For visitors coming to SA for safari, ticking off the Big 5 is often a priority. Sightings of lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo form the bulk of a game lover’s wish list when heading into the African wilderness. But there’s so much more to safari than this handful of species, however special they are. 

A country rich in bird, plant, marine and wildlife, there is no end to the sightings you can enjoy when traversing this beautiful landscape. From endangered to spectacular, or simply hard to spot, make sure to expand your scope of must-see flora and fauna to fully reflect SA’s diversity. Home to myriad species – big, small, rare and prolific – South Africa’s varying terrains and vast tracts of preserved wilderness make it a must for animal lovers and conservation enthusiasts. The potential for wildlife encounters are so extensive in fact that you can plan an entire itinerary for a trip to South Africa around which species you’d like to see. 

Start by adding some alternative lists to your Big 5 countdown – like the Shy Five (porcupine, bat-eared fox, aardvark, meerkat, aardwolf), the Small Five (elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion, rhino beetle and buffalo weaver) and the Ugly Five (warthog, vulture, wildebeest, marabou stork and hyena), and then expand your scope still further to pave the way for as many memorable wildlife encounters as possible. 

Go in search of African wild dog, whose scientific name means ‘painted wolf’ and whose formidable hunting techniques, complex social structures and declining numbers (as a result of shrinking habitats and hunting spurred on by human conflict) make it a special and inspiring creature to witness in the wild. 

Even harder to find, the Riverine rabbit is a sighting to aspire to. With only 250 left in its natural habitat – it calls the arid riverbeds of the central Karoo home – your chances of spotting this small and scarce creature are slim, which makes a glimpse of one that much more special. 

Slightly more outgoing however are the meerkats of the Northern Cape. These adorable tiny carnivores live in groups of up to 40 individuals in the Kalahari and certain habituated colonies – like those at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve – will come close and interact, even going so far as to climb on visitors and use them as a lookout points. 

Consider too a trip to iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu Natal – a vast protected area which forms part of a transfrontier marine reserve straddling South Africa, Mozambique and Eswatini – to explore a totally different type of habitat. Among its many wildlife highlights, it lays claim to being the only remaining major nesting site in Africa where Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles lay their eggs. 

From site-specific, to seasonally abundant – further south, along the Whale Route of the Overberg region in the Western Cape, at the right time of year (between August and December), you can witness the annual migration of multitudes of whales (predominantly Southern Right, humpback and Bryde’s) to SA waters as they return to mate and calve. Visitors at this time of year are treated to epically close encounters and dramatic displays by these incredible creatures. 

Even within the city limits – where wildlife should in theory be scarce – you can experience memorable moments. One good example is Boulders Beach in Cape Town and its famous colony of lovable and comical African penguins, whose antics delights scores of visitors to the sanctuary every year. It’s the only place in the world where you can watch them in such close proximity and offers the rare opportunity to swim near these charming birds.