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African animals are legendary.
Lions wandering a dusty savannah. Elephants marching to distant waterholes. Rhinos with proudly defiant horns.
These famous African animals are often top of the list for a safari. Yet there are so many species to celebrate. From the tiny dik-dik to the pronking springbok, bat-eared foxes to endangered cheetahs, Africa Freak celebrates the beauty of African wildlife.
On this website we help people connect with their wild side. And there is nothing wilder than encountering African animals on a safari.
In this article you will learn about many dozens of different African animals, including where you can see them on safari. Links will take you to individual pages, so you can discover more about these rare and remarkable species.
African Animals Define Wild-Life
Before looking at individual species, let’s remember that African animals really are wild. Many of these species have never been tamed or domesticated. For example, just compare Indian elephants and Asian buffalo with African elephants and Cape buffalo.
In a zoo you can see captive animals in a man-made environment. But in Africa you will see wild animals in their natural habitat. These African animals are rarely seen in isolation. They are a product of their daily interactions.
Not only are they wild. They are the very definition of wild-life. You cannot control them. But you can just watch and admire.
Also remember the incredible diversity of African wildlife. Most people come on safari hoping to see the big five, but in a single national park you can come across some 100 mammal species!
Many of Africa’s most famous animals are predators. They are icons of their environment, symbols of a wild and untouched continent. And there is more than just the big cats.
The kings and queens of the savannah (not the jungle as the song suggests), lions are the easiest large predator to see on a safari.
They live in prides and are usually seen out in the open, all across East and Southern Africa. Lions are scared of nothing. They spend most of their days resting in the shade, but will hunt in the cooler hours. Lionesses do most of the hunting. Then the largest male lion will eat first.
Leopards are majestic and radiate mystique. They are solitary and spend their days hiding away, meaning that this African animal can be very difficult to find on safari.
Although widespread across Africa, their secretive nature makes them hard to track. Leopards are the apex hunter. They hunt alone and can take down prey up to ten times their size.
Two iconic scenes can be found on safari. One is of a leopard resting in a tree, its tail flicking casually. The other is a leopard on the prowl, a dangerous African animal following its quarry.
The world’s fastest land mammal is native to Africa but has lost 91% of its historic range over the last two centuries. Only 7000 of them remain, which is an appalling fact. 🙁
Cheetahs are also secretive and they are not hugely strong. While leopards have incredible jaw power, cheetahs trip their prey at high speed. You can learn more in this article about how fast a cheetah can run.
King cheetah are one of the rarest African animals and only ten exist in the wild. They are not a different species, but have a rare mutated fur pattern, just like black panthers.
Three hyena subspecies live in Africa. All three are incredible hunters, even though their reputation precedes them. Hyenas do scavenge, but most of their food comes from hunting.
Most people think of hyenas to be ugly and nasty African animals, a little like Whoopi Goldberg’s character in The Lion King. Yet they have a surreal beauty when given a chance.
Do hyena laugh? You may think so, but this is also a myth.
Brown hyenas are critically endangered and just a few thousand of them survive, mostly around the Kalahari.
Spotted hyenas are the most common hyena subspecies. They are widespread across Africa and often move in large clans.
Striped hyenas were once common across Africa and Asia. They regularly come into contact with people and scavenge from garbage bins. Unfortunately they are also critically endangered.
One of the most spectacular African animals, wild dogs are ravenous hunters and an ode to yesteryear wildlife. Unfortunately, they are another animal that has been hunted towards extinction.
Shabby and wide-eyed, there is a surreal beauty to African wild dogs. They have a few final refuges, such as in northern Botswana and parts of Zambia.
Here is the complete story about why the African wild dog is endangered.
A photogenic canid that is both scavenger and hunter, jackals are an adorable sight on safari. They are a monogamous African animal that mate for life.
Black-backed and side-striped jackals can be seen across East and Southern Africa. They are opportunist prey for other predators, but will steal food off those same predators.
A number of smaller cats roam the African savannah. Most of these are nocturnal and spend their days hiding in high grass.
Servals are slender and look a bit like miniature cheetahs. On a nighttime game drive you should look for their luminescent eyes around a river or waterhole.
Caracals are a nocturnal lynx species with pointed ears and smooth golden fur. While they can hunt gazelle like springbok, it is very rare to see this African animal out in the open.
On safari you can also come across animals like the African wild cat.
Small nocturnal predators
When night falls a new cast of African animals assembles, on the savannah and in the forest.
They are both predator and prey. And for the safari connoisseur, these African animals provide some eternal moments and memories.
Large and Iconic African Animals
Most safari reverie is dominated by the largest and most iconic animals. These African animals have come to symbolise a continent. Most are also symbols of a disappearing world as they are critically endangered.
Africa’s large animals are usually much larger than people realise, certainly much bigger than photos suggest. They are also conspicuous and easy to find when you connect with your wild side.
A legend of Africa, elephants can be seen in almost all of the continent’s parks and reserves. Differences occur, such as desert-adapted elephants that travel huge distances across the Kalahari, and the big tuskers of South Africa’s Tembe Elephant Park.
It is worth comparing African elephants vs Asian elephants, to understand just how big and untamed these giants can be.
One elephant is an incredible sight. A herd of elephants is more impressive. Sometimes you can see hundreds of elephants in the same panorama, such as the more than 100,000 elephants of Chobe National Park.
Rhinos are an emblem of an African safari. Unfortunately they are critically endangered and only survive in a small proportion of the continent’s parks and reserves. They are extinct from Botswana and many other countries.
White rhinos are larger and more abundant. They are grazers while black rhinos have a hooked lip and are browsers.
Up to 20,000 southern white rhinos remain and these can be encountered in South Africa, Namibia, and increasingly in parts of Kenya.
Only two northern white rhinos remain. Yes, two! Unfortunately these two are not a male and female, so the species is about to become extinct.
Around 2000 black rhinos have survived and the majority of these can be seen in East Africa.
The commonly forgotten fifth member of the big five, Cape buffalo are aggressive and dangerous. Some may say that these African animals are big unruly burls of fur that chomp and chew all day. But they do have a certain beauty.
Cape buffalo are speedy and noisy animals. You can see them all across East and Southern Africa. Herds of bachelor males are dangerous and known to charge safari vehicles. However, female family groups are usually sedate so you can get close to them on walking safaris.
Rumbustious yet famously cute, hippos kill more people than any other large African animal. Never come between a hippo and the water, because you don’t want two tons of bulk charging straight at you.
They spend the day in the water, wading and wallowing and keeping cool. Then they spend every evening grazing. Dusk is the best time to see them, as they emerge from rivers and waterholes.
Pygmy hippos are endangered. They are endemic to parts of West Africa and as their name suggests, they are smaller than their common hippo cousins.
Another iconic African animal, giraffe are the tallest animals on the planet. There are nine distinctive subspecies, defined by their specific markings. None of these subspecies have overlapping ranges, so it is not known if they can mate and produce fertile offspring.
Masai giraffe are the most common but there are less than 1000 Thornicroft giraffe. And while they look big and dopey, just check out how fast a giraffe can run.
Do you know the sound a giraffe makes? Go on, have a guess. Then check out the article below for one of African wildlife’s most interesting stories.
Baby giraffe come into the world by dropping two metres to the ground and landing on their heads. Here is the incredible story about baby giraffe.
Three Other Famous African Animals
On an African safari there are some animals you simply cannot miss. These African animals are widespread and abundant, so you should see them on nearly every safari.
They cover Africa’s plains and when you get close they have some beautiful details. Not all zebra are the same although most zebra are the same speed.
Burchell’s zebra, also known as plains zebra, are the most common. They inhabit parks from Southern Ethiopia down to South Africa.
These zebra gather in their hundreds of thousands as part of the great wildebeest migration. Researchers have also uncovered a great zebra migration across the Nxai Pan.
Grevy’s zebra are distinguished by their tightly packed stripes, but this endangered subspecies is only found in northern and central Kenya.
Mountain zebra are squat and hardy African animals, found on woodland slopes in Namibia and South Africa.
Commonly referred to by their Swahili nickname of pumbaa, warthogs are curious creatures with pointed tusks and mischievous faces.
They can be easily spooked, found scurrying about the savannah with their tails up in the air. Warthogs are common prey for plenty of predators but they can defend themselves, so don’t get too close to them on a safari.
Wildebeest could have been covered in our African antelope section but they are so iconic they deserve their own place here.
They are one of the world’s most abundant land mammals and over 1 million of them cover the grasslands of Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara. Here is a definitive guide to the great wildebeest migration including where to go at different times of the year.
Blue wildebeest are more common. They are mid-sized antelope full of energy and charm. You can see them across Sub-Saharan Africa, not just in Tanzania and Kenya.
Black wildebeest can mainly be seen in South Africa. They are smaller and shabbier, with distinct white tails.
African Animals – The Primates
All primates evolved from Africa, including ourselves. Olduvai Gorge holds the history to humankind and proves that we all came from Africa and share a family tree with other African primates.
There are many other primates in the same family tree. Some are noisy, others are secretive, and the largest are among the most endangered animals on the planet.
While vervet monkeys and baboons occupy the savannah, most primates are residents of the trees. They can be encountered most readily in East Africa’s forests and the Congo Basin.
Only around 1000 mountain gorillas remain in the wild. They are the largest of all primates. This definitive guide to gorilla trekking will show you how to see them in Rwanda and Uganda, including permits, where to stay, and different trekking locations.
Lowland gorillas are smaller and resident of the Congo Basin. Unfortunately they are hard to see as the DRC is currently off bounds.
Gorilla trekking is probably the most dramatic wildlife experience in the world and they are one of our very favourite African animals.
Our closest cousins, chimpanzees share our ancestry and over 95% of our genes. These African animals offer poignant encounters. Their eyes reveal emotion and their hands are especially redolent, with fingers so dextrous and similar to our own.
There are two types of chimpanzee encounters. Researchers have habituated chimpanzee troops in the forests of Uganda and Tanzania. These encounters are almost guaranteed as you will trek to a troop that is accustomed to human contact.
Wilder chimpanzee encounters are also possible. You must trek through dense forest to find troops that may not have seen people before.
Five baboon species live in Africa. The Guinea baboon is only 50 cm high and weighs just 14 kg. The most commonly encountered of these African animals is the chacma baboon.
Chacma baboons are the largest and they gather in enormous troops, notably in Lake Manyara National Park.
This is a primate that goes fishing and scavenging through bins. It can open car doors and enter houses, leading to their somewhat unwarranted reputation as criminals.
Continue reading about chacma baboons in this article about a misunderstood wonder.
Another of the most iconic African animals, monkeys are a common sight on just about every African safari. There are over 200 primate species in Africa and many of these are monkeys. Some can be seen when you are not on safari.
You can see monkeys on the beach in Kenya, all around Victoria Falls, and even when taking a walk through a city.
Vervet monkeys are the most common and are difficult to miss all over East Africa. Moving in enormous troops they are daring thieves, cheeky travellers, and full of charm.
Colobus monkeys are more bashful and typically inhabit the higher reaches of a forest. Black and white colobus monkeys are especially beautiful, with their tails hanging lazily from the top tree branches. Other colobus monkey species include the endemic Zanzibar red colobus.
Many other monkey species exist. Often they are endemic to a particular area, such as a part of the Congo Basin or West Africa.
Mangabeys and macaques
There are certain mangabeys that have only been discovered in the last 50 years. These African animals are mostly native to the Congo Basin and there are many different species.
Like monkeys, mangabeys are highly adapted. They range in size and features, but are generally shy and reclusive animals.
Macaques are similar, best experienced on walking safaris through some of Africa’s forested parks, especially those in East Africa.
Heard but rarely seen, bushbabies are the smallest primate species. These African animals have a piercing cry that can be heard echoing through the trees.
Read this personal tale of searching for bushbabies in Tanzania. These are taciturn and nocturnal animals that you will probably only ever see at night.
African Animals – The Antelopes
Antelope are the most abundant type of African animals. They occupy virtually every African park and reserve. Usually you can come across many different species in the same place, often in the same panorama.
These African animals are hardy. They have adapted to different environments and have evolved to evade certain predators. However, watching a predator chase an antelope is a common occurrence and you can often see this on an African safari.
Visit Africa for the first time and you will see antelope. But spend time on safari, or even just on this continent, and you will learn to identify different African animals, such as bongo, nyala, kudu and Thomson’s gazelle.
To get you started with the antelope take a look at these articles.
Perhaps the most striking antelope, bongo are bright orange with spectacular white stripes. They are critically endangered and you can only see them in the forests of Central Kenya and Central Africa.
Bontebok & Blesbok
Both these species are medium-sized South African antelope that were hunted to near-extinction. At one point in history only 17 bontebok were left in the wild. The rest had been hunted for their fur and tasty meat.
Now there are around 3000, mostly in parks on the country’s coastal fringes. Blesbok are smaller and almost as scarce, with bright white faces that shimmer in the sun.
Elusive yet widespread across the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa, bushbuck live among the trees. The males are wonderful, displaying sharp spiralled horns and charging their predators when hunted.
Unfortunately, such beauty and aggressive behaviour has made bushbuck a prime trophy for human hunters.
Many people think dik-dik to be Africa’s smallest antelope. That title actually goes to the West African royal antelope.
But still, dik-dik are tiny and adorable. Despite being widespread they are so small it is difficult to see them above the grass. A monogamous antelope, dik-dik are prey for lizards and birds! Read all about dik-dik here.
There are 22 different species of duiker, each with strange stubby horns. You can tell them apart by size and colour markings, but it is difficult to see anything other than a common grey duiker on safari.
Eland are the largest antelopes in Africa, yet they are surprisingly bashful and reclusive for their size. Weighing close to one ton in weight they are slow and defenceless, except for their size. Walking safaris are a good means of getting close to this African animal.
Gazelle are small and fast, just like their name evokes.
Thomson’s gazelle are incredibly abundant in Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara. Hundreds of thousands of them hop about the grasslands. Sometimes you can see them being chased by their nemesis, the cheetah.
Grant’s gazelle are larger and occupy similar spaces, notably in Kenya. Their ringed horns are spectacular and with each year these antelope grow an extra ring.
Gemsbok are plentiful in Botswana and Namibia. While their bodies are mundane their horns are astonishing. Rising straight and true, gemsbok horns are some of the finest in Africa. They can grow almost a metre in height!
Gerenuk are the giraffe of the antelope world. They have evolved an enormous neck. This helps them to eat from tree branches that other antelope find out of reach.
Found in Tanzania and Kenya, they are one of Africa’s most elegant antelope species. Gerenuk have also evolved to live without water. They take all the fluid they need from food.
Burning amber coats can alert you to hartebeest, an enormous antelope scattered all over Southern and East Africa. Males tend to roam on their own and lock horns with male rivals. Females graze in harems.
All hartebeest species are fussy eaters. They prefer the best and lushest grass available. Being picky means they are not very abundant. Coke’s and Lelwel hartebeest occupy East African woodland while Lichtenstein’s hartebeest can be spotted across the continent.
Another relatively common antelope in Southern Africa is the red hartebeest, closely related to the tsessebe and the topi.
Elegant and agile, impala are slender antelope commonly mistaken for gazelle. If you get confused on safari, remember that impala are a plain sandy colour, while gazelle have a black stripe upon their underbelly.
Impala on the run is a spectacular safari sight. You can often see them hopping in zigzags across the grasslands, in East and Southern Africa.
Klipspringer don’t need to run from predators. Instead, they are the ultimate rock climbing African animal. They live on precipitous cliffs and clusters of rock, where they jump around at high speeds.
Combine an impressive size with beautiful horns and it is easy to see why everyone loves the kudu. Jug-like ears only make them more endearing, as do wispy beards and manes.
Greater kudu are common across the continent while lesser kudu can only be spotted on safari in East Africa.
Lechwe look like Bambi. Slender, agile, cute and defenceless. Except they do have a defence. Huge populations live in the swamps and wetlands of Southern Africa, notably in Botswana and Zambia. To escape predators they run into water, where predators don’t like to go.
Spotting one isn’t that remarkable. But sometimes you can see many hundreds of red lechwe splashing about the shallows.
Nyala are scattered across the north of South Africa and Zimbabwe, an African animal easily confused with bushbuck. Flowing manes and wispy white decoration makes the male bulls one of Africa’s most photogenic antelope.
Oribi are a taller version of steenbok, a shy and solitary antelope living in a few parks in eastern, southern and western Africa. If you ever glimpse their bushy tails you will have seen more than some people who have been on a hundred safaris.
Beisa oryx have been hunted ravenously for their beautiful horns. These spectacular African animals are now endangered and can only be seen in parts of northern Tanzania and northern Kenya.
Reedbuck wander enormous distances across Southern Africa’s arid plains. They are the same colour as the desert and can be difficult to see, even on very open landscapes. You will usually see a small herd dominated by a single male.
A majestic African antelope, roan are one of the highlights of a safari in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Long horns stand above black and white faces, on an antelope that is as tall as most people.
Steenbok are a sight for safari connoisseurs. They are small and orange with squat horns, their appearance easily confused with impala. Steenbok have smaller horns but the key difference is that this African animal is solitary.
Are sable antelope the most impressive antelope in Africa? Their fur shimmers black and red, then their horns rise straight and proud. Barrel-chested and happy to return a stare, these African animals are too big for almost all predators.
Their numbers are dwindling, notably because they are premier hunting trophies. Spot them around woodland fringes, most commonly in Southern Africa.
An unusual safari highlight, sitatunga are aquatic specialists that wade into water to escape predators. Botswana is a good place to see them, especially in and around the Okavango Delta.
Millions of springbok live in South Africa, inside and outside the country’s parks and reserves. You can even see them near Cape Town, at the Cape of Good Hope.
Their most bizarre behaviour is pronking. Male springbok jump up and down with straight legs, opening up a special pheromone scent for females to follow.
Suni are on the tick-list of people who have been on dozens of safari. They are tiny antelope that hide in thick bushes and savannah, with their dull coats proving expert camouflage.
Large and slow, topi are the enormous antelope you can see in the Serengeti and Masai Mara. They usually travel in herds of only five individuals, but sometimes join the great wildebeest migration. Such a big antelope is always an impressive sight, especially when they are galloping across the grasslands.
Tsessebe do not have an impressive appearance. However, these gregarious African animals are great for lazy safari days. So much interaction occurs within herds, including quarrelling males who waltz about in an attempt to impress females.
They are a special sight in a few Southern African parks.
Africa’s birdlife is staggeringly diverse. Most estimates put the total number of species at 2500, representing more than 100 different bird families.
Many of these are endemic. Take South Africa as an example. Over 10% of the planet’s entire bird species live in this single country, from ostrich to yellow-collared lovebirds, crowned eagles to penguins at Boulders Beach.
Explore Africa and there is an endless variety of bird shape, size, color and style. You can watch gannets dive for sardines in the Indian Ocean, listen to rowdy marabou storks shouting at jackals, and find lakes painted pink by over a million flamingo.
Famous African birds
Often it is the birds that tie everything together. Vultures circle, alerting you to a carcass. Yellow-billed oxpeckers sit photogenically upon buffalo, casually removing ticks. Egrets and cranes flutter elegantly past a river.
Eagles are usually the most revered sights. These birds of prey can offer highly dramatic scenes during a safari, especially when they swoop on large quarry hiding in the grass.
The fish eagle is magnificent, a common sighting around lakes that are populated by hippos and ungulates. Crowned eagles can take down prey up to ten times their weight. Both feature on our guide to the most majestic African eagles.
Shoebills look jurassic, a dazzling sight from a distant era. They are another beautiful yet misunderstood bird. Many people are scared of shoebills, yet stories of them eating babies are just popular myth.
The best places to see birds in Africa
Every country in Africa is home to a stunning assortment of birds. Experiencing many of these birds requires a good guide.
For a dedicated bird safari the first question should be who do you go with, as you will need a specialist to seek out the rarer of these African animals.
You can mix birdlife with big game, or go on dedicated birdlife safaris. Botswana is popular, Uganda has an incredible number of endemic species, while Lake Manyara and Kenya’s forests are wonderful birding destinations.
African Animals – The Exceptional Marine Life
People often forget Africa’s marine life. With all the lions and elephants it is easy to neglect the African animals of the water.
Africa sees more whales than any other continent. They migrate up from Antarctica and pass by on intercontinental migrations.
Hermanus whale watching is arguably the finest in the world, as you can see three different whales species directly from the shore.
Humpback whales are a common sight all around South Africa and Mozambique, giants that breach and splash through the water. Bryde’s whales and southern right whales are also resident for half the year.
Whales are harder to encounter off the coast of East Africa, where warm waters keep the giants at deeper depths.
It is hard to imagine an African beach holiday that does not encounter dolphins.
They frolic in Indian Ocean waters all around the continent, from Cape Town to Lamu in northern Kenya. You can also see them in Atlantic Ocean waters on the western half of the continent.
You can see a number of different species but common dolphins are the most common. 😉
One exceptional experience is to go swimming with dolphins in Kizimkazi, which is located on Zanzibar island.
Gansbaai is the great white shark diving capital of the world. Here you can safely go beneath the surface with the ocean’s greatest predator.
Out of all the African animals which do you think is the most dangerous? Is is the great white shark?
Great whites are one of many shark species found in African waters. You will see reef sharks all around the continent, but especially on the eastern coast of Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.
Bull sharks patrol river mouths in the Transkei while leopard sharks can be spotted at Mozambique dive sites. And that is just the start of the African animals you can see in the water.
Spotting African Animals on Safari
Everybody has their favourite African animals, the species they absolutely need to see when visiting the continent.
The largest and most famous animals are widespread. These include four of the big five – lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant.
The fifth member is the rhino, an animal that can only usually be seen in South Africa, Namibia and Kenya. In addition, Tanzania has less than 50 rhinos. Zambia has 12-15 rhinos and you can walk with them as part of an extended stay in Victoria Falls.
Some other animals are conspicuous, such as giraffe and zebra. However, most other animals are not so easy to encounter.
Landscapes and habitats
The large animals are so successful because they can adapt to different conditions. For example, elephants across Africa display many subtle differences. Kalahari lions have evolved extra stamina, so they can hunt scant prey on very large territories.
Most of the other animals are specialists. They thrive in specific habitats and these unique habitats are not found everywhere.
A classic example is the hippo. Hippos need water to bathe in and grass to graze. You can find hundreds of them in Lake Naivasha or the Okavango Delta, but won’t find any in East Africa’s volcanic forests.
When planning a safari, think about your favourite African animals and the habitat where they live. If you want to see cheetahs then you will need to safari on grasslands. For chimpanzees think East African rainforest.
Face to Face with African Animals
At Africa Freak we like to connect people with their wild side. And there really is nothing wilder than coming face to face with Africa’s incredible animals.
We have a partnership with a safari specialist who can provide personalised safari planning advice. We also have an incredible array of safari articles you can explore. With good knowhow you can plan your own safari.
Safari njema! 😉