A Safari Tick-List
The Underdogs Of Africa
We wouldn’t blame you if all that you were concerned about is ticking off the Big Five on your trip to the rolling plains of Africa, but it’s a little-known fact that this list of ‘must-see mammals’ – as we now know of it today – was originally compiled to represent the most difficult animals to hunt. With big game hunting now only a sport for a tiny minority of very unpopular people, these five mammals have unintentionally stolen the limelight for safari-goers across the globe. There’s no denying that the sight of a lion basking in the rising sun is superb, or that spotting a leopard slinking in the dense bush is mind-blowing, but we don’t think that the underdogs should be forgotten either. If you’re off on an African safari any time soon, you may want to consider looking beyond the Big Five, so here’s our top-picks of Africa’s most overlooked game.
The chances are, where there’s water, there will be hippos. Ok so that’s not to be taken as a rule of thumb, but it’s likely that at some point during your safari you’ll come across some of these beasts. And they really are beasts. In fact, despite being natural vegetarians, hippos are considered the most dangerous terrestrial animals on the African continent. Eek. They can run at speeds of over 30km per hour (yep, really) and are exceptionally territorial. Don’t worry, you’ll be in safe hands on your game drive, so have nothing to fear, but it’s for these exact reasons that we think that hippos make for a pretty cool sighting. And lions think that they’re the Kings of the savannah. Pfft.
So, they may not make it to Big Five stardom, but it’s more than likely that it’s actually the wildebeest that you’ve travelled to the plains of Africa to see. With the Serengeti and Maasai Mara renowned across the world for being home to the spectacular natural phenomenon that is ‘The Great Migration’, wildebeest steal the show for a hefty proportion of the year. Interestingly, this member of the antelope family earned its Afrikaans name, which actually translates to “wild beast”, for its menacing appearance. But, despite their shaggy manes, pointed beards and devil-like horns, these herbivores make for the plains’ most hunted, rather than its hunters. It’s never guaranteed, but if you want to be in with a chance of ticking this show off your bucket-list, then summer is the time to go.
Perhaps forgotten because they are to Africa what sheep are to Wales – i.e. you’re guaranteed to see them everywhere – gazelles live in the constant shadow of their fellow grazing species. Ok, so apart from the fact that they can run at speeds of up to 50mph, they don’t have any particularly quirky features, but having long stood as a symbol of elegance and grace, gazelles definitely deserve their fair share of time in the limelight. Plus, if you’re travelling in search of the Great Migration, it’s not just the wildebeest that you’ll be tailing but these beauties too.
Striped, sassy and also playing a key part in the spectacle that is the Great Migration, everybody loves a zebra. Their distant cousin kind of relationship to our trusty horses make them feel strangely familiar, whilst their striking patterned body reminds us that these animals are no common pony. These ponies are fancayyy. And they look good in pictures too.
With their skyscraping necks, boldly patterned bodies and six foot long legs, giraffes know how to stand out – in a beautiful yet comical kind of way. Most people just think that a giraffe is a giraffe, but the peculiar species is actually defined by nine subspecies, all of which have subtle physical and genetic differences. But with one key factor in common, whether you spot a South African, Masai, or rare Rothschild’s giraffe, you’ll have ticked the world’s tallest animal off your bucket-list.
About as far away as you could get from your much loved pup back home, these wild doggy lookalikes are hardy beasts that are actually more closely related to cats than dogs. Dining on other’s leftovers, but also perfectly capable of hunting for themselves, these pack animals are known for being bold. But hey, their 80+ strong clans are female-led, so their bravery is a given, right? Oh, and fun fact: the Masai of East Africa leave corpses in the bush for hyenas to dispose of. What a way to go.
Perhaps it’s due to their unusual appearance, or perhaps it’s because of their abominable reputation, but there’s something terribly intriguing about a vulture. Surviving off of the remains of another’s kill, they really are portrayed as the lowest of the low in the animal kingdom. Unlike earthbound scavengers (like the lowly hyena), these birds are able to spot a carcass from over 20 miles away – in the “finders keepers” situation of the African savanna, they tend to have their pick of the bunch. But despite this fact, vultures are actually diminishing at an alarming rate due to eating cattle that have consumed pesticides. Just one cow could kill up to 100 birds, making for fairly devastating statistics. So, if you do spot a vulture, fight your immediate reaction to be revolted and remember the important role that these birds play in Africa’s ecosystem. Without them disease from rotting meat would spread like wildfire.
If you manage to spot an aardvark, you are one lucky son of a gun. These nocturnal mammals are the very definition of elusive. In fact, even many of the safari guides have never managed to spot one. And that’s not the only reason that they make the list, their incredibly unusual appearance makes spotting one feel like a dream. Sporting rabbitlike ears, a kangaroo tail and a long pig-like snout, you will never have seen anything quite like it – good luck!
It may be the fastest animal on the planet (it can run at speeds of up to 70mph), but when it comes to safari sightings, this endangered big cat most definitely lives in the leopard’s shadow. In fact, people often confuse the two when actually, if you know what you’re looking for, they look entirely different from one another. In stark contrast to a leopard’s rosette-shaped spots, cheetahs sport solid spots. Cheetahs are generally, longer, leaner and taller than leopards and they also have distinctly different faces, with their signature marking being their ‘teardrops’. But “what’s better than seeing a cheetah?”, we hear you say. Cheetah cubs. With long, fuzzy hair running from their neck all the way down to the base of their tail, these cubs are the very definition of ca-ute.
Why should it only be the big game that gets all the love? Chances are, you’ve never seen anything quite like a dung beetle. You wouldn’t think it, but watching a dung beetle hard at work will be up there as one of the most fascinating things that you see during your time in the bush. Playing a vital role in the ecosystems of Africa’s national parks, these unassuming insects laugh in the face of the question “do you even lift, bro?”. Able to carry a staggering 1,441 times their own weight, dung beetles are natural born bodybuilders.
The fastest and largest bird in the world most definitely deserves some recognition and we’re going to give them just that. Undeniably peculiar looking, ostriches have long been a subject of fascination and standing at a whopping seven to nine feet, it’s really not surprising. Although flightless, ostriches are well equipped to defend themselves from the predators that they share the African plains with. One swift kick from their powerful legs can kill a lion. Yes, really.
Nothing beats the sight of a landscape tickled pink with a flock of flamingos. But, for these special birds, you’ll have to be in the right place at the right time, so it’s not really fair for us to tell you to add them to your list unless you’re heading to Lake Manyara (which is included in our Tanzania Classic itinerary), or Lake Nakuru (which is included on the LAke Naivasha leg of our Kenya Classic itinerary).