There are few better experiences than spotting African safari animals on a game drive. Here are 20 to look out for including tips for where to go and how best to see them.

Spotting African safari animals on wide-open savannahs is a remarkable experience.

The early starts. Icy mornings with arms out car windows. The sun punctuating the horizon; burning the chill from the cool air. Stillness. Then, a lone lion standing proud, suspiciously surveying his territory. Rustling leaves that may or may not have been a leopard darting up a tree. Sleepy rhinos gracefully retreating through the scrub, munching on leaves as they go. A self-drive safari is an extraordinary experience.

It’s a privilege to see these incredible creatures. However, many are becoming increasingly threatened as humans encroach on their habitats.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) monitors the conservation status of many species across the world and ranks them based on their level of threat (critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable, near threatened to least concern).

Many of the most remarkable African safari animals range from vulnerable like the lion, to critically endangered like the black rhino.

Fortunately, government-run game reserves are working hard to protect them; partnering with the community to reduce the human-wildlife conflict. Spending money to visit a game reserve will not only allow you see these amazing animals in the wild; it also helps to finance their conservation.

Here’s what you can see, where best to see them and some tips on how to get the best viewings.

1 / LION


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Vulnerable

Enjoying the enviable position at the top of the food chain with no predators, the lion rules the wide-open African plains. The largest and grandest of all cats, they live in small prides led by a single male. Without fear of other animals and no need to hide, they are the easiest cat to see on a game drive. 

Lions hunt at night and largely sleep during the day, sheltering from the sun under trees or thick vegetation. The best chance to see then is at dawn when they may still be hunting, or at dusk as they begin to rise for the evening.  

WHERE TO SEE LIONS

Shrinking habitats have forced lions into closer contact with humans causing them to attack livestock. As this puts them at risk of retaliatory hunting, most lions are now in the large game reserves.

Lions are seen throughout Africa; however, the best locations are in eastern Africa. Serengeti and Masai Mara are ideal big cat country; Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania has one of the highest densities of lion in the world; and Okavango is said to have some of the biggest.


2 / LEOPARD


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Vulnerable

Leopards are notoriously difficult to spot. Shy and solitary, they spend most of the day in caves or high up in trees. Hunting is at night often amongst shrubby rocky ground. Fortunately, they can survive in a wider array of environments than other African safari animals and, although numbers are declining, they can still be found living outside parks on local farmland.  

Leopard is one animal that is harder to see on a self-drive safari. To increase your chances, take an organised drive with a guide who knows the area well and is in radio contact with other guides, creating a wider coverage area.

WHERE TO SEE LEOPARDS

With conservation efforts boosting the leopard population, the wide-open plains of Masai Mara and South Luangwa in Zambia are great destinations. One of the best locations to spot leopards is in Sabi Sands in South Africa. As a private reserve that doesn’t allow self-drive, the rangers can keep a more protective eye on young leopards.


3 / AFRICAN ELEPHANT


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Vulnerable

Elephants are listed as vulnerable on IUCN red list, but fortunately their immense size means if they are nearby, you are unlikely to miss them. Incredibly destructive animals, they rip foliage to pieces with their powerful trunks leaving a trail of devastation – another sign that elephants are nearby.

Most elephants live in herds consisting of 5 to 100 animals, and spotting a large herd is one of the most exciting experiences on an African safari. If you are self-driving on safari and you come across a lone bull, keep your distance as they can be moody and unpredictable. It is easiest to see them in the dry season, during the day, when they will gather around waterholes to drink

WHERE TO SEE ELEPHANTS

Chobe National Park in Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa, making it almost guaranteed that you’ll get excellent sightings of them playing by the water. Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe also has a large population, and the scenic park is excellent for photography.


4 / WHITE RHINO + BLACK RHINO


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Black rhino: critically endangered | White rhino: near threatened

After decades of rampant poaching, primarily to supply rhino horn to the dubious Chinese medicine market, there are now only 2 northern white rhinos left in the world, both of which are female. Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers dropped by 98%, however thanks to incredible conservation efforts, their numbers have increased to around 5,600. Despite this improvement, they remain critically endangered.

The real conservation success story has been in the recovery of southern white rhinos. Previously thought to be extinct, a population of 100 were discovered in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa at the end of the 19th century. There are now thought to be around 20,000 living in protected areas and private game reserves throughout the country.

WHERE TO SEE RHINO

Namibia has done as much as any country to try to preserve the black rhino, yet they are still rare. To see them stay in a well-run eco-tourism property such as Grootberg Lodge, which offers day drives with ex-poaches now employed as guides.

White rhino are much more common but still difficult to spot in many places. South Africa, with less arid game reserves, has better conditions for rhino. Kruger and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserves are excellent.


5 / AFRICAN BUFFALO


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Near threatened

The last of the big 5 African safari animals (the others being leopard, lion, elephant, rhino), the buffalo, are the only wild cattle species in Africa. They’re imposing animals who congregate to ensure protection from predators. They also drink regularly so, they’re often easy to spot in large groups around waterholes.

Buffalo herds move constantly throughout the day in search of fresh grazing and water, so look for locations between waterholes for the best sightings. Lions often trail buffalos so keep your eyes peeled for action.

WHERE TO SEE BUFFALO

Kavati National Park in western Tanzania is famous for huge herds of buffalo who often get into scraps with predatory lions. However, while it may not have such large congregations, Kruger National Park has very good buffalo sightings in a more accessible park.


6 / CHEETAH


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Vulnerable

The sleekest and fastest land animal on earth, the cheetah can be tricky to spot due to their relatively small population. But they hunt during the day to avoid larger predators and chase their game at high speeds across open grasslands. This means that if you do spot a cheetah, it could possibly be part of an exciting chase with uninterrupted views.

Early and mid-morning safari drives provide the best opportunities to spot the cheetah in action. Head to the wide-open plains where the lack of vegetation means they can utilise their speed most effectively.

WHERE TO SEE CHEETAH

The best places to see cheetah are in the wide-open grasslands of Masai Mara in Kenya, and Serengeti in Tanzania. Kruger Park in South Africa contains about 1/3 of all African Cheetahs but its shrubbier environment can make them more difficult to see. For an almost guaranteed sighting, Okonjima in Namibia rehabilitates orphaned cheetahs providing great access.  


7 / COMMON HIPPO


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Vulnerable

Bad tempered and territorial, hippos are notoriously dangerous creatures. They’re known to be extremely defensive, especially with young around. During the day the hippos wallow in muddy pools or shallow estuaries to protect their easily burnt skin. But at night they head onto land to feed on the grasses, before returning home at dawn.

During the day, hippos can be spotted in river pools but most likely all you’ll see is the top of their heads. For a better view, a guided night safari provides the possibility of seeing them out of water.  

WHERE TO SEE HIPPO

Serengeti National Park in Tanzania is one of the best places to see hippos. There are several waterholes with excellent viewing platforms. Another option is the river estuary in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, near St Lucia, which has the largest hippo population in South Africa.


8 / GIRAFFE


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Vulnerable

Despite declining populations over previous decades, giraffe numbers in southern Africa are now increasing. This welcome resurgence is providing travellers with countless opportunities to witness the languid manner and puzzled expressions of these gracious, yet awkward creatures.

Giraffes tend to stick out from the environment, so they’re not difficult to spot. Try and capture them near a waterhole; their awkward stance as they take a drink is quite a sight.

WHERE TO SEE GIRAFFE

Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda has done an excellent job in increasing the giraffe population and saving specific species from extinction. It remains one of the best places to see these most elegant of African safari animals. Northern Selous in Kenya is another excellent option.


9 / ZEBRA


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Plains zebra: near threatened | Grévy’s zebra: endangered

With their unique black and white striped coat, Zebras are one of the most recognisable African safari animals. Their colouring contrasts beautifully with their environment making them a photogenic subject for wildlife photography.

Zebras travel regularly, grazing on whatever they can find. They also live in large groups called harems, so it’s not difficult to spot them on safari. Being prevalent across many of the safari parks in Africa, if there is water and grass around, there’s a good chance you’ll find a zebra.

WHERE TO SEE ZEBRA

The most dramatic place to see zebra is on the great migration, where vast herds of zebra and antelope follow the rains between Masai Mara in Kenya and Serengeti in Tanzania. For a nail-biting experience, watch them make the dangerous cross of the Mara River as crocodiles lurk.


10 / HYENA


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Spotted Hyena: least concern | Brown and Striped Hyena: near threatened

Occupying a variety of habitats including dry bushland, open plains and rocky country, hyenas will be found anywhere there is abundant wildlife for food. However, they’re not picky eaters, in fact, they will feast on just about anything. There is a common misconception that hyenas are primarily scavengers, but this reputation is unjustified – around 70% of their diet is made up of their own kill.

When they are hunting or scavenging, hyenas will often communicate via their haunting laugh. During the day, they will chill out beside their den or by water. The best time is early morning when they are hunting or looking to steal someone else’s kill from the night before.

WHERE TO SEE HYENA

Hyenas are present in virtually all national parks and reserves but are most prolific where other large cats provide them with carcases to scavenge. Masai Mara, Serengeti, Okavango, Luangwa Valleys and Greater Kruger are all excellent.


11 / JACKAL


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Least concern

With a shrewd appearance somewhere between a fox and a German Shepherd, jackals are an under-appreciated African safari animal. They’re loyal creatures who have one mate for life and build strong alliances to ensure their ongoing survival. Being omnivores, they feed on foliage when it’s around, but they also hunt small prey using stealthy coordination with their mates. However, their favoured technique for eating is to scavenge off larger prey, often at much personal risk from bigger predators. As skilled and tactical scavengers, they’ll often be nearby if there is a kill on the side of the road.

WHERE TO SEE JACKAL

Black-backed jackals are most prevalent in the southern African countries of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. They are not only in the major game reserves but can also be found scavenging in wild and desolate places such as the Skeleton Coast.


12 / AFRICAN WILD DOG


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Endangered

Apart from the large Micky Mouse type ears, wild dogs have a menacing look. But their greatest assets are stamina and teamwork. They hunt in packs, working cooperatively to drive their prey to exhaustion by chasing them until they can no longer run.

Wild dogs are rare and often difficult to find, so a sighting is a special occurrence. They like bush and open grasslands and strike with no notice, so often the first hint you’ll have is the panicking flight of prey. Even if you get a glimpse it may be fleeting as they don’t stand still for long.

WHERE TO SEE WILD DOG

Given the rareness of wild dogs, the best opportunity to see then is on a private game reserve where conservation efforts bolster their numbers. South Luangwa in Zambia has had some success in increasing numbers. Linyanti Reserve in Botswana, Mana Pools in Zimbabwe and Madikwe in South Africa are other good options. But you’ll also need a dose of good luck.


13 / WARTHOG & BUSHPIG


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Least concern

The name warthog comes from the two large warts on the side of their face, which unfairly, are not warts at all, but mounds of bone and cartridge. They’re not the most graceful of all African safari animals but there is something endearing about them.  It might be the way they hobble around on their knees all day grazing for food.

Because they will eat anything, they will sometimes be at risk of culling after feasting on rice or beans in agricultural areas. Many governments in Africa are developing wildlife corridors which allow warthogs to move from one protected area to the next without being tempted by risky agricultural crops.

WHERE TO SEE WARTHOG

Warthogs are common across the continent but are most abundant in southern and eastern Africa. You don’t even need to be in a reserve, they are commonly found on the side of the road, munching on grass, berries and insects. 


14 / BABOON


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Least concern

Baboons are opportunistic eaters who will gobble up anything that is remotely edible. Much of their day is spent foraging for food in large troops; highly complicated social structures which can have up to hundreds of members. The males dominate, followed by the females ranked by birth order.

These troops are a delicate balance of social diplomacy although it’s not always peaceful. Baboon’s don’t have a gripping tale like other monkey, but they do have a powerful jaw and sharp canine teeth; playful banter can quickly become more ominous.

Baboons are very common in much of Africa and can usually be found on the side of the road and picnic spots. They are chronic kleptomaniacs, so keep everything you don’t want to be stolen out of their reach.

WHERE TO SEE BABOON

The Olive and Yellow Baboon can be found in central sub-Sahara Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), whereas the Chacma Baboon inhabits the southern African region. Baboons are relatively common in most parks except the more arid central regions.


15 / MONKEY


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Samango and Vervet Monkey: least concern

If you’ve ever had your lunch snatched from you by a monkey, you’ll see why they could be seen as a pest. As opportunistic eaters, they’ll steel food, raid crops, scamper through rubbish and take anything they think has a good chance of being digested.  

This puts some monkeys in Africa at risk. In addition to being a pest, the vervet monkey is valuable for research and often ends up in traps.

There are hundreds of types of monkey dotted across Africa, mainly in the jungles of the equatorial areas. But in the savannas of the game reserves, you will most likely come across the vervet or samango monkey. They are not difficult to spot, if you stop for a picnic, chances are they’ll come to you.

WHERE TO SEE MONKEY

Vervet monkeys are spread across the game reserves of Africa, but the Sykes (or Samango) monkey is not so common. Their favoured habitat is the forested eastern game reserves of South Africa including Kosi Bay near the Mozambique border.


16 / ANTELOPE


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Majority: least concern

Antelope are one of the most abundant African safari animals and easily spotted all over the continent. At over 5 feet tall, Kudus cut an imposing figure with their distinctive markings and huge corkscrew horns. While the slender impala with their long horns and glossy reddish brown coat maintain a skittish elegance.

But our favourite antelope is the regal wildebeest. With their curious eyes and box-like head, they often appear to pose for photographs. They are best seen on the great migration where around 2 million animals make a journey around the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in search of nutritious grass and water. The migration happens all year, however, viewing is best during the dry season between June and September.

WHERE TO SEE ANTELOPE

Antelope can be spotted in all parks. But for something unique head to the dunes of Namibia to spot the oryx, a true desert animal. Alternatively, the great migration in Masai Mara is one of the biggest migrations in the world and a spectacle to see.  


17 / COMMON OSTRICH


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Least concern

When Ostriches don’t have their head in the sand, they are resourceful creatures that can forge a life in the most difficult of conditions. Mainly vegetarian they will also eat small insects in order to survive and if water is scarce they can rely on vegetation to hydrate. As a result, ostriches can be found in the most inhospitable of places.

In the 18th century, the ostrich was heavily hunted for their feathers and meat. If it were not for farming, experts believe that by today they would probably be extinct. As a result, their population is stable in the wild, both on game reserves and in the open. If you’re having trouble spotting them, keep an eye out for their elaborate mating rituals which include erotic dancing and loud boisterous hissing.

WHERE TO SEE OSTRICH

Ostriches are best found in the drier and more arid regions of sub-Saharan Africa. One of the most intriguing places to see them is in the barren desolation of Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Catch them as silhouettes on a bleak horizon, and wonder where exactly they are scurrying off to.


18 / VULTURES


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Lappet Faced & Cape Vulture: vulnerable | Others: critically endangered

Vultures play a pivotal role in the ecosystem of game reserves, clearing up to 70% of animal carcases. With strong stomach acid, vultures can feed on carcases infected with anthrax, rabies and other deadly diseases, stopping them from getting into the water supply.

Sadly the demise in the number of vultures in Africa has been staggering. Vultures are poisoned by farmers to protect their livestock and by poaches who provide heads, talons and bones to the eastern medicine market where they are highly-prized for their metaphysical powers. Between 65% and 70% have disappeared in the last 15 years.

Vultures are found throughout Africa in most types of habitat including wooded areas, arid deserts and mountainous regions. Although a clumsy flier, keep an eye to the skies, where groups congregate above a kill.

WHERE TO SEE VULTURES

The dramatic drop in vulture numbers means they are now absent from much of the central and western parts of sub-Saharan Africa and only patchily distributed through much of the rest. Your best chances are in formally protected areas such as the Kruger National Park in South Africa, Etosha in Namibia and the Serengeti and Mara regions of Tanzania and Kenya.


19 / FLAMINGO


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Greater Flamingo: least concern | Lesser Flamingo: near threatened

While the big 5 draw the most excitement from safari enthusiasts, masses of flamingos setting a lake alight with waves of bright pink are an incredible sight. Feasting on blue-green algae and shrimp, they are sociable birds who live in colonies of thousands.

Although they stand on one leg and look rather ungainly, they are excellent fliers. There are few more spectacular safari events than a massive swathe of flamingos taking to the air in the early morning sun.

WHERE TO SEE FLAMINGO

The lesser flamingos are near threatened because almost all of them live in one place: Lake Natron in Tanzania, which has plans to build a salt mine that would impact their habitat. Greater flamingos are more widely spread but are best seen bathing in Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, and Lake Elmenteita in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley. However, for a unique experience spot them feeding in waterholes amongst the dunes of the Namib desert.


20 / BIRDS


IUCN CONSERVATION STATUS / Ranging from least concern to critically endangered

Granted, compared to other Africa safari animals, birds are probably low down on the list of creatures that provide unadulterated excitement on a game drive.

Nonetheless, they are fascinating in their own special way. Weaver birds, the energetic yellow go-getter is our favourite. The males build elaborate nests with a downward-facing design to ensure female comfort and protection from predators. The female chooses the best design based on aesthetics and comfort. If his nest isn’t chosen, the male will destroy his hard work in a fit of jealous rage.

WHERE TO SEE BIRDS

Birdwatching is possible all over Africa, however famous locations include Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania where you spot a dazzling array of colourful parrots; and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area which is home to upwards of 500 different species.


BEST TIME TO SPOT AFRICAN SAFARI ANIMALS

The best time to visit the national parks is at the end of the dry season, when land is parched and the vegetation has largely died allowing clearer sightings through the bush. A lack of water also forces animals to congregate around the few remaining waterholes.

In the wet season, the land is green and vegetation thick. The animals spread out over the plains and disappear into the shrub making them more difficult to see. But the rains also bring baby mammals, a wider array of birdlife, fewer tourists and lower costs.

Although the parks differ, the rains generally come from November to April. As the land dries out in May and June the vegetation slowly recedes and by July and August the game viewing is good, climaxing in September and October.

The Masai Mara peaks a bit earlier when the migration crosses the river (around late August) and South Africa, with its high prevalence of rhino, can be good almost any time of year.

More information is in our article: best time to visit South Africa.

MORE SOUTH AFRICA READING

If you’re planning a trip around South Africa, here are our guides to help you get the best out of this stunning country.

KRUGER / Tips for making the most out of a self-drive Kruger safari.

SABI SANDS / See how a private safari in Sabi Sands stacks up against self-drive.

ETOSHA / There’s few better safari destinations than Etosha National Park in Namibia.

HIGHLIGHTS / Our favourite destinations to visit in South Africa.

PLANNING / All our tips on how to construct your own South Africa itinerary.

CAPE TOWN / The best things to do in this remarkable city.

HIKING / There’s great hiking in South Africa. None better than the Royal Natal National Park.

WETLANDS / See whales, nesting turtles and hippos in St.Lucia Wetlands.

ADVENTURE / If you’re looking for adventure in South Africa then head to the Drakensberg.


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