The Big Five
The Big Cats
More Iconic African wildlife
200 Mammal species
Mammals and fish
The Crocodile and other reptiles
Cities have grown, much land has been given over to farming,
hunting has wiped out entire herds, and the
times when a herd of
springbok could take days to pass through a Karoo town are long
Yet, thanks to the foresight of conservationists past and
present, South Africa remains blessed with abundant wildlife.
The Big Five
Best known are the mammals, and the best known of these are the
famous Big Five: Elephant, Lion, Rhino, Leopard and Buffalo. Not
that Giraffe, Hippo or Whale
are small ...
South Africa's Bushveld (bushland) and savannah regions are
still home to large numbers of the mammals universally
associated with Africa.
The Kruger National Park alone has over 9,000 Elephants and
20,000 buffaloes - in 1920 there were an estimated 120 elephants
left in the whole of South Africa.
The white rhino has also been brought back from the
extinction and now flourishes with a Kruger population of nearly
3,000 and 1,600 in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal.
Attention now is on
protecting the black rhino.
Both these parks are home to all five of the big ones, as are
other major reserves in South Africa - such as Pilanesberg in
North West - and numerous smaller reserves and private game
The Big Cats
The lion tops the food chain - and the glamour stakes.
does have one formidable enemy in people, who have expelled it
from most of the country so that it now remains almost
exclusively in conservation areas.
The beautiful leopard survives in a larger area, including much
of the southern Cape and far north of the country, although
numbers are small in some places.
The third of the famous big cats is particularly fascinating.
The cheetah is the speed champ, capable of dashes of almost 100
kilometres an hour. However, vulnerable to
the loss of cubs to
other predators, the cheetah's population is comparatively small
and confined mostly
to the far north (including the Kruger
National Park), the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the Northern
reserves in KwaZulu-Natal and North West.
More iconic African wildlife
Other African large animals are the hippo, giraffe, kudu,
wildebeest (the famous gnu) and zebra, all frequently seen in
South Africa's conservation areas.
Heightened awareness, however, has created an increased
appreciation of lesser known animals.
A sighting of the rare tsessebe, a relative of the wildebeest, may cause as much
excitement as the sight
of a lion pride stretched out under a bushveld thorn tree. And while one can hardly miss a nearby
spotting the shy little forest-dwelling suni
(Livingstone's antelope) takes sharp eyes.
Over 200 Mammal species
With well over 200 species, a short survey of South Africa's
indigenous mammals is a contradiction in terms.
A few examples
will help to indicate the range.
In terms of appeal, primates rate highly. In South Africa they
include the nocturnal bushbabies, vervet and samango monkeys,
and chacma baboons which encouraged by irresponsible feeding
and under pressure through loss of habitat - have become
unpopular as raiders of homes on the Cape Peninsula.
Dassies - hyraxes, residents of rocky habitats - and meerkats -
suricates, familiar from their alert upright stance - have
tremendous charm, although the dassie
can be an agricultural
The secretive nocturnal aardvark (which eats ants and is the
only member of the order Tubulidentata) and the aardwolf (which
eats termites and is related to the hyena) are two more
appealing creatures, and both are found over virtually the whole
of the country.
And for those who like their terrestrial mammals damp, there is
the widely distributed Cape clawless otter, which swims in both
fresh and sea water.
The spotted-necked otter has a more limited territory. Both are
rare, however, and difficult to spot.
One mammal whose charm is newly acquired is the wild dog or Cape
hunting dog, one of the most endangered mammals in Africa.
Once erroneously reviled as indiscriminate killers but now
appreciated both for their ecological value and for the
remarkably caring family behaviour in the pack, wild dogs
require vast territories.
A single pack needs on average several hundred square
They are found in small numbers in the Kruger National Park and
environs, northern KwaZulu-Natal (including the
Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park), the Kalahari, and the Madikwe reserve
in North West province.
More common canine carnivores are the Hyena, Jackal and
Bat-eared Fox. Besides those already mentioned, felines include
the caracal with its characteristic tufted ears, the African
Wild Cat and the rare Black-footed Cat. Other flesh eaters
include the Civet, Genet and several kinds of Mongoose.
The plant eaters are particularly well represented by various
Antelope, from the little Duiker to the large Kudu and superbly
handsome Sable Antelope, which is found only in the most
Mammals take to the air, too: Southern Africa is well endowed
with bat species.
Marine mammals and fish
South African waters are home to the largest mammal in the world
- the Blue Whale, which can
to 33 metres in length.
There are eight whale species found in Southern African waters
(including the Orca), the most frequently seen by humans is the
Southern Right Whale. This imposing creature comes into coastal
bays to calve, allowing for
superb land-based viewing.
The Southern Right Whale represents one of conservation's
success stories. Once considered the "Right" whale to hunt, its
population became so depleted that it was designated a protected
With the greater familiarity that their return to the coastal
bays has produced, they are now as well loved as the many
dolphins in our coastal waters.
Southern Africa's seas are rich in fish species. Perhaps the
most awesome of these is the protected Great White Shark, it
preys on seals and other fast moving sea mammals. This amazing
is only one of more than 2,000 species of fish living in South
African waters, comprising of only 16% of the world's total.
Various Line fish, Rock Lobster and Abalone are of particular
interest to gourmets, while pelagic fish (Sardines and
Pilchards) and Hake have large-scale commercial value.
The Crocodile ...
and other reptiles
Less generously endowed with freshwater fish - 112 named
species, South Africa nonetheless has one river-dweller that is,
as much as any of the Big Five, a symbol of Africa.
The African crocodiles still rule some stretches of river and
estuary, lakes and pools, exacting an occasional toll in human
Other aquatic reptiles of note are the sea-roaming loggerhead
and leatherback turtles, the focus of a major community
conservation effort at their nesting grounds on the northern
Southern Africa's land reptiles include rare tortoises and the
fascinating chameleon. There are well over 100 species of snake.
While about half of them, including the python, are
non-venomous, others - such as the puffadder, green and black
mamba, boomslang and rinkhals - are decidedly so.
The country's comparative dryness accounts for its fairly low
amphibian count - 84 species. To make up for that, however,
South Africa boasts over 77,000 species of invertebrates.
from around the world come to South Africa to experience the
country's great variety of typically African birds, migrants,
and endemics (those birds found only in South Africa).
Of the 850 or so species that have been recorded in South
Africa, about 725 are resident or annual visitors, and about 50
of these are endemic or near-endemic.
Apart from the resident birds, South Africa hosts a number of
intra-African migrants such as cuckoos and kingfishers, as well
as birds from the Arctic, Europe, Central Asia, China and
Antarctica during the year.
South Africa's birdlife ranges from the ostrich - farmed in the
Oudtshoorn district of the Western Cape, but seen in the wild
mostly in the north of the country - through such striking
species as the hornbills to the ubiquitous LBJs (Little Brown
One small area alone, around the town of Vryheid in northern
KwaZulu-Natal, offers wetlands, grasslands, thornveld and both
montane and riverine forest, and around 380 species have been
A birder need not move out of a typical Gauteng garden to spot
grey loeries, mousebirds, hoopoes, hadeda ibises, crested and
black-collared barbets, Cape whiteyes, olive thrushes ... or a
lone Burchell's coucal poking clumsily around a tree. And that
would by no means complete the list.
Among the most spectacular birds of South Africa are the cranes,
most easily spotted in wetlands - although the wattled crane is
a lucky find as it is extremely uncommon. The beautiful blue
crane is South Africa's national bird; the crowned crane is
probably the flashiest of the three with its unmistakable
Among its larger bird species, South Africa also has several
eagles and vultures. Among its most colourful are kingfishers,
bee-eaters, sunbirds, the exquisite lilacbreasted roller, and
the Knysna and purple-crested louries.