African Animals

The Animals of Africa

The reason most of us go to Africa is for the abundant wildlife! Discover some of it here. Do you know your Big Five? The term, ‘the Big Five’ was coined during the hunting era and referred to the five animals most desired by the ‘white hunters’. These days, the only hunting that is done of the legendary ‘big five’ is by camera. They are: the elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo.

The African Elephant (part of the ‘Big Five’)

The African elephant lives in small family groups of 10-20 elephants, which often congregate in much larger herds at water or food sources. Elephant society is matriarchal, senior females dominating the herds while the bulls live alone or in bachelor groups. Depending almost entirely on its trunk for scent and communication, for washing, clearing, carrying, learning, drinking and eating, an elephant’s lifespan (60 -70 years) depends very much on its teeth, which are highly adapted to its mode of living. As one tooth wears away the next moves down the jaw to replace it, and when the last tooth has come forward and is worn down the elephant will die of starvation. Although their sight is poor, elephants have an excellent sense of smell and well-developed hearing. Like humans, elephants lead complex inter-dependant social lives growing from helpless infancy through self-conscious adolescence to adulthood. Surprisingly graceful on their padded and carefully placed feet, a large herd of elephants can merge into the trees and disappear within minutes; their presence betrayed only by the noisy cracking of branches as they strip trees and uproot saplings.

Best countries for Elephant sightings: Botswana (Chobe), Kenya (Amboseli).

Lion (part of the ‘Big Five’)

The lion is the largest of Kenya’s three big cats, weighing up to 280 kg. Inherently lazy, the lion is immensely powerful; at one leap it can clear fences 4 meters high and chasms 12 meters long. Its amber eyes, like those of the leopard, differ from those of other cats in so much as they are circular rather than oval. Lions hunt communally, running down their prey at a top speed of around 64 kph and, although they will kill almost any animal, they prefer large herbivores which are the mainstay of their diet. Sightings of lions are normally during daylight hours when the pride is at rest, having spent most of the night in hunting, patrolling and playing. Although they rarely attack humans without provocation, lions are extremely dangerous and should be treated with particular caution (you should never get out of your car in lion territory).

Best countries for Lion sightings: Tanzania (Serengeti), Kenya (Masai Mara).

The African Buffalo (part of the ‘Big Five’)

The African or Cape buffalo is closely related to the domestic cow. Generally docile, buffalos can be extremely dangerous when threatened or surprised and must be regarded with extreme caution – especially lone bulls or cows with calves. Intensely gregarious, buffalos form into herds of between 200 and 2000 animals. Voracious eaters (both grazers and browsers), they spend most of their 15-20 year lifespan consuming fodder to maintain their strength and stamina.

Best countries for Buffalo sightings: Botswana (Chobe), South Africa (Kruger Park & Reserves).

Rhino (part of the ‘Big Five’)

Ruthlessly hunted for its horn, which is widely used in Chinese medicine and much prized as a dagger handle in the Middle East, the black rhino came close to extinction at the close of the last century and still remains Africa’s single most endangered large mammal. The smaller of the two rhino species (weighing approximately 900 -1,400 kg), the black rhino has a more concave back than the white rhino, relatively small, three-toed hoofs, and a pointed prehensile upper lip, which is ideally suited to browsing in the bush and forest.

What is the difference between the black rhino and the white rhino? Contrary to popular imagination, rhino are neither black nor white; both are a similar shade of grey. The name ‘white’ originates from the Afrikaans word ‘weit’, which means ‘wide’, and refers to the width of the white rhino’s mouth, which is specially adapted to grazing. To tell the difference between black and white – look at the mouth of the animal, the white rhino is a grazer and has a wide mouth, the black rhino is a browser and has a pointed prehensile (capable of grasping) lip.

Best countries for Rhino sightings: South Africa (Phinda, Hluhluwe, Kruger Reserves), Kenya (Laikipia Conservancies).

Leopard (part of the ‘Big Five’)

Thanks to its harshly rasping territorial call, the intensely secretive leopard is more often heard than seen. A supreme ambush hunter, the leopard is a solitary animal spending much of its time up a selection of favoured trees, which it uses as game larders for its kills. Mainly nocturnal and extremely unsociable, the leopard is very difficult to spot. Viewing tip: scan the trees for the telltale sign of the dangling tail.

Best countries for Leopard sightings: South Africa (Sabi Sand), Zambia (Lower Zambezi).


The cheetah is the least catlike and aggressive of the big cats; the weakest of the group, it often loses its kills to lions, hyenas and even vultures. When hunting (around dawn and late afternoon), cheetahs spend a lot of time moving into position before bursting from cover and running down their prey in brief bursts of speed of up to 112 kph (sustainable for only 200-300 meters at a time). Unlike the other big cats, cheetahs never climb trees but prefer termite mounds, leaning trees or even vehicles as observation posts.

Best countries for Cheetah sightings: Kenya (Masai Mara), Namibia (Etosha).

Wild Dog

Now one of the rarest large carnivores in Africa, the hunting dog resembles a long-legged dog with prominent rounded ears, a black muzzle and face, and white tail tuft. Almost exclusively diurnal, the strictly carnivorous hunting dogs are relentless and formidable pack-hunters. Relatively small, they are also capable of bringing down prey twice their size.

Best countries for Wild Dog sightings: South Africa (Kruger Reserves), Zambia (North & South Luangwa), Kenya (Laikipia), Tanzania (Nyerere).


Rothschild’s, Masai and Reticulated. The world’s tallest mammal (up to 5.2 meters tall), the giraffe uses its unique 45 cm long tongue and agile lips to browse on the leaves of trees that other creatures cannot reach, its especial favourite being acacia. Widespread and common in savannah, open woodland and plains, giraffe have a lifespan of 25-35 years. Non-territorial, they gather in loose leaderless herds to browse by day, while at night they lie down and ruminate. Masai giraffe have a broken pattern of dark blotches on a buff background. The more solidly built Rothschild’s giraffe, is paler in colour and has distinctive white ‘stockinged’ forelegs. Both sexes have knob-like horns but can be told apart due to the fact that the males have bald horn tips while the females’ are hairy.

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).


Star of the world’s greatest animal spectacular, the annual migration from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara, the wildebeest is an extremely gregarious animal, moving in herds that can number up to 150 females and young, headed up by 1-3 bulls. Unmistakable with their peculiar head-high, rocking gait, wildebeest live almost entirely on grass, and in the dry season a herd can cover up to 50 km a day in search of water. Males make a continuous cacophony of low moaning grunts and explosive snorts.

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).


Unmistakably marked with broadly alternating black and white stripes, zebra are primarily grazers. They also enjoy a complex social system, which is built up around small groups of related mares over which the stallions fight with much spectacular plunging, rearing, slashing and kicking during the mating season. The most common being the Burchell’s zebra, which is best-known for accompanying the thousands of wildebeest that make up the annual migration from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara – and back again. East Africa’s other zebra species, the Grevy’s zebra, is larger than its cousin with finer stripes and large rounded ‘ Mickey Mouse’ ears.

Best countries for Zebra sightings: Botswana (Makgadikgadi Pans), Tanzania (Serengeti).


Weighing up to four tonnes, hippos are the third-largest land animals in the world. True amphibians, they can stay totally submerged in water for three to four minutes at a time; they also eat, mate and give birth under water. Spending most of their day resting in water, hippo come up frequently to blow air and recharge their lungs. At sundown they leave the water in schools (or ‘sounders’) to spend the night grazing their home range which is usually marked by well-defined pathways, each animal consuming up to 60 kg of fodder per night. Hippos have fearsome teeth and on land can be aggressive and extremely dangerous.

Best countries for Hippo sightings: Zambia (South Luangwa), Botswana (Okavango).


The East African Oryx inhabits eastern Africa, and the closely-related Gemsbok inhabits all of eastern and southern Africa. Both are considered threatened species. The classification of these two animals varies between experts. One system has the Gemsbok as one species, and the East African Oryx as another with two subspecies of its own, the East African Oryx “proper” and the Fringe-eared oryx.

Best countries for Oryx sightings: Namibia (Sossusvlei & Etosha), Botswana (Central Kahalari).

Mountain Gorilla

Few animals have sparked the imagination of man as much as the gorilla, the largest of the living primates. Most gorillas live in inaccessible regions in various dense forests in tropical Africa, and one subspecies, the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), was not even known to science until 1902.

Best countries for Mountain Gorilla sightings: Rwanda (Volcanoes NP), Uganda (Bwindi Forest).


Noisy and curious, intelligent and social, the chimpanzee is the mammal most like a human. Chimpanzees fascinate humans and are favorites both in zoos and the wild.

In East Africa the chimpanzee is found in the wild in Tanzania and Uganda, but only in captivity in Kenya. Gombe National Park in Tanzania is the first park in Africa specifically created for chimpanzees.

The chimpanzee has a thickset body with long arms, short legs and no tail. Much of the body is covered with long black hair, but the face, ears, fingers and toes are bare. They have hands that can grip firmly, allowing them to pick up objects. The discovery that they used “tools” for certain purposes surprised the world.

Best countries for Chimpanzee sightings: Uganda (Kibale), Tanzania (Mahale Mountains), Rwanda (Nyungwe Forest).