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Where the Wild Things Are

A noted zoologist's guide to Africa's best game-watching

Guide to Abbreviations:
NP National park
NR Nature reserve
GR Game reserve

Most of us know Africa from the movies. In the '70s, Born Free, the film about Joy Adamson, her husband, and their lion Elsa, spawned a whole generation of lion lovers. In the '80s, there was Out of Africa and Gorillas in the Mist, romantic and beautiful depictions of African bush and gorillas, respectively. No doubt, Hollywood is at least partly responsible for the heightened craze for safaris. The enormous growth in the tourist industry in Africa, however, has not been without consequence. Many large game parks and reserves are so crowded that where there are animals, there are lines. Others have fared worse. Crowds, for example, have driven elephants out of the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya. But wild Africa survives; it's still possible to witness the activity of herds of wildebeest, elephant, and zebra there, and prides of lions still roam, searching for their nightly kill.

Dr. Richard Estes is one of the world's foremost experts on the social ecology of African animals. He is an associate at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnography at Harvard University and the chairman of the World Conservation Union's Antelope Specialist's Group, as well as the author of The Safari Companion, A Guide to Watching African Mammals (Chelsea Green Publishing, 1993). Here's his animal-by-animal guide to the best game-watching in Africa.

Where they live: Usually found in low density in sub-Saharan savannas and arid zones where suitable prey occurs.
Best places to see them: Masai Mara NR and Amboseli NP, Kenya; Etosha NP and private game ranches in Namibia; Serengeti NP, Tanzania.
Active time: The most diurnal cat, usually rests during the heat of the day.

Where they live: In rain forests, savanna woodlands, and montane forests (a kind of mountain forest) from Guinea, north of the Congo River through central Africa to Tanzania. Pygmy chimpanzees live in the rain forest south of the Congo River.
Best places to see them: Gombe NP, Mahale Mountains NP, Tanzania; Kibale Forest, Uganda.
Active time: Generally spend about half the day feeding, with a midday siesta.

Where they live: Used to live everywhere south of the Sahara that had enough water and trees, but over three-quarters of the population were destroyed in the last two decades by ivory poachers. The survivors live mostly in protected parks.
Best places to see them: Chobe NP and Moremi GR, Botswana; Etosha NP, Namibia; Kruger NP, South Africa; Hwange NP, Zimbabwe. (The Masai Mara GR in Kenya is popular, but few elephants remain.)
Active time: Feeds 16 hours a day and sleeps 4 to 5 hours. Bathes daily, but can abstain several days if no water is available.

Varieties: The Grant's gazelle is large with pale-to-dark tan coloring and white underparts. The Thomson's gazelle is smaller, with cinnamon coloring, a rump patch smaller than a Grant's, and bold, black side stripes and facial markings.
Where they live: The Somali-Masai Arid Zone, from southern Sudan and Ethiopia to northern Tanzania, and from the Kenya coast to Lake Victoria (Grant's). Somali-Masai arid zone and adjacent northern savanna, from northern Tanzania to northern Kenya, with an isolated population in Sudan (Thomson's).
Best places to see them: Amboseli NP, Masai Mara NR, Meru NP, Nairobi NP, Samburu-Isiolo NR, Shaba NR, Sibiloi NP and Tsavo NP, Kenya; Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti NP and Tarangire NP, Tanzania (Grant's). Amboseli NP, Masai Mara NP, Nairobi NP and Nakura NP, Kenya; Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti NP and Tarangire NP, Tanzania (Thomson's).
Active time: Day and night, peak activity generally early in the day, though.

Where they live: Used to be found wherever trees occurred throughout the arid and dry-savanna zones south of the Sahara. Eliminated from most of the West African (Senegal) and southern Kalahari range (South Africa and southern Botswana) but are still fairly common, even outside wildlife preserves.
Best places to see them: Too numerous to mention; most approachable along roads in popular national parks.
Active time: Females spend just over half the day grazing, males slightly less. Night is spent resting, especially during the darkest hours.

Varieties: The mountain gorilla has a long and silky coat, while the western or eastern gorilla has a shorter, sparser coat.
Where they live: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the lowland rain forest of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon (western lowland); eastern Zaire; and in the adjacent highland areas near Rwanda's border and isolated pockets of rain forest (eastern lowland). Also Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire (mountain).
Best places to see them: Eastern Zaire, especially Kahuzi-Biega NP and Virunga NP.
Active time: The average group of gorillas spends a little under a third of the day feeding, a little under a third traveling, and a little over a third resting, mainly at midday.

Where they live: Used to be found everywhere south of the Sahara where adequate water and grazing conditions occurred. Now largely confined to protected areas, but still survive in many major rivers and swamps.
Best places to see them: Almost any park or reserve with sizable lakes or rivers bordered by grassland.
Active time: Hippos walk from 2 to 6 miles during their nightly forage. After five hours of intensive grazing, they return to water beds before dawn to spend the day digesting and socializing.

Where they live: Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, except in deserts and rain forest.
Best places to see them: Most major NPs and GRs have them, but the best places are the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti NP, both in Tanzania.
Active time: Lions spend nearly 20 hours a day "reserving energy," and hunt most actively early and late at night, carrying over a couple of hours into daybreak. Lions become active any time day or night, hungry or gorged, if easy prey presents itself.

Varieties: Black and white.
Where they live: Formerly widespread in the northern and southern savanna, Sahel, Somali-Masai, and southwest arid zones. Human population growth and poaching (rhino horns are valued as an aphrodisiac in Asian and Arab countries) have led to a steady decline. Now endangered everywhere, including Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Best places to see them: Nairobi NP, Solio Ranch GR, Kenya; Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. (Other good possibilities include Kruger NP and Hluhluwe GR, South Africa; Gonarezhou NP and Mana Pools NP, Zimbabwe.)
Active time: The rhino is most active early and late in the day, but it also moves and feeds at night. Least active during the hottest hours.

Varieties: The Grevy's zebra has a distinct pattern of narrow stripes with a bullseye on the rump and wider stripes on the neck and chest. The mountain zebra is distinguished by large ears and a distinctive gridiron pattern on the rump. The plain's zebra is smaller than the Grevy's.
Where they live: Restricted to the Somali arid zone of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya. The only substantial population (several thousand) lives in Kenya's northern frontier district (Grevy's). Cape mountain zebras inhabit the southwestern and southern Cape Province in South Africa. Hartmann's race, another subspecies of the mountain zebra, are found in southern Angola and Namibia (mountain). Southeastern Sudan to South Africa and west to Angola, in Somali-Masai arid zone (plains).
Best places to see them: Meru Sibiloi NP and Samburu-Isiolo NR, Kenya (Grevy's). Mountain Zebra NP, South Africa (mountain). Too numerous to list but Etosha NP, Namibia, and Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, are some places where one can get very close (plains).
Active time: Active both day and night. Zebras graze an hour or so at a time at night. In early morning, they begin treks of up to 10 miles before settling again for the night.

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Updated on October 8, 1995