Wildlife in South Africa

Cities, culture, cuisine and a complex history are all integral to South Africa’s identity, but boy, can it do wildlife as well. It may not be purely a wildlife destination, like neighbouring Botswana for instance, but it can effortlessly compete with any of the world’s wildlife rich countries. Just look at the stats. South Africa is home to 299 mammal species, with the Big Five firmly on the list and some impressive conservation successes, too. Most of the world’s entire population of white rhino lives here, while Addo Elephant National Park has one of the densest populations of elephants on earth.

There’s not only abundant wildlife, there’s spectacle, too. The lions of Kruger National Park have been known to oblige tourists by taking down prey right in front of their jeeps, while hippos like to wander through the streets of St Lucia in KwaZulu Natal. And, while East Africa stages the Great Migration of wildebeest, South Africa has its own mass movement: the Sardine Run, in late June and July each year, when shoals in their millions migrate along the south coast creating a feeding frenzy of sharks, dolphins and sea birds. Who needs the Serengeti?
The wildlife action isn’t confined to the land, either. Look to the skies to see some of South Africa’s 850 species of birds, from flamingoes and pelicans, to raptors and rollers, then head to the coast, because nowhere does surf and turf, safari and sea quite like South Africa. At certain times of the year, humpback and southern right whales skim the coast of KwaZulu Natal and the Western Cape, easily visible from land. Dolphins frolic in the surf year round and in November and December, giant leatherback turtles haul themselves onto the Elephant Coast beaches to lay eggs.

On South Africa’s southwest coast there are seals and African penguins, with the mainland penguin colonies of Betty’s Bay and Boulders Beach guaranteeing up close and personal encounters with these charming birds. It all adds up to a diverse and delightful carnival of the animals and means that, when in South Africa, you can make wildlife the sole focus, or combine safari and sightseeing, animals and activities, whale watching with just having a whale of a time.

Wildlife highlights in South Africa

Addo Elephant National Park

Addo Elephant is the third largest national park in South Africa, stretching down to the coast, and offering protection to penguins, seals and marine birdlife. Inland, it’s home to black rhino, leopard, lion, buffalo, hyena, zebra and various antelopes, as well as the 600-odd elephants that give it its name. Keep your eyes peeled for the park’s smaller but no less fascinating creatures, including industrious dung beetles and charming meerkats.

Elephant Coast

KwaZulu Natal’s coast contains a dazzling smorgasbord of habitats supporting an eclectic mix of creatures: monkeys and mongoose, elephants and whales, flamingoes and pelicans. This is where mammals meet marine life, crocs lurk in creeks and hippos hang out in town. Much of the Elephant Coast is taken up by the iSimangaliso Wetlands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to more than 1,000 hippos, as well as elephants, rhinos, buffalos, leopards and various antelope species. Spot whales cruising past its pristine beaches and dolphins playing in the surf, snorkel over coral reefs, kayak past hippos on Africa’s largest estuary, birdwatch from a canoe on Kosi Bay and see giant leatherback and loggerhead turtles lumbering up the beaches to lay eggs.

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve

This is Africa’s oldest game reserve and, in the 1950s and 1960s, the home of Operation Rhino. Today, thanks to sustained conservation efforts, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi has the continent’s largest concentration of white rhino, alongside other impressive wildlife, including lions, leopards, buffalos, elephants and giraffes. The reserve is a birding hotspot, too, with around 340 species here; the violet backed starling and the southern bald ibis among its colourful and dramatic avian residents.

Kruger National Park

This park is famous for its all star cast of Big Five beauties and abundant birdlife. Amazing wildlife sightings, including the chance to see both white and black rhino, and beautifully diverse landscapes covering almost 20,000km² make Kruger rightfully popular. There is accommodation aplenty here, too, from camping to luxe lodges, you can self drive if you fancy it, and the park has a low risk of malaria, especially in the dry season, making it one of the most accessible safari locations in the world.

Whale watching

From roughly June to November you can go whale watching in South Africa, not that you have to ‘go’ very far at all; simply standing on the shore is sufficient in many parts of the country, as the whales come so close to land you can see them clearly without setting foot on a boat. Hermanus in the Western Cape is the epicenter of the whale watching action, with nearby Plettenberg Bay another great place for whale watching tours. On KwaZulu Natal’s Elephant Coast you can stand on whale viewing platforms in the dunes to see humpback and southern right whales passing by the shore, migrating north in June and July, and south in September and October.

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Best time to see wildlife in South Africa

South Africa is so big, and home to such a huge array of habitats, that there is always something to see at any time of year. For safaris in Kruger National Park the dry months of July to September are best, when animals cluster around waterholes, but if you prefer wildlife watching in cooler temperatures, come in April and May. October to March is great for birding in Kruger, when all the migratory species are present. Late November and December is the best time to see turtles nesting in KwaZulu Natal, with hatchlings emerging February to March.

Whale watching from both sea and shore around Hermanus is best from June to November. In KwaZulu Natal, see humpbacks and southern right whales as they migrate from June to July and September to October. The sardine run takes place in late June and July, for about five weeks in total.

The penguins at Boulders Beach near Cape Town are out at sea feeding in September and October, so you’ll see fewer penguins on the shore. February to August is breeding season, and the best time to see the penguins and their newly hatched chicks.


Organised tours to South Africa, whether tailor made or small group, often include seeing its wildlife as part of a mixed itinerary – a few days in Kruger before moving on to the Drakensberg Mountains or Swaziland, say. Or a visit to Addo Elephant National Park, before exploring along the Garden Route, stopping in Hermanus to admire the migrating whales just off shore. Most parks and reserves have a good range of accommodation in the vicinity, to suit all tastes and budgets.

Inside parks and reserves, game drives are the standard way to witness the wildlife, with self driving an option in Kruger National Park. Some reserves permit bush walks and night drives, too. In the iSimangaliso Wetlands of KwaZulu Natal, you can explore Lake St Lucia, Africa’s largest estuary, by boat, to see its hippo, crocodiles and fish eagles. Sunset and night game drives are also possible on the western shores of the lake. To see African penguins close up, visit the Boulders Beach colony just outside Cape Town, where a boardwalk ensures the experience is wheelchair accessible.

If you’d like to concentrate fully on wildlife while in South Africa, consider joining a volunteer conservation project, working with threatened wildlife. You’ll help to track and locate animals, map sightings and observe behaviours. This is a great way to get close to wildlife and also visit some of the reserves that don’t make it onto standard vacation itineraries.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: bikeriderlondon] [Intro: Janus69] [Addo Elephant National Park: RonPorter] [Kruger National Park: IanZA] [Best Time: Graeme Churchard]