Unexpected animals to spot on safari

Our Africa Expert Patrick Clementson is here to shine the limelight on some of the lesser known, but still intriguing, safari species.
July 2021

Embarking on a safari is like watching Africa’s own live theatre, camera at the ready to snap the top billing performers like lion, elusive leopard, enchanting elephants, rhino and buffalo. Sure, spotting the big names is spectacular, but there are a few notable supporting roles played by some less appreciated animals and birds that are sure to surprise and delight should you see them on your travels.

Spotted Hyena

Much maligned due to its unsightly appearance, the spotted hyena is a unique and fascinating animal to observe on safari. While you often find them throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa following in the wake of other predators looking for that opportunity to appropriate a meal, they are actually very successful hunters themselves. If you’re lucky enough to spot a den you’ll be mesmerised by some very endearing cubs, and be enthralled by the family interaction and their captivating social structure.

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Honey badger

With its sweet-sounding name, you might be mistaken for thinking this elusive creature is gentle and kind. On the contrary, the honey badger is anything but. Vicious and fearless, this relative of otters and ferrets is a voracious omnivore and will eat insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, as well as roots, bulbs, berries, and fruits. It also loves honey, as its name suggests. The honey badger hunts for its own food but will also scavenge opportunistically from other carnivores and because of its nocturnal nature can be very difficult to see on safari. I have been fortunate to see them in Botswana’s Linyanti and Kalahari regions.

Baboon

The entertainers of the safari scene, there’s never a dull moment watching a troop of baboons go about their business. Daily activities beginning just after dawn, you may see troop members grooming each other or wandering the bush foraging for food. Keep an eye out for babies riding jockey style on their mother’s back, making for fabulous pictures, and there are always squabbles between the youngsters. If threatened, you’ll see the troop in protective mode, with males calling loudly and mobbing any predators that dare try to steal their young.

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Antelope

The most common animal you will see on safari is undoubtedly the impala, affectionately known as the ‘McDonalds of the bush’ due to the striking ‘M’ on its rump and because it is an easy target for hungry predators. Look beyond, however, and you may be lucky to spot some of the rarer species like Puku, Roan and Sable. Or Kudu with its magnificent horns, the striking Nyala with its shaggy coat, and the Eland, the largest of all with an impressive jump of over two metres. The most adorable though is the tiny Dik Dik, the smallest of all antelopes, which lives in the arid parts of East Africa and mates for life. You’ll be enchanted.

Vulture

Vultures play one of the most important roles in the safari landscape, clearing up to 70% of all carrion in the ecosystem. They also provide endless entertainment as they wait their turn to perform their duties. If you happen to be in the vicinity when the predator leaves its kill, you will watch the drama unfold as the scavengers squabble over the remains.

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Bush baby

Only ever seen at night, the tiny bush baby spends most of its life in the trees. Its big eyes help it see in low light and its large collapsible ears rotate enabling it to track insect prey in the dark. Powerful legs and a long tail make the animal an excellent jumper and enable it to move quickly through the forest canopy. On any night drive, spotting the wide-eyed bush baby high in the trees is a real highlight.

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Birdlife

The first-time safari-goer may not fully appreciate the rich birdlife of Africa but after a few days in the bush I challenge anyone not to be captivated by the many winged species which populate the landscape. Some of my favourite feathered friends include the ubiquitous lilac breasted roller with its stunning purple, green and rusty red plumage and the beautiful crimson colours of the Carmine bee-eater which makes its home in the riverbanks of places like Zambia’s South Luangwa and the African fish eagle whose loud distinctive call is one of the characteristic sounds of Africa’s rivers and waterways. I highly recommend downloading a bird identification app before you go as a handy guide for the many, many birds you will encounter.

Dreaming of a safari adventure? Check out the many and varied options on our website, reach out to our Journey Designers or talk to your travel agent to learn more and start planning.