Nocturnal Animals to Look Out For on an African Safari

If you’re planning an African safari, try to make time in your itinerary for at least one night drive. Offering a unique insight into life after dark, night drives give you the opportunity to spot an entirely different cast of animals, many of which are amongst the continent’s rarest and most elusive. Perhaps the most sought-after nocturnal animals are the predators that like to hunt under the cover of darkness - including leopards, hyenas, and the majority of Africa’s smaller cat species. In this article, we look at some of the lesser known nocturnal animals, most of which can be spotted (with a bit of luck) throughout the major safari destinations of southern and East Africa

  • 01 of 08

    Bushbaby

    Nocturnal Animals to Look Out for on an African Safari
    ••• Bushbaby. Jessica Macdonald

    Several species of bushbaby are found across the African continent, all of which are nocturnal. These tiny primates are also called galagos, or nagapies (an Afrikaans name which aptly translates as “little night monkeys"). Exceptionally agile, bushbabies are well adapted for life in the dark with oversized eyes and large ears that allow them to detect prey at night. They feed primarily on insects and fruit, and often become habituated around humans - sometimes scavenging at bush lodges or campsites. Bushbabies get their name from their eerie call, which sounds like a crying baby. They have long, bushy tails, which they use for balance as they move through the trees, and to provide power when jumping. Bushbabies can leap more than 2 meters/ 7 feet in the air. 

  • 02 of 08

    Aardvark

    Nocturnal Animals to Look Out for on an African Safari
    ••• Aardvark. Konrad Wothe/ Getty Images

    A strange-looking creature with a humped body, a long snout and a thick tail, aardvarks are greyish-brown in colour and can attain a total length of just over 7 feet/ 2 meters. Aardvarks are expert diggers, and spend the day sheltering from the sun in deep burrows. When night falls, they emerge to look for termites, which they detect using both smell and hearing. Aardvarks use their powerful claws to dig into termite mounds, before lapping up the insects with their long, sticky tongues. Their rough skin prevents them from being bitten, and it is thought that an adult aardvark can consume as many as 50,000 termites in a single night. They are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, although they tend to avoid rocky areas where it is hard for them to dig. 

  • 03 of 08

    Aardwolf

    Nocturnal Animals to Look Out for on an African Safari
    ••• Aardwolf. Suhaimi Sulaiman/ EyeEm/ Getty Images

    The aardwolf’s Afrikaans name means “earth wolf”, and this elusive animal is undoubtedly wolf-like in appearance. However, the aardwolf is not related to wolves or any other canine, instead belonging to the same family as the hyena. Although hard to spot, it is easy to identify, with vertical black stripes patterning its yellow fur and a thick mane that can be raised to make the aardwolf seem bigger to its opponents when threatened. Their anal glands are also capable of excreting a foul-smelling liquid as a secondary defence mechanism. Aardwolves live in burrows during the day, but emerge at night to prey almost exclusively on termites. They favor dry, open grassland and savannahs where termite nests are plentiful, and form lifelong mating pairs.

  • 04 of 08

    Ground Pangolin

    Nocturnal Animals to Look Out for on an African Safari
    ••• Pangolin. GP232/ Getty Images

    Also known as the Cape or Temminck’s pangolin, the ground pangolin is one of four African pangolin species. However, it’s the only one found in southern and East Africa - and even then, they are a rare sight. Pangolin parts are sought after in China and Vietnam, and as a result they are the most trafficked animal in the world - a fact that has put the species at risk of extinction. Covered in protective scales, pangolins are often mistaken for reptiles, but are in fact mammals. Adults of the species are brown or olive in color, and reach up to 39 inches/ 1 meter in length. Like aardvarks, pangolins are especially adapted to dig for termites. They are solitary, and are found in several central, southern and east African countries including Tanzania, Botswana and Zambia

    Continue to 5 of 8 below.
  • 05 of 08

    Cape Porcupine

    Nocturnal Animals to Look Out for on an African Safari
    ••• Porcupine. Bridgena Barnard/ Getty Images

    Measuring up to 39 inches/ 1 meter in length from snout to tail-tip, Cape porcupines are the largest porcupine species in the world, and the largest rodent species in southern Africa. Their stocky bodies are covered with black and white banded spines, the shortest of which are also the most sharp. As well as making the porcupine difficult for would-be predators to attack without sustaining serious injury, the tail spines are hollow. When threatened, the porcupine rattles these spines in warning. This species is herbivorous, and emerges at night to feed on fruit, roots and bark. Cape porcupines mate for life, and dig a series of burrows across a shared territory that may measure up to 2 square kilometers/ 0.8 square miles. They are found throughout central and Southern Africa

  • 06 of 08

    Small-Spotted Genet

    Nocturnal Animals to Look Out for on an African Safari
    ••• Genet. Enrique Dans/ Flickr.com/ CC BY 2.0

    The small-spotted genet is the most frequently seen member of a family that may include up to 17 different genet species. Although their slender bodies and pointed faces are distinctly cat-like in appearance, genets are not classified as felines. Instead, they are viverrids, a classification shared by civets. Small-spotted genets are pale grey in color, with a black stripe down their spine and several rows of small black spots. Their tails are striped with rings of black and white. Genets are most active just after sunset and just before sunrise, and are adept hunters. They prey on small mammals, reptiles and birds, and are skilled climbers. Small-spotted genets are found throughout Southern Africa, and in parts of central, west, east and North Africa. 

  • 07 of 08

    South African Springhare

    Nocturnal Animals to Look Out for on an African Safari
    ••• Springhare. Bernard Dupont/ Flickr.com/ CC BY-SA 2.0

    South African springhares are one of the most common species sighted on night safaris in southern Africa. With a long tail, short front legs and extended hind legs, these peculiar animals strongly resemble miniature kangaroos. However, they aren't related to kangaroos, or even to hares - instead, they are classified as rodents. They are yellow or reddish-brown in colour, with a distinctive black tip to their bushy tails. Springhares forage for grasses, seeds and leaves under the cover of darkness, and are often seen sitting upright, transfixed in the beam of the safari vehicle’s headlights. Their powerful back legs allow them to leap distances of more than 2 meters/ 7 feet, while their large eyes allow for good vision even in complete darkness. 

  • 08 of 08

    Bat-Eared Fox

    Nocturnal Animals to Look Out for on an African Safari
    ••• Bat-Eared Fox. Richard du Toit/ Getty Images

    Bat-eared foxes get their name from their disproportionately large ears, which help to distribute heat around the body - allowing this species to survive the extreme heat of the arid savannahs in which they typically live. There are two separate populations of bat-eared fox on the African continent - one that occurs from Ethiopia to Tanzania, and another that occurs from Angola to South Africa. Unlike the other species on this list, southern bat-eared foxes are only nocturnal in summer, when they seek respite from the heat in underground burrows. In winter, they forage during daylight hours, and are easier to spot as a result. They feed predominantly on termites, other insects and small reptiles, and are often seen hunting in pairs or small groups.