Iconic African species

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Guy Mavor looks at some of the best places to see Africa’s much-famed wildlife, from elephants in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve to southern right whales off South Africa’s coast

Of all African animals, elephant are the most social and complex in their relationships, and observing their interactions is magical. Any area capable of sustaining an elephant population will contain many other species. In the truly wild Zakouma National Park in southern Chad, most of the remaining 450 elephants come together in the dry season for safety and due to dwindling water and vegetation, and move as one spectacular herd. Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is well known for its large herds, while Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve is home to Save the Elephants. The elephants here are among the most-studied and relaxed on the continent, and a drive with a guide who knows them well is a revelation. Remote but magical is Dzanga Bai in Dzanga-Sangha Reserve, located in the south-west of the Central African Republic; it is a vast clearing in the rainforest where large groups of forest elephant gather to socialise. This is alongside western lowland gorillas, although the best place to see a habituated population of gorillas is Ngaga Camp in Congo. For sheer numbers of elephant, a boat trip along the Chobe River in Botswana in the dry season (May-September) is hard to beat. Finally, not as wild, but easily accessible with a small car and budget is Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth in South Africa. If you visit during a heat wave in February or March, you have a chance of seeing most of the park’s 300 elephants around waterholes and pumps.

Placid white rhino grazing against a backdrop of flamingos is a highlight of Lake Nakuru National Park in Kenya, while the best chance of a prolonged sighting of black rhino is at night, at the floodlit waterhole of Okaukuejo in Namibia’s Etosha National Park.

Watching lions at rest is fascinating, especially with cubs around. But the Linyanti and Savuti areas of Chobe National Park in Botswana are particularly interesting for their super-prides of day-hunting lions, habitually charging in numbers at larger prey, chiefly buffalo, who like to charge back. Ruaha National Park in Tanzania also has giraffe and elephant hunters. Otherwise, prides of tree-climbing lion can be found in the south of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, and the lean black-maned lions of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park are among the most photogenic, and are visible from park roads.

Other carnivores
Head to the Serengeti for cheetah, or Kruger National Park’s central plains, which is also a good environment for African wild dog. Near-guaranteed sightings of leopards can be had at many reserves with guides who know their environment well. Londolozi in South Africa is the best of these. Otherwise, if you’ll pardon the pun, they are hard to spot. Crocodiles are too, unless you are watching a mass wildebeest crossing at the Mara River in Kenya…

Meeting the cousins
Feeling a connection with our closest cousins, be it chimpanzees at Gombe and Mahale Mountains National Parks in Tanzania, or mountain gorillas on the western borders of Rwanda and Uganda, is a lifetime highlight for many. A more distant cousin, in arguably more spectacular scenery, is the gelada, best seen in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains National Park, which is also home to the very rare Ethiopian wolf.

Offshore giants
Other African giants include southern right whales, which put on a spectacular free show for crowds on the clifftops of Hermanus in South Africa from July-November. The large dunes and quiet beaches of De Hoop Nature Reserve, a further two hours from Cape Town, are also a good viewing point. Close to Hermanus is Gansbaai: Africa’s great white shark cage-diving capital.

Large birds and larger colonies
An ostrich pair emerging from a heat shimmer in Etosha’s vast saltpan will unnerve you, as will the slow movements of the enormous shoebill storks of Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetlands. Massive breeding colonies of beautiful southern carmine bee-eaters, as well as huge pools of muddy hippos, can be seen in South Luangwa National Park further east, as the Luangwa River noticeably diminishes in August. Finally, the noise of a sociable weaver colony, in southern Namibia, or the African Penguin colony at Boulders Beach in Cape Town, is extraordinary.

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