10 Animals to Add to your African Safari Sightings Checklist
Featured destinations: Africa
Published 29 September 2016
So you’re thinking about signing up for an African safari and hoping to tick the Big Five off your must-see list. But there’s so much more to safari than lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo! These may be the most famous animals, but it’s the lesser-known creatures that cause far more excitement among wildlife watchers.
As a seasoned safari-goer I’ve picked 10 animals that rank highly on my sightings checklist. Some you’ll almost certainly come across, others are rare. So grab your binoculars, charge your camera battery, get out into the bush and see what you can find.
Let’s start with an easy one. Unless you’re venturing into remote Zambia and Zimbabwe, you’re very likely to spot a giraffe, whichever safari park you go to. Not least because, at about six metres tall, they tower far above the plains and stick out like a sore thumb. Having said that, you’ll be surprised how camouflaged they can be against a forest backdrop, and if you see one sitting in the grass, you could drive right past it and never know. My favourite time is when they run – an elegant yet awkward sight guaranteed to make you chuckle.
So here’s a little known fact about me: I’ve been chased by a hippo. No lie! So there I was, on a boat on the Rufiji River in Tanzania, on the lookout for leopard. I heard a splash behind me and before I knew it my boat driver was speeding off at full throttle, with a hippo galloping along in our wake. Luckily our boat was able to outrun the hippo, but it was a close call. Super exciting though, and one of the reasons I love hippos. They’re so unpredictable; keep your distance!
Due to a certain price comparison website, the meerkat has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Everyone loves their expressive faces, dodgy Russian accents and their ability to stand up on their hind legs, looking almost human. They hang out in packs, known (appropriately perhaps) as a mob, and you’re most likely to spot them in Namibia, South Africa and Botswana, where if you sit really still, they will crawl up your back and sit on your head, using it as a makeshift lookout post. Simples.
Although they’re found all over Africa, it’s rare to see a bushbaby on safari. That’s because this saucer-eyed primate is nocturnal, so to see one you’ll have to go out after dark. Check before you travel, because night safaris are not possible everywhere, but if you do go, look up into the trees where you’ll see them clinging to the branches or leaping incredible distances. Alternatively, listen out for the sound of a child wailing – it’s probably a bushbaby declaring its territory.
Also known as a painted dog, the wild dog is endangered, and so is only found in a few African parks. That said, if you go to a wild dog hotspot – try Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve or Botswana’s Okavango Delta – then you do have a good chance of seeing them, especially if you keep your eyes peeled for their characteristic huge ears. Like the domestic dog, they’re highly social animals, and will wag their tails when they’re happy. But don’t go patting them, because unlike your average Fido, these are ferocious hunters, killing antelopes, warthogs and even porcupines on a regular basis.
Due to their popularity as fashion accessories in China, pangolins are sadly rare. Not to mention hard to spot due to being the exact same colour as the ground. I’ve been going on safari for 10 years now, and I’ve never seen one. But they are out there – try Namibia for your best chances – if you see one I guarantee your safari guide will be dancing around with excitement. It will make his day, or year. They’re strange-looking things, like armoured anteaters, but cute too, and they like to curl up into a little scaly ball when threatened.
Before I saw one, I though porcupines were ugly things, like giant, super spiky hedgehogs. But when I clapped eyes on the little beady eyes and fluffy face of a well-known porcupine named Sam in Namibia’s Erongo Region, I was smitten. Like the bushbaby, they are nocturnal, but as they spend most of their time on the ground and like to rummage through the kitchen scraps, not to mention being around a metre long, seeing them isn’t too difficult.
Less like a badger and more like a weasel, the honey badger is actually quite rare to see, despite being spread all across Africa. They are solitary creatures, named after their love of honey, which they obtain by using sticks and stones to steal it from the beehives. I’ve seen just one honey badger in my time, and it was a long way away. They’re definitely something to boast about to fellow travellers over your post-safari drinks though, especially if you have photo evidence to prove your sighting.
A bizarre-looking bird that looks like it might be plotting its revenge on humankind, the shoebill is named after its enormous shoe-shaped beak, which reaches lengths of up to 30cm. They live primarily in eastern Africa, including Tanzania and Zambia, and like to hang out in freshwater marshes. A particular hotspot is Zambia’s Bangweulu Swamps, and if they’re about they’re not too hard to find, being about 1.2m in height with bright yellow eyes. I’m not going to lie, they are a little intimidating, but they rank highly among the world’s most sought after birds for birdwatching enthusiasts.
The serval might look like your domestic moggie, but it’s anything but. This wild cat is about 60cm tall, with long legs and large ears. Like your average housecat, they like to chase mice, rats, birds and frogs, which they kill by leaping over two metres from the ground and trapping them with their paws. You can find them in tall grasses across Africa, including up Mount Kilimanjaro, and they are most often spotted prowling about in the early evening. One time in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park I was lucky (or unlucky) enough to have one put its paws up on my car and peer in the window at me.
And one not to add
Despite what some people think, you won’t be seeing any tigers on your African safari. Tigers are native to India, China, Southeast Asia and a tiny region of Siberia, so if you want to see one, check out our Glimpses of Taj & Tiger tailor-made holiday to India.
Fancy going on safari? Take a look at Round the World Experts’ tailor-made Africa holidays.