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Top 10 Animals to See on Safari in Africa

Africa's Top 10 "must-see" Animals

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Discover the top ten animals you should see when on safari in Africa. From the Big 5, to the elegant giraffe -- here's my list of "must-see" animals that makes a safari in Africa so worthwhile. Of course, if you get a chance to go on multiple safaris, some of the rarer animals like the pangolin, or African wild dog will offer more excitement than a giraffe or two.

Click on the headings for more in depth information about each animal.

If you have questions about planning your safari, you can see all my safari articles here. If you are interested in booking a bespoke luxury safari in Africa you can also contact me to discuss your options.

1. Lion

Young Male Lion, NCA, Tanzania
© Anouk Zijlma

To see a lion in its natural habitat is one of the main attractions of going on safari in Africa. You're more likely to see one snoozing than in active pursuit of dinner since they tend to rest for about 20 hours a day. Lion populations are dwindling, but you will see them in the major parks and reserves including Kruger, Maasai Mara, and the Serengeti. Lions are social and live in prides (unlike other cats) so they are easier to spot than a cheetah or leopard.

Personal Best - Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe), 1989. After seeing little on a dusk drive, we were heading home and almost drove into the largest, most perfect male lion I have ever seen. Standing on the road, sun behind his mane, just staring at us with a look of defiance.

2. Elephant

African Elephant, Serengeti, Tanzania
© Anouk Zijlma

The African elephant is the largest land mammal on earth and you'll be in awe the first time you see one on safari. Elephants live in woodlands, forests, deserts and savanna, spread across 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Elephants are quite peaceful if left alone, but if threatened - watch out. There's nothing quite like being charged at by 12,000 lb's of animal, flapping its ears and trumpeting loudly. Elephants can be over 14 feet tall and 30 feet wide. They drink 30-50 gallons of water every day and are vegetarians.

Personal Best - Serengeti National Park, (Tanzania) 2009. Spent a memorable hour watching several families come to a waterhole to drink, splash and wrestle. They came so close we could have reached out to touch them.

3. Giraffe

Giraffe sticking out tongue, fun wildlife facts, Africa
Getty Images/Frank & Joyce Birek

The giraffe is my favorite animal to spot on safari. They have blue tongues, little 5 inch knobs on their heads and (obviously) outrageously long necks. The giraffe neck contains special veins and blood valves to stop the giraffe from blacking out when it takes a drink. Because the giraffe is the tallest mammal on earth they are quite easy to spot. This is satisfying for everyone on safari since viewing animals when the bush is thick or the grass tall, is no easy task. If you're out camping in the African bush you'll never be startled by a loud growling or grunting from a giraffe, they are very quiet.

Personal Best - Every giraffe I've seen I've loved, especially those in northern Tanzania outside the parks browsing alongside Maasai cattle.

4. Leopard

Leopard, Botswana, Africa's Big Five
© Getty Images/Cameron Spncer

The African leopard (Panthera pardus) is more numerous than the African rhino in the Big 5 pantheon, but they are just as difficult to spot on safari in Africa. Leopards use trees as observation platforms and for protection, so you have to remember to look up to see this solitary, beautiful cat. Leopards are shy and nocturnal, quite modest for a cat that can climb, swim and live in a wider range of habitats than most other wild cats.

Personal Best - Spotting a leopard having a quiet drink at a waterhole (not asleep in a tree for a change) on my first night drive in Timbavati, South Africa.

5. Rhino

black rhino, south africa
South Africa Tourism

There are two species of rhino in Africa, the Black rhino (Diceros bicornis) and the White rhino (Ceratotherium simum). Black rhinos have suffered the most drastic reduction in population in the last 20 years (there are only about 4000 left in the wild) so its rare to see on on safari unless you're in an area where they have been re-introduced. The white rhino is more numerous numbering at over 17,000 and they are heavily concentrated in Southern Africa. Rhinos are large mammals, an adult white rhino can weigh in at 6,000 lb's! Rhinos are shortsighted, a little bad tempered, but magnificent to look at.

Personal Best - Racing alongside a family of rhino in Timbavati, South Africa was an incredible experience although it felt a bit intrusive.

6. Cheetah

Cheetah, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
© Anouk Zijlma

Cheetahs are rare and beautiful cats, well known for their incredible speed. While they are the fastest animals on earth and decent hunters, it's difficult for them to stop their kills from getting scavenged by aggressive hyenas as well as lions. Their preference for wide open spaces also puts them in competition with man and cattle. Cheetahs are not easy to spot on safari, only around 12,000 remain in the wild, spread through eastern and southwestern Africa. Your best chance of seeing them is in Tanzania's Serengeti or in various reserves in Namibia.

Personal Best - I've only seen one (pictured here), dozing on a rock in the Serengeti.

7. Mountain Gorilla

Melancholy Close up
© Anouk Zijlma

You have to take a special safari to see the mountain Gorilla because they are so rare and live in a relatively tiny area of East Africa. There are only around 720 mountain gorillas left on earth and when you opt to see them, you are also helping their survival. It's an easy side trip to take if you're on a traditional safari in East Africa.

Personal Best - A young silverback came up from behind us as we were watching some of the females in the Sabinyo group. I was apparently right in his path. A ranger grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out of the way just in time. He was so close I could actually feel his breath on the back of my neck. Five minutes after that he banged me on the head with a bamboo branch.

8. Hippopotamus

Hippos in the Luangwa River, Zambia
Getty Images/Ben Cranke

Hippos can be found in lakes and rivers throughout sub-Saharan Africa and are easy to spot on safari. One of the best places to see hippos is the Luangwa River in Zambia, pods have numbered over 100 members during the dry season. An adult male hippo can run at speeds of 20mph, not bad for an animal that weighs up to 3.5 tonnes. Hippos are among Africa's most dangerous animals, and responsible for many human fatalities.

Fun Facts:

  • Hippos secrete a natural sunscreen
  • The hippo's closest living relative is the whale
  • Hippos consume over 100 pounds of vegetation per day.
  • Hippos can't jump
Personal Best - Dodging aggressive males while in a flimsy canoe for 4 days on the Zambezi River was as close as I will ever get to a hippo (I hope).

9. Nile Crocodile

Crocodile, Grumeti River, Serengeti, Tanzania
© Anouk Zijlma

The Nile Crocodile can be found in almost every major river throughout the continent as well as many lakes. Crocs are easy to spot on safari, you'll often find them sunning themselves on river banks with their mouths wide open. Crocodiles have been around for over 200 million years, and they certainly look prehistoric. Adult males can reach lengths of up to 18 feet. They are responsible for a number of human fatalities every year and are considered to be one of Africa's most dangerous animals.

Personal Best - Playing with newly hatched babies along the Malawi lakeshore and then being banned from swimming in the same area years later because of the large number of crocs around. We'd still risk it when our parents weren't looking.

10. Zebra

Zebra resting, Tanzania
Anouk Zijlma

Zebra are very common throughout East and Southern Africa although mostly confined to national parks and reserves. They always look healthy, it's easy to see why they're the favorite prey of lions and hyenas. Since they look so much like horses its tempting to want to ride them, but they are very difficult to tame. Zebra are grazers and can gather in huge migratory herds. No two zebras have exactly the same stripe pattern. They're as unique as our finger prints. You can also find out why zebra and wildebeest migrate together ...

Personal Best - seeing many thousands of zebra on their migratory route in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, a truly unforgettable sight. Just a sea of stripes, braying, snorting, grunting and chillin'.

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