What sort of savanna animals can you expect to see on a safari game drive? Read on below for our take on most iconic animals of the savanna.
Africa is home to many different habitats – wetlands, deserts, mountains, jungles and many more – but it is on Africa’s savannas that the most impressive numbers and selections of wildlife can be found.
What is a savanna?
Savanna is defined as dry regions receiving less than 30 centimeters of precipitation annually, and are formed when regional climate changes result in long-lasting drought conditions.
Savannas have year-round warm temperatures and two distinct seasons. These are:
- A very long dry season (winter) that typically starts with a series of violent thunderstorms followed by strong dry winds.
- A very wet season (summer) where a significant amount of rainfall occurs for just a few months each year. In the Southern Hemisphere this rainy season is typically October to March, and in the Northern Hemisphere April to September.
In particular, East Africa’s grasslands making up the Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystem is considered the largest savanna on Earth, and home to literally millions of grazers (wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle), and the many thousands of predators that hunt them. To go on safari in East Africa’s savanna is about as authentic it gets for a traditional safari experience with multiple regular wildlife sightings guaranteed.
With this in mind, let’s look at 15 of the most iconic savanna animals in Africa:
Aardvarks live throughout Africa, south of the Sahara. Their name comes from South Africa’s Afrikaans language and means ‘earth pig’. Being nocturnal, they spend the hot African afternoons resting in their cool underground burrows, and nighttimes foraging in grasslands and forests for termites.
African bush elephant
The African elephant (Loxodonta africana) is the largest and heaviest land animal in the world, weighing up to 6 tonnes. Their distinguishing features include the unique and dexterous elephant trunk, large ears that cool the body when flapped, and elongated incisors in the form of tusks. There are actually two species of African elephant – the African bush elephant and the smaller African forest elephant. Both are herbivores that live in large groups, whilst the African bush elephant is the larger of the two species, and typically the species referred to as a member of the big five animals.
A bull elephant can be dangerous, as can herds or mothers with young elephants. Keep your distance from them, and if in a vehicle ensure that you have the means to drive away forwards – elephants can run faster than a car can reverse. An elephant flapping its ears, kicking up dust and/or trumpeting is probably about to charge.
Group name: Herd
Size: Up to 3.3 meters tall, weighing 6,000kg.
Speed: Up to 40 km per hour.
Diet: Elephants are vegetarians, eating up to 160kg per day, made up of savannah grasses, bushes, small plants, fruit, twigs, tree bark, and roots.
Range & Habitat: African Elephants are found across sub-Saharan Africa – from Mali in the north, through the central and west African forests, down to South Africa. They are adaptable animals, capable of surviving in many habitats, from lush wetlands to arid deserts.
Best places to see African Elephant: Addo Elephant Park, South Africa, Chobe National Park, Botswana, Etosha National Park, Namibia, Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
Caracal (meaning ‘black ears’ in Turkish) are common across Africa, and also native to the Middle East, and parts of Asia and India. They are characterized by their stocky body on long legs, tufted ears, and uniform sandy colour. At 0.5 meters tall they weigh in at just 12 kg, and spectacular acrobats, able to leap 3 m into the air.
Group name: Coalition.
Size: 0.9 metres, weighing up to 72kg.
Speed: With a maximum speed of 92 kilometers per hour, the cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world.
Diet: Cheetahs hunt small and medium-sized mammals such as hares, impalas, wildebeest calves, and gazelles, either on their own or in small family groups.
Range & Habitat: Cheetahs are found in Eastern and Southern Africa (though are also found in Iran and Afghanistan), generally confined to very small, fragmented habitats of savanna, dry and scrub forests and grasslands.
The eland is one of the African savanna’s most enduring savanna animals. The largest of the antelope family, the animal is remarkable for its striking coat and impressive, ox-like build. Elands make a peculiar clicking sound that can be heard from a mile away, the source of which is a subject of some debate. Some believe it’s produced by the eland’s legs, with others believing it’s the eland’s spiral hooves that make the sound.
Perhaps the ultimate icon of the African savanna, the giraffe is an unmistakable land mammal known for its long neck and spotted coat. They were 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 characterised 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.
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 are striped, 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.
Plains zebras play a particularly interesting role in the ecosystem, as they are pioneer gazers, nibbling and feeding on the top-most layer of grass, thereby opening up the grassland for more specialized grazers looking for the short grasses tucked below.
Best places to see zebra: Etosha National Park, Namibia, Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana, Masai Mara in Kenya, Okavango Delta in Botswana, Samara Game Reserve in South Africa, Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Serengeti National Park in Tanzania
The hartebeest, is a large African antelope, also known as a kongoni. With a camouflaged fawn-colour, their most distinctive characteristics are an elongated snout and steeply sloping back. Despite their strange looks, the hartebeest is one of the fastest animals on the savanna, reaching speeds of close to 70 kilometers per hour.
The impala is an animal that you shouldn’t have too much trouble spotting during your safari. The impala has a lovely red coat matched against a white underbelly, which might seem reminiscent of the springbuck, except not as dramatic a contrast between the two.
The impala is sexually dimorphic, which means that the males and females don’t look alike. Where males have horns, the females don’t, and it’s with these lyre-shaped horns that the males fight off their opponents and rivals. The curved arch means the horns become interlocked during a skirmish, potentially saving the male impala from skull damage or serious wounds.
The jackal is a relatively small canid that is found predominantly in Africa, with some species residing in Southeastern Europe and Asia. The African jackal is known as “Mbweha” in Swahili.
At first glance, the jackal looks like a cross between a fox and a German shepherd dog. This is because it has a small face, delicate legs, fluffy tail, and ears that resemble those of a German shepherd.
Group name: Leap.
Size: 1 meter high, weighing up to 100 kg.
Speed: 56 km per hour.
Range & Habitat: Leopards live in more places than any other big cat, and are comfortable in almost any habitat, including deserts, rainforests, woodlands, grassland savannas, mountain, scrub, and swamps. Leopards are one of the few big game species found outside national parks.
Group name: Pride.
Size: 1.2 meters, weighing up to 225kg.
Speed: At a maximum speed of 80 kilometers per hour, the lion is the second fastest land animal in Africa.
Range & Habitat: Lions tend to prefer grassland, savanna, dense scrub, and open woodland. They are found across sub-Saharan Africa, and also in a small part of north-east India.
Best places to see Lion: Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa, Kruger National Park, South Africa, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, Okavango Delta, Botswana.
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, a flightless bird, 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. Fun ostrich fact – they are able to survive without water for days, generating water internally and extracting water from vegetation.
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 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.
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.
Hyenas can adapt to almost any habitat and are found in grasslands, woodlands, savannas, forest edges, sub-deserts, and mountains.
Warthogs are normally found in family groups, where they spend most of their time either looking for food or wallowing in the mud at waterholes. At night they shelter in burrows, entering tail first.
Warthogs have a wide distribution across sub-Saharan Africa, with a preference for open woodland and savannahs, and are not endangered.
African wild dogs live in packs of around 6-20 and are highly intelligent and sociable. One of the most fascinating sights is the bond they display before a hunt; the group begins mingling within the group, vocalising and touching each other, working each other up into a frenzy of excitement. Sadly, these animals are highly endangered
Best places to see wild dogs: Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Kruger National Park in South Africa, Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique, Kwando, Selinda & Linyanti in Botswana, Tswalu Private Wildlife Reserve in South Africa.
Wildebeest are primarily grazers, enjoying the grass, and the occasional shrub and herbs, living in herds of between ten and many thousands. They’re characterized by a long black mane and a beard of hair hanging from the throat and neck, along with their short curved horns, with males weighing up to 250kg.
Their preferred habitat is open grasslands, with their renowned seasonal migration being an optimized survival strategy giving them access to and use of resources over huge areas, minimizing over-grazing during both wet and dry seasons.
African savanna animals list
Above we’ve looked at the most iconic African animals found on the savanna, but there are plenty more we didn’t cover. So here’s a complete list of savanna animals found in Africa:
African helmeted turtle
African rock python
Natal midlands dwarf chameleon
Rock monitor lizard
Southern brown snake
Other savanna mammals
That’s our round-up of African animals of the savanna. What did you think – have you seen any of these animals in the wild, or perhaps there’s an iconic savanna animal you feel we’ve left off this list? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!