Beyond the Big Five: How to Spot the Best African Wildlife on Safari

POSTED ON 23rd September 2015 BY

Beyond the Big Five: How to Spot the Best African Wildlife on Safari

It’s the single biggest attraction for safari lovers…

That’s right – today we’re talking about seeing wildlife in its natural habitat.

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you’ve probably begun to notice by now that safari is a varied and eclectic type of holiday. And whilst spotting elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos and leopards is a truly fantastic experience, a great safari holiday is about so much more.

Sticking strictly to the animals, the same rules apply. The Big Five (more on them in a moment) may get all the plaudits, but the wildlife of the African Savanna has plenty more to offer.

Which is why I spent a couple of days picking the brains of our expert team here at Safari Drive HQ, collating what we believe to be the essential guide to the animals of Africa.


A Recap of the Big Five

First of all, let’s get clear on exactly what the Big Five are and how can you see them. The Big Five is a term used to refer to the five most sought-after animals by game hunters. These days, we go on safari to observe and enjoy these animals, but the hunting term ‘Big Five’ has stuck.

Seeing any of the Big Five is still a thrill for anyone who goes on safari, even if it isn’t their first time. And so it’s really no surprise that, per, it’s widely considered to be ‘the one thing most people want to see on a safari in Africa’.

Of course, there’s never any guarantee that you’ll see all of the Big Five. But if you plan where you go well and understand a little of the individual habits and habitats of each one, this will vastly increase your chance of success.

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A self drive safari in Tanzania with Safari Drive - CLICK HD


1. Lion

Seeing lion in their natural habitat is one of the big thrills of any safari in Africa. In truth, as Susan Hack writes in Conde Nast Traveler, you’re more likely to see lions when they are sleeping than when they are actively pursuing prey as they tend to rest for as many as 20 hours a day.

Although lion populations are dwindling, they are still easier to spot than cheetahs or leopards because, unlike other cats, they live in prides.


2. Elephant

The African elephant is awe-inspiring purely on account of its size as it’s by far the largest land mammal on earth. Elephants abound in Africa and they live in a wide variety to habitats from woodlands and forests to deserts and savannas. They cover a wide area too and they can be found in 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The best place to see elephants is near water as they drink 30-50 gallons of water every day so always need access to lakes, rivers and other sources of water.


3. Buffalo

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Buffalo are large animals that reach weights of around 1500 lbs in adulthood. Although there is only one species of buffalo in Africa, there are two subspecies: the large savanna buffalo and the smaller forest buffalo. The larger savanna Buffalo can be seen in many parts of Africa including Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Zambezi.

Buffalo generally live in herds of a few hundred but they do sometimes gather in much larger herds. They are herbivores and need fresh, green grass in order to thrive. Both species of buffalo live close to water. Buffalo suffer from poor sight and hearing although their sense of smell is well-developed. They also struggle to regulate their body temperature, which is why they mostly feed at night.


4. Black & White Rhino

You are far more likely to see a white rhino than a black rhino on safari because there are only about 4,000 black rhino left in the wild compared with the 17,000 white rhino, which are mostly found in Southern Africa. Rhinos are well-known for being short-sighted and a bit bad tempered, but they are amazing animals so it is fantastic when you see one.

You can tell the difference not by their colour – as you might expect – but by their jaw. Black rhino have hook-shaped lips for plucking foliage from trees whereas white rhino have a broader, wider mouth for grazing on grasses.

Rhinos tend to live where they have easy access to their food supply. As a browser as opposed to a grazer, the black rhino’s food sources include leaves, buds and the shoots of plants, bushes and trees. It is often found in habitats that are dense in woody vegetation. On the other hand, the white rhino is a grazer, living in savannahs where they have access to the grasses they graze on, water holes, mud wallows and shade from trees.


5. Leopard

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Leopard Meets GoPro! - Latest Wildlife Sightings

Although there are far more African leopards than African rhinos this unfortunately doesn’t make them any easier to spot. You need to remember to look up if you want to have any chance of seeing this solitary and beautiful cat, as leopards use trees for protection as well as positions from which they can observe the terrain around them.

As well as being shy, leopards are also nocturnal, which is another reason why they can be difficult to spot on safari. As animals they have many talents, including climbing, swimming and the ability to live in a far wider range of habitats than most other wild cats.


Seeing Beyond the Big Five

There is so much to see when on safari that it would be a shame to spend all your time looking for five animals. If you’ve seen the Big Five before, you might also get more out of a self-drive safari where you can experience the freedom to explore – as explained in my recent article Self-Drive Safari: Freedom, Independence and Safety for the African Explorer.

You’ll certainly discover more wildlife, landscapes, people and places than on a more traditional safari. But what other wildlife is worth looking out for?



The giraffe is a wonderful animal to spot on safari. Apart from their amazing blue tongues, they have intriguing small 5-inch knobs on their heads and, of course, outrageously long necks. The giraffe is the tallest mammal on earth so they are quite easy to spot – as long as you look up above the treetops.

Giraffes are one of the quietest, most common and most majestic animals you’re likely to see on an African safari. They’re not endangered and they don’t have a lot of predators so you often see them browsing in herds of up to 40 during the day. You can easily see them all year round, though the best time to see baby giraffe is between September and December, which is early summer in Africa.

Interesting facts about giraffes
• There are at least seven common sub-species of giraffes in Africa and can be each identified by its distinct skin pattern. You may well see the Rothschild Giraffe and the more common Masai Giraffe but you might struggle to spot the rare Reticulated Giraffe.

• The giraffe is one of the fastest animals on the plains and it is capable of reaching 50 kilometres per hour in speed.

• The favourite food of the giraffe is the thorny Acacia. This flat-topped, hardy tree is most often found in semi-arid or sub-tropical woodland so that is also the best place to see giraffe.

• The average giraffe gets through around 30 kg of leaves every day.



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Cheetahs are well known for their incredible speed and are deserving of their reputation for being the fastest animals on earth. They prefer to roam in wide open spaces but this brings them into contact with competition from other predators and with man his cattle.

Sadly, cheetahs are not very easy to spot as only around 12,000 exist in the wild. They mostly live in eastern and south-western Africa so your best chance of seeing them is in Tanzania’s Serengeti or in various reserves in Namibia.



Hippos are amazing creatures and can be found in lakes and rivers throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, they are easy to spot when you’re on safari. One of the best places to see them is in Zambia in the Luangwa River. An adult hippopotamus can weigh up to 3.5 tonnes so it is a hefty creature. They live in pods, many of which number over 100 individuals during the dry season.

Not many people realise this but an adult male hippo is quite fast on land and can run at speeds of up to 20mph, one of the facts that make hippos one of Africa’s most dangerous animals and why it is responsible for so many human fatalities in Africa.

Little-known hippo Facts
• Hippos secrete a natural sunscreen.
• The hippo’s closest living relative is the whale.
• An adult hippo can consume over 100 pounds of vegetation per day.


Nile crocodile

The Nile crocodile is an easy animal to see in Africa as it can be found in almost every major river as well as many of the continent’s lakes. Usually, they can be seen with their mouths wide open as they sun themselves on river banks.

Crocodiles reach lengths of up to 18 feet and are one of the oldest species on the planet and have been around for over 200 million years, which explains why they look like pre-historic animals. The crocodile is one of Africa’s most dangerous animal as it is responsible for a number of human fatalities every year.



Zebra are closely related to horses and donkeys and is notable for its black and white striped body, which are unique to each individual animal. Their stripes are believed to help camouflage them in the grass. A zebra’s stripe pattern is as unique as our finger prints. Zebra are herbivores and eat a range of grasses as well as shrubs, herbs, twigs, leaves and even bark.

There are two species of zebra, although Grevy’s Zebras are endangered and mostly confined to northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. Plains zebras are far more prevalent and can be found on the savannas from Sudan to northern Zimbabwe in eastern Africa. Zebras are very social animals and live in large groups called harems. Sometimes herds amalgamate into temporary groups of up to 30 individuals.


Even More Wildlife to Look Out For

There is plenty of wildlife to be seen in Africa, though many species are endangered, it doesn’t mean that seeing them is impossible. Here’s selection to whet your appetite and get you thinking.



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Gazelle Ballet

Gazelles are medium-sized grazing antelope that live in herds of as few as ten or as many as several hundred animals. During the rainy season, you can sometimes see thousands gathered in large groups.

Gazelles like wide-open spaces and plains where they can graze on grasses, shoots, and leaves. The open areas may make them more visible to predators but they are fast runners and can reach speeds of up to 40 miles (64 kilometers) an hour so can usually outrun their predators main predators, lion and prairie dogs.



Meerkats live in Southern and South West Africa and can mostly be found in the great open savannas. Meerkats are part of the mongoose family and are also know by the names Suricata and Suricatta.

The name ‘meerkat’ comes from an Afrikaans word meaning ‘lake cat’. If you want to see a meerkat, head for the Kalahari Desert and the Horn of Africa.



Vultures spend most of their time in the air where they’re able to keep a close eye on any activity of interest to them on the ground. For this reason, unsurprisingly, they have amazingly good eyesight. When they do spot a kill, they quickly descend onto the nearby trees and wait patiently for their share of the pickings – sometimes up to 36 hours.

The best place to find vultures is obviously at a kill but alternatively, look out for them where they encounter their main food source: in the vicinity of grazing animals and their predators.



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Wildebeest (or gnu) is a member of the antelope family and can be found in the plains and acacia savannas of Eastern Africa, notably in Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kilimanjaro, East Africa, Southern Africa.

Wildebeest are driven by their need to find large amounts of grass and water and as a result they are continually on the move. The famous western white-bearded wildebeest of the Serengeti is a particularly large nomadic group. They famously make a migratory circle of 500 to 1000 miles each year. This migration is relentless leading to many individuals being injured, lost or killed and the grazing lands of the Serengeti being exhausted.


It Doesn’t End There…

Wildlife is all around you in the African bush; it’s not all about big animals either. Look out for the smaller ones such as snakes, spiders, ants, butterflies, and smaller birds.

It’s worth investing some time learning about the wildlife you are most likely to see in the area you are going on safari so you can identify what you are seeing and enjoy it even more. For more information about the Big Five and how you can see them with your own unique self-drive safari, you can also download a free copy of the African Safari Field Guide – a useful 37-page book we wrote on the subject.

If you think you might be ready to see all these amazing animals in their natural habitat, get yourself a free safari consultation and let’s talk about your safari plans and answer any questions you may have.

4 Responses to “Beyond the Big Five: How to Spot the Best African Wildlife on Safari”

  1. I think safaris should be stopped. Keep people away from the animals, leave them alone. They aren’t to be viewed by tourist.

  2. John Durham says:

    If nobody goes to see them they’ll have no value and they’re in enough trouble as it is without that happening.
    Do it but do it responsibly.

  3. I want to go and just take pictures. No hunting.

  4. Vicky Wood says:

    Go to a SA National Park and support their conservation of the beautiful animals. We always see lion at Kruger, Elephants at Addo and stunning scenery in all the parks board areas. Keep up the good work guys

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