Ten Oddball Mammals To Look Out For On An African Safari
By Philip Briggs | Updated October 23, 2021
One reason why African safaris are so addictive is that there’s always something new to see. On your first safari, your priorities will doubtless be lions, elephants, giraffes and similarly iconic large mammals. Come back to Africa, and you’ll find yourself paying greater attention to birds, monkeys, antelopes and other small creatures. And once the safari bug has bitten deep, you’ll find that campfire conversations often turn towards more peculiar and seldom-seen creatures such as aardvark, pangolin and honey-badger. Here we look at some of these oddballs, and where best to see them.
Africa’s most outlandish animal, the aardvark is a hefty (up to 150lb) termite-demolition machine that bears so little resemblance to any other living creature it has been placed in its own unique taxonomic order. Adaptions to its dietary niche include large upright ears to locate subterranean movement, powerful foreclaws that enable it to dig into hard soil, and a long snout and tongue used to extract its prey. The aardvark (literally earth-pig) is as elusive as it is peculiar, for which reason it tops the wish list of many seasoned safarigoers.
Where to see aardvarks: Aardvarks forage very late at night, which mean they are seldom seen, even on night drive in suitable habitat. Try South Africa’s Samara or Kwandwe private reserves during July and August, when the Karoo winter nights are so cold that aardvarks often emerge at dusk.
Despite the similar name, the aardwolf (earth-wolf) is totally unrelated to the aardvark, though the two do share a night owl temperament and termite-based diet. An aberrant hyena, the aardwolf is distinguished from its kin by its slight stature, small teeth, black-on-tan striped coat, and capacity to consume 200,000-plus termites in one night. Like the aardvark, the delicately handsome aardwolf features high on the wish list of many experienced safarigoers.
Where to see aardwolves: Sightings can never be guaranteed, but the aardwolf is quite regular on night drives in the Kalahari region. Recommended locations include Madikwe, Pilanesberg and the private Tswalu Game Reserve.
Africa’s most peculiar antelope, the gazelle-like gerenuk is distinguished by the extraordinarily long neck alluded to in its Swahili name ‘swala twiga’ (‘giraffe antelope’). It has a disproportionately tiny head, and the goat-like habit of feeding from acacia trees by standing on its hind legs with neck at full stretch.
Where to see gerenuks: Restricted to dry acacia savanna in East Africa, the gerenuk is most common in Kenya’s Samburu-Buffalo Springs National Reserve. It might also be seen in Tsavo East, Amboseli, Mkomazi and Tarangire.
Among the most unusual of the world’s 35-odd dog species, the bat-eared fox is a dry-country insectivore whose massive rounded ears help it locate the harvester termites and other arthropods on which it feeds. Largely monogamous, it is unique among dogs in that the male is the primary parental carer.
Where to see bat-eared foxes: Small family groups are common in Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.
Okay, so hyraxes don’t look all that peculiar. Like overgrown guinea pigs, as opposed to the dwarfish relicts of an ancient order of horse-sized herbivores they actually are. The closest living relatives of elephants and manatees, hyraxes have an unusually lengthy gestation period (up to eight months) for a small creature, and a primitive internal heat regulator that requires them to spend much of the day sunbathing or huddled in groups. Most hyraxes are quiet, but not so forest-dwelling tree hyrax, whose far-carrying banshee wail ranks among the most spine-chilling sounds of the African night.
Where to see hyraxes: Small family parties commonly bask on exposed boulders in suitable habitat, from Table Mountain and Augrabies Falls to the Serengeti and Maasai Mara.
The aardvark’s main rival as the most eagerly sought African mammal among experienced safarigoers, pangolins are distinguished by their scaled armour plating and habit of rolling up into an artichoke-like ball when disturbed. These unobtrusive nocturnal termite-eaters are the world’s most heavily trafficked animals, and all eight species are IUCN red-listed as Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered, mainly as a result of poaching, both for bushmeat and for their keratin scales, which are used in Chinese medicine.
Where to see pangolins: The secretive nature and nocturnal habits of pangolins means that sightings are extremely rare. I once got lucky in Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, but you might as easily see one in almost any other African reserve.
Giant forest hog
The giant forest hog is the world’s heaviest swine, weighting up to 600lb, with curved footlong tusks, and a hairy blackish coat. A secretive and predominately nocturnal denizen of equatorial rainforest interiors, it eluded science until as recently 1904, when the type specimen was shot in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Where to see giant forest hogs: A reliable site is Serena Mountain Lodge on the slopes of Mount Kenya, where giant forest hogs often emerge at the waterhole after dark. I’ve often seen them by day in the vicinity of the Kazinga Channel in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The honey badger or ratel is a pugnacious medium-sized carnivore with a low slung body, puppyish face, bear-like claws and black coat offset by a grizzled grey back. This versatile and opportunistic feeder has a symbiotic relationship with the greater honeyguide. This is a smallish bird that likes to lead a honey-badger to a beehive, wait for it to tear the nest apart, then feed on the scraps.
Where to see honey-badgers: Honey-badgers occur in most African safari destinations but sightings are infrequent. The only places I’ve seen them are Malawi’s Nyika National Park and Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
We all know that the cheetah is the world’s fastest sprinter, capable of hitting 80 miles/hour in short bursts. It owes this ability to a number of adaptations that make it the most atypical of cats, notably a slight greyhound-like build and non-retractable claws. Unlike other large cats, the cheetah cannot roar; instead it makes a strange chirping call that could easily be mistaken for a bird. Listed as Vulnerable, it has one of the lowest genetic diversities of any living mammal as a result of two population bottlenecks in the past 100,000 years.
Where to see cheetahs: Associated with grassland and other open plains, these skilful hunters are particularly common in Namibia and the Serengeti-Mara. They can also be seen in several private reserves in South Africa
Resembling hedgehogs on steroids, porcupines are 60lb rodents with a quilled coat that makes them practically invulnerable to predators. Contrary to popular legend, porcupine quills are not poisonous nor can they be fired at will, but like the modified hairs they are, they do detach very easily. Porcupines still thrive in many unprotected parts of Africa, where they frequently enter suburban gardens to root out bulbs.
Where to see porcupines: Porcupine quills are frequently seen on bush walks. The animal itself is shy and nocturnal, but might be seen on a night drive in almost any African safari destination – listen out for the distinctive rattling of the quills.