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Safari: Beyond the Big Five

Along with the Big Five, it's worth remembering that many of Africa's other mammals are equally interesting — just less well known

By Sam Lewis
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:18 BST, Updated 14 Jul 2021, 14:38 BST
African Wild Dog. Image: Getty
African Wild Dog. Image: Getty

If you've been on safari before, you've probably ticked off the Big Five from your bucket list, but it doesn't stop there — there's so much more to African wildlife than that.

While the continent may be home to many different species, some of the most interesting are also the most elusive. A lot of research and patience may be necessary.

Specialist operator Cox & Kings says many of its clients are eager to spot the rather odd-looking pangolin — the only mammal in the world covered entirely in scales and with a tongue that expands to a length that's longer than its own body. However, as it's nocturnal, safari-goers will have to trade sleep for a sighting.

Travellers are also increasingly interested in the aardvark. Otherwise known as an earth pig due to its peculiar pig-like snout, this nocturnal creature's closest living relatives are actually elephants.

Television is playing a huge part in throwing the spotlight on certain mammals, with the charismatic meerkat rising to fame over the past decade. Wildlife Worldwide hopes a new BBC documentary, due to be aired in autumn 2018, will do the same for wild dogs. Filmed from Vundu Lodge in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, the operator offers a trip guided by the award-winning wildlife photographer Bret Charman in November.

Other operators — including Tribes — can help clients find elusive birds such as Pel's fishing owl. Meanwhile, Cox & Kings is supporting conservationists in their quest to encourage visitors to travel to Africa's less well-known parks in search of the 'little five': the leopard tortoise, the rhino beetle, the elephant shrew, the buffalo weaver and the antlion.

However, nothing sparks up interest more than cats, according to Bill Adams of Safari Consultants.

"Most people are interested in the entire range of predators from lions and leopards to cheetah and the elusive caracal," he says.

While safari operators can't guarantee you'll see a specific mammal on safari, your odds of spotting something rare will be far higher if you enlist their help. "Some of the bigger cats such as cheetah can be easy to predict. But wild dog populations — for instance — go up and down very quickly because not only do they move vast distances but diseases such as canine distemper can wipe out an entire pack very quickly.

"I've got clients who do 'species chase', and one in particular who's desperate to see caracal. To be honest you need to be pretty patient and wealthy to do that — or very lucky."

African Wild Dog

Elusive and rare, this isn't the easiest of animals to spot on safari — but watching a pack in action is worth the wait. Critically endangered, it's estimated there are only around 6,600 African wild dogs left, mostly around southern Africa, with a number of game parks and reserves on a mission to save them. Highly sociable, they gather in packs of around six to 20 and work as an organised team, often separating their prey from the herd, and driving them in a military fashion towards water or a cleverly thought-out ambush.

Often referred to as 'painted' due to their mottled colouring, these canines are easily distinguishable by their bushy tail and large rounded ears, which help to regulate their body temperature and allow them to pick up the slightest of sounds. But while these dogs may look almost tame, they're highly intelligent, fast and exceptionally good hunters, with a kill rate reportedly better than lions.

Capable of travelling up to 30 miles in a day and running long distances at 34mph, they have the stamina of marathon runners, and take it in turns to lead the pack during a hunt. Although most African wild dogs only weigh around 40-75lb, their jaws are powerful and can collectively bring down large zebras and even wildebeest, although they typically tend to run their prey to exhaustion.

But while these dogs have gained a reputation for being ruthless and vicious, they rarely pose a threat to humans or fight among each other. A strict hierarchy and strong allegiance means older dogs stand back and let the pups and injured eat first and help rear the litter of the monogamous pair that leads the pack.

Despite frequently surviving the odds to survive until 11 or 12 years old, the numbers of wild dogs continue to diminish, preyed on by humans and lions, or often swiftly wiped out by disease (canine distemper) sometimes passed on by domestic dogs.

Where to see them
Go during denning time and try Selinda, Kwando, Okavango Delta and Linyanti, Botswana; Tanzania's Serengeti and Selous Game Reserve; Mana Pools in Zimbabwe; and Kruger or KwaZulu Natal in South Africa.


Blink and you might miss this elegant mammal, capable of going from 0 to 60mph in a couple of seconds. This super-fast cat with wide nostrils, large lungs and rapid twitch muscles, is the quickest animal on land. But while it's estimated they can reach speeds of up to 70mph, their stamina is poor — with most sprints lasting only 20 to 30 seconds. Few of a cheetah's chases are actually successful and, as its kill is often stolen and cubs frequently killed, this cat is extremely vulnerable with only around 6,600 left in the wild.

Typically smaller than other big cats, cheetahs favour vast savannahs where their tan colouring and characteristic black spots provide the perfect camouflage. The cheetah's long tail helps it to balance through tight turns, while claws that never fully retract help it to maintain traction on the ground. Cheetahs have black tear lines beneath their eyes, thought to keep out the glare of the sun while they are scanning the horizon to hunt during the day.

Their night vision is poor, and while they won't climb like leopards or lions they can clamber up trees to identify prey during daylight. Most will typically sneak up on animals like gazelles and wildebeest before giving chase.

Females give birth to around three cubs at a time but despite moving and hiding them every couple of days, cub mortality rate is around 90%. The cubs begin following their mother on hunts at around six weeks and are fully grown at about 15 months when the mum will leave them to fend for themselves.

Where to see them
Kenya's Maasai Mara provides ideal open habitat for cheetahs. Alternatively, the Serengeti in Tanzania.

Brown Hyena

One of the rarest large African carnivores, these animals are shy, secretive, and can be hard to spot, especially since they tend to scavenge alone at night when they can cover distances of up to 25 miles. They're also typically hard to hear too, being quiet, unlike spotted hyenas which make a laughing noise. While conservation efforts have had some success in boosting numbers, it's estimated there are only around 8,000 brown hyenas left in the wild.

Most brown hyaenas have incredibly long shaggy coats, sloping hindquarters, stripes on their forelegs and large, pointed ears. Adults can be quite large with males reaching up to 4ft long and weighing up to 100lb, and they can live up to 14-16 years. A short robust muzzle, powerful jaws and sharp teeth makes them capable of breaking open bones to get at the nutritious marrow beneath.

While they mostly dine off the remains of kills from other animals, brown hyenas have exceptional smell and, as opportunistic foragers, will happily eat birds' eggs and wild fruit. Although they rarely hunt, they're capable of bringing down antelopes and zebras but prefer small prey and have been seen to attack seal pups on the shores along the coastal Namib Desert.


Ask any operator about the odds of spotting these graceful cats in the wild and they'll probably shrug. "I could probably retire if I could answer that," says Bill Adams of Safari Consultants. "I haven't seen a caracal for 25 years and yet our newest recruit saw one after getting off a plane. It's luck of the draw."

While these cats are shy and predominately nocturnal, they're reportedly easy to tame and have historically sometimes been kept as pets and trained to hunt in India and Iran. Often called the Persian lynx or gazelle cat, they're not actually part of the lynx family at all, having similar anatomy to domestic cats and being more closely linked to the serval and African golden cat.

Typically covered in a short, thick soft coat with a reddish-brown tinge, the caracal's most distinctive characteristic is its long, black-tufted ears controlled by more than 20 individual muscles, helping it to pinpoint prey. Like its hearing, its vision is excellent, even at night. Standing around 16-20in high and 35-39in long, the caracal can weigh 18-40lb but its powerful hind legs, which are longer than its front legs, mean it can sprint and leap up to 10ft into the air. Caracals were reportedly put into arenas containing flocks of pigeons, and people would bet how many birds they could kill. Some of the best trained cats could bring down 10-12 pigeons in one leap.

The caracal's bobbed tail is used to help it balance in the air and its impressive strength, speed and agility make it a formidable predator of rodents, hares, and other small mammals. Picky eaters, they discard a lot of the kill, such as the internal organs, hair and feathers and often climb and store their catch in a tree to prevent it being eaten by other predators.

Frequently living until 12, females can reproduce any time of the year, and give birth to two to three kittens in a litter. The young will remain with the female until nine or 10 months old.

Where to see them
Serengeti, Tanzania; Maasai Mara, Kenya; West Coast National Park, South Africa.

Honey Badger

Despite their diminutive size, honey badgers have remarkably big brains and a reputation for being one of Africa's cleverest and fiercest animals. Related to the weasel, honey badgers are ferocious fighters, with jaws more powerful than a lion's and an inclination to go for the scrotum when attacking large animals. As they're small and solitary, they can be hard to spot, and most travellers report encounters by chance, perhaps spotting one happily trotting along the road on its way to raid a bin at a camp.

Around 3ft long and 1ft tall, the badgers' bold black and white skunk-like colouring from snout to bushy tail, is thought to warn other predators to keep their distance. Their heads are small and flat, with a short muzzle, and tiny ear slits. They have thick, rubbery skin that's practically impenetrable for teeth and other sharp objects, and as it's loose, it enables the badger to twist and turn around to bite anything that's attacking it.

Honey badgers have an incredible sense of smell, are not fussy eaters and are content to eat anything they can, be it mammals, birds, eggs reptiles or roots. They have a penchant for honey and it can slowly and greedily drain a hive using their tongues and are impervious to bee stings. Long claws enable them to quickly dig burrows in the ground and hide, but they're equally happy to hijack dens of other mammals if need be.

Where to see them
South Luangwa and Lower Zambezi in Zambia; Okavango Delta, Linyanti, Botswana; Tsavo in Kenya; Etosha, Namibia; and Mana Pools Zimbabwe. Or Kalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa during winter.

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Published in National Geographic Traveller — The Africa Collection 2018

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