Wildlife Safaris: Go beyond Big Five sightings in South Africa

Wildlife Safaris: Go beyond Big Five sightings in South Africa

For visitors embarking on South African wildlife safaris, ticking off the Big 5 is often a priority. Sightings of the Big 5, which includes lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and Cape buffalo, form the bulk of a game lover’s wish list when heading into the African wilderness. While seeing these incredible animals in their natural habitat is an amazing experience, South Africa is home to even more wildlife that needs to be added to your sightings wish list!  

A country rich in bird, plant, marine and wildlife, there is no end to the sightings you can enjoy when traversing this beautiful landscape on a South African wildlife safari. From endangered to spectacular, or simply hard to spot, make sure to expand your scope of must-see flora and fauna to fully reflect South Africa’s diversity. 

Home to a myriad of 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 purely around the species you’d like to see! 

Rare African wildlife sightings to strive for:  

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 Desert 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 lookout points!

From land to sea: discover South Africa’s marine life

Consider taking a trip to iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu Natal to explore a totally different type of habitat. This vast protected area forms part of a transfrontier marine reserve straddling South Africa, Mozambique and Eswatini. 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. Venture further south, along the Whale Route of the Overberg region in South Africa’s Western Cape, at the right time of year (between August and December), and you can witness the annual migration of multitudes of whales. High numbers of Southern Right, humpback and Bryde’s whales migrate to South African 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. 

See wildlife closer to the city

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 delight 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. 

Big 5 Alternatives: the Shy Five, the Small Five and the Ugly Five

Start by adding some alternative lists to your Big 5 countdown. The “Shy Five” consists of the porcupine, bat-eared fox, aardvark, meerkat, aardwolf, named so because they are so rarely sighted! Witnessing one of these five creatures on your safari travels is a truly special experience! Next up is the “Small” or “Little Five” made up of the elephant shrew, leopard tortoise, ant lion, rhino beetle and buffalo weaver. This group has its name because these animals are smaller versions of their larger Big Five counterparts.  

Finally, there is the Ugly Five made up of warthog, vulture, wildebeest, marabou stork and hyena. Most travellers will be able to guess why this group has earned its name. However, these five creatures may not be winning any beauty contests, they are all unique and intriguing sightings!

South Africa is home to a multitude of wildlife sightings that go even further beyond the thrills of the Big Five! Be sure to add the animals listed above to your wildlife wishlist on your next trip to South Africa. 

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