Wildlife in South Africa: the animals you can see

From the Big Five to the Little Five and everything in between, we look at the animals you might see on the plateaus, in the sky or out to sea in South Africa.

By Saga team

Published 14 May 2024

Undoubtedly one of the biggest pulls, aside from the sandy coastlines and warm weather, is South Africa’s staggering variety of wildlife.

Experience the adventure of seeing animals that you’ve only previously heard about in books or seen on the television or behind bars in the zoo; from the land to the sea and skies, South Africa is teeming with wildlife and if you have a bucket list, then a trip to this beautiful country for a safari should be on it.

The Big Five was a phrase originally used by hunters to indicate the big game animals, but this term is now used by many as their must-see list on a safari holiday:

  • Lion

  • Buffalo

  • Rhinoceros

  • Elephant

  • Leopard

However, there's a lot more to the wildlife of South Africa than the Big Five. The catalogue of fantastic species you can see is frankly exhaustive. Prepare to be awed by wildlife such as:

  • Zebra

  • Crocodile

  • Giraffe

  • Hippopotamus

  • Cheetah

  • Hyena

  • Wildebeest

  • Aardvark

  • Wild dog

  • Otter

  • Meerkats

  • Springbok

  • Kudu

  • Baboon

  • Leatherback turtle

  • Penguin

  • Great white shark

You never know what you might witness just around the corner on safari in South Africa, or what you might spot along the coastline.

Did you know?

The national animal of South Africa is the springbok (Antidorcas marsupials), an antelope with a distinctive black horizontal stripe along its sides and face. It's closely related to the gazelle, but distinguished by its white hair on the back which becomes visible when 'stotting' or 'pronking' - jumping up with four legs off the ground simultaneously. It's this pouch that gives the springbok its Latin name from marsupium (pocket).

For the ambitious, there is another South African wildlife spotting challenge: the Little Five.

This list involves life in miniature, with the elephant shrew, the ant lion, the buffalo weaver, the rhinoceros beetle and the leopard tortoise making the cut.

Keep your wits sharp and your eyes sharper by trying to tick these tiny creatures off your list of animals to see in South Africa.

Keen ornithologists will be lost to their binoculars as they try to identify the striking hornbill, the kingfisher and the colourful lilac-breasted roller.

For those with less birdwatching expertise, there will be large birds like the roaming ostrich and exciting species including various types of eagles and vultures.

Majestic cranes, such as the blue crane – South Africa’s national bird—are handsome and sightings are common.

Along South Africa's coastline you can see the charming African penguin. They can be seen year-round but their peak breeding season is March to May. These birds can be spotted in Cape Town, where their numbers have been rapidly growing - a stark contrast to their numbers elsewhere in the country, which have fallen over 95% since pre-industrial times, unfortunately earning the African penguin a spot on the endangered species list.

If you head out to sea, you might just spot the famed albatross, the bird with the longest wingspan in the world, and the fabled good luck charm of sailors.

The best place to see pelagic birds would be to head for the cape, or if you do venture north towards Kruger National Park keep your eyes peeled for inland birdlife.

When people visit the wilds of South Africa it's often to see the land animals, but frequently forgotten is that the South African coastline is rich with sea life.

Encounter the ancient and enigmatic great white shark, unchanged over millions of years of evolution.

There's also a good chance you will catch a glimpse of whales off the South African coast, since the country provides a detour for many migrating species.

The most commonly spotted whale in the area is the southern right whale, but you’re in with a chance of witnessing Bryde’s whale, and the gentle giant of the sea – the humpback whale – too.

If you're very lucky, you may even spot the distinctive black and white features of an Orca pod.

Famously curious, dolphins are frequently spotted off the South African coastline as well.

If you head to the Rainbow Nation, don’t neglect its varied and awe-inspiring sea life. Take a boat trip out to sea, or tour the southern waters for your best chance of spotting these majestic animals.

Want to see the Big Five for yourself? Explore our range of South Africa holidays and safaris.

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