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Africa is a huge continent that is home to a diverse range of wildlife. It’s no surprise that people head here to go on safari and check out some of the amazing animals that call this land home.
However, when going on safari, most people are caught up with trying to spot the Big Five. Don’t get me wrong, these are animals not to be missed, but they’re not the only creatures you’ll find here.
While in Africa, there are some lesser-known animals that may be tiny, elusive, or even quite strange-looking. But they’re still worth checking out.
The Little Five: Tiny but Mighty
You’ve heard of the Big Five, but what about their smaller counterparts, the Little Five? If you head out on safari with a guide then there’s a good chance these animals will be included in the tour. While they’re not as well known, this group of small creatures are just as important and amazing.
And if you look a little more closely at their names, you’ll see that they’re not all that far removed from the Big Five, at least in terms of their monikers. For example, we have the elephant shrew, the leopard tortoise, and the antlion; see what I’m getting at? Let’s get to know them a little better.
1. Leopard Tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis)
The leopard tortoise is a species endemic to Africa and can be found in the eastern and southern portions of the continent. It’s one of the four largest tortoises, with individuals growing to around 44 lbs (20 kg) on average, but it’s the uniquely patterned shell that is most well-loved.
These tortoises have a tan to brown colored shell with distinct markings that are usually black. What’s interesting is that these heavy patterns tend to fade as the individual ages with juveniles having the most prominent markings. Similar in appearance to the leopard’s rosettes, it’s not hard to see where they get their name.
Leopard tortoises live in savannas and grasslands as well as thorny scrub, where they thrive off a herbivorous diet made up of 98% leaves and the rest fruits and berries; they can live for up to 100 years! Like most tortoises, they’re slow movers and can often be found hiding out in aardvark burrows where they’ll lay their eggs since they are unable to dig their own nests.
However, they’re not shy and can often be spotted wandering along the side of the road, so be sure to have your camera ready.
2. Antlion (Family: Myrmeleontidae)
The antlion is one of Africa’s most unique critters, if for no other reason than the incredible metamorphosis it undergoes. While adults have a similar appearance to the lacewing, they have to undergo a special transformation leading up to this.
Found in dry habitats and open wooded areas, there are around 2,000 species of antlion that are mostly contained to the southern part of the continent. However, they spend a lot of time underground, so it can be tricky to spot. But it’s here that they’ll lie in wait for their insect prey and are known for their amazing hunting abilities and that they keep insect populations under control. When hunting, they spiral through the sand, creating a conical-shaped ditch in the sand and wait at the bottom. When their prey passes by, they ambush it, trapping it with strong mandibles, and suck out its insides.
As I mentioned, the antlion undergoes a complete metamorphosis, and this can last up to three years! Females lay their eggs in sandy soil and they hatch into larvae with a round, flattened body. It’s during this stage that the antlion will perform its unique hunting strategies. As the individual grows, it will molt before pupating and entering adulthood.
3. Red-Billed Buffalo Weaver (Bubalornis niger)
The red-billed buffalo weaver is a species of bird from the Ploceidae family and is found in the grasslands and savannas of eastern and southern Africa. They’re easy to spot thanks to the white patches around the eyes, black body, and bright red beak.
Red-billed buffalo weavers are omnivores and feed on a diet that consists of insects, fruit, seeds, and berries. While they’re certainly beautiful to look at, it’s their nesting behavior that draws the greatest amount of attention to them.
These birds breed in huge colonies and will even construct their nests as a group. The nest is typically made from twigs, grasses, and other similar materials and is often said to look a little like a haystack. Within this communal nest, there will be several breeding pairs, each with its own chamber, although a male may have several mates and could control as many as eight chambers at once.
But the red-billed buffalo weaver isn’t the only member of this family, you may also spot the white-billed buffalo weaver and the white-headed buffalo weaver that both display similar behaviors. You won’t miss them as their messy nests are prominent among the trees, and colonies can get very noisy.
What’s more, if you’re on a Big Five safari, there’s a good chance you’ll spot these birds as they take their name from the fact that they’ll often be seen riding on buffalos’ backs, picking at any insects that land on them. An excellent form of natural pest control for those great beasts!
4. Rhinoceros Beetle (Family: Scarabaeidae)
The rhinoceros beetle takes its name from the prominent horn-like structure at the front of the head, resembling that of a rhino. There are actually 1,500 known species of rhinoceros beetle, but they all have this obvious feature and are therefore sometimes called the unicorn beetle.
Rhino beetles, found mainly in southern Africa, use their horns for digging and fighting and while they may look intimidating, they’re harmless to humans. Both males and females have horns, so it can be hard to tell them apart, but males can live for up to 3 years, while females usually die after breeding and laying around 50 eggs.
The rhinoceros beetle can grow as large as 5.9 inches (15 cm), although this depends on the species and comes in a variety of colors, although most are gray, brown, or greenish. They have strong exoskeletons that act as armor, and the size of any individual’s horn can tell you a lot about its health. Because of their strength, these beetles can lift up to 850 times their own body weight!
What’s really interesting is that the rhinoceros beetle is an essential player within the ecosystem thanks to its contribution to the decomposition process of organic materials since the larvae feed on decomposing wood and leaves.
5. Elephant Shrew (Family: Macroscelididae)
If you’re not a fan of creepy crawlies, then the adorable little elephant shrew might be your top pick of the Little Five. There are around 20 species of elephant shrew, but what’s common among them all is their long snout which resembles an elephant’s trunk. They use this snout when foraging as it helps them to probe the ground when searching for insects to eat. This snout also means they can search for food in tight crevices and gaps.
You may sometimes hear people referring to the elephant shrew as the sengi, which is common in Africa and comes from the word meaning mouse in the Bantu language.
The wonderful thing about elephant shrews is that you’ll be able to spot them in various locations, as each species prefers a different habitat. They can be found in grass and shrublands as well as in dense forest. Because of the various species, these cute critters also come in a range of colors like gray, brown, black, and some even have a black rump with a beautiful rusty red head and shoulders.
What’s amazing about the elephant shrew is its speedy metabolism which is powered by a heart rate of up to 1,000 beats per minute! Although this isn’t as fast as the pygmy shrew, whose heart beats at a whopping 1,200 beats per minute.
As well as having a fast heartbeat, the elephant shrew is a generally speedy little mover. Despite only being between 3.9 and 11.8 inches (10 and 30 cm) in length, these animals can move at up to 28 mph (45 km/h); perfect for getting away from hungry snakes, lizards, and raptors.
The Shy Five: Africa’s Elusive Animals
Many African animals aren’t afraid to be seen, so they’ll be easy to spot on your safari. But if you’re looking for more of a challenge then there are some elusive animals with a much more timid nature. These include the aardwolf, aardvark, meerkat, porcupine, and bat-eared fox.
If you’ve got the patience to wait for these creatures to make an appearance then it’ll be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. It’s also worth keeping in mind that many of the shy five are nocturnal, making them even more of a challenge to spot.
1. Aardwolf (Proteles cristata)
The aardwolf is a species of hyena that feeds primarily on insects, with termites making up the bulk of its diet. Unlike the aardvark that digs into termite mounds, the aardwolf uses its long tongue to lick them up off the ground.
Aardwolves are found in open areas like grasslands as this gives them the easiest access to their favorite foods. Interestingly, there are only two established populations of aardwolves; one in South Africa and the other in north-east Africa. However, they have a very timid nature so they’re not always easy to spot.
When you do see one, you won’t have any doubt about what you’re looking at because aardwolves have a very distinct appearance with a black striped, slender body and a long, bushy tail. Excluding the tail, they can grow to around 31 inches (80 cm) and the tail up to inches 12 inches (30 cm). They’re easy to tell apart from hyenas as their faces are much smaller.
While they are usually solitary, these animals do have some effective forms of communication including chirping and purring. When it feels threatened, the aardwolf will make growling sounds and puff out its mane to appear scary.
2. Aardvark (Orycteropus afer)
The aardvark is probably most well-known for its feeding habits. Nocturnal hunters, they mainly feed on termites and ants, which they extract from the mound using a long, stocky tongue. Since their stomachs are equipped with a grinding mechanism, aardvarks have no need to chew their food, allowing them to consume up to 50,000 termites in a single night!
As well as a sticky tongue, aardvarks have powerful claws, which they use for digging. Their long snouts are one of their most distinctive features as well as their large ears which allow them to disperse heat.
The aardvark can be found in sub-Saharan Africa in a range of habitats, from open grasslands and savannas to woodlands. They’re incredibly shy so one of the harder creatures to spot on your safari, but there’s a better chance of seeing one on a nighttime safari.
3. Bat-Eared Fox (Otocyon megalotis)
The bat-eared fox is a species of fox from the Otocyon family and is considered to be a canid. This species is endemic to Africa and is found across various areas within the southern and eastern parts of the continent.
Like the aardwolf and aardvark, bat-eared foxes are largely insectivorous and enjoy a diet of beetles and termites but will occasionally eat small reptiles and eggs as well as vegetation. They forage for food during the night and spend most of the day hiding out in dens, which they dig themselves. Here, they can escape the heat, and it’s also where they raise their young during the dry season after breeding. Females typically give birth to around 6 pups in a litter.
While in their dens, these amazing creatures are still able to hunt for food as their incredible hearing allows them to detect even the smallest insect movements.
Bat-eared foxes are also very sociable animals, despite their shy nature and can be found living in groups of around 15. They’re easy to tell apart from other similar species thanks to their masked faces, bushy tails, and legs that are marked to look as though they’re wearing stockings!
4. Meerkat (Suricata suricatta)
Meerkats are part of the mongoose family, and while most people are familiar with what they look like, they’re difficult to spot on safari because of their elusive behavior. Meerkats have long slender bodies and black markings around the eyes.
They’re often seen standing on their hind legs as this allows the meerkats, which live in large groups called mobs, containing up to 30 members, to scan their surroundings and check for danger. If a threat is spotted, the sentinel will make a loud alarm call to alert the rest of the group. Being very sociable animals, meerkats take teamwork very seriously and if they’re not serving as a lookout, they’ll be foraging for insects and fruits or taking care of the young. Everyone gets involved, but each mob only has one breeding pair.
One of the reasons that meerkats are so hard to find is because they tend to make their homes in arid regions at least 656 feet (200 meters) from anything else. When humans approach, these animals can become very intimidated and may flee.
But they’re incredibly important animals for the African landscape since their burrowing habits help with soil aeration, and their diet helps to control insect populations.
5. Porcupine (Hystrix africaeaustralis)
While it may not typically look like one with its spiny body and large size, the porcupine is actually classed as a rodent; one of the biggest in Africa, in fact. These spines, that grow up to 7.9 inches (20 cm) in length and are known as quills, are a form of self-defense from predators like owls and big cats. What’s more, since porcupines are largely solitary animals, they don’t have the protection of a group.
If a porcupine is attacked by a predator, it will first puff up its barbed quills which then detach and can become stuck in the body of the attacker. Even when they’re born, young porcupines, known as porcupettes, are equipped with quills. However, they’re soft at the time of birth but soon harden within just one hour, so they’re ready to defend themselves.
Porcupines are found in Southern and central Africa, where they live in a range of different habitats. However, it’s noted that they aren’t typically found in very arid areas or extremely dense forests.
They mainly feed on fruits, roots, plants, and other herbivorous foods and can be found foraging during the night. This, coupled with the fact that porcupines are very timid creatures, makes them one of the more difficult to spot on safari.
The Ugly Five: Beyond Looks
They say looks aren’t everything, and that couldn’t be more fitting when on safari in Africa. The animals I’m about to talk about include some of the most obscure and ugly-looking creatures in Africa but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
In fact, these animals are essential for many reasons, including keeping other wildlife populations under control and even keeping the environment clean by feeding on carcasses.
1. Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus)
The marabou stork is a species of wading bird found around water sources in sub-Saharan Africa. These birds are known for their scavenging behavior and can often be found near animal carcasses. However, they’re opportunists so will also feed on insects and small vertebrates.
Marabou storks are the largest stork species on the planet, and adults can get to 50 inches (127 cm) in height. But it’s their impressive wingspan that truly makes them enormous, and this can measure up to 12 feet (3.7 meters)! These sizable wings allow the stork to soar, which means they can cover a much larger area when looking for food, without expending too much energy. During the migration season, marabou storks can often be seen following migrating herds to take advantage of any individuals that may fall.
But where looks are concerned, marabou storks were given the short straw. They have a long, thin bill and a bald head that’s covered in black skin; this appearance is why they’re sometimes called the undertaker bird. Their long, sharp bill allows these birds to rip through the flesh of carcasses, and they also use them to clatter with other storks in a mating ritual. This also involves other elaborate displays, including puffing up the throat. Once they’ve found a mate, marabou storks typically remain monogamous.
2. Hyena (Family: Hyaenidae)
The hyena is probably one of the more well-known animals outside of the Big Five and is a canine with four distinct species; the spotted hyena, the striped hyena, the brown hyena, and the aardwolf. However, the spotted hyena is the most common and can be found throughout much of Africa. Their range even extends as far as the Middle East and India. However, striped hyenas are much less common, and even the elusive aardwolf is more regularly spotted.
Spotted hyenas are very social animals that live and hunt in groups of up to 80 individuals. They are among some of the best hunters on the savanna thanks to their strong teeth and powerful jaws that allow them to crush bone; no part of their kill goes to waste.
Hyenas are likely bigger than you would expect, growing between 37 and 59 inches (94 and 150 cm), and they are able to take very good care of themselves. Packs work together to protect each other, and these canines have even been known to take down lions. Not only this, but their superior intelligence and teamwork makes them effective hunters.
Within the pack, it’s the females that are in charge. They use loud whooping calls to communicate and this is one of the most common sounds in the African environment when they’re hunting at night.
3. Vulture (Family: Accipitridae)
The poor old vulture has something of a bad reputation because of its ugly appearance and scavenging feeding habits. But these birds are incredibly important in clearing up carcasses in many African habitats like grasslands, savannas, woods, and even mountainous regions. They fly high in the sky using their up to 7.5 feet (2.3 meter) wingspan, to effortlessly soar in search of food. Couple this with their excellent eyesight and they’re some of the most effective foragers on the continent.
Vultures do not have feathers on the neck or head, giving them a rather strange and unique appearance. But this serves a purpose; they don’t get covered in carrion when feeding, which would take some serious feather maintenance to stay clean and free from bacteria if they did.
There are several species of vulture in Africa, including the hooded vulture, the lappet-faced vulture, the cape vulture, and the white-backed vulture. In any case, they’re highly social birds that will form groups known as flocks, volts, or venues when feeding.
Sadly, many vulture species are now under threat or endangered and as a whole, vultures are considered to be the most threatened species of raptor on the planet.
4. Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)
A member of the pig family, the warthog is perhaps one of the most obscure looking creatures in Africa. But they’re not aggressive and are essential to the ecosystem thanks to the way that their feeding habits shape the landscape through nutrient recycling and encouraging new plants to grow.
There’s no way you’d mistake a warthog for anything else; they have long tusks, warty faces, and highly calloused knees, which they use as padding when kneeling down to feed on vegetation. They also use their snouts for foraging and are adept diggers, creating underground burrows to keep out of the heat and away from predators. However, like many pig species, warthogs will also roll around in water or mud to stay cool in a phenomenon known as wallowing.
Warthog tusks are one of the most distinct features and are used for a variety of things, including digging, fighting with other individuals, and as a form of self-defense.
Warthogs are usually found on the savanna as well as in wooded areas and grasslands throughout sub-Saharan Africa. While they are predated by a range of big cats and hyenas, warthogs have the advantage of speed and are able to run at up to 30 mph (48 km/h).
Warthogs are social animals and live in groups of up to 10, although there have been reports of groups, known as sounders, that contain up to 30 members. Typically, the group is led by a female that has already bred.
5. Wildebeest (Connochaetes spp.)
The wildebeest, sometimes called a gnu, is found across eastern and southern Africa, where they inhabit open woodlands and plains. The scientific name for wildebeest is Connochaetes spp. And comes from Latin and Greek to mean ‘bearded wild ox’.
However, what’s most interesting about wildebeest is that they do not remain in one place year-round. In fact, their migration is one of the most epic on the planet, and they will move between the Serengeti in Tanzania and Maasai Mara in Kenya, covering thousands of miles in the process.
This migration occurs in the dry season and again during the rainy season. However, the timing can be affected by various factors, such as the availability of water. In any case, millions of individuals will gather to follow the circular route which can be incredibly dangerous since the migration attracts predators like lions.
What’s more, the wildebeest have to make many river crossings which are not only risky in themselves but also come with the challenge of avoiding aquatic predators like crocodiles. However, it’s essential that the wildebeest are able to complete their migration because their droppings contribute to nutrient cycling, keeping the landscape and biodiversity healthy.
One way that wildebeest try to protect themselves is moving in large groups. However, these groups are not limited to one species and they’ll often form a team with zebras when migrating. Not only this, but being grazers as well, zebras can help the wildebeest to locate good food sources.
Another interesting wildebeest fact relates to its long tail, which can grow to around 39 inches (100 cm). It is said that you can tell a lot about the physiological history of an individual just by looking at its tail!