Read our take on the 15 most iconic and intriguing desert animals to see in Africa whilst on a desert safari.
Africa is made up of many habitats, with over one-third of the continent covered by nine deserts. Two of these African deserts make it onto our list of the 10 largest deserts in the world. Whilst there is seemingly plenty of nothing in African deserts, they offer a unique environmental and cultural history dating back millions of years, and, in places, are home to excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.
Whilst the lack of water in deserts is an impediment to an abundance of wildlife, there are a number of plant and animal species that have adapted to a desert environment and call the desert home. When people think of a desert, it’s often camels and snakes that come to mind, however, foxes, antelopes, elephants, and lions are common desert species, all worthy of any safari animal sighting.
What is a desert?
Deserts are defined as dry regions receiving less than 12 inches of precipitation annually, and are formed when regional climate changes result in long-lasting drought conditions.
In Africa, the deserts are also characterised by warm to very hot daytime temperatures with cooler nights.
There are many ways desert animals have adapted to the lack of water and extreme temperatures that their habitat brings. These include:
- Being nocturnal, only coming out at night when it’s cool.
- Burrowing under the ground or sand to find less extreme and more consistent temperatures.
- Being able to go days without drinking, or even obtaining all of their water from their prey.
- Extended body parts – commonly ears, but also legs and other body parts – to help dissipation of heat
The deserts in Africa are home to some of the most extreme landscapes and stark conditions on earth, and offer an incredible backdrop for the variety of desert animals they are home to. With this in mind, below we list 15 of the most iconic desert animals to spot in Africa:
Perhaps the ultimate iconic African savanna animal, the giraffe is also found in some of Africa’s deserts. The unmistakable land mammal is recognizable for its long neck and spotted coat, and known by Arab prophets as the ‘queen of the beasts’ because of their delicate features and graceful poise.
With nine subspecies sharing its distinctive characteristics, this safari animal is the tallest in the world by some way. The giraffe’s coat is characterized by dark blotches on lighter hair. With age, male giraffes may become darker, and while calves inherit spot patterns from their mothers, each giraffe has a unique coat pattern that sets it apart. It has a sharp sense of hearing and smell, another defense against predators, while it can close its nostrils during sandstorms and against ants.
Black footed cat
The black-footed cat is the smallest wild cat in Africa and one of the smallest wildcats in the world, weighing 2 kg and standing 0.25 meters tall. They’re nocturnal animals, and rarely seen, found only on the grassy plains and desert areas of South Africa and Namibia. It’s estimated that these cats can kill and eat up to 3,000 rodents a year, and a desert adaptation means they can obtain all the moisture they need from their food.
Rhinos are something you just need to see to understand how impressive they really are. A rhino sighting is always special and as you look in awe your heart will definitely skip a beat.
Once widespread through sub-Saharan Africa, the rhino has been hunted to the brink of extinction and is probably the hardest of the big five to spot in the wild. There are two species of rhinoceros in Africa – the black rhino (Diceros bicornis) and the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum).
Whilst white rhinos have made a comeback through conservation efforts across the continent, black rhinos are still very much one of Africa’s endangered animals, and one of the hardest safari animal to spot. The fundamental differences between the white and black rhino are not color, but rather size, temperament, food preference, and mouth shape.
The cheetah is famous for being the world’s fastest animal on land. This mammal can do 120 kilometers per hour and can accelerate from 0 to 95 kilometers in just three seconds. These cats need land and space, and seeing one in action is an incredible sight. But there is more to this cat than just speed; it is beautiful and graceful, and sadly, it’s endangered.
For an animal that hunts during the day, good eyesight, stealth, a spotted coat, and top-notch speed are crucial for survival. The tear marks are among the top distinctive features used to tell the cheetah and the leopard apart
(Loxodonta africana) is the largest and heaviest land animal in the world, weighing up to 6 tonnes. You will be stunned by the sheer size and presence of these creatures, not only on the first time you see them but every time to come.
Elephants play a vital role in the survival of other species by digging waterholes in dry riverbeds, spread seeds through theirs faecal matter and their trails act as fire breaks on the landscape, and they do all this on only 2 hours sleep in a 24 hour period!
The elusive leopards are one of the shyest and least sociable animals in the animal kingdom, but are still opportunistic hunters and are highly adaptable. Watching a leopard carry its prey up a tree is a fantastic sight and one of the best opportunities you could hope for.
Slightly smaller than their lion cousins, leopards (Panthera pardus) are less rare than you might think, but rely on camouflage and being active at night to stay hidden.
Leopards are solitary, independent creatures, and rarely seen together except during mating, or a mother with cubs. As such they are totally self-reliant, and expert hunters – sometimes killing prey up to twice their size. During the daytime they often lounge around in trees and come to the ground after dark to hunt, taking their prey up into a tree to eat at their leisure.
Flying in at first place is the lion, also known as the king of the jungle. Lions are the largest and most sociable of Africa’s cats. At up to 225kg, the lion (Panthera leo) really is the king of the savanna (not jungle!), but are also desert-adapted animals in places like the Namibi Desert.
When you hear them roaring during the night, or the day, you’ll be amazed at how loud and powerful they actually are – don’t worry about not hearing the lions snarls or roars as they can be heard from up to 8 kilometers away. It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see lions hunting, or lion cubs playing with each other.
The ultimate desert animals, dromedary camels are well adapted to their conditions, with closable nostrils close to keep sand at bay, and bushy eyebrows and two rows of long eyelashes to protect their eyes. They have large feet to spread their weight across the sand for support, and a large hump on their back to store fat. They drink large amounts of water – up to 90 literes at a time – which they store in their bloodstream.
Fox – Bat-eared and Cape
As the name indicates, this fox has unusually enormous ears in proportion to its head, like those of many bats. Their bodies are generally yellow-brown with a pale throat and underparts. Bat-eared foxes are primarily found in East and Southern Africa where there are short-grass plains and plenty of termites and beetles.
Zebras are perhaps the most stylish of Africa’s stars, with their characteristically stunning coats of black and white stripes. These distant relatives of the horse are a frequent sight on any African safari and consist of three different species.
There are many theories about why zebras evolved stripes, and it seems that perhaps the most likely answer is that the stripes function as a way to deter biting insects like tsetse flies and mosquitos.
Hyena – Brown and Spotted
There are four species in the hyena family, varying in size. Hyenas are unique and vital components of most African ecosystems, both taking advantage of other animals’ kills for easy meals and hunting themselves. The size of a hyena kill or scavenge is generally determined by the size of the hyena’s clan, which can run to dozens. They often hide extra food in watering holes, since nothing is wasted. Hyenas will eat every part of an animal, including bones and hooves.
Lapet faced vulture
The Lappet-faced Vulture has the largest wing-span of all the birds of Africa, and also goes by the names Nubian vulture and African eared vulture. The species is easily recognizable due to its large size, bare pink head, and the lappets on each side of its neck – the fleshy folds of skin.
The meerkat, or suricate, is a small carnivoran in the mongoose family. It is the only member of the genus Suricata. Meerkats live in all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, in much of the Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola, and in South Africa.
There are 4 species of oryx, all of which live in or on the fringes of desert areas, and can live for days without drinking water. Oryx eat foliage, grass, herbs, shrubs, plants, legumes, juicy fruits and roots, and buds, generating the water they need from these plant resources they eat.
Interesting oryx fact – the Arabian oryx is the first species to have changed back from ‘Extinct in the Wild’ to ‘Vulnerable’, as categorized in the IUCN Red List in 2011.
The common ostrich is the tallest and heaviest bird in the world, with an average height of over 2 meters (sometimes as tall as 2.7 meters) and a weight of up to 160 kg. At this size, the ostrich is, of course, flightless, but can outrun plenty of animals with its top speed of 69 km per hour. Their long, powerful legs double up as defensive weapons which pack a powerful kick to would-be predators.
Ostrich are very well adapted desert animals, able to survive without water for days, generating water internally and extracting water from vegetation.
The sand cat is the only wild cat in Africa – or the indeed world – that lives solely in desert environments, with a wide distribution across the Sahara, as well deserts in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Also known as the dune cat and ‘the cat that digs holes’, the thick, long hair on the soles of their feet is an adaptation to protect them against the desert extremes of hot and cold temperatures. They are characterized by their flat, wide head and short legs, and stand 0.35 meters tall, weighing in at 3.5 kg.
Have you had the opportunity to spot any of these desert animals in the wild? Let us know about your desert animal experiences in the comments section below!