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. Birds can also be a highlight of a night safari. Specific species depend on your destination, but are likely to include owls, nightjars, and thick-knees. 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.
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 seven feet in the air.
A strange-looking creature with a humped body, a long snout, and a thick tail, aardvarks are greyish brown in color and can attain a total length of just over seven feet. 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.
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.
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 body 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 3.25 feet in length. Like aardvarks, pangolins are specially adapted to dig for termites. They are solitary, and are found in several Central, Southern, and East African countries including Tanzania, Botswana, and Zambia.
Measuring up to 3.25 feet 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 0.8 square miles. They are found throughout Central and Southern Africa.
The small-spotted genet is the most frequently seen member of a family that may include up to 17 different 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 they share with civets. Small-spotted genets are pale gray 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.
South African Springhare
South African springhares are one of the most common species spotted 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 (whereas hares are lagomorphs). They are yellow or reddish brown in color, with a distinctive black tip to their bushy tails. Springhares forage for grasses, seeds, and leaves 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 seven feet, while their large eyes work well even in complete darkness.
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 savannas 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 most 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.
The African civet enjoys a wide distribution throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Despite its prevalence, it is not often seen since it spends its days sleeping deep in the bush and only comes out to hunt at night. Civets are solitary and stand around 16 inches tall from ground to shoulder. They are stocky in shape, with large hindquarters and a bushy tail. The black spots and stripes that mark the civet's silver-gray coat are as unique as a human's fingerprints, while a band of black across the eyes gives it a racoon-like appearance. Civets are omnivorous, eating everything from eggs to carrion. They mark their territory with a pungent liquid secreted from their perineal glands, which was historically harvested to make perfume.
Honey badgers are not always strictly nocturnal; in some areas, they may be active during the day as well. They live alone in self-dug holes and resemble a large weasel with a long, thick-set body and a small flat head. Their coarse fur is jet black, with the exception of a broad white stripe that runs from the top of their head to the base of their tail. The honey badger has a broad diet, including raw honey, rodents, birds, and snakes (both venomous and non-venomous). They are renowned for their strength and ferocity and most predators give them a wide berth as a result. Adult honey badgers will fearlessly attack any animal if cornered, including lions and leopards. They are well adapted to do so with sharp teeth and extra thick skin around their necks.
Standing up to 39 inches tall, bushpigs are large animals and yet they are rarely seen on safari. This is because they are predominantly nocturnal and favor dense habitats including forests and reedbeds. They are found throughout East and Southern Africa and have been introduced to several Indian Ocean islands including Madagascar and the Comoros. Bushpigs can be distinguished from warthogs and domestic pigs by their blunt, muscular snouts, tufted ears and small tusks. Unlike warthogs, they run with their tails down. They are social animals, usually living in groups dominated by an alpha male and female. Bushpigs are omnivorous and are hunted in many areas due to their destructive foraging habits and aggressive reputation.
Those planning a nighttime safari in North Africa's Sahara Desert have the chance to spot the elusive fennec fox. Also found in areas of the Middle East, it is named after the Berber word fanak, meaning fox. It is immediately identifiable by its enormous ears, which allow it to hear prey moving underground and also help to dissipate heat. The fennec fox is superbly adapted for life in the desert, with fur-covered soles that protect it from burning sand and a cream-colored coat that deflects the sun's rays. They feed on insects, reptiles, and small mammals, and dig underground dens where they live in close family units. Fennec foxes are territorial and mate for life. At an average of eight inches in height, they are the world's smallest canid.
What to Expect on a Night Drive
Although some of the animals listed above can occasionally be spotted during the day, by far the best chance of seeing them is on a guided night safari. If you've never been on one, here's what to expect. Most night drives will begin just after sunset, when the heat of the day is cooling and the residual light fades quickly. Your guide will bring a high-powered spotlight, to shine into the trees and bush in search of animals. Often, he (or she) will pick up the gleam of eyes in the darkness first and then as the vehicle gets closer, the owner of the eyes is revealed. Night safaris can feel almost surreal, as you travel along beneath starlit skies with only the spotlight and the vehicle's headlights to break the deep blackness of the African bush. You may go for long stretches of time without seeing anything; but when you do, the thrill of the sighting is well worth the wait.
Night safaris get cold quickly, and you should bring plenty of layers and perhaps a thermos along with you.