Wildlife of South Africa
Perhaps more than any other feature, South Africa is known for its magnificent wildlife.
The BIG 5
The big five are the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana), the African Buffalo (also known as the Cape Buffalo; Syncerus caffer), the Rhinoceros (Black Rhino = Diceros bicornis; White Rhino = Ceratotherium simum), the Lion (Panthera leo), and the elusive Leopard (Panthera pardus).
Each of the Big 5 animals has a unique story and individual characteristics and behaviors.
It is a skillful hunter with incredible power and speed. Its eyesight is like no other, and it also has an excellent hearing and sense of smell.
Lions are also highly social animals. In the lion family, male lions eat first, yet it is the females that do most of the hunting.
Once the male has satisfied its appetite, the females join the feast, whilst cubs have to content themselves with any leftover.
Known as the "King of the Jungle”, the African lion is the second largest cat in the world. In contrast to its nickname, lions reside in grassy, open savannahs, not in dense vegetation. The lion is one of the most sought-after trophies of all the Big 5 game animals. Lions are social creatures and live together in groups called prides of up to 30 lions. Lions in each pride look after one another and use their roar as a means of communication. A lion’s roar can be heard up to 5 miles away! There are estimated to be less than 20,000 lions left in the world
As the most elusive of the Big 5 animals, a sighting of an African leopard is considered to be very special. Their preferred environment is rocky landscapes with dense brush and forests. However, leopards are known to be very adaptive creatures and are also spotted elsewhere. Leopards come out at night to hunt, and spend their days resting in the safety of tree branches, which they use as their lofted homes.
African Elephants are the biggest animal in the Big 5 group
A pair of elephants at a watering hole in Namibia
While the African elephant is the largest animal on this list as well as the largest land animal on earth, unfortunately, it also the most highly threatened by poachers who deal in the illegal ivory business.
Elephants are native to 37 African countries with a current world population of 415,000. Sadly, 8% of elephants are poached every year. Like leopards, the only predators of the African elephant are humans. Global climate change is also becoming a threat as the savannahs African elephants call home are becoming increasingly hotter and drier, making survival more difficult. The IUCN lists them as ‘vulnerable’.
Cape Buffaloes are one of the big five animals in Africa The most dangerous of them all, extremely feared by hunters. Buffaloes are approached easily when in large herds, but solitary bulls can be quite tricky to handle. Better left alone.
Usually considered the most dangerous of the five to hunt due to its unpredictable behavior, the Cape buffalo is nicknamed “Black Death” and the “Widowmaker”. The Cape buffalo has few predators, namely humans and lions, and will fiercely defend itself if threatened. They are sometimes reported as killing more humans than animals. The Cape buffalo is also the most plentiful and is not on any threatened, vulnerable, or endangered list. Their current population is 900,000, with 4 different sub-species, and 75% of the population exists in protected reserves.
There are two types of rhinos in Africa: the black rhino with its distinctive prehensile lip (which makes it a browser), and the white rhino (not white at all), a typical grazer.
Rhinos are also heavy creatures, weighing between 1000 kg (for the black species) and up to 2000 kg (white rhino). As with elephants, rhinos are widely poached for their horns.
Ninety-eight percent of Black Rhinos live in four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. Like lions, Rhinos live in grasslands, but also open savannahs. Rhinos are incredibly strong and thick animals, though surprisingly they can reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour! There are only 29,500 Rhinos left on earth, with 70% of them living in South Africa.
Wildlife in South Africa is abundant, with almost 300 mammal species.
There are several animal species that are among the world’s tallest, fastest or even tiniest animals such as the majestic giraffe, the speedy cheetah or the tiny pygmy shrew.
Several animal species are endangered such as the African wild dogs, the oribi or the rhino which is hunted for its horn. Many wild animals are kept and protected in national parks or private game reserves. Carnivores became particularly dominant in Africa during the past 3 million years as climate changes led to the development of large swathes of savanna grassland over the continent. This led to the arrival of many new species of animals, particularly large herds of grazers that depended on safety in numbers rather than their ability to hide from predators.
Predators, in turn, relied more on collaborative hunting to generate a surplus of food. How the surplus was disposed created hierarchies and strengthened social bonds. Because there was more food than the parents could consume, carnivore offspring could remain part of the family unit for a longer time, thereby increasing their chances of survival.
The dominant large mammal predators in South Africa are lions, hyaenas, leopards, cheetah and wild dogs, each of which occupy slightly different habitats or ecological niches that are suited to their food acquisition needs.
Grazers, such as buffalo, depend on the grass for their nutrition while browsers, like the giraffe, have a diet based around leaves.
In times of drought when grasses disappear, the distinction between the two can become blurred, as animals will eat any nutritious plant that they can.
Generally, grazers need water at least every two days while browsers get most of their moisture needs from eating green leaves and are less dependent on regular water intake.
Grazing species often eat different parts of the grass and, therefore, do not compete directly for food. There is also inter-species communication relating to water - wildebeest are very responsive to rain and can sense it falling up to 25km away, and thus often lead other animals to water and fresh grazing.
Grazing animals also help rejuvenate the veld by eating the grass. Buffalo, in particular, play an important role in sustaining the quality of grass. Because they can digest long, fibrous grasses, they often clean up old grazing areas and open the way for new growth.
Zebra and wildebeest appear to have a close social relationship, and of all the grazers appear most prone to seasonal migration.
Elephants, too, are conservationists, despite their reputation as being destructive, wasteful eaters. They can consume up to 250kg of grass and leaves a day, much of which is recycled into the environment. Many seeds are germinated by passing through the digestive system of the elephant, while the dung is also a handy source of manure for the veld.
Warthogs help aerate the soil when they use their tusks to root about for bulbs or rhizomes.
Just as grazers can co-exist on the same grassland, browsers also eat different parts of the same trees. The top feeders are obviously the giraffe, which can reach leaves that are five metres or more off the ground. They are adaptable browsers which feed on 70% of the tree species in Kruger, but favour acacias and combretum species which make up half their diet.
Giraffe lose condition during winter because these trees drop their leaves, and they are forced to eat less palatable evergreens. These animals like the flatlands of the savanna but can be seen on the rocky slopes of the Lebombo. That's usually a sign of the first spring flush in the acacias and combretums.
Elephants, too, go crazy for new growth, often knocking trees over to get at new leaves. This is often of benefit to smaller browsers as food that is beyond their normal reach becomes available closer to the ground.
Elephants, which weigh up to five tons, stand about three metres off the ground, but can compete with giraffe for the top end of the browsing market because of their trunks, which can be up to two metres long. The main browsers are kudu, duiker, klipspringer, bushbuck, nyala and rhino.
Kudus are found in herds of between six and 20 cows accompanied by a dominant male or two. Most kudu bulls, therefore, live in separate bachelor herds.
A giraffe's height - up to 5,5m - makes it physically difficult for this animal to drink and sleep. Giraffes, therefore, usually sleep standing up, although they do lie down on occasion. They are the ultimate light sleepers, snatching extremely short doses of consistent rest. Some experts believe that a giraffe sleeps for only about 24 minutes in a 24-hour period! Giraffe have loose social structures and herds can vary in size - even on a daily basis.
Giraffe herds have a constantly changing leadership of both males and females. They are territorial, ranging over an area of between 20km and 70km, depending on the availability of food. The solitary giraffe one often sees in Kruger are usually rather pungent-smelling old males which can no longer attract females.