Updated: Sep 7, 2020
For most visitors to Africa, a successful safari revolves around sightings of the big game we all grew up reading about - Lion, Leopard, Giraffe and Elephant, to name but a few. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that! We at Pictus Safaris get a huge kick out of showing guests their first Zebra, or their first Impala for that matter. But there's no doubting that Africa's wildlife is rich and varied beyond these famous species and, particularly as the specialist mammal-watching community has grown, several of these elusive mammals have become increasingly sought-after. Here, Pictus Safaris detail our 'Top 10' most sought-after large mammals in Africa, and how you can find these incredible species for yourself.
10. African Golden Cat
Description: Perhaps the most elusive predator on the continent, African Golden Cats are as beautiful as they are hard to find. Approximately twice the size of a typical domestic cat, this feline roams the forests of Central and Eastern Africa, usually moving in areas with dense cover. One of the most remarkable characteristics of this cat is the variety of colours seen in recorded specimens - some individuals are silver, some dark brown, some even blonde!
How to Find Them: By their nature, Golden Cats are shy and retiring, and are usually only found in pristine jungle habitat far from civilisation. As a result, most sightings are recorded via camera traps, although a lucky few visitors do get a chance to encounter these beautiful diminutive predators in the flesh. Sightings have recently been recorded in Gabon, Cameroon and even Uganda, but our favourite destination is the remarkable Chinko Nature Reserve in the Central African Republic. Pictus Safaris will be running a small-group 'Dark Heart of Africa' safari to Chinko in April 2022, priced at £14,995 per person sharing for seven nights.
Status: Least Concern
Description: Aardvarks could be the oddest looking animal you encounter on your safari. With their extended, tubular nose, long ears and shuffling gait, it's often said that they look like they are made up of leftover parts from other animals! Aardvarks are vital parts of the ecosystem, using their powerful forelegs to create burrows used by many other species, including Warthog, Spotted Hyena and even African Wild Dog. Perfectly adapted to the savanna environment, Aardvark can be found across the continent, although almost always at low densities.
How to Find Them: Aardvarks can be hard to find, particularly as they are so strictly nocturnal. Every experienced operator has their 'spot' for Aardvarks, and we are no exception. Previous tours have had great sightings in Kenya and South Africa, but our favourite spot is Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, which we combine with Gorilla and Chimpanzee trekking. We have two 'Ultimate Uganda' departures for QENP in July 2022, available for £5,995 per person sharing for nine nights.
Status: Least Concern
Description: Occasionally known as the 'African Lynx', we think that Caracal are possibly the most beautiful cats in Africa. Deep russet in colour, these tall cats have striking black ear-tufts and an elongated gait that set them apart as particularly majestic. With a diet consisting of anything from birds to young antelope, Caracal can be seen across Africa, although sightings in much of their range are extremely rare.
How to Find Them: There are just a handful of locations where one stands a good chance of encountering a Caracal, including several in South Africa. There is even an urban population in the suburbs of Cape Town! Great sightings can be enjoyed in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the north of South Africa, and we would gladly recommend a number of operators in this area.
Our favourite destination for Caracal, though, is the inimitable and unmissable Zakouma National Park in Chad. Pictus Safaris will offer an exciting 'Greatest Show on Earth' tour in March 2022, taking in Zakouma, available for just £2,995 per person sharing for nine nights.
7. Black-Footed Cat
Description: Endemic to Southern Africa, this small, adorable feline is actually amongst Africa's most deadly predators. Feeding primarily on rodents, small birds and hares, this cat is an incredibly fierce hunter, with many local legends emphasising their surprising tenacity. Black-Footed Cats, also known as Small-Spotted Cats, usually reside in vacant burrows in desert or scrubland and their nocturnal habits make encounters extremely unusual.
How to Find Them: Black-Footed Cats are only found in Southern Africa and in much of their range they are hardly ever seen. There are a handful of locations in South Africa where sightings are frequent, although there are also records from Angola, Botswana and Namibia. We recommend Marrick Game Farm and Addo National Park in South Africa for those seeking a close encounter with these gorgeous cats - be aware that these are fenced reserves and lack 'wilderness appeal' but these intensively managed protected areas are the best bet for a sighting of a Black-Footed Cat.
6. Giant Pangolin
Description: The plight of the Pangolin is well-publicised and, sadly, this group of mammals is now the most trafficked in the world. Demand in parts of the Far East for Pangolin scales to be used in traditional medicine has driven all eight species of Pangolin to various states of endangerment. There are four species of Pangolin found in Africa; the Tree Pangolin, the Long-Tailed Pangolin, the Ground Pangolin and the Giant Pangolin. The Giant Pangolin is, unsurprisingly, the largest of these species and one of the most rarely encountered. Resident in the forests of Western and Central Africa, these 'scaly anteaters' feed on ants and termites using their incredibly long tongue to remove these creatures from their nests. Adorably, young Pangolins often ride on their mother's back, a truly special sight for anyone lucky enough to witness it.
How to Find Them: Our favourite spots for Giant Pangolin are in Gabon and the Central African Republic. Due to the current poaching situation, we won't reveal exact locations here, but if you are interested in further information please reach out to us at email@example.com
Status: Near Threatened
Description: Surely one of the most beautiful animals in Africa, Bongo are characterised by their remarkable reddish coats and white stripes along the length of their body. They also possess thick spiralling horns, often used to gather clay at salt-licks within their home ranges, as well as striking black and white facial markings. These attractive antelope call the forests of Western and Central Africa home, although there is also a small population in Kenya. Sadly, Bongo are threatened by habitat loss and poaching - this, coupled with their innately shy nature, makes sightings rare and any time spent with wild Bongo should be treasured.
How to Find Them: Bongo can be very difficult to track down. We recommend two locations in the Central African Republic for a good chance of Bongo sightings. The first is Dzanga-Sangha, a remarkable area of forest and open 'bais' in the south-west corner of the country - we highly recommend the Sangha Lodge for anyone visiting this area. The second location is the exquisite Chinko Nature Reserve in the east of the country. Pictus Safaris will be running a small-group 'Dark Heart of Africa' safari to Chinko in April 2022, priced at £14,995 per person sharing for seven nights.
4. Giant Eland
Description: The world's largest antelope, but one that many safari-goers have never heard of. Standing at up to 6 ft (1.83m) at the shoulder, these beasts are hugely impressive, particularly when bulls exhibit their thick, spiralled horns and massive dewlap. Their grey-brown coats, punctuated by white stripes, makes these antelope incredibly difficult to find in their savanna habitat. Sightings are now particularly rare after extensive poaching across this animal's range.
How to Find Them: Pictus Safaris recommend one of three reserves for a good chance of encountering Giant Eland. The first is Faro National Park in northern Cameroon, to which Pictus Safaris can arrange a private safari upon request. We also highly recommend Chinko Nature Reserve in the Central African Republic. Pictus Safaris will be running a small-group 'Dark Heart of Africa' safari to Chinko in April 2022, priced at £14,995 per person sharing for seven nights.
Giant Eland can also be encountered in Pictus Safaris' favourite national park, Niokolo-Koba in south-eastern Senegal. This remarkable habitat is the last stronghold for the Western Giant Eland, a critically endangered subspecies. We will be running a nine-night 'Sensational Senegal' tour to this park in 2022, with dates and prices currently to be confirmed.
Status: Critically Endangered
Description: A stunning white antelope that were once common across North Africa, the Addax was sadly removed from 99% of its former range in the 20th Century. Its meat and leather is highly prized and the fact that this species typically moves slowly and in herds made deeply vulnerable to poachers. There are few more majestic sights than these elegant, long-horned antelope climbing the steep dunes of the Sahara, and in recent years commendable efforts have been made to reintroduce this species to countries including Chad, Morocco and Tunisia.
How to Find Them: Encountering Addax in the wild is nigh-on impossible, with perhaps only a handful of Addax left in the Termit Massif of Niger and Ouadi-Rime in Chad. There is a small re-introduced population in Ouadi-Rime, and a small number of operators can offer tours to this spectacular and remote region. Do get in touch with us if you'd like to learn more!
2. Pygmy Hippo
Description: Hippos are surely a vital but under-appreciated part of the 'typical' safari experience. Who amongst us hasn't spent a magical evening hoping for the resident pod to let out a yawn just as the sun is going down? Yet, there may be an even more magical Hippo experience on offer in Africa, although one that far fewer know about. Pygmy Hippos are found in the dense forests of Western Africa and, unlike their common cousins, live alone. They are strictly nocturnal, emerging from the rivers to feed only once darkness has set in. Remarkably, these hippos are often only the size of a large dog, with a shoulder height of about 3ft - although with considerably more heft!
How to Find Them: Pygmy Hippo populations are highly localised, primarily due to a lack of suitable habitat. Perhaps the best chance of encountering a specimen is to spend time in the forests of Sierra Leone - Pictus Safaris are in advanced talks to deliver a 2022 safari to this area specifically for Pygmy Hippo, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to be added to the waitlist.
Description: Okapi seem like something summoned from the imagination of a particularly creative naturalist. Perhaps best described aesthetically as a cross between a Zebra and a Giraffe, these creatures are actually the only member of the Giraffe family besides their long-necked cousins. This species is cloaked in mystery and it was not even formally described until 1901. Resident in the densest of forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, very few can claim to have ever seen a wild Okapi - and most that do are lying! With their body coated in dark brown hair, mesmerising white stripes on the hind legs and beautiful expressive faces, Okapi must be the ultimate quarry for any serious mammal-watcher on the African continent.
How to Find Them: Okapi are extraordinarily difficult to locate and your only chance would be the forests around Epulu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unfortunately, this area is far too dangerous to visit currently and we would actively discourage anyone from visiting Epulu currently due to rebel activity. Pictus Safaris are, however, in talks to deliver a tour to the area in 2023 in search of Okapi, should the security situation improve - contact us at email@example.com to secure a place on our waitlist.
Do you agree with our countdown of the most sought-after large mammals in Africa? How many have you seen? Which would you love to see most? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!