africa, but many live outside the national parks at one of several excellent cheetah conservation projects; here you can get really up-close and personal although it may not offer the same thrill as seeing them in the wild.

Best destinations to see cheetah:

  • Namibia - Etosha National Park, Several Cheetah Conservancies
  • Botswana – Okavango Delta (Chitabi area), Linyati Reserve, Kwando Reserves
  • Tanzania - Serengeti National Park, Selous Game Reserve
  • Kenya – Maasai Mara National Reserve, Samburu National Park
  • South Africa – Phinda Private Game Reserve, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

8. Wildebeest

Wildebeest migration crossing a river in Africa
Millions of wildebeest together with thousands of zebra and antelope annually move northwards across the Serengeti towards the Maasai Mara.

Wildebeest travel in huge herds and can be seen in almost every wildlife sanctuary that has wide open plains and grasslands. The largest concentration of wildebeest are to be found in the Serengeti and Maasai Mara eco-systems in Tanzania and Kenya where one of the world’s greatest wildlife migrations take place every year.

In a continuous cycle, millions of wildebeest together with thousands of zebra and antelope annually move northwards across the Serengeti towards the Maasai Mara in search of fresh pasture between July and September. After this epic journey which many do not survive, the vast herds turn around and head back south to reach the southern Serengeti just as the summer rains begin to fall. They are followed by very large numbers of predators, making this spectacle one of the most remarkable wildlife viewing opportunities on the planet.

The best places to see Wildebeest?

  • Tanzania – Serengeti National Park, Selous Game Reserve
  • Kenya – Maasai Mara National Reserve, Amboseli National Park
  • Botswana – Chobe National Park
  • Zimbabwe – Hwange National Park
  • Zambia – South Luangwa National Park

9. Mountain Gorilla

Silverback Gorilla in Gorilla Mountain in Uganda, Africa
Gorillas can only be found in central Africa, mainly Rwanda and Uganda.

Gorillas are one of the most endearing primates to see in the wild. They are shy, gentle animals and will only attack if they feel themselves or their families are being threatened. Sadly, there are only about 900 Mountain Gorillas in the wild today, mainly due to loss of habitat and poaching. For this reason they are very well protected and gorilla trekking permits are restricted and expensive. In order to see a gorilla in the wild, you will need to trek deep into the forest for several hours and a sighting is never guaranteed.

Gorillas can only be found in central Africa, mainly Rwanda and Uganda. If you really love primates you can combine gorilla trekking in Bwindi with Chimpanzee trekking in Kibale National Park, both of which are in Uganda.

Gorilla trekking in:

  • Uganda – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
  • Rwanda – Virunga National Park

10. Giraffe

Giraffes from Africa
Giraffes are very social animals and usually move around in small herds.

Africa’s tallest mammal, the rather comical-looking giraffe can be up to 5.8 m tall. Their long necks help them select the most juicy and fresh green foliage from the very top of the trees (their favourite is the Acacia tree). Giraffes are very social animals and usually move around in small herds which comprise a mix of males and females with their young.

The giraffe population is relatively stable despite the fact that they often feature on a Lion’s menu; they can be seen in most popular safari destinations in Africa and spotting them is easy as they are active all day long and can be seen from a good distance away.

Top destinations to spot giraffe:

  • Tanzania – Selous Game Reserve, Arusha National Park
  • Kenya – Meru National Park
  • Botswana – Okavango Delta
  • South Africa – Kruger National Park, Wildlife Reserves

11. Zebra

Zebras drinking in a river, Africa
Each zebra has a completely unique pattern which their young can identify from birth.

These beautiful animals are part of the horse family. There are several different species of zebra, the most common of which is known as the Plains Zebra which can be found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The rare Grevy’s Zebra have now become restricted to parts of northern Kenya, while Mountain Zebras can be found in most Southern African countries.

Their white and black striped pelt is great camouflage - when they gallop across the plains together it is hard to follow a particular animal with the eye, which makes it more difficult for predators to hunt them. Each zebra has a completely unique pattern which their young can identify from birth – and essential survival tool.

Best places for see zebra?

  • South Africa - Mountain Zebra National Park, Kruger National Park
  • Kenya - Maasai Mara National Park, Tsavo National Parks, Lewa Conservancy (Grevy’s Zebra)
  • Tanzania - Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater National Reserve
  • Namibia - Etosha National Park
  • Zambia – North Luangwa National Park, South Luangwa National Park

12. Nile Crocodile

Nile crocodile, Africa
Nile Crocodile kill their prey by drowning it and then stow it underwater until it is easy to tear apart.

The rather sinister Nile Crocodile is the largest of all African crocodiles and can grow up to 6 meters (20 ft) long. Their diet consists mainly of fish but they will attack anything unfortunate enough to cross their paths when they are hungry, including humans.

Crocodiles are cold-blooded animals and spend a large portion of the day absorbing the rays of the sun on a convenient river bank or lake shore. Although they appear extremely lethargic on the river bank, they are capable of moving remarkably quickly to capture any un-suspecting animal that approaches the water to drink. They are also very patient hunters and will wait in the shallows for hours or days to catch a thirsty animal. They kill their prey by drowning it and then stow it underwater until it is partially decomposed and easy to tear apart.

Nile crocodiles can be found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the Nile basin and Madagascar along any convenient river bank or lake side.

Where to spot them?

  • Botswana – Okavango Delta
  • Kenya – Maasai Mara National Reserve
  • Tanzania – Serengeti National Park
  • Zambia and Zimbabwe – Zambezi River, Tributaries in Zambia
  • South Africa – Kruger National Park

Many more animals to see

We have only just managed to scrape the surface of the wonderful wealth of wildlife found in Africa, and there was not enough space to mention the multitude of other creatures that make an African safari such a wonderful experience. There are numerous species of antelope which are probably the most commonly spotted animals in all the wilderness reserves, and each of these are uniquely beautiful and enjoyable to watch. Then there are the comical warthogs, the skulking hyenas and the critically endangered wild dog, to mention just a few. Birdlife is also extremely prolific, especially during the rainy season when the local bird numbers are swelled by enormous numbers of migrating Northern species.

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