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Maneuvering along sandy, unpaved tracks, keeping eyes peeled and listening for warning calls, your skin will tingle as you search for elusive African safari animals. Whether it’s locating stealthy, well-camouflaged cheetahs skulking through the grass, or finding an elephant herd tossing mud on themselves at a watering hole, the astute and eagle-eyed guides optimally position you for these unforgettable experiences.
Embrace backlighting with African safari animals
Setting out early in the morning and late in the afternoon for safari coincides with wildlife’s most active times and soft golden light. While dust bombards your cameras and infiltrates every crevice in your open-air vehicle, it also leads to intoxicating sunsets.
PRO TIP: Embrace backlighting and shoot into the sun to capture rim light around African safari animals’ silhouettes.
Witness National Geographic moments
Encountering Cindy, a female cheetah, devouring an impala as her cub diligently chased away brazen jackals made for a quintessential National Geographic scene. Sneaking up behind her, the bold risk takers would race forward to snatch the coveted delicacy. Outnumbering her three to one, they strategically distracted her cub, which feverishly pursued them, banking around corners with incredible precision.
Resting after the chase, the inexperienced cub found itself in the path of wildebeests, a vulnerable position. Worried about a potential stampede, mum stopped savoring her hard-won kill and relocated next to the cub, providing the perfect opportunity for the defiant interlopers to move in. Shortly after, eagles and vultures surrounded the kill from above. Once Cindy moved the cub out of harm’s way, they snuggled and groomed one another.
PRO TIP: To make sure you don’t miss pivotal, frenzied moments, set your camera to high speed continuous and use a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. To be prepared for a chase, shoot manual and expose for the scene in advance.
Seek out alternative perspectives for African safari animals pictures
Having previously seen a picture isolating an elephant trunk with falling water droplets framed by elephant toenails, I wondered aloud to my Zimbabwe tour leader, Lauren Bath, where I could photograph a similar scene. Grinning ear to ear, she excitedly whispered to me “It’s one of the surprises I have in store for you!” Although I’d seen this perspective from a few famous wildlife photographers, I never thought it accessible to anyone other than National Geographic.
Unbeknownst to me, staying at Imvelo Safari’s Camelthorn Lodge in Hwange National Park provides private access to a unique vantage point – an underground elephant hide made from an old shipping container camouflaged beneath dead trees. Attracted by the watering hole, massive bull elephants quench their thirst right in front of you! Imagine examining their toenails as the largest land mammals daintily cross their feet and flap their enormous ears to cool themselves while gleefully suctioning water within a few feet of you.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know their dexterous trunks have 40,000 muscles as compared to only 650 in the human body?
PRO TIP: Shoot low speed continuous to capture them slurping the water. To vary your point of view, bring two camera set ups – a wide angle (16-35) + zoom (200-500). Get creative and shoot detailed water droplets, the trunk finger, and elephant eyelashes. Since you typically spend a couple of hours stationary in the hide, this is also the ideal scenario for iPhone or GoPro time-lapse videos. Just don’t accidentally knock yours out of the hide like I did (oopsie).
Marvel at family interactions
With only 7,500 cheetahs remaining in the wild, they are one of the rarest African safari animals. Not only are their coats gorgeous, but they also allow them to easily camouflage and slyly observe and surprise potential prey. Imagine encountering a mum and 12 month-old cub lounging in soft, early morning light right next to your vehicle as the long grass whispers in the wind.
Keenly attuned to sounds around them, their ears twitch as they listen for animals in the vicinity. Alternating between yawning, stretching and playing, they lounge, and then chase one another through the grass. Leaping onto a tree provides an elevated vantage point for mum to scan the horizon, scouting their next meal. Whenever the cub moves out of her line of sight, she chirps, signaling it to return.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know the dark teardrops under cheetahs’ eyes serve the same purpose as eye black used by football and baseball players – to decrease glare. And, the white at the end of their tails helps cubs follow mum in tall grass.
Watch African wild dogs’ extraordinary teamwork
While watching predators stalk their prey is riveting, witnessing an actual kill can be heart wrenching. After receiving a call that wild dogs were in the area, our Botswana guide turned to us with a huge smile. Given that fewer than 7000 of this stunning species remain in Africa, guides are giddy to see them too.
Maneuvering at break-neck speed, he encouraged us to duck as he plowed through branches in pursuit. Shortly after arriving, the dogs repositioned into a fighter jet formation and began aggressively chasing a steenbok (small antelope).
Literally eating it alive as it ran, the poor steenbok was nothing but dust in fewer than two minutes. While evading these precision hunters is daunting for prey, the thrilling chase highlights the admirable teamwork these clever safari animals exhibit as they expertly conspire and flank their target as it races through the tall grass.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Alpha females lead these formidable packs. To learn more about them, check out Painted Dog Conservation.
Cherish sentient elephants
Elephants are incredibly tactile, constantly caressing and comforting one another with their trunks. Always alert, experienced and enormous matriarchs lead with another large auntie protecting from behind, assisting the little ones if they stumble.
Upon detecting a threat, the herd forms a protective barricade around the calves. Flaring their ears, raising their trunks and bellowing typically signals a potential charge towards a predator or vehicle, often the result of venturing too close to babies.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know that baby elephants are small enough to fit beneath their mothers’ bellies until they are six months old, providing them much needed protection from the sun and potential predators?
PRO TIP: To learn more about their social structures and intelligence, read Love Life and Elephants, The Elephant Whisperer or its sequel, the Elephant in My Kitchen. To see firsthand the amazing work that two organizations have done to aid orphaned elephants, visit Wild is Life in Harare, Zimbabwe or Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya. Read more about my touching experiences at Wild is Life, witnessing tiny baby elephant, Limpopo’s, and Marimba’s, a rescued pangolin, antics.
Capture hippos out of the water
Did you know that hippos are considered one of Africa’s most dangerous animals? 500 people die from hippos each year in Africa. Despite appearing slow and lumbering, they can be lightning quick, especially if protecting their calves.
Since they spend most of the time wallowing and submerged in water to stay cool, they usually only emerge at dusk to forage. While in Bumi Hills, Zimbabwe, we were fortunate to witness one running back into the water after munching on grass at the lake’s edge, just as the sun was setting and reflecting on the water.
PRO TIP: To convey motion, capture wildlife with one leg forward. If a hippo is yawning or running, setting your camera to high speed continuous will provide a great series from which to choose.
Observe giraffes’ grace
Giraffes are most vulnerable when bending down for a drink. As a result, they check their surroundings carefully before satiating their thirst. Photographing their majestic necks against fluffy marshmallow clouds, accentuates their beauty and height.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Giraffes’ blue/purple tongues are due to high concentrations of melanin, which people believe protects them from getting sunburned.
Admire kudus’ elegant horns
Watching light and shadows interplay on kudu horns is mesmerizing. Acutely aware of potential predators, their ears are sensitized to the slightest sounds. Since they tend to move in a synchronized fashion, with the entire herd turning towards you once they detect you, wait for them to pivot to capture the delicate pink inside their towering rabbit-like ears.
Pay respects to Cecil the Lion
Although I had never traveled to Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and seen Cecil the Lion prior to him being heartlessly hunted, learning of his death impacted me greatly. Hearing that this beloved, radio-collared lion was lured from the game reserve, shot with a bow and arrow by a trophy hunter US dentist in July 2015, and left to suffer overnight saddened and infuriated me. Having the opportunity to pay respect to him at his tree on the Elephant Express enroute to Hwange meant a lot.
PRO TIP: To learn more about Cecil, read Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Iconic Cats.
Since I’d never seen a radio-collared lion before, I found it fascinating and fortuitous that I encountered one on my second day in Hwange. Watching him and his brother lounging in the late afternoon light, startling a young elephant and then snuggling and yawning was the perfect way to end our first full Zimbabwe safari day. Appearing lethargic and well fed the next morning, we assumed they killed a young buffalo from the herd they’d been tailing the night before.
Spot elusive leopards
Spotting the shy and elusive leopard is a rare treat. While in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, one sashayed past our vehicle and then leapt on to a dead tree to survey the landscape, providing the perfect angle for this photogenic beauty.
On our last night in Zimbabwe, during a night drive back to our camp, our guide spotted a leopard’s eyes as he panned across the horizon with his red spotlight. Elated at this coveted discovery, he excitedly hushed us, whispering that he’d last seen one six months before.
Despite watching it skulk through gulleys in pursuit of impala for 45 minutes, we didn’t see it make a kill, which secretly pleased me.
Admire lilac breasted rollers’ striking colors
Vibrant and iridescent colors make the lilac breasted roller one of the most popular safari birds in Africa. Constantly pruning their feathers and flitting from tree to tree can make them challenging to photograph.
Beware of buffalos
We’ve had more than one guide indicate they find buffalos the most fearsome of the Big Five.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know the Big Five classification originally denoted the most dangerous animals for hunters to pursue on foot?
Stampeding buffalo are dangerous for young safari animals, proving fatal for cubs lurking in the grass. Therefore, female lions tend to steer clear of provoking them, especially if they don’t have others in the pride to help them with a kill. While buffalos often give no warning and just begin charging, snorting can indicate displeasure.
PRO TIP: Buffalo have a symbiotic relationship with certain birds, so wait for them to land on their horns to photograph them.
Respect crocodiles’ tenacity
During the Great Migration from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, wildebeest and zebra must navigate across rivers, teeming with crocodiles. Witnessing crocodiles erupting from the water as the wildebeests hopscotch across tops many people’s bucket lists.
Earn your stripes
Zebra’s striped patterns are as unique as a human fingerprint. Experts theorize their stripes also deter pesky biting flies, prevalent throughout the African savannah.
FUN AFRICAN ANIMALS FACTS: Did you know that their skin provides cooling benefits since the black and white stripes absorb and reflect light differently? And, a group of them is referred to as a dazzle.
Hyenas are no laughing matter
While many safari goers are not huge fans of hyena adults, the pups are endearing. The strongest female in the group leads these matriarchal clans. Unlike the team-oriented wild dogs, the older hyenas are very possessive about kills, snarling and squealing to chase younger ones away until they have their fill.
PRO TIP: Check out Serengeti on Discovery for some great stories about a hyena clan.
Immerse in mountain gorillas’ human similarities
Observing one of the 1000 mountain gorillas remaining in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo will remind you how much human DNA they share. Watching Silverbacks beating their chests to assert their dominance, babies cuddling with mums or rambunctious juveniles swinging amongst the branches will entrance you. While an hour will fly by, it will be one of the most memorable and heartwarming experiences of your life. Use my detailed guide to help you plan your Rwanda trip.