Baby animals are heart-warmingly cute, and the offspring of Africa's safari animals are no exception. From elephant calves covered in ginger fuzz to playful lion and cheetah cubs, spotting baby animals is a highlight of any safari. However, there's more to these tiny creatures than their adorable appearance. Unlike human infants, wild babies have to adapt quickly to life in the bush. Prey animals like wildebeest and impala have to be able to run within a few hours of being born; and even predator cubs have to learn quickly how to avoid danger.
In this article, we look at a few African safari animals and the adaptations that they have developed to help them through their vulnerable infancy. Most animals are born at the start of the rainy season, when food is plentiful and life is relatively easy. If you want to see baby animals on safari, this is the best time to go.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on December 9th 2016.
Lion cubs are usually born as part of a litter of up to four siblings. Female lions often synchronize births so that all of the pride's cubs are born around the same time. In this way, females can take turns caring for the cubs, which will suckle indiscriminately from any of the mothers as they get older. Lion cubs are blind for the first week but can crawl within a few days. They learn to walk at around three weeks and are fully weaned by the age of seven months. The first weeks are the most vulnerable, and during this time the mother lion hides her cubs in patches of long grass to avoid detection by other predators. As they become more stable, cubs play with each other, instinctively mimicking behaviors and strategies useful for hunting. The two biggest threats to lion cubs are starvation and infanticide. The latter happens when a new male takes over the pride and kills the offspring of his predecessor. The best places to see lion cubs in the wild include South Africa's Kruger National Park, Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
Elephant calves may be small compared to their parents, but they still weigh around 260 pounds/ 150 kilograms at birth. Thanks to an incredible 22 month gestation period, baby elephants are well developed when they finally arrive, and can walk within a few hours of being born. Baby elephants are unsure what to do with their trunks at first and will often suck on them in the same way that a human baby sucks their thumb. Elephants grow quickly, drinking around three gallons of milk every day. Their family unit is so strong that if a mother dies or is unable to care for her baby, the calf will be taken care of and nursed by a surrogate mother. Calves are usually weaned by the time they reach their first birthday, although they still depend on the herd for protection for at least another year after that. Female elephants stay with the herd for the rest of their lives, while males will eventually leave to form their own herd. Great places to see elephants in Africa include Botswana's Chobe National Park, South Africa's Addo Elephant Park and Tarangire National Park in Tanzania.
Like human babies, baby gorillas are called infants - and with only around 880 mountain gorillas left in the world, it's a real privilege to see them in the wild. Gorillas are also similar to humans in that gestation takes around 8.5 months, and female gorillas have an average of three offspring during their lifetime. Twins do occur but are relatively rare. Newborns typically weigh in at around 4.5 pounds/ 2 kilograms and are entirely dependent on their mothers until they learn to crawl at around two months old. Baby gorillas are able to walk by the time they're nine months old, but are only truly independent of their parents at around three years. For the first few months, baby gorillas ride on their mother's back, using their powerful fingers to grip tightly onto her long hair. Unlike most other African animals, mountain gorillas do not have a specific breeding season - which means that if you join a gorilla trek in Rwanda, Uganda or the DRC, you stand a chance of seeing infants all year round.
Cheetahs are usually born in litters of three to five cubs. Cubs can weigh as little as 150 grams/ 5.3 ounces at birth, although newborns are already capable of crawling and spitting. It takes up to 11 days for the cubs' eyes to open, and two weeks for them to start walking. In the wild, cheetah cubs are extremely vulnerable to predation by larger cats, so their mothers keep them well hidden for the first few weeks. They also have a mantle of long, bluish fur that disappears over time. It is thought that this acts as a deterrent to would-be predators, by helping the cubs resemble the fierce honey badger. Cheetah cubs are weaned by six months and start attempting to chase small animals around the same time. It usually takes over a year for juvenile cheetahs to make their first successful kill, however, so in the meantime, they remain dependent on their mothers for meat. It's a rare treat to see baby cheetahs on safari, but your best bet is in the Serengeti, the Maasai Mara, and South Africa's Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Giraffe calves are usually born singly, or more rarely, as twins. Female giraffes give birth standing up - so that the calf starts its life by falling several feet to the ground. Newborn giraffes are already an astonishing 2 meters/ 6.6 feet tall and are able to walk and even run within a few hours of being born. Co-ordination takes a little longer to achieve, however! The giraffe's small horns, or ossicones, are flattened in the womb to make birth easier, but become erect within a few days. These horns help the calf to regulate its body temperature, and if it's a male, will one day be used in fights with other giraffes. Calves are typically weaned at around eighteen months but will start to try vegetation as early as two months. Despite their impressive height, baby giraffes are a target for hungry lions. They depend on their mother's powerful kick for defense. Like gorillas, giraffes have no set breeding season. They are easily spotted at most private and national reserves in Southern and East Africa.
Spotted Hyena Cub
Spotted hyena cubs are almost always born in pairs. They are well developed and are the largest of all carnivore offspring in relation to the weight of their mothers. Spotted hyena cubs are also unique in that they are born with their eyes open, and with sharp canine teeth that can measure up to 7 millimeters in length. It is common for hyena cubs to attack their siblings, and often the weaker will be killed. Despite their teeth, spotted hyena cubs suckle their mothers for up to 16 months, growing strong on milk that has the highest protein content of any terrestrial carnivore. Spotted hyenas are quick to develop, displaying territorial and even sexual behavior before they are even a month old. After just one year, they are already adept hunters and can start producing their own young at three years of age. Spotted hyenas are widespread throughout the top safari destinations of sub-Saharan Africa. Often, night drives offer the best sightings.
Warthog mothers have litters of up to eight piglets and form a family group known as a sounder with other moms and babies. The mother gives birth to her piglets in a hole, where she suckles them for a week or so before rejoining the sounder. It is thought that individual piglets each have their own teat, which they suckle from exclusively for around six months; although babies often start rooting for bulbs at a few weeks old. If a mother pig loses her litter, she will often adopt piglets from another litter, helping those that remain to get the nutrition they need. Piglets become mobile quickly and are known for their playful nature. All warthogs have a thin, tufted tail that they hold erect like a television aerial. It's thought that this characteristic makes it easy for piglets and mothers to spot each other when running through long grass. Warthog piglets are usually born at the beginning of the rainy season and are a common sight throughout sub-Saharan Africa.