The Animals of Africa
Africa’s allure often lies in its teeming wildlife, beckoning travelers from across the globe to explore its richness. But have you acquainted yourself with the ‘Big Five?’ Once a term used by hunters to signify the most sought-after game, the ‘Big Five’ has now evolved into a list symbolizing conservation and admiration rather than conquest. Embrace the opportunity to capture not with bullets, but with your camera lens, the grandeur of the elephant, the might of the rhino, the majesty of the lion, the stealth of the leopard, and the rugged resilience of the buffalo.
The African Elephant (part of the ‘Big Five’)
In the vast landscapes of Africa, the elephant, a symbol of wisdom and strength, thrives in family units numbering 10 to 20, sometimes joining larger gatherings around watering holes and feeding grounds. Governed by a matriarch, the tight-knit community observes a unique social structure, with males often wandering alone or in exclusive groups.
The trunk, an elephant’s distinguishing feature, serves multifaceted roles, from sensing and communicating to handling objects and nourishing itself. The lifespan of these gentle giants, extending to 60-70 years, intricately ties to the wear of their specialized teeth. As one wears down, the other follows in a unique progression until the final one is expended, leading to the elephant’s natural demise.
Though sight may not be their strongest suit, an elephant’s heightened senses of smell and hearing more than compensate. Their complex social lives mirror our own, with a journey from infancy through adolescence and into adulthood. The elegance with which they move, their massive feet tenderly stepping, allows them to blend seamlessly into their surroundings, leaving behind only the sound of breaking branches as evidence of their presence. In our safaris, their majesty is but a glimpse away, yet the profound impact they leave lingers long after.
Best countries for Elephant sightings: Botswana (Chobe), Kenya (Amboseli).
Lion (part of the ‘Big Five’)
The lion, majestic and formidable, stands as the largest of the trio of big cats, with a weight that can reach up to 280 kg. Possessing a unique blend of indolence and incredible power, this regal animal can leap fences as high as 4 meters and span chasms of 12 meters with a single bound. Its distinct amber eyes, circular rather than the oval found in other cats, exude a mesmerizing quality.
Though lions prefer to hunt in groups, employing a cooperative strategy, they are inherently lazy creatures outside of hunting. Capable of reaching speeds of around 64 kph, they predominantly prey on large herbivores, which form the bulk of their diet. Typically, lions are sighted during the day, often resting after a night filled with hunting, patrolling, and social interaction within the pride.
While incidents of unprovoked attacks on humans are rare, the lion’s underlying ferocity renders it extremely dangerous. Utmost caution should be exercised in their territory, including the strict observance of remaining within one’s vehicle. Encountering a lion within the wild landscapes of Kenya offers a thrilling and awe-inspiring experience that speaks to the very essence of Africa’s untamed beauty.
Best countries for Lion sightings: Tanzania (Serengeti), Kenya (Masai Mara).
The African Buffalo (part of the ‘Big Five’)
The African, also referred to as the Cape buffalo, shares a close relation with the domesticated bovine species. While typically gentle in disposition, these creatures may exhibit highly perilous behavior if threatened or caught off guard. As such, they necessitate stringent caution, particularly when encountering solitary bulls or females accompanied by their young. Renowned for their intensely social nature, buffalos congregate into substantial herds, ranging from 200 to 2000 members. Their appetite is notably ravenous, encompassing both grazing and browsing dietary habits. Throughout their 15-20 year lifespan, they engage in ceaseless foraging, a vital activity to sustain their formidable strength and endurance.
Best countries for Buffalo sightings: Botswana (Chobe), South Africa (Kruger Park & Reserves).
Rhino (part of the ‘Big Five’)
The rhino, a noble yet gravely endangered creature of Africa, has faced severe hunting pressures, primarily for its distinguished horn. Highly sought after in various traditions, such as Chinese medicine and Middle Eastern artisanship, the horn brought the rhino to the brink of extinction as the last century concluded. Today, it stands as Africa’s most endangered large mammal. The black rhino is the smaller of the two rhino species and weighing between 900 and 1,400 kg, the black rhino exhibits a more concave back, three-toed hoofs, and a uniquely pointed prehensile upper lip that serves as a specialized tool for browsing in its natural habitat.
When comparing the black rhino with the white rhino, a common misconception about their coloration arises. In truth, both species share a similar shade of grey. The term ‘white’ stems from a mistranslation of the Afrikaans word ‘weit,’ signifying ‘wide,’ and references the white rhino’s broad mouth, adapted for grazing. To discern between the two species, one must observe the mouth. The white rhino’s mouth is wide, tailored to grazing, while the black rhino’s pointed prehensile lip enables it to browse, demonstrating the elegant adaptations that distinguish these majestic creatures.
Leopard (part of the ‘Big Five’)
The leopard, renowned for its enigmatic and elusive nature, often reveals its presence through a harsh, rasping territorial call rather than visual sightings. This majestic creature excels as an ambush predator, often selecting favored trees as vantage points and storing its prey high above the ground. Known for its solitary habits, mainly operating under the cloak of night, the leopard’s intense privacy makes spotting this beautiful animal a challenging and rare experience for even the most seasoned observer. A valuable tip for those fortunate enough to venture into the leopard’s domain: look for the telltale sign of a dangling tail amongst the trees. This singular glimpse might be the key to unveiling the leopard’s concealed elegance.
Best countries for Leopard sightings: South Africa (Sabi Sand), Zambia (Lower Zambezi).
The cheetah, a distinct member of the big cat family, stands out as the least aggressive and perhaps the most specialized. Often considered the most fragile among its formidable peers, it is not uncommon for the cheetah to lose its hard-earned kills to more dominant animals such as lions, hyenas, and even vultures. The cheetah’s hunting behavior is characterized by careful positioning and patience, typically during the tranquil hours of dawn or the soft glow of late afternoon. It then launches from concealment, employing breathtaking bursts of speed that can reach up to 112 kph, although this phenomenal pace can be sustained for only 200-300 meters. Unlike its fellow big cats, the cheetah avoids climbing trees, favoring instead natural elevations like termite mounds or leaning trees, or even the advantage of human-made structures like vehicles, as vantage points. This unique behavior further distinguishes the cheetah’s refined hunting technique, setting it apart in the grand tapestry of African wildlife.
Best countries for Cheetah sightings: Kenya (Masai Mara), Namibia (Etosha).
The African wild dog, now an uncommon sight among the continent’s vast array of large carnivores, bears a striking resemblance to a long-legged canine, accentuated by rounded ears, a black facial mask, and a distinct white tuft on its tail. Functioning predominantly during the daylight hours, these strictly carnivorous animals have earned a reputation as relentless and skillful pack-hunters. Though they may appear relatively small in stature, their coordinated hunting strategies enable them to subdue prey that dwarfs them in size. Their unique physical attributes and exceptional hunting prowess mark the African wild dog as a fascinating and formidable creature in the diverse ecosystem of Africa.
Best countries for Wild Dog sightings: South Africa (Kruger Reserves), Zambia (North & South Luangwa), Kenya (Laikipia), Tanzania (Nyerere).
Among the extraordinary creatures that grace the African landscape, the giraffe stands tall, quite literally, as the world’s tallest mammal, reaching heights of up to 5.2 meters. Distinct subspecies such as the Rothschild’s, Masai, and Reticulated giraffes exhibit subtle differences in appearance. Equipped with a remarkable 45 cm long tongue and nimble lips, the giraffe effortlessly browses on acacia leaves and other foliage that remain beyond the reach of most animals. Commonly found in savannahs, open woodlands, and plains, giraffes enjoy a lifespan of 25 to 35 years. They are non-territorial creatures that form relaxed, leaderless herds during their daytime browsing, while evenings are spent lying down, ruminating. The Masai giraffe is identified by its broken pattern of dark blotches on a buff background, whereas the sturdier Rothschild’s giraffe boasts a paler shade and distinctive white ‘stockinged’ forelegs. Both sexes possess knob-like horns, but the males are distinguished by bald tips, while the females’ tips are covered with hair. The elegance and grandeur of these gentle giants provide a unique spectacle in the rich tableau of African wildlife.
Did you know? Giraffe feed for up to 16 hours a day, and can consume up to 60 kg of leaves daily. They defend themselves by kicking and can run at speeds of up to 55 mph.
Best countries for Giraffe sightings: Kenya (Samburu), Namibia (Etosha).
A prominent icon of the majestic African landscape, the wildebeest takes center stage in one of nature’s grandest displays: the annual migration from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara. This event has captured global attention and showcases the wildebeest’s highly gregarious nature. These creatures move in remarkable herds, sometimes numbering up to 150 females and young, guided by the watchful leadership of 1 to 3 dominant bulls. The wildebeest’s characteristic head-high, rocking gait sets it apart, reflecting its uniqueness among the rich diversity of African wildlife. Sustained almost entirely on a diet of grass, these animals display impressive resilience during the dry season, covering distances up to 50 km a day in their relentless pursuit of water. Accompanying this grand trek is a continuous symphony of sounds, a mixture of low moaning grunts and explosive snorts, contributing to the wild and untamed melody of the African plains.
Did you know? A newly born wildebeest can run within minutes of birth.
Best countries for Wildebeest sightings: Kenya (Masai Mara for the Great Migration), Tanzania (Serengeti for the Great Migration).
Adorned with a striking pattern of broad black and white stripes, the zebra stands as a symbol of Africa’s diverse and extraordinary wildlife. As primary grazers, they exhibit intricate social dynamics, often formed around small clusters of related mares. The mating season brings a spectacular display of physical prowess, with stallions engaging in dramatic contests that involve plunging, rearing, slashing, and kicking. The Burchell’s zebra, the most commonly sighted species, plays a significant role in the captivating annual migration from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara, journeying alongside the vast herds of wildebeest. East Africa is also home to the Grevy’s zebra, a species distinguished by its larger size, finer stripes, and characteristic large, rounded ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears. The zebra’s distinctive appearance and complex behavior render it a remarkable component of the rich tapestry that makes up the African savannah.
Best countries for Zebra sightings: Botswana (Makgadikgadi Pans), Tanzania (Serengeti).
As one of the largest land animals in the world, weighing up to a formidable four tonnes, the hippopotamus presents a fascinating study in adaptability and power. These true amphibians have mastered life both on land and underwater, possessing the ability to remain submerged for up to three to four minutes at a time. Remarkably, hippos conduct vital aspects of their lives in this aquatic environment, including eating, mating, and giving birth. Their days are predominantly spent resting in water, surfacing periodically to recharge their lungs with fresh air. As the sun dips below the horizon, hippos emerge from their watery havens in organized groups, referred to as ‘sounders,’ embarking on nightly grazing expeditions along well-defined pathways within their home range. Consuming up to 60 kg of fodder each night, they traverse the land with an unexpected agility. However, it is their fearsome teeth and potential for aggression on land that serve as stark reminders of their potency, positioning the hippopotamus as one of Africa’s most formidable and intriguing inhabitants.
Best countries for Hippo sightings: Zambia (South Luangwa), Botswana (Okavango).
In the vast and diverse landscapes of eastern and southern Africa reside two remarkable and closely-related species: the East African Oryx and the Gemsbok. Both are classified as threatened, emphasizing the importance of their conservation. The classification of these elegant creatures has proven to be a complex matter, leading to differing interpretations among experts. One widely-accepted system identifies the Gemsbok as its own distinct species, while the East African Oryx is further divided into two unique subspecies: the East African Oryx “proper” and the Fringe-eared oryx. Their graceful presence and the intrigue surrounding their classification contribute to the richness of the African wildlife tapestry, underscoring the need for careful study and protection to ensure their continued existence.
Best countries for Oryx sightings: Namibia (Sossusvlei & Etosha), Botswana (Central Kahalari).
The gorilla, standing as the largest of the living primates, has long captured human fascination and wonder. These majestic creatures primarily reside in the remote and inaccessible regions of tropical Africa’s dense forests, a natural habitat that has shrouded them in mystery and intrigue. Among their ranks, the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is of particular interest, having remained hidden from scientific discovery until as recently as 1902. The mystique and grandeur of the gorilla not only contribute to its iconic status in the animal kingdom but also underscore the rich complexity and unparalleled beauty of Africa’s wildlife.
Best countries for Mountain Gorilla sightings: Rwanda (Volcanoes NP), Uganda (Bwindi Forest).
The chimpanzee, marked by its noisy curiosity and intelligent sociability, stands as the mammal bearing the closest resemblance to humans. This kinship has led to a mutual fascination, making chimpanzees highly favored both in zoological environments and in their natural wild habitat.
Within East Africa, the presence of the chimpanzee varies across regions. They roam freely in the wild expanses of Tanzania and Uganda, while in Kenya, they are found exclusively in captivity. Notably, Tanzania’s Gombe National Park has the distinction of being Africa’s first park specifically dedicated to the protection and observation of these remarkable primates.
Characterized by a robust body, long arms, and short legs, the chimpanzee’s physical form is complemented by a coat of thick black hair. Contrasting this, their face, ears, fingers, and toes remain bare, lending to a distinct appearance. Their hands, capable of a firm grip, facilitate the use of objects, a trait that led to the groundbreaking discovery of their ability to utilize ‘tools’ for specific functions. This revelation not only surprised the world but further deepened our understanding of the chimpanzee’s extraordinary capabilities, adding to their allure and importance within the rich tapestry of African wildlife.
Best countries for Chimpanzee sightings: Uganda (Kibale), Tanzania (Mahale Mountains & Rubondo Island), Rwanda (Nyungwe Forest).