Seeing all members of the Big 5 is undeniably thrilling but Africa’s abundance does not stop there. Get your bucket list ready because these are our top most incredible wildlife experiences and phenomena on the continent.
The Great Wildebeest Migration
This one’s no secret - the Great Wildebeest Migration is probably Africa’s best known wildlife phenomenon. The world’s largest land migration (involving over two million animals) is certainly a dramatic event. The river crossings that occur around July include thousands of zebra and wildebeest braving the Mara and Grumeti Rivers. The waters are filled with Nile crocodiles, and waiting on the other side are predators lying in ambush, ready to pounce just as their prey steps onto dry land!
Another highlight of the migration is the calving season (usually the end of January) when thousands of calves are born within two weeks of each other. This happens in the Green Season, and there is an abundance of new life about, including lots of colourful migratory birds.
The annual zebra migrations
In comparison to the Wildebeest Migration, relatively little is known about the annual zebra migrations, which occur in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. This landscape is actually semi-desert and after the summer rains once-barren grasslands spring to life for the Green Season. New grazing and rainfall prompt 25 000-strong herds to move into Nxai Pan (January and February) and Makgadikgadi Pan (March and April).
The zebra travel incredible distances to reach grazing lands so although this is not the largest land migration in Africa, it is the longest.
Read more about a Kalahari Safari
Turtle nesting and hatching on Africa's East Coast
There’s no exact science when it comes to predicting when turtle nesting and hatching will occur. Africa’s east coast is a nesting ground for loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles. Indian Ocean turtles nest in summer generally between September to February, with incubation lasting between two and three months.
Seeing this phenomenon is rarely guaranteed but you may just be the lucky one who is woken up in the middle of the night to see mothers labouring over the sand or hatchlings emerge and make their perilous journey to the water. Incredibly, they instinctively follow light that is reflected off the water by the stars and the moon.
Whale sharks on Tanzania's Coast
At Mafia Island off the coast of Tanzania, whale shark sightings are more-or-less guaranteed from around November to March. These exquisite sharks arrive to feed on plankton in the narrow channel between Mafia Island and mainland Tanzania. Plankton is found close to the surface so you may be able to swim with them, and diving off Zanzibar at this time of year will also offer a good chance of encountering the world’s largest but gentlest shark species.
Watch the video Diving in Zanzibar
Trekking Gorillas in Africa's Rainforests
Perhaps the most transformative wildlife experience in Africa is coming face-to-face with the great apes of Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. It’s a wonderful bonus knowing that your experience contributes to protecting these critically endangered species and the conservation, and even expansion, of their habitat. Local communities are also benefitting through revenue-sharing schemes from trekking permits, new infrastructure and new business opportunities in tourism.
Watch the video on Gorilla Trekking in Congo
Meet Habituated Meerkats
Watching the antics of meerkats is highly entertaining but having them climb onto you to scout their territory? Simply heart-melting. Despite their small size, and seeming insignificance, meerkats are one of Africa’s most-loved and iconic animals (remember Timone from The Lion King and Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor?).
Their popularity stems from being generally adorable in appearance and behaviour: meerkats are known to create dust clouds to distract predators and can dig through sand equal to their own body mass in seconds. In the mornings, they stand up to absorb heat through their bald stomachs. When foraging, one meerkat always acts as sentry on guard, and all adults take turns in babysitting the pups.
Ethical Animal Encounters
There are many incredible organisations involved in the rescue, rehabilitation and conservation of wildlife. Often these sanctuaries offer unique opportunities to get close-up to wildlife that have been habituated to human presence. It’s very important to only support those centres where animals are treated compassionately, kept in researched and humane facilities, and that offer ethical interactions which are sensitive to the welfare of the animal.
In Nairobi, you can visit the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage where rescued baby elephants are cared for and rehabilitated back into the wild. Not far away from the orphanage is the Giraffe Centre, a conservation centre for endangered Rothschild’s giraffe. Learn about their breeding programme and have fun feeding them from the mouth, if you dare!
In Zimbabwe, the Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary at The Elephant Camp is home to a small herd of elephant, as well as a single male cheetah named Sylvester that have not been able to be rehabilitated back into the wild. Here you can feed the elephants and even get close enough to Sylvester to give him a welcome scratch.
The King of the Jungle needs no introduction. But what you might not know is that there are slight variations and rarities within the species Panthera leo. If you are looking to be intimidated, the largest lions in Africa can be found in Zambia, Zimbabwe and northern Botswana. To see Africa’s largest prides, which can be around 20-strong, head to Central Serengeti in Tanzania, home to the famed super prides.
When it comes to bringing down large prey, there are prides in the Savuti known to prey on sub-adult elephants. In Kruger, giraffes are regularly hunted, and near Lake Manyara, lion diets consist of 60 percent buffalo!
Lions are notoriously clumsy climbers but some prides have learned to scale trees to escape insects, scout for prey and, well, nap. The best places to see this are at the Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, and occassionally at Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.
The magnificent black-maned lions of the Kalahari are another fascinating variation, and can be found at The Motse at Tswalu. Like black-maned lions, white lions exhibit a rare colour variation but sadly only a few are said to remain in the wild.
Great Flocks of Flamingos
Astonishing numbers of flamingos gather in the Rift Valley during Africa’s summer. Depending on water levels, they travel to various soda lakes in the valley. The sheer size of the flocks can turn an entire lake surface into a blanket of pink, with numbers sometimes reaching into the millions. Many of the lakes are located in national reserves so you can see big game or add this destination onto a safari at nearby Serengeti National Park.
On the topic of birding, also worth mentioning is the extremely bizarre shoebill which can be found in Zambia and Rwanda. Some authorities place this unusual creature in its own order due to its dissimilarity with any other species on earth.
The desert-dwelling elephants of Namibia
Although they are not considered a separate subspecies, the desert-dwelling elephants of Namibia have adapted to life in their harsh dry environment with key behavioural and sometimes even physical changes. In addition to being smaller than their savannah counterparts, desert elephants have longer legs and proportionately leaner figures. This assists them in covering the vast distances they need to travel to find food and water.
Behavioural adaptations include smaller family groups to decrease the pressure on food sources. They have also learned to be far gentler and sensitive when feeding on vegetation, compared to savannah elephants who tend to destroy plants that they feed on.
Penguins & Whales in Cape Town
There are two colonies of endangered African penguins at Boulders Beach and Betty’s Bay near Cape Town. At the Boulders Beach colony, these little critters will let you get within one metre of them on the beach. There is also a raised boardwalk winding through the coastal vegetation which allows you to see their nesting ground from above, as well as adorable baby chicks in hatching season.
Hermanus is located a scenic drive from Cape Town, and is known as one of the whale-watching capitals of the world. Its elevated position and high cliff pathways overlook the waters where southern right whales come to calve and nurse. Boating expeditions give you a chance to spot the Marine Big 5 – whales, great white sharks, dolphins, penguin and Cape fur seals.