When it comes to amazing wildlife experiences in Africa, spotting the Big 5 on safari is only the tip of the iceberg! From gorilla trekking through the jungles of Uganda to feeding baby elephants in Nairobi, the continent is brimming with extraordinary wildlife encounters and incredible phenomena. So, get your bucket list ready because we have a few incredible wildlife experiences that you’ll want to add to your itinerary.
The Great Wildebeest Migration
One of nature’s greatest phenomena, the Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the last mass terrestrial wildlife movements left in the world – where more than 2 million animals, including wildebeest, zebra and gazelle, migrate in a clockwise direction across the Serengeti and Masai Mara in search of fresh grazing land.
It’s one of the central reasons that Kenya and Tanzania see so many visitors annually, making Migration safaris one of the most widely booked itineraries in East Africa. The only catch with booking a Migration is that timing is absolutely vital. And unfortunately, there is no way of predicting the timing of the animals’ movements – making the Migration one of nature’s greatest paradoxes.
The river crossings tend to occur around July, which sees thousands of zebras and wildebeest braving the Mara and Grumeti Rivers. While another highlight of the migration is the calving season, usually taking place around the end of January, which sees thousands of calves being born within two weeks of each other. This happens in what is called the ‘green season’, and there is an abundance of new life about, including lots of vibrantly coloured migratory birds.
Fortunately, the Wildebeest Migration is an ever-moving, circular migration with various but equally exciting events that occur year-round – not only between July and October, as many people tend to believe. Our extensive experience in planning Migration safaris, for over two decades, helps us get our clients to the right place at the right time.
The Annual Zebra Migrations
The annual Zebra Migrations is the little-known sister to the Great Wildebeest Migration. Occurring in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert twice a year, this mass zebra migration sees up to 30,000 animals moving first from the north to south, then back from the south to north – making it Southern Africa’s largest migration. It’s a spectacular natural phenomenon to witness first-hand.
Zebras migrate across the semi-desert landscape once it springs back to life during the green season when the summer rains begin to fall. New grazing and rainfall prompt the zebra herds to move into Nxai Pan between January and February before moving to the Makgadikgadi Pan in March and April.
The zebras travel incredible distances to reach grazing lands so although this is not the largest land migration on the continent, it is the longest – marking it as one of the most unforgettable wildlife experiences in Africa.
Turtle Nesting and Hatching & Whale Sharks on Africa's East Coast
Each year, between November and January (approximately) the gigantic leatherback, hawksbill, loggerhead, and green turtles make their way out of the Indian Ocean to create their nesting sites in the sun-warmed sand along the coast of East Africa. This tradition has taken place over millions of years and presents a rare opportunity to witness the laying of the eggs, as well as the emerging hatchlings of these critically endangered sea turtles. Hatching typically happens later in the season as sea turtle eggs have an incubation period of about 2 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 mad dash to the water. Incredibly, they instinctively follow the light that is reflected off the water by the stars and the moon.
On the East Coast, Tanzania’s Mafia Island offers the perfect chance to have one of the most fantastic wildlife experiences in Africa – swimming with whale sharks. Sightings of whale sharks are all but guaranteed between November to March, a period which marks the arrival of these majestic creatures to feed on plankton in the narrow channel between Mafia Island and mainland Tanzania.
If you’re lucky, you may get to swim with the whale sharks as they pick off the plankton close to the surface. Alternatively, diving off Zanzibar’s coast during this time of year will also offer a good chance of encountering the world’s largest but gentlest shark species.
Trekking Gorillas in Africa's Rainforests
Gorilla trekking is often described as a life-changing experience and considered one of the best wildlife experiences in Africa. Coming face-to-face with the great apes of Uganda, Congo, and Rwanda after a strenuous hiking expedition through thick vegetation is nothing short of a transformative journey.
A professional guide and tracker will lead you through the rainforests of Africa, taking you down secret paths and following clues that end in witnessing majestic mountain gorillas in their natural habitat for an hour. The best part of gorilla trekking is that your experience contributes to protecting these critically endangered species and the conservation of their habitat. When participating in a gorilla trek, you’re supporting efforts to protect these endangered animals, as well as improve conditions in local communities.
The fee paid for your gorilla permit contributes to gorilla conservation by funding the management of the reserves, the monitoring of gorillas, and the salaries of rangers patrolling the forests to protect the great apes from poaching. While you help local communities by supporting local economies. By staying in local lodges, hiring local operators, participating in local activities, and eating in local restaurants, you aid the local communities in being self-sustainable.
Meet Habituated Meerkats
Everyone loves Timone, the memorable little meerkat from Disney classic The Lion King, right? Well, it turns out that the loveable character is not far off from the real thing. When visiting Makgadikgadi in Botswana, you’ll have the opportunity to interact with meerkats, and experience their highly-entertaining antics first-hand – try not to fall in love with one when it climbs onto you to scout its territory.
Meerkat interactions are one of the most beloved animal experiences in Africa, with their popularity stemming from being adorable in appearance, pocket-sized in stature, and mischievous yet endearing in behaviour – like standing up in the mornings to absorb heat through their bald stomachs.
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, which you can help to feed. You can also have ethical encounters at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Kenya.
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 occasionally 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.
The Desert-Dwelling Animals of Namibia
Besides camels and jackals, there are not many animals that we associate with living in arid landscapes, like the desert. And you’d be forgiven if you were among the majority to believe that elephants and lions were barely able to survive, let alone thrive in such an environment. But the truth of the matter is that in the sandy plains of Namibia, there are well-known big game that have adapted to their harsh surroundings.
Desert-adapted animals that you may spot on your next Namibian safari include elephants, lions, black rhino, brown hyena, Hartmann’s zebra, Bat Eared Foxes, and even wild Desert Horses. However, they might look a bit different to the average animal of that species, as they have developed certain behavioural and physical changes to help them live in the Namibian desert.
As a result, desert-adapted elephants have longer legs, leaner bodies, and larger feet. This assists them in covering the vast distances they need to travel to find food and water. Desert-adapted lions can go much longer without water than their savanna counterparts. And desert rhinos sport slightly longer and thinner horns, enabling them to forage in barren environments.
Behavioural adaptations for both rhinos and elephants 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 savanna elephants who tend to destroy plants that they feed on.
Penguins & Whales in Cape Town
Boulders Beach is a popular tourist destination in Cape Town because of the adorable colony of endangered African penguins that call it home. These cute, tiny critters will let you get within one metre of them on the beach. The nearby raised boardwalk winds through the coastal vegetation, providing the perfect elevation to see their nesting ground from above - as well as the baby chicks in hatching season. A second colony of endangered African penguins can be found at Betty’s Bay, which lies just over an hour away from Cape Town.
If penguins are too small to capture your interest, the charming harbour town of Hermanus is well-known for its seasonal (early June to early December) whale-watching. Located a scenic drive from Cape Town, Hermanus is known as one of the best land-based whale-watching spots in the world. It boasts an elevated position and high cliff pathways that overlook the waters where southern right whales come to calve and nurse. While boating expeditions give you the chance to spot the Marine Big 5 – whales, great white sharks, dolphins, penguin, and Cape fur seals.
Zambia's Bat Migration
Zambia is home to the largest mammal migration in the world – no, it doesn’t involve wildebeest or zebra! The annual Kasanka bat migration is nature’s best-kept secret and one of the best wildlife experiences in Africa. Each year, between October and December, Zambia’s Kasanka National Park sees an influx of around 8 million straw-coloured fruit bats migrating from the Congo to feed on the pog mahogany, musuku, mufinsa, milkwood and other wild fruit native to the region.
Chimp Trekking at Mahale and Rubondo Island
Gorillas aren’t the only great ape you can see up-close in Africa. Mahale Mountains National Park and Rubondo Island are two of the few places on the continent that offer chimp trekking safaris. This immensely rewarding activity is one of the best wildlife experiences in Africa, offering an adventure-filled opportunity to encounter these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
You’ll wake up early in the morning, grab your hiking boots and start trekking the forested slopes of Mahale Mountain or navigating the forests of Rubondo Island in search of this species of great ape – just be prepared for a strenuous exercise, as this activity could require hours of hiking through tough terrain. Do keep in mind that seeing chimpanzees will depend on their movements, which changes according to season, availability of food and group dynamics.
Sightings of the Rare and Elusive Dugongs in Mozambique
Dugongs are large, grey-brown bulbous animals with flattened fluked tails, paddle-like flippers, and distinctive head shapes – at the right angle, one could easily mistake one for a potato. These unique creatures were once common throughout waters of the East Coast and western Indian Ocean and are said to be the inspiration behind the mermaid myth. They are now very rare in the region, with less than 400 inhabiting Bazaruto National Park and the surrounding coastal waters. This elusive marine mammal is now almost exclusively found off the coast of Mozambique, where thankfully they are protected.
Participate in Research Conservation Initiatives in Africa
Conservation has evolved from being a trendy topic to become an integral part of every organisation’s practices. Companies operating in Africa’s safari industry are particularly invested in conservation efforts to protect and preserve the natural, untamed wilderness and diverse wildlife that makes this continent such a phenomenal travel destination. Many lodges and camps are now giving visitors an active role in safeguarding the destinations they’re travelling to, allowing you to be an active participant in these conservation efforts.
At Usangu Expeditions Camp, you can embark on a citizen science safari with the Tanzanian Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI), where you’ll assist the team members in researching the Usangu wetlands to better understand the ecosystem-as well as how to protect the wildlife dependent on it. You’ll also have the unique opportunity to engage with ongoing projects in Usangu and gain a deeper understanding of the vital work being performed in one of Africa’s last frontiers. You can participate in research activities like positioning the camera traps, image analysis for predator identification, and tracking collared lions using telemetry under the guidance of the experts at Douglas Bell Eco Research Station.
When visiting South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve, you’ll be taken into the heart of the reserve to participate in a revolutionary pangolin conservation experience that aims to re-establish Temminck’s ground pangolin in an area where they had once been eradicated. This experience sees you joining a researcher from a specialist conservation team in charge of health checks and collecting vital data from an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) tag that has been attached to each pangolin.
Lastly, at Marataba Conservation Camps in Marakele National Park, you’ll get the chance to participate in identifying, monitoring, tracking, and collecting data on the large mammals, including rhino, elephant and cheetah.
Walk with Big Game in South Luangwa
Located in a wild and remote region of Zambia, South Luangwa National Park is the country’s premier wildlife destination, brimming with big game, luxurious camps, and picturesque, untamed natural landscapes. But what makes this safari destination unique is that it’s one of the few places in Africa that offers walking safaris – an adventurous activity where you head off into the wilderness on a guided, slow-paced safari on foot.
South Luangwa National Park is widely regarded as the birthplace of the walking safari and remains as Africa’s best place to experience walking through big game country. During your visit to South Luangwa, you’ll get to enjoy one of the most amazing wildlife experiences in Africa – traversing the rugged landscape on foot in search of some of your favourite African animals, including large herds of elephant, buffalo, lion, hippo and crocodiles.
See the World's Last Remaining White Rhinos at Ol Pejeta
In 2009 the world’s last remaining white rhinos in existence were moved to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Today, only 2 of those 7 remain – Najin and Fatu. Sadly, both rhinos are female and unable to carry a pregnancy, making them the last of this critically endangered species. Both Najin and Fatu spend their days enjoying the 700-acre enclosure of Ol Pejeta, where they are kept healthy with a nutritious diet supplemented with fresh vegetables and safe with a dedicated team of armed security watching over them 24/7.
Ol Pejeta offers one of the most amazing African wildlife experiences – the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Najin and Fatu in the flesh. The keepers of these remarkable creatures will regale you with their amazing story, and all proceeds from this activity is reinvested into the continuous efforts to pull the northern white rhino species back from the brink of extinction.
Ready to Enjoy Africa's Best Wildlife Travel Experiences?
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