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African flora and fauna
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The following is an illustrated guide to major animals and plants in Africa. This is intended as a spotting aid for the visitor, not a comprehensive biological reference. Further details of what animals can be seen are listed under individual parks in African National Parks.
It is very important to have enough water on hand, because the National Parks can be very hot and temperature around 30°C in the shade are common. Slap on liberal amounts of sunscreen and wear a wide-brimmed hat that will not be blown off in the wind.
Early morning and night drives, on the other hand, can get distinctly chilly during the African winter, so a sweater or coat will come in handy.
Game drives are best enjoyed when you have good optical equipment such as binoculars, still cameras and video cameras. All optical equipment has to cope with very difficult light conditions such as intense sunlight during daytime and very little light at the crack of dawn when many predators are active.
Some animals, such as elephants and giraffes, tend to approach closely to cars and standard equipment will allow good viewing. Lions, cheetahs and leopards are sometimes shy and you will see them better with binoculars. Binoculars should have 10× magnification, ideally with night vision glass quality.
Good safari photography doesn't come easy or cheap. The most obvious requirement is a telephoto lens: 200mm is a practical minimum, 300mm is better and the pros (especially birdwatchers) carry 500mm lenses that could be mistaken for a telescope. However, it's not enough for the lens to be merely long, you'll also need a fast lens that works well in low-light conditions in the morning and evening — but a lens that's both long and fast can get ludicrously expensive. You can compensate to some extent with a tripod or its more portable cousin the monopod, and with any lens this becomes a practical necessity past 300mm to eliminate blurriness.
If you have a SLR or similar prosumer camera, spend some time studying your camera's settings. A small aperture will help the subject stand out by blurring the background. Continuous focusing mode is useful for tracking moving animals.
Remember that you may shoot more pictures than ever before in your life because there are so many interesting things to see. so it is better to have twice or five times as much film or as many memory sticks or other storage media with than you would take on a normal holiday. Same applies for your camera battery, even if you have never changed your camera battery it is likely to be flat after one day of game viewing. Big lenses and continuous focusing will suck on the battery more than usual.
And when you get back to your lodge, take a few minutes to wipe clean your gear, or fine dust will wreak havoc in anything with moving parts, most notably those expensive zoom lenses.
While many safari visitors are keen on seeing the Big Five — buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and rhino — there is a lot more out there if you know where to look.
Meat-eating mammals are the kings of the bush.
Cheetahs are the fastest hunters in Africa, but you are quite lucky if you can see them very close because they tend to be hidden in the high grass. You don't see them in the dense thickets of South Africa whereas the savanna in Kenya and Tanzania allows better viewing. Cheetahs usually travel alone or in small groups consisting of mother and offspring. They hunt in the cool hours of the day. They reach a maximum speed of up to 100 km/h in a short and explosive burst and have to tackle their prey in a single attack. The preferred prey is Impala, but birds are on the lunch menu as well.
Panthera pardus are famously elusive hunters that stalk their prey at night. For most visitors the only chance of spotting one is on night drives, and Zambia's South Luangwa National Park (which allows night driving) is claimed by some to have the highest density of leopards in all Africa.
Panthera leo are common in the wider part of Africa and can be best seen in Lake Nakuru, Masai Mara, Serengeti and to a lesser extent in South Africa, nevertheless you have to be lucky to see them very close. Lions hunt early in the morning or in the night and during the day they allow themselves to be lazy. To see them in action you have to get up before the crack of dawn or you see them only resting after a big dinner.
Their menu consists mainly of bigger mammals and zebras seem to be the favourite if available. Males often do not contribute to the hunting but they demand the "lion" share and female youngsters have to wait until it is their turn.
Lion cubs are dependent on their mother for up two years and they start to enjoy hunting when they are about 11 months old. Lions are social cats and live in prides of 3-30 lions consisting of 1-4 males and several females.
Crocuta crocuta has a bad reputation for no good reason. They are good at hunting and are not dependent on the leftovers from lions.
They live in packs of 3-4 animals and can form larger groups as well. The leader of the pack is a female and they hunt often during the night but can be spotted during the daytime as well. They prey on insects, mammals such as Zebras and Wildebeest and sometimes they bring down a giraffe, or fight off lions from their catch. They tend to explore bins in national parks.
Puppies are dependent on their mum's milk for 9-12 months and start to look after themselves within 15 months.
Lycaon pictus live in packs of 10-15 members. Wild dog sightings are always a big event so watch out for them because they are considered to be the rarest predator in Africa. Wild dogs are mainly active during the day and they hunt in the early hours or late afternoon. They prey on small mammals, Impalas, Springbok and occasionally buffalos as well.
The packs have hierarchical structures where only the dominant female has pups and the rest help to care for them.
The pups are born in a den and they stay there for up to three weeks before they explore their environment. After five weeks the pups start to eat regurgitated meat and after 8-10 weeks they leave the den forever and follow the pack.
Antelopes are among the most common animals seen on safari, but there are numerous species that, to the untrained eye, can be difficult to distinguish.
Damaliscus dorcas dorcas are mainly found in the Western Cape of South Africa. They have white, light and dark brownish markings and are easily recognised. They live in herds. However males leave the heard with a certain age and form small groups of themselves.
Aepyceros melampus live in big herds and newborn lambs join the herd after 1-2 days. They are an excellent sprinter and can outrun many predators. Males have impressive horns which are mainly used for fights over females rather than as a defence weapon.
The impala can be distinguished from other antelopes by its distinctive backside, marked with white and black stripes that resemble the McDonalds logo. Impala are hunted by lions and leopards, although in reality they are hard to catch, because the whole herd will jump and run around, totally confusing the hunting animal.
Tragelaphus strepsiceros is a big antelope and is very common in the Kruger National Park. Calves are born outside of the herd and are kept in a secret location for 1-2 weeks before they join the herd. They are loved in the national park but farmers hate them because a 2 meter high fence does not stop them from entering farm premises and eating the crops.
Kobus vardoni are uncommon outside Zambia, but very common there. Usually found in small herds of about half a dozen, puku have large lyre-shaped horns, reddish-brown fur and lack the backside markings of impala and waterbucks.
Raphicerus campestris are often mistaken for Impalas, because they look like a small Impala. However their colour is different and they prefer living in the wide open fields of the arid regions. They are very difficult to spot, especially in high gras.
Kobus ellipsiprymnus is a medium-size antelope with grey-brown fur and distinctive backside markings. There are two types: one has white ring often likened to sitting on a just-painted toilet seat, while the other has a solid white circle.
Connochaetes taurinus form small groups and are seasonal breeders. Offspring arrive from November to February and are born within the herd. Calves may be defended fiercely against any attacker.
Syncerus caffer are fierce beasts, males may reach up 700 kg in weight. They live in herds and have a strong social bond. They can form groups of up to several thousand members when the environment permits and groups are organized by dominant males and females. Predators are actively attacked to defend calves, injured or old members. Mothers give birth to 40 kg calves which are capable of walking shortly after birth. Calves are weaned after seven months, but stay close with their mum for 12 months. Their preferred habitat is savannah with thicket or open savannah with protective properties.
Papio ursinus, also known as the common baboon, lives in social groups guided by a dominant male. Newborn baboons are black and are carried around by their mothers. Later they ride on the back of their mother and after three to four months they change color to the adult brown-grey.
Helogale parvule live in social groups with one dominant breeding pair and the rest of the group assisting with raising the offspring. The mongoose is active during daytime . They run quickly into their tunnels when they are frightened but they return quickly and are funny to look at. They are often close to streams, rivers, ponds as well as along open camp sites surrounded by high grass and thicket. The mongoose lives on insects, small birds and eggs.
Elephants are among the most common sightings in the Kruger National Park and you will be able to see them very close up. Amboseli in Kenya is famous for the biggest tusker in the world. For some it may be too close — it is definitely not for a faint hearted visitor.
Elephants are the biggest land mammals in the world. A male can weigh up to 6000 kg and a female up to 3500 kg. They live in large family groups led by the most experienced female. Males are only tolerated until a certain age when they have to leave the family and often form bachelor groups. Males join the female group when they are in musth but only the strongest bulls are tolerated.
Elephants can be often seen around rivers when they have a bath and a good sip of water. They must drink up to 160 litres of water and eat several hundred kilograms of plants per day to survive. Elephats are active at both day and night time. They are peaceful creatures and only become aggressive when they are wounded or when they want to protect their babies.
Giraffa camelopardalis are the tallest mammals on earth. Males reach a height of up to 5.2 metres and females 4.7 metres. Giraffes have a maximum mass of 1400 kg. In addition to the common giraffe, a subspecies known as Thornicraft's giraffe, with white legs and faces, inhabits Zambia's South Luangwa National Park.
Giraffes give birth after 450 days of pregnancy to a single calf of up to 100 kg and the calf can instantly stand on four legs and walks soon after. Giraffes live in loose family groups and newborn calves join the group after one week. Young giraffes grow fast and reach one meter in height within six months. Family groups can range in from 4 to up 30 members, but the structure is loose and fluctuations are common.
Giraffes are browsers and can reach leaves that are not accessible by any other ground-based mammal. To maintain such an enormous size as herbivores giraffes eat for up to 20 hours a day and rest only during the hottest hours of the day.
Hippopotamus amphibius tolerate direct sunlight poorly, so during the day they are often spotted lurking in the river, little more than their nostrils visible. They come out to graze during the night. Hippo calves have a birth mass of around 30 kg and are dependent on their mother for 5 months. After that they start to graze.
Hippos are said to account for more deaths than any other African animal: keep well clear of these unpredictable beasts, and ensure that they have a clear path to retreat to water.
Ceratotherium simum are the rarest of all large mammals in Africa. There are two sub-species, the white rhino and the black rhino. Hunted to near-extinction in the 1970s and 1980s, herds have been reintroduced into select parks around the continent and are now slowing growing again.
There is no difference in colour between the "Whites" and the "Blacks". The White Rhino differs from the Black Rhinoceros because of the shape of its mouth ? it is wide, for cropping large swaths of grass. According to one theory, the term "White" actually comes from the Afrikaans word "weit", meaning 'wide'.
Calves can stand immediately after birth, but they are very slow at walking. After one month it can follow its mother grazing and stays close to its mother for up to three years.
Cercopithecus aethiops is a social monkey that lives close to rivers and feeds on leaves, fruits and insects. Family groups are up to 20 members strong.
Newborn vervet monkeys are dependent on their mother for three months and from then on they become youngsters.
Phacochoerus aethiopicus are medium sized mammalis with a mixed diet. Warthog babies are born at the beginning of the rain season (December-January) and live for the first 6-7 weeks in their burrow and then start to follow their mother. Note their interesting habit of bending their front legs to graze!
Equus quagga are common in national parks throughout Africa and easily recognized due to their striking white and black stripes. Burchell's zebra is the more common subspecies, with gray "shadow" stripes, while the rarer Crawshay's zebra (found in Zambia's South Luangwa) lack these. The mountain zebra, a separate endangered species, is found in the dry and hilly regions of southern Africa, notably the Mountain Zebra National Park.
Some national parks in Kenya and Tanzania support groups of thousands of zebras. The mare leaves the herd to give birth to the foal and rejoins after birth.
Crocodylus niloticus live along rivers and are very successful hunters and eat whatever they can. They control their body temperature by lying in the sun to warm up in winter or to cool down in water in the hot summer.
Geochelone pardalis can be best spotted on tarred roads (they are virtually invisible in the high grass from a car). They like to drink water from tarred roads.
Merops nubicoides is an insect hunting bird that preys on insects such as bees and grasshoppers, easily recognized by its striking red chest and even more striking blue wings (only clearly visible in flight). It breeds in Zimbabwe and Transvaal, but can occasionally be seen in flocks of hundreds — a stunning sight.
Anhinga melanogaster can be spotted close to dams, when drying their feathers from a previous dive.
Haliaeetus vocifer is a fish hunter and can be spotted along the Sabie river in South Africa.
Numida meleagris can be often spotted in small groups along roads when they are picking insects or seeds.
Struthio camelus are the biggest birds on earth. They can grow up to two meters. They eat grass, berries and seeds and normally live in family groups. Males are coloured white and black, while females areof a brownish colour.
Buphagus erythrorhynchus give relief to grazing animals by removing ticks from the skin of Kudu, Impala and Steenbok.
This is a very colourful yellow bird with characteristic hanging nests. Breeding colonies can be often seen along rivers and birds visit often camp for some scraps of food.
Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis is easy to spot because of its colourful appearance and its size. It spends winter in the KNP.
Acacia tortillis is one of the best known trees from Africa. As its name suggests it is full of thorns and only specialist herbivores can eat its leaves without suffering from the thorn defense (see also Giraffe).
Schotia brachypetala is a tree that prefers wet ground and is commonly found on river banks and flowers only after years of good rainfall. Beautiful red flowers appear in September to October.