10 Fascinating South African Animals to Encounter

South African Animals Pin

Here’s a secret nobody tells you:

When you visit South Africa, you don’t necessarily need to go on a safari in Kruger Park to encounter South African wildlife.

In this article, I’ll tell you where and how you can see 10 fascinating South African animals.

Because the truth is, you’ll find game reserves and sanctuaries scattered all over the country. There, you can learn plenty about the animals’ habits, and the dangers they face. You can also get close to them without the fear of being attacked.

On top of that, you can observe many astonishing South African animals at the beach or on the side of the road.

Ready to discover South Africa’s wildlife?

Let’s explore!

Short on time? Here’s my top recommendation for seeing South African animals:

🐘 The Best 2-Day Game Safari from Cape Town, South Africa 🐘

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The 10 Most Fascinating South African Animals to Encounter

Whether you want to experience a meeting with the Big 5 or the Shy 5,

…encounter funny-looking South African animals on your own,

…or even touch some of the largest animals on the planet,

…in this section, you’ll find all the tips you need to know for having an awesome wildlife experience.

1. The Giant African Elephants, the Easiest to Spot of the Big 5

Young Male Elephants
Young elephant bulls roaming together

As you can imagine, you won’t be able to spot the Big 5 South African animals at the side of the road. But if you think Kruger Park or a private game reserve are the only places to see them, you’re wrong.

Sanctuaries rescue elephants from circuses, private zoos, or the wilderness. The animals have been mistreated or injured and could not have survived on their own. In the sanctuary, they’re not simply fed but taught to take care of themselves.

The greatest wild animal encounter I had in South Africa was with an elephant lady. She was rescued after her trunk had been injured.

African elephants use their trunks as a multifunctional tool. They breathe through it, they grab things such as food with it, and they use it as a hammer.

Walking With Trunk In Hand With An Elephant
Walking trunk in hand with an elephant lady

The elephant’s trunk was caught in a trap and it was badly injured so the end had to be amputated. She was then brought to the sanctuary where she learned through exercising to suck things instead of grabbing them and work around her disability.

The highlight of the visit to the Elephant Sanctuary near Plettenberg Bay on the Garden Route is the walking trunk in hand with the elephant ladies.

Having the trunk gently suck or grab the palm of your hand, feeling the rough skin of the elephants touch you, and the close presence of the giant ladies is an unforgettable experience.

Time needed: approximately one hour.

2. The Proud African Lions and Wild Cats

African Lions Playing
These African lion siblings are not albinos but have a recessive gene that makes their fur white

Have you ever wondered why lions and big cats appear so lazy?

Lions swallow whole chunks of meat without chewing it. They eat once every 3 to 4 days and use the time between meals to digest.

That’s why lions you encounter on safaris look totally uninterested in you. Occasionally, they’ll do something more intriguing than yawning. Like crossing the road to find better shade.

Or attempting to have intercourse with their sibling despite the fact they’ve been castrated.

It is difficult to stumble upon most wild cats in nature, and honestly even in game reserves. If you wish to encounter these South African animals, it makes more sense to visit a wildcat sanctuary. There, you can walk straight into the fenced area of almost every cat and observe it from close proximity.

Time needed: approximately one hour.

3. Meerkats, the Only Diurnal African Animal of the Shy 5

Meerkat Guard
The meerkat guard is difficult to spot from a distance as it perfectly blends with the surroundings

The Shy 5 are not as spectacular or famous as the Big 5 African animals but at least one of their members is more fascinating than you could ever imagine.

The Klein Karoo is one of the few places in South Africa where you can say “Good morning!” to the meerkats.

To see them, you have to wake up hours before sunrise. With a cup of coffee and a folding chair, you’ll be seated before the burrow where the suricates have spent the fading night.

Every evening, the guides have to search the territory to find out in which burrow the meerkat family goes to sleep. Their territory is quite large and they have dug homes at several locations.

If the guides don’t know which burrow exactly the meerkats went to sleep in, they don’t know where to take the tourists the next morning to wait for these incredible South African animals to make their presence.

Good Morning Meerkats
Good morning, meerkats!

However, searching for the meerkats at the end of their hunting day is a challenging task. The way the guides describe it, it’s like looking for a large golden stick in the middle of the dry semi-desert. The stick they spot might or might not be the meerkat guard on duty.

The guides have to stare long enough at the “stick”. If it eventually moves, then it is indeed the meerkat guard and the guides can observe and follow him and the family to the burrow where they’ll spend the night.

If the stick doesn’t move for a long time, then it is unfortunately just a stick. So, the guides have to look for another long object sticking up in the air out of the Klein Karoo ground.

Don’t let the meerkats’ cute looks fool you. These South African animals are known for their cruelty, even towards their own.

Meerkats Playing
Meerkats appear playful but show cruelty not only to their prey but also to their family members

Meerkats live in families and recognize each other by their smell. The family lives and poops together, sleeps and rolls in their excrements, and therefore shares a common scent.

When a male meerkat hits puberty, he starts developing his own scent which differs from the smell of the rest of the family members. The adults chase the teenager away and if he doesn’t get the clue, they might even kill him.

If the young male understands the situation and leaves his family, he needs to start his own. He finds another meerkat family, stands at the border of its hunting territory, and starts shouting. In this way, he draws attention to himself. Unfortunately, he also draws the attention of the predators.

The meerkat family chases the invader away. He starts running but only so fast that they can neither catch him nor lose him. He draws them away from their territory and seduces one of the young females.

The female meerkat now has the scent of the foreigner all over her. She can’t return to her family as they won’t recognize her and will kill her as she’s now an invader for them. She has no other choice but to join the young male and start a family with him.

Time needed: between two and six hours depending on the meerkats’ mood.

4. The Astonishing Flightless and Loud African Penguins

African Penguins
African penguins and cormorants live and hunt together at Boulders Beach

You can observe a colony of the endangered African penguins at Boulders Beach. The flightless birds, also called donkey penguins because of their loud calls resembling the call of a donkey, reside at one of the most beautiful Cape Town beaches.

A few members of the colony venture to the nearby beaches of Simon’s Town as well, so if you don’t want to pay the ticket and walk the wooden pier to Boulders Beach, you can simply watch them there.

But then you’ll miss out on the magnificent sight of thousands of undisturbed African penguins, enjoying the gorgeous white fine-sand beach and going about their everyday life, completely ignoring the presence of the tourists.

Beware that it’s quite windy on the beach. The fine sand in the air will give you a nice natural facial scrub as part of the experience.

Time needed: approximately one hour.

5. The Prettiest Ostriches of the Klein Karoo

Baby Ostrich In The Klein Karoo
Baby ostrich in the Klein Karoo

If you happen to pass through the largest town in the Klein Karoo, Oudtshoorn, make sure to visit an ostrich farm. Oudtshoorn is known as the Ostrich Capital of the World and the ostriches from the Little Karoo are believed to be the prettiest members of their species.

Since the 1860s, farmers have been domesticating, breeding, and hatching ostriches in incubators without decreasing the beauty and the quality of their feathers.

Passing through the Klein Karoo, you’ll see ostrich herds and ostrich farms everywhere. Stop for a visit and you won’t regret spending your time there.

You can cuddle with the cute little ostrich chicks, covered in prickly feathers. You can then feed the always-hungry adult ostriches.

Don’t miss a chance to stand on an ostrich egg. The 2 mm (0.08 in) thick shell is extremely strong and will hold your weight.

However, the highlight of an ostrich farm visit is riding the flightless birds. Not everyone will be brave enough to sit on the back of an ostrich, though. The next best thing is to watch the professionals race on the backs of the ostriches.

Time needed: approximately two hours.

6. The Freely Roaming Monkeys

Monkey Island
This little guy spent a long time curiously investigating our group

Monkey Island near Plettenberg Bay is the first multi-species primate sanctuary where the inhabitants are freely roaming the woods.

During the monkey safaris, you can encounter some of the 550 different species that live there. Capuchin monkeys, ringtail lemurs, black-and-white ruffed lemurs, saki monkeys, squirrel monkeys, vervet monkeys, langurs, howler monkeys, and gibbons are only a few of the inhabitants.

They roam freely and come extremely close to visitors. In fact, sometimes they come so close, that the guides will advise you to take your glasses off so that monkeys don’t grab them off your face!

The walk through the forest trails is amazing but the best comes at the end. You’ll exit the forest via the longest canopy-suspended bridge on the African continent. The 128-m (420-ft.) long construction swings over the tree canopies giving you one last glimpse of the forest and its inhabitants.

Time needed: approximately two hours.

7. The Graceful Camouflaged Giraffes

Mother and baby giraffes

Have you asked yourself what is the purpose of the patterns on the giraffes?

On one hand, they’re the perfect camouflage. On the other, they’re like our fingerprints – a unique identifier for each animal.

Giraffes adapt to the environment they live in. They grow as tall as they need to be in order to feed on the vegetation in the region they were born.

Since the giraffes we observed were living in areas with low shrubs and grass, they were mostly munching on bushes. For this reason, they didn’t need to grow as tall as their relatives who live in the savanna and feed on trees.

Even though these South African giraffes weren’t the tallest members of their species, they were still enormous in our eyes. Just look at the 2-month-old baby in the photo – it’s already around 3 m (10 ft.) tall!

Interestingly, giraffes’ necks have the same number of vertebras as human necks – seven. So you can imagine the size of a single vertebra to result in a neck of several meters.

Many game reserves feature giraffes but the sight of a two-month-old baby giraffe was a true highlight. The little cutie we were lucky to meet and observe from just a few steps distance was born in Botlierskop Private Game Reserve near Mossel Bay.

Time needed: approximately three hours.

8. Sea Snails Munching on Jellyfishes on the Beach

The weird-looking snails seem cute and harmless but are vicious predators

As you can imagine, not all South African wildlife can be found in enclosed quarters. You can stumble upon multiple stunning South African animals free-roaming the streets or the beaches.

You can encounter one of the weirdest-looing African animals on the Indian Ocean’s sand beaches. It’s strange, moves in a peculiar pattern, and leaves fascinating trails. It’s also a scavenger that scents decaying animals from a large distance and feeds in packs.

It’s called Bullia digitalis, a sea snail species.

It was hard telling at first what the tiny South African animals were doing. It looked like they were having sex on the beach – not the cocktail but the activity. Then, we realized there was food involved in the “orgy”.

The sea snails suck the soft tissue of the jellyfish or blue bottles, which are washed by the tide. In an hour or so they can devour a huge jellyfish corpse and make it unrecognisable.

Their movements seem like a slow-motion horse gallop. They spread their foot like a sail and move at a slow pace, leaving fascinating trails on the sand.

9. The Angry Baboons at the Side of the Road

South African Baboons At The Side Of The Road
South African baboons at the side of the road

You’ll see baboons crossing a busy street and you might think to yourself that they’re suicidal. However, these South African animals are extremely smart and can weigh in the risks they take with incredible precision.

The truth is, if you travel around South Africa, you’ll never see a baboon’s carcass on the pavement. They might appear slow or reckless, but they know exactly when to speed up and escape the cars.

If you stop at the side of the road, especially for a picnic or a snack break, make sure you don’t leave your car open or your South African food unattended. Baboons are fast and clever. They will grab your bags and disappear before you can realize what has happened.

Baboons are also strong and can become aggressive in the blink of an eye. So, better keep your distance, don’t try to feed them, and under no circumstances try to pat them – unless you want to lose a finger.

10. Dassies, the Unofficial Mascots of Table Mountain

Dassies on Table Mountain South Africa
Dassies are the unofficial mascots of Table Mountain, South Africa

The rabbit-looking dassies are the South African animals that will probably make you laugh the most. One of the most interesting facts about Table Mountain is that the funny-looking mammals are the unofficial mascot of the landmark.

Despite their looks, dassies are actually a hoofed mammal and a relative of the elephant.

Most tourists, who are lucky enough with the weather and manage to visit the Table Top, see dassies on their visit. While we were blessed with perfect weather for a visit to Table Mountain, we didn’t spot a single dassie.

That’s the problem with the South African wildlife – there’s no guarantee you’ll meet your rodent.

It seems that sometimes not spotting the mascot animal is indeed a rarer experience than spotting one, so we’ll consider ourselves extremely lucky in this situation.

FAQs About the South African Animals

South African Animals
Knowing where and when to go to spot South African animals is crucial

Are South African safaris expensive?

A South African safari doesn’t need to be expensive. There are budget safaris in South Africa to serve every pocket. Alternatively, you can go on a safari drive in a game reserve or visit a sanctuary. You’ll see a lot more free-roaming animals there on a smaller territory. This will not only save you money but also time.

Can you always spot the Big 5 African Animals on a safari?

There’s no guarantee that you’ll spot all Big 5 game animals during a safari. Even if a South African safari is advertised as featuring the Big 5, the chances of seeing all five species (lions, elephants, leopards, water buffalos, and black rhinos) are slim.

Instead of black rhinos, the reserves are usually home to white rhinos. Leopards are active during the night, so they are extremely rare to spot during a daytime safari.

In fact, in a private game reserve near Cape Town, the manager was honest enough to tell us up front that he’s only seen a leopard in the reserve twice in his over 20-year career!

Now You Know Where to Find Fascinating South African Animals

South African Wildlife
You can encounter zebras, giraffes, antelopes, and ostriches up close in a game reserve

There you have it – the most fascinating South African animals and where to spot them.

Stumbling upon South African wildlife is possible not only on a game drive. Sometimes, all you need to do is go to the beach. Other times, it’s much better to visit a wild park or head to a sanctuary. The chances of encountering South African animals are greater there.

No matter what option you prefer, don’t forget to keep your distance from the animals and treat them respectfully. You’re not in the zoo or at the circus, and most accidents with safari animals or wildlife occur due to the recklessness of tourists.

So, tell me now:

Have you been on a safari or visited a sanctuary? What fascinating African animals did you encounter?

Let me know in the comments below.


  1. Wow, what a fauna-diversity! I really enjoyed grinning at these gorgeous creatures as some of them are quite funny :)))

    I want a similar post on the Dominican Republic. It’s also diverse in terms of animal kingdom, isn’t it? :)

    1. Hey Svet, I’m glad you enjoyed the post – it was a tough choice narrowing it down to just 10 African animals!

      As for a similar post on the Dominican Republic, I must disappoint you – nothing much interesting to report. However, the most diverse fausa-wise destination in the world is Costa Rica… and I’ve visited! But it’s again tough to narrow it down and put all amazing experiences in a couple thousand words ;-) So a post about it will go live some day, I just can’t promise you when.


      1. Hey, N, haha, I am sure it was quite daunting a task to compile a list of just 10 animals!

        Yes, you are right, Costa Rica is super diverse! Sooo, I am looking forward to receiving a notification on my e-mail with something sexy about it! <3


  2. Looks like you and the elephant became pretty good friends! Glad the trunk is in your hand!
    And love the penguins! If it were possible, I’d adopt one!

    1. The elephant ladies are astonishing! And you’re not the only one wanting to adopt a penguin ;-) Although on second thought, I think I’d rather adopt the baby giraffe. Or a meerkat… Hm, it’s difficult to choose just one African animal, right!

  3. Seema jain says:

    Amazing collection

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