What Will I See on Safari?

The short answer to the question, “What will I see on safari?” is animals. First-timers, however, can get caught up in focusing on only the “Big Five.” This classification of the lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros was originally a hunting term for the five most dangerous African animals to hunt on foot. Now it is a marketing strategy used by some safari operators to draw clients. Unfortunately, people who are enamored of the idea of seeing the “Big Five” can miss watching the behavior some really amazing animals who didn’t make the list. Some of these animal sightings are much rarer and will be even more special if you know a little about the animal.

Before you head out on safari, do a little reading about the animals you might see in the area. Or, if you have a “must see” animal, like a chimpanzee, pick the location for your safari based on the prevalence of that animal. Also, if you are a photographer, learning a little about animal behavior can help you to be ready to take some amazing shots. A book like Richard Estes’ The Safari Companion is good reading during downtime at your lodge.

I’ve taken several pictures from my trips to South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana and added a little bit of information about some of my favorite animals that I’ve gleaned from guides and experts.


If a leopard is on your “must see” list, choose your safari location carefully. Most leopards are very elusive and are more likely to be seen at night (in poor lighting). Based on my experience, your best option for a good leopard sighting is visiting a private reserve where vehicles can go off road and some of the cats are habituated to vehicles. This photo was taken at Kwara Camp in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The cub is about three months old.


Elephants have six sets of teeth to last their lifetime, which is typically 50-70 years in the wild. As teeth wear out, they are replaced by new ones. Normally, elephants eat hundreds of pounds of grass and foliage a day, but during drought or when food is scarce, they will overturn trees to eat the roots and also consume bark, which is much harder on their teeth and can shorten their lives. Elephant tusks are incisors. You will see them use their tusks for all sorts of tasks, for example as a hanger for their trunk, a digging tool, and a lever for stripping branches. Elephants have a tusk preference similar to the way humans are right or left handed. The dominant tusk will be more worn. This photo was taken in Hwange in Zimbabwe were water is scare. Elephants often have to dig for water, which might be why this animal’s tusks are so damaged.

Lilac-breasted Roller

My first guide in South Africa told me that I couldn’t say I was in love with Africa until I started learning about the birds. While I haven’t reached the point of being a “twitcher,” I do keep expanding my list of birds I watch for on safari. This lilac-breasted roller, found in many parks throughout Eastern and Southern Africa, is an easy one to spot because his open wings are shades of brilliant blue. Even if you aren’t a birder, try to add a few special birds to your list of animals to see. On the rare day when all the big game seems to be hiding, you can usually still spot some interesting birds. Some of my favorites are the African fish eagle (a relative of the bald eagle), the huge ground hornbill with the booming voice, the almost two-dimensional guineafowl, and the Verreaux’s eagle owl.

Black and White Rhinos

Perhaps I just got lucky, but while on safari in Etosha in Namibia, I saw both black and white rhino within minutes of each other. While both are critically endangered, there are only about 5,500 black rhino left in Africa as compared to 20,000 white rhino. Etosha is one of the best locations to see black rhino. You won’t see a difference in color between the two species, but they do look different. “White” really stands for the Afrikaans word “weit,” which means wide and refers to the square muzzle. White rhinos are grass eaters whereas black rhinos eat grass and also twigs and leaves. As you can see in the picture on the left, black rhinos have a hook-shaped lip, which is useful for stripping branches. The black rhino is slightly smaller than the white rhino (on the right). Rangers also say they are more unpredictable.


Lions are majestic, but they can also be really boring. They sleep about 20 hours a day! One of the common misconceptions is that the females do all of the hunting. While lionesses do hunt, and sometimes lose the “lion’s share” of their kill to the males, male lions bring down prey on their own as well as with others. Depending on the location, and the lions involved, you may see them feeding on various antelope species of all sizes as well as larger animals like giraffe, Cape buffalo, and elephant. A guide shared a photo tip with me: if you see a lion licking his paws, get your camera ready because he is likely to get up and move. Much better than another shot of him sleeping!

Cape Buffalo

It is easy to get seduced into thinking the Cape buffalo is just another cow-like creature. Most of the time they are docile and just graze or chew their cud. But keep in mind that this animal is responsible for the most human deaths in Africa per year (about 200) and is nicknamed the “widow maker.” Small bachelor herds of old buffalo, known as “dagga boys,” because they tend to hang out in the mud (dagga) around waterholes, are particularly ill tempered, and unexpected on-foot encounters with them, or with injured ones of any age or sex, may end badly. While elephants and lions, for example, will warn you with a mock charge, Cape buffalo go all in from the start. Reaching speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, they aim their rock-hard “boss” (head) and horns at their target and run him down. On safari I had to search for a reason to be interested in these creatures (other than the possibility of lions preying on them). I read in Estes’ book that herds are democratic. Individuals will “vote” on the direction to move by facing in a certain direction and the majority rules!

Wild Dog

The African wild dog, also known as the Cape hunting dog and the African painted dog, is the most successful predator in Africa. They have a kill rate per chase of more than 80%! By comparison, they are more successful than lions, tigers, wolves, birds of prey, and even your domestic cat. So why are their numbers declining? They used to be found across Africa, but now only about 6,500 remain. Shrinking wild spaces, conflict with humans, and a susceptibility to domestic dog diseases have greatly reduced their numbers. The African wild dog lives and hunts in packs of six to twenty animals led by an alpha pair. They can have a territorial range of 900 square miles, so seeing them on safari is rare unless they are denning in the area (raising pups). Trying to keep up with them in the bush at 35 mph as they hunt is one of the top adrenalin-packed experiences you can have on a drive! The coat patterns of each African painted dog are as unique as our fingerprints.


There are many stories in Africa about how the cheetah got tear marks on his face. When I see these marks, it reminds me that this cat is at the bottom of the bush hierarchy. Once they kill, they have to eat quickly before the meal is stolen by other animals like lions, leopard, hyenas, etc. Cheetah are non-aggressive – fighting increases the risk of injury, and injuries that limit their mobility are life threatening because then they can’t hunt successfully. Cheetah hunt by sight rather than smell. Shortly before the photo was taken, this female was on top of a small hill and spotted a herd of impala in the distance. She slunk down and crept closer and then hit the gas – running toward an impala at a speed of up to 75 mph! We couldn’t begin to keep up. When we finally reached her, she was sitting in the grass holding the impala by the throat. It was a quick, bloodless death, and she didn’t even seem to be short of breath.

Oryx (Gemsbok)

A striking antelope, Oryx species are found in the arid regions of Africa (and have even been imported to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico). They are highly adapted to harsh dry conditions and can go without drinking for weeks if water is unavailable. Oryx have also adapted to high temperatures that would kill other animals. Temperatures in Namibia, for example, can reach over 120F. Brain damage occurs at 109F. Oryx survive using counter-current heat exchange. Blood exits the heart and travels through their nasal passages where it is cooled to 104F by the evaporation of water before heading to the brain. Oryx use their horns to defend themselves and have been known to kill lions. They are sometimes referred to as the “saber” antelope.


A giraffe was the first wild animal I saw in Africa. It made me realize I really was on safari. Getting a good photo of one, however, took a few trips to Africa. Giraffes can be difficult to photograph because they keep moving as they feed on the foliage of the iconic acacia. They have to move from tree to tree because the trees are communicating and defending themselves. Really. The first line of defense for the acacia are the long thorns. These thorns can be 4 inches in length and are knife sharp. (Your travel agent will likely tell you to take thick-soled shoes on safari to avoid stepping on a thorn and having it go through your shoe and foot!) Giraffes have adapted to the thorns and use their long, prehensile tongue to pull leaves while avoiding the spikes. The acacia had to develop another defense against the giraffe. The “improved” line of defense for the acacia is the release of tannin. While good in wine, tannin makes the acacia leaves taste bitter and inhibits digestion. When a tree releases tannin, neighboring trees up to 50 yards away also react and begin to release their tannin. The trees are communicating that they are under attack. This is why you will see giraffe eat for a few minutes and then head upwind toward “fresh” trees. Your guide may call a group of giraffes a “journey.”


Many safari guides consider the hippo to be the most dangerous animal in Africa. Common lore has it that the clumsy looking hippo kills more people per year than lions, leopards, crocodiles, elephant, buffalo and rhino combined. Hippos are unpredictable, territorial, and have huge tusks. They are more agile than they look like they should be, and can run on land for short bursts at up to 30 mph. Coming between a hippo and the water or a hippo and her calf can be a death sentence for an easily breakable human. Despite this fearsome reputation, in the early 1900s Americans considered importing them to launch a ranching industry. You can learn more about the failed attempt from the podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class.


Seeing a pangolin in the wild is rare. Rangers can go their entire careers without spotting one. I was lucky enough to see one in the Timbavati in South Africa, but my pictures are poor – I didn’t have time to watch the animal relax and emerge from the bush because the people in my vehicle were impatient to move on to see Cape buffalo. They just didn’t realize how incredibly special this sighting was! This pangolin is what prompts me to encourage people to do some reading about what they might see. Pangolin are the most trafficked mammal on the planet for their scales. Despite looking like a scaly anteater and feasting on insects like termites, they are more closely related to bears and wolves. The pangolin’s tongue (see in the middle of the photo), can be longer than his body. Google “pangolin” and check out photos and videos of them walking on their hind legs and carrying young on their tails. The famous naturalist David Attenborough chose the pangolin as one of his ten favorite species that he would ‘save’ from extinction if he could.


[Check out Shauna Shipley’s earlier posts and amazing photos in McCall Digest – My Safari Addiction and My Safari Addiction: Photos from Africa.]

About the author

Shauna Shipley

Writer, instructional designer, dog lover, and avid traveler based in the Pacific Northwest. Life feels more manageable with at least one international ticket booked and an adventure to dream about as I snuggle down with my Golden Retrievers.

1 Comment

  • Wow, Shauna, how very unfortunate that the people in the vehicle wanted to see Cape Buffalo instead of a Pangolin! I have yet to see one and, as you mentioned, many game rangers/guides have never seen one, after living in the bush for years. Well done anyway for being lucky enough to see one, however briefly it was.

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