My first trip to South Africa back in 2000 ultimately proved to be a life-changing experience. A lifetime of National Geographic specials couldn’t prepare me for the awe-inspiring South African wildlife sightings we were blessed with on every single safari drive we took during our week exploring Kruger National Park.
We saw the famed “Big 5” more times that I can recall. But we were equally enthralled by the hundreds of species of other animals we saw, from a mother Cheetah with two wrestling 7-month-old cubs and a huge family of Warthogs to a pack of endangered Wild Dogs we saw digging their way under a fence to get back to the safety of the park.
With 299 species of mammals and 858 species of birds, it’s virtually impossible to predict which species of South African wildlife you might see during your time in Kruger National Park. What follows is a brief guide to a few of our favorites:
African Lion: Seeing the apex predator of Kruger National Park is likely at the top of every safari traveler’s wish list. Luckily, with a population of around 3,000 currently living within the park’s boundaries, you won’t have to search too hard. We saw them every single day during our visit, sometimes in prides of a dozen or more, often at extremely close range!
Cheetah: Capable of running at speeds around 60 miles per hour in short bursts, the Cheetah is much more difficult to spot in Kruger. Their total population in the park is less than 150. Your best bet is to visit one of the private game reserves in the area, where we were fortunate to see a mother nursing young cubs during a nighttime safari drive.
Leopard: Although there are around 2000 Leopards in Kruger National Park, you’ll need a stroke of good luck to have a chance of spotting them. These reclusive cats tend to stick to the shadows during the daytime, coming out at night to hunt Thomson’s Gazelles and other ungulates. Our best Leopard sighting came right at sunset in a private game reserve, where we watched it stalking a Wildebeest.
Cape Buffalo: One of Africa’s Big 5, locals sometimes call these massive animals (which stand around 5 feet tall and weighing 1,100-2,000 pounds) “black death” due to their color and aggression. Not only do they often stand up to lions and hyenas who dare to attack the herd, but they’re responsibly for goring and killing an average of 200+ people each year.
Elephant: Poaching of Elephants for their ivory tusks has become an increasingly complex problem facing many countries in Africa. But they’re among the more abundant species of South African wildlife found in Kruger, with around 17,000 estimated to live within the park’s boundaries. They’re also among the most impressive, making you (and your safari vehicle) feel tiny by comparison.
Giraffe: Africa’s most elegant animals are a wonder best seen up close, in-person. From the remarkable reach of feeding on Acacia Trees and the graceful bend to feed near the ground to the slow plié required to drink from a watering hole, their intriguing ballet turns to a thing of pure beauty when you catch them galloping at top speeds of nearly 40 mph.
Hippopotamus: Kruger’s population of 3,000 Hippos are huge (2,900-3,300 pounds) and highly unpredictable, ranking among Africa’s most dangerous mammals. They’re usually seen protecting their sunburn-prone bodies by lurking just under the surface of the water. Seeing one sprinting top-speed across the road at night remains one of the most shocking memories of my Kruger safari.
Rhinoceros: Rhino poaching has risen by more than 300% in the last four years, with 1,175 killed in 2015 in South Africa alone. The country is currently home to an estimated 19,700 Rhinos, which is around 80% of the total world population. Seeing them in person could make anyone a Rhino-lover, particularly if you’re lucky enough to see a baby. They really look like overgrown armored cows.
African Wild Dog: Less than 200 of these endangered canines remain in Kruger today. Because the dogs occasionally kill goats, sheep, and other cattle, some local farmers shoot them on sight. I was extremely fortunate during my 2000 visit to witness a pack of 16 wild dogs successfully digging their way back into the sanctuary of the park.
Baboon: The Baboons of Kruger National Park can either be a comedy or tragedy, depending on your perspective. They’ve been known to snatch a snack (and other handheld items) from tourists, and stopped traffic in both directions by gathering in the road on more than one occasion. But their faces are fascinating, and you’re almost certain to see cute babies hitching a ride on mom’s back.
Spotted Hyena: The Hyena has a gotten a bad rap from Hollywood (I’m looking at you, Lion King). Sure, they’re sneaky, opportunistic, and have a distinctive laugh that never stops sounding creepy after dark. But they’re surprisingly adorable in person, looking much more like domesticated dogs than you might expect. With around 2,000 in Kruger, it’s likely you’ll have a chance to judge for yourself.
Ungulates: With around 10,000 Blue Wildebeest, 6,000 Greater Kudu, 5,000 Waterbuck, and countless Impala and Gazelles, Kruger National Park is teeming with a diverse array of ungulates. The horns of the Kudu and Nyala are particularly impressive. We saw the remarkable evasive tactics of Impala running from a trio of Hyenas during a memorable night drive.
Lilac-Breasted Roller: One of my favorite birds in South Africa, this beauty is a common sighting in protected grassland areas. They boast a stunning array of colors ranging from green, brown, and black to jewel-toned shades of pink, purple, and blue. You’ll often see them perched on trees and shrubs, waiting to feed on insects, lizards, small birds and rodents spotted on the ground.
Ostrich: Arguably the most freaky-looking bird we’ve seen, the ostrich is large (220-255 pounds, 6-9 feet tall), flightless, long-necked, big-eyed, and generally grouchy. Despite being the largest bird species on the planet, their long legs allow them to run at speeds of over 40 mph. Territorial males fight over harems of females, and their goofy feathers make their mating rituals fascinating.
Secretary Bird: This large (up to 54 inches), mostly terrestrial bird of prey has the body of an Eagle, the long legs of a Crane, and vivid orange and yellow markings around its sharp, hooked bill. But its most distinctive trait is its crest of quill-like feathers, which make it look like a secretary with quill pens tucked behind their ear.
Southern Ground Hornbill: This is the world’s largest Hornbill species, averaging 35-50 inches long and weighing up to 13 pounds. They’re usually found in savanna habitat that offers large trees for nesting. With their striking black coloration and vivid red patches of skin on the face and throat, you’ll often see them foraging on the ground for reptiles, frogs, insects, and small mammals. –text & photos by Bret Love
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.