My 39 Most Amazing Wildlife Encounters in Africa

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My number one reason for booking a trip to Africa was for the wildlife sightings. I couldn’t wait to witness elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, and leopards in their natural habitat. And within the first week in Tanzania, I had seen them all!

Little did I know that I would also see such incredible sights as giraffes fighting, an angry hippo chasing after a group of people, a group of white rhinos walking within 15 feet of me, lions feeding on a zebra carcass, and giant tortoises on an island off the African coast.

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Here’s a countdown of my most amazing wildlife sightings and encounters over two months through eight countries from Kenya down to South Africa, visiting national parks like Arusha, Serengeti, Matopos, Chobe, and Etosha.

Interested in taking an overland safari in Africa? The group tour I took was the Southern Safari, operated by Absolute Africa. It runs for 52 days through 8 countries. Here’s a link to The Southern Safari if you’re curious about booking it.

The Coolest Wildlife Sightings I Had in Africa

39 Scheming monkeys in Chobe

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Don’t be fooled by the cute appearance of these monkeys. They were scheming thieves! These two have learned that outhouse = humans = food. So they wait here for tourist vehicles to arrive for a bathroom break, then try to jump in the safari trucks to grab whatever they can find.

38 Leopard tortoise hiding in the grass

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An eagle-eyed member of our group spotted this leopard tortoise hanging out in the brown grass. We watched him for a few minutes. It’s safe to say this was one of the slowest-moving animals I have ever seen.

37 Warthogs on the sidewalk

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Warthog sightings were somewhat frequent throughout Africa. Most were off in the distance or hiding behind some trees. This small group of warthogs decided to cross a pedestrian sidewalk in Victoria Falls. I guess for them, it’s better to run into humans than lions, right?

36 Rare caracal encounter in Etosha

Aside from lions, big cat sightings are rare. Leopards and cheetahs tend to stay hidden, and forget about seeing smaller wild cats like the caracal. Yet in Etosha National Park, we spotted this caracal just off the road. The caracal is like an African version of a lynx and is easy to identify by the long tufts of hair shooting out of its ears.

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Pardon the blurry photo on this one. It’s amazing I got a pic at all, considering that the caracal ran out of sight within seconds. I feel privileged to have seen this rare cat!

35 Giraffes bending over

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The coolest part about seeing all this wildlife was noticing the little nuances of how these animals live their lives. For instance, I had never pondered how giraffes bend over. Turns out, they have to do the splits! I saw several giraffes bending over to drink at watering holes. This one mooned me as he licked the ground for minerals in Chobe.

34 Wildebeest crossing the road

wildebeest-crossing

I wasn’t in the Serengeti at the right time of year to see the famous migration, but I can only imagine what it’s like based on seeing groups of wildebeest run in front of our vehicles all the time. Someday I’ll have to come back to witness thousands of these beasts during the proper migration.

33 Huge marabou stork

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Look at this human-sized marabou stork walking around like he owns the place at a Serengeti visitor center!

32 Lion cubs hiding in the shrubs

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When lion moms go off to hunt, they leave behind their cubs in a hiding place. On one occasion, I saw cubs in trees. In this instance, the cubs were left behind a little shrub just a few feet off the main road. They were so cute! Hopefully they survived – there were male lions just a short distance away.

31 Baboons in Victoria Falls

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In Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, the baboons are very aggressive and not afraid of humans. They’ll walk right through open windows into stores. They’ll snatch your grocery bags as you walk on the street. And they’ll walk right past you on the sidewalk just a few feet away. It was a little unnerving walking past them so closely because they are dangerous, but they left us alone.

30 Seeing elephants up close from a mokoro

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In the Okavango Delta, you can ride in a traditional mokoro canoe. As our guides led us through some of the area’s narrow waterways at sunset, we discovered a group of elephants just ahead of us. They stopped to drink water, then moved on without even acknowledging our presence. What a cool encounter at close range!

29 Ostriches being ostriches

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ostrich-wildlife-sighting

The ostrich might be my favorite African animal. Everything about them is so bizarre, from their appearance to their behavior. Seeing ostriches was always a thrill. Here we see a male (darker feathers) with two females at a water hole. And a bonus photo of a male strutting his stuff. The females are more blandly-colored to help them better camouflage themselves from predators.

28 Cape buffalo group in Etosha

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The Cape buffalo is the forgotten member of the “Big Five” safari group, along with lions, rhinos, leopards, and elephants. They’re not as majestic as the others, but I do enjoy their little hats. I saw a large group of buffalo lounging around on a hot day in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

27 Camels in Maasai

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Are my eyes deceiving me? Camels don’t live in this part of Africa! Apparently, two decades ago, 20 camels were brought to Tanzania for tourism purposes. They were abandoned and eventually found their way to the Maasai who live outside Serengeti National Park. They use these animals for transport, milk, and meat. Reportedly, 400 camels now live in Tanzania, so you can sometimes spot them.

26 Flamingos in the Serengeti

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I’ve seen so many flamingos in zoos that I nearly forgot they actually live in the wild. Dozens of the pink and white birds relaxed around a lake in Ngorongoro Crater.

25 Banded mongooses in campground

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Meet the banded mongoose. It’s like a squirrel, but with way sharper teeth. A huge group of these critters took over one of our campgrounds. They were harmless and entertaining to watch.

24 Group of zebras & rhinos at watering hole

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Watering holes were a common sight in national parks, as animals of all kinds gathered to quench their thirst. When lions were around, the other animals kept their distance. When no lions were present, they all came out to drink together. Giraffes, rhinos, elephants, impalas, jackals, and zebras mingled together.

23 Baboons in the Serengeti

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A group of baboons took up residence in a small patch of trees, offering tourists a chance to watch them up close. They’re interesting because they’re so human-like. It was especially fun to watch a baby baboon play. He kept jumping on the adults and bothering them until they shooed him away.

22 Seeing 25 giraffes during an Okavango Delta hike

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Look how close you can walk to giraffes on a hike in the Moremi Game Reserve section of the Okavango Delta in Botswana! We saw around 25 giraffes total on this hike. They do scamper away from humans, but only after you get within 100 feet or so.

21 Impalas fighting, feeding, mating

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impala-eating

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Impalas are the most ubiquitous animal in eastern and southern Africa. I saw thousands during my visit and I’m grouping all of the impala wildlife sightings together here. Impalas usually live in groups. I saw some dominant males living with groups of around 30 females, mating with several, one after another. I saw male impalas fighting, challenging each other for supremacy. I saw groups of “loser males” – the ones who don’t have a collection of females – living together. In Namibia I saw the less-common black-faced impalas. No matter how many impalas I encountered, I still found them fascinating.

20 Close encounter with zebras

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You never forget your first time. The morning of my first safari trip into the Serengeti, I was bursting with excitement about what we might see. Right away, we happened upon a few zebras near the road. My first safari animal sighting! Unlike most zebras, these ones didn’t run. They just stood there, sizing me up and giving me an opportunity to take close-up photos.

19 Black rhinos in etosha

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By the time we reached Etosha, we had seen several white rhinos. But the less-common black rhinoceros had eluded us. And then we saw a couple during an afternoon drive in the park. Black rhinos are extremely threatened. As poachers target them for their horns, there are fewer than 2500 black rhinos left in the wild, and their numbers are dropping rapidly. Seeing this one wander freely around the park was a beautiful thing.

18 Jackals hunting shrieking birds at a watering hole

One night at a watering hole near our campground, I enjoyed watching the dance between a jackal and a group of birds. The jackal would get close to try to make a kill, then the birds would shriek and warn each other. Some would even dive bomb the jackal and nip at its head. The jackal would retreat, then return later, then get chased off again. Poor jackal did not score a meal on this night.

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I have no photos from that night, so the pic above is a random jackal from the Serengeti. Jackals were among my favorite wildlife sightings in Africa. I love how resourceful they are. They don’t kill large game themselves, but they’re talented scavengers who are adept at sneaking in and stealing bites of carcasses from more fearsome predators who are feeding.

17 Crocodiles chasing each other

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I had the fortune of seeing probably 10-15 crocodiles in various places around Africa. Most did not move an inch. They remained perfectly still on shore, looking fearsome. This pair of crocs from Chobe National Park was an exception. One swam in the water, approaching the other, who lunged at it and caused it to run away as fast as it could. The brief tussle qualified as major excitement in the world of crocodile viewing.

16 Cuddling hyrax atop Table Mountain

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The hyrax (or rock dassie) is a rodent-looking mammal that I encountered atop Table Mountain in South Africa. These critters are sensitive to temperatures, so on this cold, rainy afternoon, they huddled together for warmth.

15 Vultures eating carcass in Serengeti

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I don’t know what poor animal this group of 30 vultures found, but they tore it to pieces. The vultures snipped at each other as they all tried to get a piece of the action. A few jackals stood out the periphery waiting their turn.

14 Elephants walking next to our safari vehicle

elephant family

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Isn’t it overwhelming when a group of 12 elephants (including two babies) saunters out of the woods, walks straight toward your safari jeep, pauses to look at you, makes a loud trumpet sound to warn you not to mess with the babies, then continues walking past to the woods on the other side? Yeah, that had never happened to me either, until this glorious day in Chobe.

13 Bumping into a hyena outside the campground bathroom

Many of our campgrounds had fencing to keep the wild animals out, but a few did not. Like our first night in the Serengeti. We were totally out there in the wild. Lions, elephants, leopards, or anything else could have wandered into our camp. The only animal that did stop by was a hyena. As I was brushing my teeth, I stepped out of the bathroom, shined my flashlight to the left, and there it was. A predator capable of killing a human. The light scared it off, and I headed straight to my tent, where I did not emerge until morning.

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We heard other hyenas wailing that night, but none bothered us. As you might imagine, I did not get a photo of the hyena. In fact, of the 10 or so hyenas I saw on this trip, none were close enough for me to capture a great photo. The shot above from Serengeti was the best glimpse of a hyena I had.

12 Lion mom with 4 cubs

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The hardest-working mom I saw in Africa was this lioness, who was responsible for guiding four cubs as she walked through the Serengeti. What a big job! Everyone seemed happy and healthy on this day.

11 Cape Cross seal colony on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast

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An astounding 200,000 Cape fur seals live in the Cape Cross area. I’ve never seen seals as close as I did when I strolled down the boardwalk here. I got close enough to touch them, but decided that would be a very bad idea.

10 Elephants swimming between islands

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Elephants are great swimmers but you rarely see them swimming. In Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba, I spotted five elephants migrating between islands. The water wasn’t very deep, and the trek between islands was quite short (it took less than 60 seconds), but it was still thrilling to see swimming elephants, something most people don’t get to witness.

9 Penguins in South Africa!

african penguins

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My first-ever penguin wildlife sightings came in South Africa at Boulders Beach, the spot where African penguins established a colony in the 1980s. It was fun to see these playful birds up close as they swam, rested, and stole branches from each others’ nests on the beach.

8 Hippo attack on mokoro in Botswana

I was not expecting to witness a hippo attack on humans. Hippos kill around 500 humans per year, making them far more dangerous than lions or any other land animal. As we returned to shore from our mokoro canoe excursion, we took our belongings out of the mokoros and packed them into our safari truck. As we did that, a new group of tourists hopped into the mokoros and took off into the delta.

As they canoed out, a hippo that had been secretly lurking beneath the surface of the water suddenly splashed up and began running at them faster than I ever imagined a hippo could run. The canoe guides quickly paddled over to shore, and the people got out of the mokoros and ran further onto land just before the hippo reached them.

Fortunately, no one was hurt, as the hippo did not follow them onto shore. But it was a reminder just how dangerous and aggressive these animals are. And it made us realize we were lucky, since we had apparently paddled right over the hippo just 10 minutes earlier without drawing its attention.

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The hippo photo shown here was from a different part of Africa. You can see how they lurk just beneath the surface.

7 Lions resting in vehicle shade

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Lions typically see safari vehicles as big, harmless, metal machines. They don’t really even notice the humans inside. So when trucks approach, often they don’t move away. Sometimes, they’ll even approach the vehicles and lie down right next to them!

That’s what happened in Ngorongoro Crater, when two female lions walked up to our trucks and decided to rest in the shade. How incredible to see these big cats from such a distance!

6 Feeding Prison Island tortoises

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I didn’t imagine when I flew to Africa that I’d get to interact with giant tortoises. But I found them on Changuu, or Prison Island, a small isle off the coast of Zanzibar, itself an island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. These tortoises are the second-largest in the world, behind only the Galapagos! Getting to feed them by hand was very cool.

5 Eight rhinos gather at an Etosha watering hole

Many fenced-in campgrounds in Namibia and Botswana had watering holes just outside their grounds. Campers could go sit there any time of day and wait for wild animals to come quench their thirst.

My most unbelievable watering hole experience took place at night in Etosha National Park. It was magical to sit on a park bench under a blanket and watch nature unfold beyond the fence just a few feet in front of me. Around 9 pm, an elephant emerged from the trees to drink. Jackals and hyenas snuck out for water. Lots of giraffes and zebras tentatively approached the water while constantly scanning the ground around them for predators in paranoid fashion.

Then, a rhino emerged. It approached the water and caught the attention of the elephant, which bellowed at it, causing it to retreat and move to the other side of the water. Soon after, two more rhinos came out of the trees, butting heads with each other in some sort of fight. Twenty minutes later, a fourth rhino appeared. Then a fifth. Then came a mom and a baby. Then another rhino peeked out from the trees.

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Eight rhinos in the same place at the same time! I stayed until 1 am and was blown away by the chance to observe these creatures in their natural habitat for hours. I wasn’t in travel blogger mode, so I didn’t have my camera. I did snap a couple phone pics, including the one above with four rhinos in the picture.

4 Lions eating zebra

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Seeing lions walking and sleeping was cool, but I think you have to see lions hunting or feeding to really experience the Serengeti. Luckily, we happened upon a group of lions devouring a zebra carcass just off the main road. One tourist from another truck said he’d witnessed the kill several hours earlier. By this time, all that was left was the zebra’s face, which two lions took turns snacking on, and the bright red ribcage that had been totally stripped clean of meat.

3 Leopard sightings in the Serengeti

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Leopards are the most difficult of the Big Five safari animals to see in person. They’re quick and they tend to stay out of sight, away from the main roads. Fortunately, we had a fantastic safari driver, who took us on several dirt roads and was adept at spotting leopards far away in trees.

We saw three leopards that way, all in trees off in the distance. Every time we got closer, they ran down the trees and scampered out of sight. How thrilling to see!

2 Giraffes fighting

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A giraffe fight is an incredible thing to witness. The two giraffes stand next to each other and whip their necks against the neck of the other giraffe, causing a loud thud noise that sounds extremely painful. We were close enough to see and hear a pair of giraffes doing battle for several minutes in Botswana. What an awesome life experience.

1 Hiking with rhinos up close

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The most incredible wildlife sighting I had in Africa came during a rhino walk with noted rhino expert Ian Harmer. He led our group on a bush hike in Matopos National Park, away from the safety of our safari vehicles. There, we were able to walk within 50 feet of a group of white rhinos as they grazed.

Approaching any closer would have been dangerous. But sometimes the rhinos will get closer if they choose. And that’s exactly what happened as they continued grazing, walking within 15 feet of where we were standing. What an overwhelming feeling to be in the presence of these magnificent beasts!

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They looked in our direction a few times, but mostly ignored us and kept eating. Just seeing rhinos from a distance while sitting in a car would have been a thrill, but to be out there in the wild, in their presence, close enough to read the numbers on their ear tags and to hear their munching of grass… that was incredible. The rhino walk will go down as the most memorable of all the wildlife sightings I had during my time in Africa.

Which safari wildlife sightings would you most like to have?

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