15 Animals to See on an African Safari

The word "Africa" is an evocative one that usually goes hand-in-hand with mental images of vast savanna plains dotted with exotic game. The majority of overseas visitors to Africa will go on safari and, in doing so, discover that there is nothing more magical than a close encounter with the continent's incredible wildlife. Most of the species one sees on safari are unique to Africa, and many of them are instantly recognizable. In this article, we look at 15 of the continent's most iconic animals, including those that make up the African Big Five

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Lion

A male lion standing up in the brush

TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

To see a lion in its natural habitat is one of the most humbling, impressive sights an African safari can offer. However, while witnessing a kill is the ultimate prize, you're more likely to see one sleeping than in active pursuit of dinner. Lions spend up to 20 hours a day at rest and are most active at dusk and dawn. They are the most social of all wild cat species, living in prides consisting of between five and 10 adult lions. Tragically, lions are threatened by human expansion throughout Africa, with experts prophesying that populations could fall by as much as five percent in the next 20 years.

Best Places to See Lions: Head to Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the border of South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana; or to Tanzania's Serengeti National Park during the wildebeest migration. 

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Elephant

Most Iconic African Safari Animals Elephant
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There is nothing quite like the first time you see an African elephant in the wild. As the largest living terrestrial animal on Earth, their size alone is overwhelming; but many visitors also find themselves drawn by the elephants' tangible aura of wisdom. Elephants are found in various sub-Saharan habitats, including forests, deserts, and savanna. They are herbivorous, processing up to 600 pounds of vegetation per day. Although most elephants are peaceful by nature, they can be dangerous if provoked; however, they are far more at risk from humans than we are from them. 

Best Places to See Elephants: Vast elephant herds roam Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana. 

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Giraffe

Most Iconic African Animals Giraffe
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As the tallest animal on Earth, you'd think that giraffes would be easy to spot on safari. However, their distinctive brown and white markings serve as excellent camouflage, and it's not unusual for giraffes to materialize out of the bush just a few feet away. There are nine subspecies found across sub-Saharan Africa, all of which boast blue tongues, stubby horn-like protrusions on their heads, and of course, outrageously long necks. To drink without losing consciousness, the giraffe's neck contains unique veins and valves that regulate the flow of blood to its head. 

Best Places to See Giraffes: Spot large herds of Masai giraffe in the Serengeti, or head to Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda to see the endangered Rothschild's giraffe. 

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Leopard

Most Iconic African Animals Leopard
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The elusive African leopard is a subspecies of leopard found only in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite its wide range, leopards are among the most difficult of all safari animals to see, as they are both nocturnal and exceptionally wary of humans. Leopards use trees as observation platforms and for protection, and that is where they are most often spotted during daylight hours. They are solitary animals with exceptional predatory skills, including the ability to climb, swim, and drag prey weighing up to three times their body weight up into the trees. Leopards are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. 

Best Places to See Leopards: South Africa's Sabi Sands Game Reserve and South Luangwa National Park in Zambia are famous for leopard sightings. 

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White Rhino

White rhino in Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa

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The easiest way to tell Africa's two rhino species apart is by the shape of their bottom lip: wide and square for white rhinos and pointed for black rhinos. The name "white" rhino comes from a mistranslation of the Dutch word for "wide." Although the survival of both species is threatened by widespread poaching, white rhinos are more numerous and therefore easier to spot, especially in Southern Africa, where they prefer grassland and savanna habitats. White rhinos are the largest of five extant rhino species. Adult males averaging around 5,100 pounds are also one of the world's heaviest land mammals.

Best Places to See White Rhinos: Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park and Kruger National Park in South Africa offer a good chance of spotting white rhinos.

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Black Rhino

Black rhino, Etosha National Park in Namibia

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Once found across Southern and East Africa, the black rhino is now considered critically endangered, with fewer than 5,000 individuals left in the wild and three subspecies already classified as extinct. Adult black rhinos have no natural predators, and their population collapse is predominantly due to poaching. They are killed for their horns, made of keratin, and exported to Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Unlike white rhinos, which can sometimes be seen living in herds, black rhinos are generally solitary (although the bond between mother and calf is strong). They favor thick scrub and bushland.

Best Places to See Black Rhinos: Etosha National Park in Namibia is a rhino conservation success story with a thriving black rhino population. Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy is another renowned sanctuary for black rhinos.

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Cheetah

A cheetah lying in the sun

TripSavvy / Jess Macdonald

The cheetah is the most slender of Africa's big cats, a magnificent animal known for its incredible speed. They are capable of short bursts of up to 70 miles per hour, making them the world's fastest land animal. However, cheetahs often have their kills stolen by other, more powerful predators despite their speed. They are a vulnerable species with only around 7,100 individuals left in the wild, including a tiny population of approximately 40 individuals in Iran. Cheetahs are found throughout Southern and East Africa in wide-open spaces that allow them to reach their top speed while pursuing prey. 

Best Places to See Cheetahs: The Maasai Mara National Reserve provides the ideal habitat for cheetahs. Alternatively, track rehabilitated cheetah on foot at Okonjima Game Reserve in Namibia. 

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Buffalo

Most Iconic African Safari Animals Buffalo
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African buffalo have a robust build and distinctive fused horns. They are grazers, typically moving in herds, with no natural predators except lions and crocodiles. Unlike other species of wild buffalo, the African buffalo has never been successfully tamed, thanks to its naturally aggressive and unpredictable nature. Although seeing a buffalo herd ranging across the savanna is undoubtedly an unforgettable sight, it's crucial to treat these animals with respect. They are responsible for multiple human fatalities every year and are considered one of the continent's most dangerous species. 

Best Places to See Buffalo: Katavi National Park in Tanzania is famous for its enormous buffalo herds. Chobe National Park is another good bet. 

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Hippopotamus

Most Iconic African Safari Animals Hippo
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Hippos are a common sight in Southern and East Africa's rivers, swamps, and lakes. Often found in groups of up to 100 individuals, hippos spend most of their life in water, only leaving their aquatic homes to graze on the riverbanks at dusk. They have several fascinating adaptations, including webbed feet, large canine tusks, and the ability to secrete a kind of natural sunscreen. Male hippos are territorial and, like buffalo, can be exceptionally aggressive when provoked. Similarly, take care never to get between a hippo mother and her calf. 

Best Places to See Hippos: Zambia's Luangwa Valley is home to the world's largest concentration of hippos. The Okavango Delta in Botswana is also full of them. 

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Nile Crocodile

Most Iconic African Safari Animals Nile Crocodile
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After the saltwater crocodile, Nile crocodiles are the world's largest living reptile, with the biggest on record exceeding 20 feet in length. In sub-Saharan Africa, they are found in various aquatic habitats, including lakes, rivers, and deltas. Crocodiles are well camouflaged in the water and are most often spotted sunning themselves on the riverbank. They have been around for millions of years, and with heavily armored skin and powerful jaws, they certainly look prehistoric. Nile crocodiles are perfect predators, employing ambush tactics to take their prey unawares. 

Best Place to See Crocodiles: Watch herds of wildebeest and zebra crossing the Mara River during East Africa's annual migration to see Nile crocodiles in action. 

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Zebra

Most Iconic African Safari Animals Zebra
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There are three species of zebra in Africa; the plains zebra most commonly seen throughout East and Southern Africa, and the rarer mountain and Grévy's zebras. Although they may look like domestic horses, zebras are almost impossible to tame; their distinctive stripe patterns are unique to each individual as a human's fingerprints. Zebras live on grass, and in some areas, form great migratory herds to seek out the best grazing grounds. They often create a mutually beneficial relationship with another African species during the migration, the wildebeest

Best Places to See Zebra: For sheer numbers, you can't beat the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara during migration season. To see the endangered Grévy's zebra, head to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya. 

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Wild Dog

Portrait of an African wild dog

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Easily recognizable by their tan, black, and white fur, African wild dogs are the largest (and one of the rarest) canids in Africa. They are highly social animals, living in packs led by an alpha male and female and communicating with a series of high-pitched twittering sounds. Wild dogs hunt as a team, chasing their prey until it collapses from exhaustion. Unlike other social carnivores, weaned pups are allowed to eat first at the kill to give them the best chance of survival. Nevertheless, African wild dogs are endangered, with populations declining due to habitat fragmentation, human conflict, and diseases spread by domestic dogs.

Best Places to See Wild Dogs: Top destinations for spotting wild dogs include Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa, and Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.

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Hyena

Spotted Hyena
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The most common large carnivore on the African continent, the Hyaenidae family comprises four species of hyena: spotted, brown, striped, and aardwolf. Though their mighty jaws and strong digestive tract are ideally suited for scavenging, hyenas only feed on carrion and other refuse for 30 percent of their meals; for the other 70 percent, they prey on animals of all different sizes and shapes, including wildebeest, antelope, birds, and snakes. Hyena clans can consist of up to 100 members, and individuals will communicate with each other through wailing, screaming, and "laughing." Hyenas (particularly spotted) live in a range of habitats throughout sub-Saharan Africa, from savannas and grasslands to subdeserts and mountains.

Best Places to See Hyena: You can find hyenas in many national parks in Africa, including Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Namibia's Cape Cross Seal Reserve, and Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. For your best chance at seeing them, plan to sign up for a night safari.

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Kudu

Greater kudu
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This antelope species can be subdivided into the greater kudu and the lesser kudu subspecies, both of which can be identified by their white vertical stripes, spots, and chevron pattern between their eyes. Greater kudus are most prevalent throughout southern Africa's lowland Bushveld but can also be found throughout East Africa—particularly Kenya and the Horn of Africa region; similarly, lesser kudus tend to prefer the dense thornbush around East Africa. Males, characterized by elongated horns that can grow up to 6 feet in length, can typically be seen alone or with other bachelors, though you may find them with females during mating season. On the other hand, female kudus live in small herds with their offspring.

Best Places to See Kudu: Greater kudus are best seen in Kenya's Tsavo National Park and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

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Warthog

Warthog Train
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Warthogs thrive in savanna woodland, grasslands, and marshes, taking up natural burrows and abandoned aardvark holes. With the use of their strong neck muscles and padded knees, warthogs will spend the day foraging for food, digging through soil to uncover tubers, roots, berries, and grass. Sows can be found in matriarchal groups comprising up to 40 female warthogs and piglets, while boars prefer to live alone or with other bachelors.

Best Places to See Warthog: Warthogs live all over sub-Saharan Africa but are most common in the eastern and southern parts of the continent. If you want to spot them on safari, consider planning a trip to Kruger National Park, Masai Mara, or South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.

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