How well do you know your wildlife? If bush jargon confuses you, then this guide to African wildlife will give you the basic information you need to know before your safari, and answer some commonly asked wildlife questions. Although I discuss the Big 5 of Africa , I will also focus more specifically on the Big 5 in South Africa.
The Big 5 refers to five of the most iconic animals in Africa. They are the African lion, the African elephant, the rhino (black rhino and white rhino), the Cape buffalo and the African leopard.
Despite common misconceptions, these animals were thus dubbed not because of their size, but rather due to the difficulties and dangers that big-game trophy hunters encountered when hunting and tracking them. They became especially vicious when cornered and injured. This made them the most prized African animals in the big-game hunting world. To successfully take down one of these dangerous animals , a hunter would need a great deal of skill, knowledge and luck. Although hunting is limited these days, poaching is a huge threat, with rhinos and elephants being the most poached Big 5 animals.
These days the term “Big 5” is usually used to refer to the most popular animals to see on an African safari.
The Big 5 of Africa can be seen in their natural habitat in around a dozen African countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Rwanda, Angola, Uganda, Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Although there are plenty of Big 5 game reserves and national parks in South Africa, leopards are quite elusive and not that easily seen. The best safari destinations to see all five of them, in our experience, are the private game reserves in the Greater Kruger National Park area – like Sabi Sands – as the reserves there have a high density of the Big 5 animals, the leopards there are more habituated to people and off-road driving is permitted.
We saw all of the Big 5 iconic animals within the first half of our first game drive in Sabi Sands Game Reserve. In most other Big Five game reserves, you are likely to see some, but not all, of The Big 5, unless you are very lucky.
Fun fact: I saw my first leopard in the wild on a tree in Hwange National Park in Zambia when I was a teenager.
Also called the Super 7, these magnificent animals consist of the Big 5 animals + cheetahs and African wild dogs. The current conservation status of African wild dogs is "endangered" while cheetahs are listed as “vulnerable”. Both can be seen in many game reserves in South Africa along with the Big 5.
The Big 5 as well as the great white shark and the southern right whale. Since South Africa has all of them, it is often used for marketing purposes. Sharks can be seen all year round while whale sightings are seasonal. They usually come to the warmer South African waters to breed during July and November.
Although this term is not as common as some of the others, it is used sometimes to refer to the Magnificent 7 along with the hippo, giraffe and zebra.
The small 5 were named by rangers who wanted visitors to look at the smaller species and their names are linked to those of the Big 5, although their proportions differ vastly. They comprise the ant lion, the leopard tortoise, the rhino beetle, the elephant shrew and the buffalo weaver.
The Shy 5 consist of some lesser-known and more elusive species. They are the porcupine, the aardwolf, the aardvark, the bat-eared fox and the meerkat. Apart from the meerkat, the others are nocturnal animals, making them more challenging to see and photograph. I’ve seen the aardvark, the aardwolf, and the meerkat in the wild. The best places to spot all of them in South Africa are the Karoo and the Kalahari Desert.
Although beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, these poor animals received the short end of the stick. They are the wildebeest, the vulture, the warthog, the marabou stork, and the hyena.
These are the most difficult and rarest creatures you can see in the African wild. Some of them are also part of the Shy 5 They are the pangolin, the aardvark, the Cape mountain leopard, the riverine rabbit and the white lion.
The Big 6 birds are:
The best time to see the Big Five and other wildlife is during the dry winter season, which is between June and September, because the vegetation is thinner and the animals gather around rivers and waterholes to drink.
The hippopotamus. Even though they are vegetarian, they kill almost 3,000 humans every year.
Despite the names, it is not the colour, as both are grey. There are several differences between the two, however here are the main ones. Black rhinos are smaller (800 - 1400 kg), hook-lipped and more aggressive. White rhinos are larger (1700 – 2300 kg) and square-lipped. Black rhinos feed on leaves, shoots and branches from trees while white rhinos graze on grass, and their respective lips are adapted for these purposes.
Black rhinoceros are critically endangered while white rhinoceros are listed as “near threatened”.
Elephants are the largest animals, followed by rhinos and hippopotami. The giraffe is the tallest African animal while the giant eland is the largest African antelope.
Interesting fact: Chobe National Park has the largest surviving elephant population in the world, currently estimated to exceed 120,000.
You may not see all or any of the Big 5 on safari, but you will see other beautiful creatures, like zebras, giraffes, impalas and many other species of antelopes. My best advice to anyone going on safari is to keep an open mind and enjoy all the sightings.
See more wildlife facts here.
Read more about what to expect on a safari.
Read these books for safari lovers.