On safari, looking for wildlife is one of the highlights of any vacation in South Africa. The country’s iconic national parks and private game reserves are among the best places on the continent to see animals and birds that range from the endearing to the enormous, and from the cute to the cantankerous. Guidebooks offer a bewildering array of lists to check off: the Big and Little Fives (rhinoceros beetle, anyone?), the Big Seven (think Big Five 2.0) and even the Ugly Five. To help transform you from a stranger to a ranger, here’s our definitive list of the African animals you should try and see – and one you most likely won’t!
Also unofficially known as Pumbaa, since its starring role in Disney’s The Lion King, the warthog has a face that only a mother could love. It spends much of its time with its rear end pointing skywards as it digs for roots with its shovel-like snout. If alarmed, the warthog will often run away at high speed, with its tail sticking straight up so its young can follow it through long grass. What it lacks in the looks department, it more than makes up for in charisma, and is just as likely to stand its ground as flee.
The tallest land mammal, the giraffe is able to reach the leaves and twigs that other animals can’t. Its super-long neck contains the same number of bones as a human’s – seven – only each one is rather longer. The giraffe enjoys feeding on prickly acacia trees, and has a long, leathery tongue and antiseptic saliva to help it cope with those long spines. If that sounds like a tough life, consider that the giraffe gives birth standing up, meaning the baby’s entry into the world is a six-foot drop. Perhaps that’s where the term “bouncing baby” comes from?
Yes, it’s true, the leopard can’t change its spots. But then why would it, when it is one of the most beautiful of all African animals? The feline equivalent of a stealth fighter, the leopard is a superbly-camouflaged ambush predator and makes great use of whatever cover is available. That lovely spotted coat blends in perfectly with dappled light and shadows, and its prey is usually caught unawares. Once the kill has been made, the leopard will often carry it up into a tree to feed on at leisure. Special locking wrist bones and powerful limbs mean that it can lift more than its own weight whilst climbing.
If there’s one animal that repeat safari-goers still need to see, it’s most likely the aardvark. So if you spot one on your first trip to South Africa, you’re doing really well. This odd-looking creature usually only emerges from its burrow at dusk, to spend the hours of darkness using its heavy claws to break open termite mounds. In a typical night the aardvark will walk up to three miles and consume around 50,000 termites! The aardvark even knows to leave a particular mound for a week or so before breaking in again.
Understandably many people’s favorite African animal, and certainly one of the most impressive. The elephant has a complex social structure (with the ladies in charge; teenage males are evicted from the herd!) and communicates in ways we still don’t quite understand, and that are in some cases outside our range of hearing. Then there are the giant ears that function as radiators, spongy feet allowing silent walking, and an upper lip and nose fused into the remarkable trunk, which can pick up a single berry, or uproot an entire tree. The elephant even appears to mourn relatives which have passed away.
Possibly the first animal you will see on safari as they are rather abundant in places. People often stop noticing the impala after a while, which is a real shame since it is extremely pretty. Their coordinated breeding strategy means that all the young are born at the same time of year – this is known as “predator swamping” and helps ensure while some may get eaten, many more survive. Dominant males preside over harems of females; often though, while the top buck are fighting, others sneak in and mate with the females! When danger threatens, special scents released from those black ankle patches hang in the air to indicate the best way to leap to safety.
One creature you won’t find in your field guide, mostly because it doesn’t exist – or does it? Many people in South Africa believe in the existence of this mythical small, hairy goblin. It’s notorious for causing mischief and for biting off people’s toes while they sleep, and is rumored to be rather amorous, too. Tabloid newspapers still regularly report “confirmed” sightings, and in rural areas, many people still raise their beds up on stacks of bricks to protect themselves from the unwanted attentions of the tokolosh!
Ready to start planning your dream safari? Contact us and we’ll be happy to help.