Southern Africa’s Extraordinary Animals and The Best Time to See Them

Scuba Diving, Travel Inspiration, Travel Tips, Wildlife

Major Biodiversity Hotspot

Southern Africa is a global hotspot for biodiversity. South Africa is ranked as the third most biodiverse country in the world, with 15% of the world’s total species having been recorded within the nation.

It is also well-known for high levels of endemism, with almost 13,000 species of flora found nowhere else on earth and over 20,000 plant species total, representing a staggering 10% of all plants found globally. Almost 40% of South Africa’s estimated 10,000 marine animal species, and an astonishing 50% of reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, and freshwater fish, are endemic. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) reports an estimate of about 67,000 animal species have been described.

Elephants (endangered – IUCN Red List) – view from Vida Nova Kruger’s balcony

Mozambique’s Habitats

Mozambique is equally significant in terms of biodiversity. It is home to almost 6,000 species of flora, over 4,000 species of terrestrial animals, and more than 11,000 marine species. Endemism is also apparent with two native species of mammal, seven reptiles, and 11 freshwater and 17 marine fish species.

Giraffes (vulnerable – IUCN Red List) in Machangulo Private Nature Reserve

The country showcases an impressive 2,770 km long coastline. Along this coast, you’ll find a massive 1,860 km2 of coral reefs, providing a vital nursery ground for many species. The mangrove extends 987 km and an immense 4,000 km2. The rest of the coastline is made up of the delta coast and parabolic sand dunes, covering a distance of over 1,000 km.

On the Brink

More than 41,000 species are threatened with extinction worldwide… more than a quarter of all assessed species. More than 20,000 described species are yet to be assessed.

African wild dog (endangered – IUCN Red List), Kruger National Park

When you break it down by species category, the figures are quite alarming.

41% of all amphibians

37% of all sharks and rays

33% of all corals

28% of all crustaceans

27% of all mammals

21% of all reptiles

and 13% of all birds face dying out.

In South Africa, 499 wildlife species are threatened with extinction, according to SANBI’s National Red List. This does not yet include marine fish and sharks. In Mozambique, there are a total of 300 species on the IUCN Red List, of which 120 are threatened.

This is why now, more than ever, we need to take any opportunity to see our bucket list species, before it’s too late. However, for some species, it’s not all doom and gloom.

The Success Stories


By the end of the 19th century, Southern White Rhino had been hunted to near extinction. At that point, there were estimated to be just 100 left in South Africa. Through continued anti-poaching efforts, and the establishment of more protected areas, there are now around 20,000 of these magnificent creatures thriving in national parks and game reserves across southern Africa.

White rhino (near threatened – IUCN Red List), Kruger National Park

Mozambique’s Zinave National Park is over 400,000 hectares and is proudly home to more than 2,300 reintroduced animals. Recently, after more than 40 years of being extinct locally, black and white rhinos were brought to the park. These endangered species were transported 1,000 kms from South Africa in efforts to breathe new life into the parks and boost local eco-tourism.

Rhinos are not out of the woods as their horns are still a valuable commodity. Conservation efforts and protection measures are still highly necessary. Anti-poaching units, such as The Black Mambas have helped reduce poaching levels. This unit alone has reduced levels in the Kruger National Park by around 76% and they serve as a role model to communities as the first majority female anti-poaching unit in South Africa.


Lion (vulnerable – IUCN Red List), Kruger National Park

South Africa is phasing out captive lion breeding. Thousands of these beautiful big cats were being bred for commercial use, including interactive tourism, “canned” hunting, lion bone trade, and live exports. Sadly, the poor conditions of the breeding facilities and the inbreeding of the lions resulted in physical defects, inferior genetics, and an open ground for zoonotic diseases. This ban will end the suffering of 10s of thousands of lions.


Smooth hammerhead (vulnerable – IUCN Red List), South African Cape coast

Protection and Preservation

South Africa

20 new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) were declared in South Africa in 2019, increasing the marine ecosystem area under protection by 1,250%, to 41 MPAs. Although this was a positive step forward, at this point, those MPAs only cover 5.4% of the country’s oceans and coasts.

Chapman’s Peak within the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area

According to the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, South Africa offers protection to 9.26% of its terrestrial and inland waters. This equates to 113,398 of km2 land area covered. In total, there are 1663 total terrestrial and marine protected areas in South Africa and 6.33% of these areas have management effectiveness evaluations.


Machangulo Private Nature Reserve, Mozambique

Mozambique is committed to the conservation and preservation of its biodiversity, and now boasts 26% of its lands as terrestrial conservation areas. However, so far, only 2.1% of the oceans and coasts are protected. These marine areas play a vital role in protecting the country’s spectacular aquatic biodiversity, promoting tourism, and maintaining important fish stocks.

Bountiful Biomes

Superabundant coral reefs of Ilha do Fogo, Mozambique (75% of the world’s coral reefs under threat)

Both countries offer a diverse range of biomes, from abundant coral reefs to luscious forests, rich savannas, vast deserts, and immense freshwater systems. Some of the most critical are the marine ecosystems, including the estuaries, wetlands, lagoons, salt marshes, mangroves and dunes.

The marine biome boasts 119 species of seabird, 133 species of coastal birds, Ten of the 22 species of albatross, 37 species of cetaceans, and 181 cartilaginous fish species. Fire Island Eco Retreat’s flagship species are marine turtles, which provided the brainchild for the portfolio.

Loggerhead turtle (vulnerable – IUCN Red List) swimming off Inhaca Island, Mozambique

When is the best time for animal sightings?

Marine Species

In Mozambique, some of a photographer’s and filmmaker’s most sought-after species can be found, including the charismatic dugong, six species of dolphin, majestic humpback whales, southern right whales, false killer whales, orcas, over 440 recorded species of coral and 5 species of turtle, all of which contribute significantly to tourism. 

South Africa’s waters are visited by 37 different species of whales and dolphins. Travellers can expect to see humpback, southern right and Bryde’s whales in the southern hemisphere winter months. Orcas are sporadic visitors to the coast in their hunt for sharks and other large prey, and dolphins are seen all along the coast, with resident pods in some of the bays.

Humpback whale calf and mother, playing off Mozambique

Cetacean Watching Mozambique

July – October = Humpback whales

June – December = Southern right whales

Year-round = dolphins

Cetacean Watching Cape Coast, South Africa

May – November = Southern right whales with peak mating and calving season in July & August.

June – December = humpback whales with peak mating and calving season in August & September. NB – supergroups of humpback whales are now being found off the West Coast of South Africa. Although their ‘season’ is harder to predict, they have been seen feeding offshore up until the end of March.

Year-round = dolphins and orcas

Turtle encounters

Loggerhead turtle (vulnerable – IUCN Red List) nesting in Machangulo

Loggerhead and green turtles can be found foraging around the Cape coasts reefs, with leatherbacks found offshore. Loggerhead and Leatherback turtles come to Machangulo to nest and there are resident loggerheads off Inhaca Island. Green, hawksbill and olive ridley turtles come to Ilha do Fogo to forage and nest.

October – December = nesting season

December – March = hatching season

*Sea turtle eggs take 45–60 days to hatch

Cape fur seals

Seal encounters can be enjoyed all year round, but are highly dependent on sea conditions.

December – February = seal pup season

Terrestrial species

Driving through the Karoo and Drakensberg areas of South Africa and Maputo and Machangulo regions of Mozambique offers travellers a spectacle of terrestrial wonders, year-round. Various buck can be sighted from the road, and passing private reserves along the way can provide views of the iconic mammal species, such as elephants, giraffes and rhino.

Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of the world’s most renowned conservancies and home to a host of incredible wildlife. The park supports the largest population of white rhinos found globally, estimated to be in the region of 8,000. It showcases 148 mammal species and 120 reptile species

White rhino (near threatened – IUCN Red List), Kruger National Park

With an estimated 1,500 lions, 17,000 elephants, 48,000 buffalo, and 1,000 leopards, there is a good chance of seeing Africa’s Big Five on a visit to the park. The enigmatic Little Five may not be as widely known as their larger counterparts, but they are no less fascinating. Travellers to the park should look out for the elephant shrew, the leopard tortoise, the antlion, the rhino beetle, and the buffalo weaver. Of course, something about their name tells us that they weren’t just chosen for their charisma.

Cape buffalo (near threatened – IUCN Red List), Kruger National Park

May – September = dry season where you can expect to see wildlife around watering holes. The thinner vegetation at this time of year makes wildlife easier to spot.

October – April = wet season, but the best time to see newborn animals. The vegetation is full and green, and wildlife is in its best condition. The babies also draw out the predators, so there is a high probability of spotting animals from the Carnivora order.

Other notable times:

February =  waterbuck birthing season

March = kudu and buffalo breeding season

May = wild dog denning period

June = elephant migration from Mozambique and Zimbabwe

Bird Life

Southern ground hornbill (vulnerable – IUCN Red List), Kruger National Park

The blue crane holds great significance in South Africa. It is the country’s national bird, and can be spotted in the agriculturally dominated areas of the Karoo and Western Cape. Unfortunately, their numbers are in decline and they are listed as vulnerable on IUCN’s red list. Other important, endemic to southern Africa, yet vulnerable species that are high up on any birder’s bucket list are the Cape gannet, the African penguin, the Cape rockjumper, the Southern bald Ibis, the Cape Vulture, the Southern ground-hornbill, and the Kori Bustard.

Cape Birds

African penguin (endangered – IUCN Red List), Boulders Beach, Cape Town

Best for sightings of African penguins and Cape gannets. Boulders Beach in Cape Town is a hotspot for travellers to visit the endangered African penguin, and gannets can be spotted all along the coast.

February – August = breeding season with most penguins on Boulders beach.

May – July = sardine run when gannets can be spotted diving for prey.

November – December = adult penguin moulting season.

January = juvenile penguin moulting season.

Karoo Birds

Ostrich, Klein Karoo, South Africa

South Africa’s ostrich capital of the world, with the world’s largest bird populations concentrated around Oudtshoorn. Blue cranes and secretarybirds can often be spotted from the road, foraging in the fields. The Cape rockjumper is a birder’s sought-after species, with their already threatened populations in decline.

March – August = blue crane local migration period, where they move to lower elevations with their chicks.

March – September = ostrich mating season when you can spot males performing their courtship dance.

September – February = blue crane nesting season, though nesting sites tend to be at high elevations within secluded grassland.

Year-round = monogamous pairs of secretarybird can be spotted breeding and mating

Drakensberg Birds

This area is known for its raptors, and the region holds a number of unique species, owing to its variable elevations and terrains. With around 300 avifauna and high endemism, it attracts birders from afar. Notable sightings are the threatened bearded vulture, endemic jackal buzzard, and impressive Southern bald Ibis. The eye-catching Drakensberg rockjumper and the mountain pipit are sought-after sightings, as endemic, threatened species on the decline. Sani Pass has been declared one of the world’s greatest birding sites.

Cape vulture (vulnerable – IUCN Red List), Drakensberg

October to March = peak period for bird spotting. Look out for sheep carcasses in the veld for an opportunity to see Cape and bearded vultures feeding.

April – September = still great for sightings, including Drakensberg Rockjumper, Southern Bald Ibis, vultures and larks.

Kruger Birds

Kruger and Marloth Parks are home to over 500 bird species. A must-see, the endangered Bateleur, has long been a powerful omen in indigenous folklore and according to Xhosa traditionalists, was known as the bird of war. Kruger’s Big-Six of the birding world is the Southern ground hornbill, the kori bustard, the Pel’s fishing owl, the lappet-faced vulture, the martial eagle, and the saddle-billed stork. Visitors to the park will find the best birding on roads that include stretches of riverine forest and a variety of vegetation.

Bateleur (endangered – IUCN Red List), Kruger National Park

October – April is the peak time for spotting various birds. Most of the migratory birds are present in the parks.

January = a great month for lesser spotted eagle sightings in the woodland areas, after they’ve flown south from their Baltic breeding grounds.

Lesser spotted eagle, Marloth Park

May = this month is best known for white-backed vulture breeding. During this time you may hear their mating calls, which reportedly sound like rhinos in distress.

July = winter birds fly down from the highveld, denoting the arrival of local bird species, such as the stonechat.

August – November = the weeping boer-beans are in bloom with bright-red flowers, and the nectar that ‘weeps’ from the flowers attracts a myriad of bird life; especially sunbirds. Insect-feeding birds are attracted by the many insects that feed on the nectar, and starlings can be seen feasting on the flowers.

September = weavers start breeding and males begin producing their impressive, woven nests for their mate’s approval. You’ll also see many European species that migrate to the park. This is the best time for spotting colourful plumage, as it intensifies in colour in species such as the violet-backed starling, woodland kingfisher, and African paradise flycatcher.

Woodland kingfisher, Kruger National Park

October = best for spotting raptors in the sky, when the abrupt rise in midday temperatures creates an opportunity for thermal soaring. Bee-eaters and other Eurasian migrants also arrive in the park at this time.

November = woodland kingfishers arrive, along with thousands of kestrels. Vultures are more readily seen due to increased carnivore activity.

Plan Your African Animal Wonders Trip

So there you have it. Our list of just some of Southern Africa’s extraordinary animals and the best time for visitors to this wondrous region of the world to see them.

Our retreats are perfectly located to see all of the animals in our list. We offer a variety of tours between the destinations for travellers looking to see as much of our diversity as they can, in one trip.

Browse our collection.

Share This Post