Big Five Watching in East Africa
East Africa is a land of gorgeous landscapes, warm sunsets, proud people, and unforgettable wildlife. Countries like Kenya and Tanzania are world famous for their majestic animals like the monkeys, hyenas, leopards, panthers, and African elephants. Widely regarded as the place where human life originated, Africa is home to many of the world’s best loved and most fascinating animals, as well as to some of its most endangered. East Africa’s celebrated animals are found in its savanna, montane, and tropical and subtropical forest ecosystems. Kenya and Tanzania are considered one of the best places for viewing wildlife in Africa and can easily be combined with neighboring countries such as Rwanda & Uganda.
Many of the species included from pelicans to plovers, ostriches to elephants, from the daintiest of antelopes to cattle like giants, from leopards to lions, baboons to gorillas, chameleons to crocodiles, acacias to aloes also inhabit neighboring countries.
The Big Five
The term, ‘the big five’ was coined during the hunting era and referred to the five animals most desired by the ‘white hunters’. These days, the only hunting that is done of the legendary ‘big five’ is by camera. They are: the elephant, rhino, lion, leopard and buffalo.
The African elephant, the world’s largest land animal
The African elephant lives in small family groups of 10-20 elephants, which often congregate in much larger herds at water or food sources. Elephant society is matriarchal, senior females dominating the herds while the bulls live alone or in bachelor groups.
Depending almost entirely on its trunk for scent and communication, for washing, clearing, carrying, learning, drinking and eating, an elephant’s lifespan (60 -70 years) depends very much on its teeth, which are highly adapted to its mode of living. As one tooth wears away the next moves down the jaw to replace it, and when the last tooth has come forward and is worn down the elephant will die of starvation. Although their sight is poor, elephants have an excellent sense of smell and well-developed hearing.
Where Can You See African elephant in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda?
Elephants are abundant throughout Kenya’s wildlife parks (except Lake Nakuru) but if you want to see some of the biggest herds (and tusks!) in East Africa, head to Amboseli National Park. Magnificent herds of these gentle giants converge to graze and drink at Amboseli’s perennial swamps and lakes. Other parks are Masai Mara, Samburu National Reserve and Meru National Park.
The elephants move across the Serengeti area in large herds during the migration season. The best national park to see the elephants in their glory is Tarangire National Park. It is said to have the biggest population of elephants in Tanzania.
These elephants live in both the grassland and woodland areas of Uganda. Kibale National Park in Uganda is home to many African Bush elephants.
Lion, king of the cats
The lion is the largest of Kenya’s three big cats, weighing up to 280 kg. Inherently lazy, the lion is immensely powerful; at one leap it can clear fences 4 meters high and chasms 12 meters long. Sightings of lions are normally during daylight hours when the pride is at rest, having spent most of the night in hunting, patrolling and playing.
Where Can You See Lion in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda?
Among the Masai Mara wildlife, lions are so prolific that they were the stars of their own BBC nature documentary series, Big Cat Diary. Needless to say, the Masai Mara is a fantastic place to see huge lion prides year-round. If you are visiting Lake Nakuru National Park, keep your eyes peeled for tree-climbing lions. Although lions are not really adapted to scale trees and perch atop branches, it’s believed that some do climb trees to catch a cooling breeze or escape biting insects on the ground. It’s a very uncommon sighting, so count yourself lucky if you do come across these climbing cats.
It is quite common to spot lions or other predatory animals in Tanzania wildlife parks. Throughout the year the lions roam the parks in search of prey or shade. Tanzania is known to have a healthy population of lions, lionesses and cubs. On a bright, sunny day you can spot the lions crossing the fields. It is nothing less than thrilling to be so close to the King of the jungle.
In Uganda, they are pretty common in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Murchison Falls, and Kidepo Valley National Parks. They are not present in Lake Mburo National Park. The famous tree-climbing lions are found in Ishasha in Queen Elizabeth.
The African buffalo, the only native African cow
The African or Cape buffalo is closely related to the domestic cow. Generally docile, buffalos can be extremely dangerous when threatened or surprised and must be regarded with extreme caution – especially lone bulls or cows with calves. Intensely gregarious, buffalos form into herds of between 200 and 2000 animals. Voracious eaters (both grazers and browsers), they spend most of their 15-20 year lifespan consuming fodder to maintain their strength and stamina.
Where Can You See African buffalo in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda?
Although in Kenya, the buffalo is one of the most voracious grazers in Africa, it’s not particularly demanding with regards to a preferred habitat. They do, however, have a rather large thirst to quench, so depend heavily on Kenya’s perennial water sources in areas like the Masai Mara, Amboseli National Park, and Meru National Park (which has some of the biggest herds of buffalo you’ll encounter on a Kenya wildlife safari).
In Tanzania, the African buffalo also known as the Cape buffalo is a large mammal of the African bovine family. They can be easily seen in protected areas and national parks such as the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti.
Buffalo is among the big five and is known to be one of Uganda’s most dangerous species due to its unpredictable and defensive nature. They can easily trample on a lion that attacks them. They live in large herds in the savannah and smaller herds in the forests and are found in all national parks.
The black or White rhinoceros
The difference between the black rhino and the white rhino
Contrary to popular imagination, rhino are neither black nor white; both are a similar shade of grey. The name ‘white’ originates from the Afrikaans word ‘weit’, which means ‘wide’, and refers to the width of the white rhino’s mouth, which is specially adapted to grazing. To tell the difference between black and white – look at the mouth of the animal, the white rhino is a grazer and has a wide mouth, the black rhino is a browser and has a pointed prehensile (capable of grasping) lip.
Where Can You See Rhinos in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda?
In Kenya, while you can see the Big 5 in Kenya’s Masai Mara, rhinos are increasingly difficult to find. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, these majestic animals have been pushed to the brink of extinction. By the 1980s, poaching reduced the black rhino population in Kenya to less than 300. But thanks to vital conservation efforts in places like Lewa and Ol Pejeta, black rhino numbers have been recovering steadily although the species remains critically endangered. Your best bets are Lake Nakuru National Park.
In Tanzania, Rhinos have been an endangered species for quite some time now. These animals are now only seen in different zoological parks, national parks, forest reserves, etc. If you are visiting Tanzania, then you must try to spot a Black Rhino. According to several Tanzania animal facts, Black Rhinos can only be spotted here. The rest of the world does not have an ecosystem to support Black Rhinos. Even in Tanzania, Black Rhino are a rare sight.
In Uganda, Black rhino is extinct, and the white rhino had just been reintroduced in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in 2005.
Leopard, beautiful, secretive and shy
Thanks to its harshly rasping territorial call, the intensely secretive leopard is more often heard than seen. A supreme ambush hunter, the leopard is a solitary animal spending much of its time up a selection of favoured trees, which it uses as game larders for its kills. Mainly nocturnal and extremely unsociable, the leopard is very difficult to spot. Viewing tip: scan the trees for the telltale sign of the dangling tail.
Where Can You See Leopard in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda?
In Kenya, you’ll have to work a bit harder to spot a leopard or just be very lucky. To see this evasive member of the Big 5 in Kenya head to the Masai Mara or Samburu National Reserves to give you the best possible chance to create memories.
In Tanzania, Leopards are solitary and shy, so they can be challenging to find. The central Serengeti is probably the best location for them in Tanzania, and roughly three-quarters of our travellers see leopards there.
In Uganda, Leopard is quite similar to the cheetah but can be differentiated from their rosette-shaped spots and is more powerfully built. They prefer wooded or rocky habitats and are present in most national parks in Uganda but regularly seen along channel drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Cheetah, the fastest animal in the world
The cheetah is the least catlike and aggressive of the big cats; the weakest of the group, it often loses its kills to lions, hyenas and even vultures. When hunting (around dawn and late afternoon), cheetahs spend a lot of time moving into position before bursting from cover and running down their prey in brief bursts of speed of up to 112 kph (sustainable for only 200-300 meters at a time). Unlike the other big cats, cheetahs never climb trees but prefer termite mounds, leaning trees or even vehicles as observation posts.
Where Can You See Cheetah in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda?
The Masai Mara’s relatively flat and treeless landscape is the perfect hunting ground for these Kenya animals, plus there are enough termite mounds to use as lookout points – cheetahs climb to the top where they can keep an eye on the Masai Mara wildlife and spot their next meal.
The Serengeti is the best location for cheetah sightings (7 out of 10 Expert Africa travellers see them here) and they can often be seen hunting on the open plains. Namiri Plains Camp in the eastern Serengeti is particularly rewarding: this district was previously used for big cat research and there are several breeding females in the area. Likewise, Tarangire is relatively good for cheetahs, and sightings here are quite frequent. A fairly small population of cheetahs is also found in Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania.
Cheetah is very rarely seen and is heavily spotted with a greyhound-like build and distinctive black tear-marks. They are speedy animals though the least powerful among the large predators. They are found in grassland and savannah habitats such as the Kidepo National Park.
Other Animals to see in East Africa
Endangered Wild Dog
In the Serengeti and in Kenya, the wild dog is one of the world’s most endangered mammals. The largest populations remain in southern Africa and the southern part of East Africa (especially Tanzania and northern Mozambique). Wild dogs are social and gather in packs of around ten individuals, but some packs number more than 40.
Where Can You See Endangered Wild Dog in Kenya and Tanzania?
In Kenya, Wild dog numbers are on the increase in Samburu and the Laikipia region – the chances of seeing them here on your Kenya wildlife safari are good. Laikipia is now the second-most important range in Africa (after Botswana) for wild dog.
In Tanzania, African Wild Dogs have become an endangered species. They can now be spotted only in Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park.
These striped equines inhabit most of Kenya and can be found in a variety of habitats like savannahs, grasslands, woodlands, shrublands and mountainous areas. Although you will see them in the majority of Kenya’s wildlife areas, several hundred thousand of them move with the Wildebeest Migration into the Masai Mara from about July each year.
Where Can You See Zebra in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda?
The two subspecies found among wildlife in Kenya are the common plains zebra (found in almost all wildlife parks in Kenya) and Grevy’s zebra. The beautiful Grevy’s zebra, also known as the imperial zebra, is the largest living wild equid and the most threatened species of zebra. The Samburu National Reserve and the Laikipia region are the best places to see Grevy’s zebra on a wildlife safari in Kenya.
The white and black stripe animal has always been a favourite for most of us. We have seen a lot of them on the wildlife channels. If you are planning to visit Tanzania, you will have the chance to see the Zebras personally. Zebra in Tanzania is as common as the wild dogs. You can spot them in herds in the fields or near the river banks. Most of the safari tours cover areas where you can spot animals like Zebra, Giraffes, Hippos, Wildebeests, etc. Most of the national parks and forest reserves have Zebras in abundance
Burchell’s zebra has beautiful striped black and white color existing only in Murchison Falls, Lake Mburo, and Kidepo Valley National Parks.
Another one of the Kenya animals you’ll see in abundance throughout the country, giraffes are often a very popular sighting for most safari travellers. Watching the world’s tallest terrestrial creature awkwardly manoeuvre into a wide-legged stance to drink water is an absolute treat.
Where Can You See Giraffe in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda?
The predominant subspecies of giraffe that you’ll see on a Kenya wildlife safari are:
Rothschild’s giraffe (one of the most endangered) – visit The Giraffe Centre or stay at Giraffe Manor in Nairobi for close-up encounters. Lake Nakuru National Park is also an important stronghold.
Reticulated giraffe – head to Samburu National Reserve or Meru National Park for the best sightings.
Masai giraffe – abundant in Kenya’s major parks like the Masai Mara and Amboseli.
A tour of the wildlife in Tanzania is incomplete without spotting a few Giraffes. The task is easier than it sounds as Tanzania has one of the largest Giraffe populations in the world. Giraffe is a very friendly animal, known for its long neck and brown spots. It is a herbivore animal and thus, you can try your luck at feeding a Giraffe. Recently, the Giraffe population has seen a downfall and the animal species are now endangered. If you are planning to travel Tanzania, then you must try to spot a Giraffe herd before the species becomes extinct.
In Uganda Giraffes, specifically Rothschild’s giraffe, is the world’s tallest land mammal and can only be found in Murchison Falls, Lake Mburo, and Kidepo Valley national parks. Its swaying gait comes from moving both right legs simultaneously, followed by both left legs.