Ten Top Tips for Spotting Wildlife on a Safari in Africa
By Philip Briggs | Updated March 09, 2021
Wildlife documentaries that condense months of patient fieldwork into an action-filled highlights package can create unrealistic expectations of an African safari. Tightly-framed lion and cheetah kills, for instance, start to come across as everyday fare in televisionland, but it is very unusual to witness that kind of thing in the flesh, let alone to be able to video or photograph it to a professional standard.
So, when you go on an African safari, how can you ensure that you have the best possible wildlife viewing? Well, to some extent, luck is a decisive factor – as any experienced safarigoer knows, a route that throws up great sightings on one day can be absolutely dead the next. But as with most things in life, it’s also true that the more you persevere and engage, the luckier you’re likely to get. Wildlife spotting is not a passive activity, and the tips below should help first-time visitors to Africa get the most from their safari experience.
Get an early start
The most productive time for game viewing is the early morning. Park rules permitting, we always try to head off about 30 minutes before sunrise in order to catch the first light. This is the best time to see carnivores in action: leopards pacing through the undergrowth, lions hunting, hyenas greeting, or cubs and pups at their most endearingly playful. Other advantages of being out early include the wonderfully photogenic ‘golden light’ that illuminates the bush for 30 minutes or so after the sun rises, and the unparalleled level of bird activity associated with the dawn chorus.
Don’t leave it all to the guide
On a guided game drive, it might be tempting to sit back, enjoy the ride, and let your experienced guide and/or tracker do all the work. That would be a mistake. Although most guides have excellent spotting skills, nobody can be look in every direction at once, especially when they’re also navigating a bumpy and unpredictable dirt track. If you’re in a vehicle with an open roof, try to spend as much time as possible standing rather than sitting: you’ll be more alert that way, and the additional elevation is a significant advantage.
Listen out for alarm calls
Monkeys, baboons, guineafowl and certain antelope are among the most vocal of those animals that react to the presence of a predator with an alarm call. Even if you don’t recognize the actual call, any seemingly inexplicable agitation on the part of one of these animals might indicate that a lion, leopard or cheetah is skulking close by. Antelope such as impala or Uganda kob often stare hard in the direction of the perceived threat, which helps locate the predator that’s worrying them.
Look out for other clues
Experienced guides use several visual clues to help them find wildlife. Circling vultures, for instance, often indicate the presence of a fresh kill that might still have lions or other large carnivores in attendance. Bearing in mind that many animals use manmade roads to travel through the bush, especially when the grass is wet, a trail of fresh pawprints on a muddy or sandy track might well lead you to the animal that created it.
Make use of binoculars
Even a small pair of light binoculars will greatly enhance your safari experience. In addition to allowing you to look more closely at colorful birds or distant mammals, binoculars can be used to scan the bush from elevated viewpoints to see animals that might not be visible to the naked eye.
Stop at watering points
It is always worth taking a break at any lake, reservoir or river you happen to pass. Sit for a few minutes, and you might be surprised at what reveals itself: a submerged hippo breaking the surface, a crocodile lurking on the opposite bank, or a brightly colored kingfisher or bee-eater darting out to catch an insect. Most animals need to drink at least once daily, which means that a patient vigil might be rewarded by the sudden arrival of a thirsty herd of elephants, buffaloes or zebras. Permanent watering points tend to be busiest in the dry season, and activity usually peaks from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, depending to some extent on how hot it is.
Don’t obsess on the Big Five
It is all too easy to make every game drive about trying to tick the iconic Big Five of elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard and rhino. But this can be a limiting and frustrating approach to wildlife watching. The bush is alive with so many other fascinating creatures – colorful birds and butterflies, comical warthogs and ostriches, scuttling lizards and ponderous tortoises, sociable mongooses and industrious dung beetles, mischievous monkeys and graceful antelope – that you’ll seldom go more than a few minutes on a game drive without a novel encounter of some sort. It’s understandable that first-time visitors to Africa are desperate to see lions, elephants and so on, but far healthier to enjoy whatever you do see than to worry about what you might be missing. Guided game walks, where they are offered, provide a particularly good opportunity to switch your focus to the ‘small stuff’.
Stay out as late as you can
While early morning is usually the best time for wildlife viewing, late afternoon also tends to be very rewarding, both for wildlife sightings and for appealing photographic light. Animals that retreat into the shade during the midday heat often start to become more active an hour or so before sunset. Lions especially tend to be idle to the point of immobility for much of the day, but will move around and greet each other towards dusk (for which reason it’s often worth returning to check on any pride encountered earlier in the day). Particularly in overcast weather, the nocturnal likes of leopard, genet and civet might be mobile before dark.
Stay alert after dark
Don’t switch off when the sun does. If your camp or lodge overlooks a watering point, there’s a good chance you’ll see some interesting wildlife come to drink at night. It’s also worth asking management whether any nocturnal creatures – for instance, genets or bushbabies – regularly hang around camp or visit specific feeding points after dark.
Be a considerate traveler
Whether you self-drive or join an organized safari, avoid any activity that needlessly disturb the wildlife or has a negative ecological impact. Obviously, this means no littering or throwing lit matches or cigarette butts into the bush. Other actions to be avoided include feeding wild animals, driving too close to hunting predators, provoking elephants into a mock charge, or hooting or yelling at grazing antelopes to make them look at the camera. It’s also very important to keep quiet at any sensitive sighting: screeching excitedly at the top of your voice or bellowing questions at the driver may well chase off a timid animal and spoil the encounter for others.