What an African Safari is all about
Think ‘Africa’ and one of the first – if not the first – images that springs to mind will be of large, exotic animals, such as Elephants, Giraffes and Gorillas. Wildlife, including these iconic species and hundreds more, is central to the African Safari experience. Nowhere else on earth can a traveller observe, photograph or otherwise interact with large wild animals in such great numbers and variety.
Visitors have been using the well-established safari circuits in East and Southern Africa for decades and, more recently, tracking Gorillas in the highlands of Uganda and Rwanda has captured travellers’ imaginations.
But as more African countries realise the value of preserving wildlife in its natural habitat as a source of income and employment for the local people, further wildlife-watching oppurtunities are opening up for visitors with a multitude of african safaris to choose from.
Africa is home to more than 1100 mammal species, some 2400 bird species and hundreds of species of reptile, amphibian and freshwater fish. Mammals top the list of ‘must-sees’ for the vast majority of African Safari visitors, but a trip to Kenya, Botswana or Cameroon, for example, has turned many a casual bird-watcher into an insatiable ‘world birder’. And, unlike in many parts of the world, Africa’s most charismatic mammals are often large, and easy to see and photograph on an african safari.
The term ‘Big Five’ was coined by white hunters for those five species deemed most dangerous to hunt on an african safari
: Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Rhino and Buffalo. Hunting is now either banned or stricly controlled (in theory at least) in most African countries where these animals survive, but the label has stuck, and many tourists come to Africa determined to see these species. but, there’s a whole lot more out there, some of it right at your feet, that’s no less interesting.
For example, Africa has the biggest diversity of hoofed animals on earth. Antelopes range from the tiny, knee-high Dik-Dik and Duiker, through the graceful Gazelle, Impala and Springbok, to giants such as the Eland and Kudu. Many of these will be seen on typical East or Southern Safari, as well as other iconic hoofed animals, such as the three Zebra species and Giraffes.
And don’t worry, there’s a good chance of seeing Buffalo on most African Safaris, despite their fearsome reputation (earned, incidentally, by rogue bulls, which really are dangerous).
Meat provides a ready source of first-class protein, and in Africa it walks around in huge herds, so not surprisingly many predators have also evolved here. Among them are Lions, unique among cats because they form cohesive prides that hunt cooperatively and share the spoils; the secretive but adaptable leopard, found from rainforests to the edge of human settlements; and the Cheetah, fastest of all land mammals, which hunts by running down its prey.
The dog family is also well represented, with three species of Jackal and the African Hunting Dog, the most social of dogs, which hunt in fast moving packs. Maligned and misunderstood, the spotted Hyena is superbly adapted to run down fleet-footed antelopes with its seemingly tireless, lolloping gait, and even challenges Lions and Leopards for their kills.
The African Elephant is the largest living land animal and can still be seen in good numbers in many parts of the continent on african safaris, despite the ravages of poaching. Such huge animals have a voracious appetite, which inevitably brings them into conflict with humans as they trash crops and farms. But the killing of the two Rhino species – white and black – is inexusable. These inoffensive vegetarians are armed with impressive horns that have made them the target of both white hunters and poachers; Rhino numbers in Africa plummeted to the brink of extinction during the 20th century.
We owe a lot to the rainforests of Central and West Africa, for it is from here that Homo saiens ultimately evolved. Indeed, all the primates as we know them – humans, the great apes, monkeys and a host of ancient ‘primitive’ forms such as Bushbabies – evolved in Africa.
Our obvious kinship with these often-engaging animals has spawned various forms of ‘primate tourism’, whereby troops of monkeys or apes are habituated to human presence so visitors can observe them in their natural habitat. High on everone’s list should be Gorillas or Chimp tracking at one of the several sites now geared up for primate tourism. The West African rainforests are rich in primates – not just Gorillas and Chimps, but a host of beautiful and strikingly-marked Guenons and Forest Baboons.
Birds are a highlight of all African safaris, and in most sub-Saharan countries you could see hundreds of species in the course of an average visit. Birds reach their highest profusion in the Congo rainforests, but are easier to see in countries with a mosaic of habitats such as rainforest, savannah and wetland. Several bird families, such as the Ostrich, Secretarybird, Touracos, Shoebill, Hamerkop and Mousebirds are unique to Africa.
Apart from endemic species, hundreds more species flood into the continent on migration during the northern winter. For the dedicated birder there are a host of challenges, such as sorting out the variety of Weavers, Sunbirds and Warblers seen on African Safaris.
Africa’s reptiles are also diverse and include hundreds of species of snake and lizard. Those who have a phobia of such things needn’t worry – all lizards are harmless and the danger from snakes is greatly exaggerated. The only really dangerous reptile is the famous Nile Crocodile, which generally eats fish, though large specimens wait in ambush for Wildebeest and other animals at river crossings, and do occasionaly kill people. Some fine specimens can be seen in Kenya’s Lake Turkana and in Madagascar. The largest African lizard is the Nile Monitor, which sometimes reaches a metre or more in length.
The fabulous Chameleons, subject of much superstition among Africans, are difficult to spot among foliage but come in many shapes and clolours. Spectacular snakes include the African Rock Python, which is nonvenomous and kills its prey by constriction, and various species of Cobra and Viper that you may be lucky enough to see from your safari vehicle on African Safaris. Small, handsome tortoises are often encountered on the plains.
Incredible life-changing African Safaris
A greatly simplified picture of the African environment would divide it into three major habitats: the vast equatorial rainforests that stretch from the Atlantic to the borders of East Africa; deserts, such as the Sahara stretching across the top of the continent and the Namib in the southwest corner, and, filling the spaces in-between, the savannah plains, dotted with acacias or miombo and populated by the big cats, elephants, giraffes and vast herds of grazing animals.
Biologists sometimes use an island metaphor to explain Africa’s extraordinary wildlife diversity: ‘islands’ of habitat have been stranded all over the continent by the expansion and contraction of these three major habitats during alternating wet and dry climatic phases over many millennia.
Africa’s rainforests are an evolutionary hothouse, rich in birds and small mammals, that remain largely unexplored biologically. As recently as the early 20th century, new species of large mammal were still being discovered, including the Okapi, a horse-sized member of the Giraffe family; and the giant forest hog, the world’s largest wild pig.
Other denizens of the deep forest include pygmy Hippos in West African rivers; distinctive forest-dwelling subspecies of Elephant, Buffalo and Bush Pig: and the Bongo, a large and beautifully marked forest antelope. In remote, uninhabited parts of the Congo basin these generally retiring animals emerge from the forest into clearings called bais, naturally-occuring grassy depressions that provide sweet grazing.
Animals that can climb or fly are able to exploit food and other resources high in tree canopies. Thus, rainforests are rich in birds, small climbing predators such as Genets and, of course, primates. Birdlife includes a range of large and spectacular species, and Hawks and Owls rarelt seen by humans on African Safaris. From the deep green cathedrals of towering trees, monkeys eventually ventured into the surrounding savannahs and developed complex social systems that enabled them to survive among a new suite of predators.
Deserts typically occur in areas of low rainfall and feature their own unique fauna and flora. Most famous of Africa’s deserts is the mighty Sahara, which stretches virtually across the continent’s northern side. An expanding human population caused the extinction of nearly all large animals north of the Sahara, and the Giraffes, large antelopes and lions that once roamed the Mediterranean coast were all killed off in Roman times.
Many large animals, including Elephants, Rhinos and the majestic Gemsbok, eke out a precarious existence in the extraordinarily harsh conditions of the Namib Desert; and a suite of smaller animals has evolved for survival in habitats that have probably never known rain.
But the vast, unpeopled savannah plains probably still epitomise African Safaris for most visitors. It’s a beautiful and complex ecosystem that spans a continent, shaped by fire, rainfall and even the wildlife itself. The pounding of millions of hooves over millennia has allowed the survival of only the hardiest of grasses; the same grazers deposit vast amounts of manure that fertilise the soil.
Fires set by lightning and the destruction of trees by Elephants encourages grasslands, but eventually the herds move on, the shrubs and trees regrow, and over centuries and millennia the cycle is repeated across the African continent.
The same cold waters that create the southwestern deserts support rich fish stocks, which in turn support a host of seabirds, and sea lions and their predator – the Great White Shark of the southern African oceans. But the wildlife highlights of tropical and subtropical seas are the coral-reef systems that proliferate in warm, sunlit shallow waters.
Coral reefs are among the most complex, but least understood, ecosystems on earth. They are home to hundreds of species of fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates. Superb underwater viewing of these habitats can be had around the shores of the Indian Ocean, particularly in the Red Sea, and East and Southern Africa.
Even freshwater ecosystems occur on a grand scale in Africa, with some of the world’s largest lakes and rivers, as well as a host of tributaries. The largest of the aquatic animals is the Hippopotamus, which leaves its wallows by night to feed on grasses, sometimes many kilometers from the water’s edge. The Sitatunga, the world’s only aquatic antelope, has splayed hooves for walking on floating vegetation and submerges itself in swamps to avoid predators.
The Rift Valley lakes as well as Lake Victoria itself once supported hundreds of unique fish species, the Cichlids, but unfortunately many of these have been wiped out by Nile Perch, a large predatory fish that was introduced to the lakes.
Incredible life-changing African Safaris
The chances of finding particular species of animals you may want to see on your African Safari are greatly improved if you know where as well as when to look for them. Guides and drivers are generally expert in this department and keep one another informed about sightings of the most sought after animals, especially Leopard, Cheetah, Lion and Rhino.
Nevertheless, you should be aware that although some animals have very particular habitat requirements, others tolerate a variety of habitat types and can be seen nearly everywhere on your African Safari.
Many carnivores, for example, are equally at home in wooded and open country. Leopards, however, will not go far from cover. Among herbivores, the Elephant has the broadest habitat tolerance by far, ranging from rain forest to semi desert plains.
Among animals with more specialized habitat preferences, Hippos must have water to submerge in and nearby grazing grounds. Wildebeests are specialized to harvest dense swards of short, palatable, and nutritious grasses. The Sitatunga has elongated hooves and is otherwise adapted to live in swamps. Giraffes cannot subsist on open plains without trees or other woody plants they can browse on.
Rock Hyraxes and Klipspringers depend on cliffs and rocky outcrops (called kopjes) as refuges from predators. The great majority of primates depend on trees for food and safety. Even such elementary knowledge can be put to practical use on an African safari, if only to avoid wasting time looking for a species where it would never normally occur.
If you’re interested in watching animals behaving normally, you want to get close enough to see and hear clearly, but not so close that you disturb them. You can get extremely close to most wildlife without causing alarm if the animals are habituated to vehicles or to pedestrians which they are on our African Safaris.
Lions and most other large predators are easily habituated to vehicles. Predictably enough, small herbivores and carnivores tend to be more alert and quicker to take flight than their predators. The antelope with the greatest flight distance is the Eland, which is big enough to stand up to Lions in defense of its offspring but unable to run fast or far.
Other large herbivores that are big enough as adults to intimidate Lions tend to worry less about vehicles than do the smaller kinds. Giraffes and Buffalo bulls become exceptionally tame. Elephants will occasional mock charge the vehicle, especially females with small calves.
The same animals that ignore an approaching vehicle usually run away when approached on foot. Men on foot have been hunting African Wildlife for maybe 2 million years, and the predatory image is still being reinforced outside, and too often inside, the parks.
Since vehicles came onto the scene, most have had a clean record with the wildlife in National Parks in Africa. People in vehicles, including boats, are not recognized as such on their African safari: Animals see the whole ensemble, not the separate parts.
Around lodges and other facilities inside wildlife parks and reserves it is a different story. Here several factors combine to convince the animals that humans are harmless, if not their protectors and meal tickets. They find food, water, salt, and – in the case of small creatures such as bats, rats, mice, lizards, hyraxes, and numerous birds – shelter. Animals also find a measure of safety from large predators, which are often inhibited from hunting close to habitation.
The opportunity to see and photograph wildlife at close quarters on foot is a definite asset of wildlife lodges. Yet big animals that lose their fear of humans become potentially dangerous, especially when in quest of food. People who feed the animals contribute to the problem. It’s a great treat to see superb Starlings and other gorgeous birds hopping around practically at arm’s length whilst on your African safari.
Incredible life-changing African Safaris