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Botswana’s Big 7 animals to watch on safari


Forget the Big Five, here are Botswana’s Big Seven to look out for when you're on safari in the country

Lion (Panthera leo)

Kalahari male lions are renowned for their dark, luxuriant manes encircled by a distinctive blond ring – the reason for such a mane in such a hot climate remains a mystery. Kalahari prides have the largest home territories (1,080 square miles) and have one of the most fluid social structures of any lions on earth. During the dry season, lions in the Kalahari have been known to abandon pride life for a nomadic existence, sometimes even joining up temporarily with other prides. And if you’re witness to a Kalahari lion hunt, watch closely – they have the highest hunting success rate (38.5%) of any lions in Africa. All three of the Kalahari’s main reserves have large lion populations, with the river valleys and salt pans of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the central and northern reaches of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve fairly reliable lion-spotting terrain. But lions are possible in all of the areas we cover here.

Spotting tip: Studies have found that the human ear may only hear a roar from as far away as four kilometres. So if you can hear them roar, they may be closer than you think. Also check vehicle trails for footprints where they can be easier to see in the dust - lions often use such trails on their nightly marches through their territory. 

Ostrich (Struthio camelus australis) 

The southern African subspecies of ostrich is most commonly seen in the Kalahari and open arid country elsewhere, such as Savuti and the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans area. It is also known to inhabit the Tuli Block and Okavango Delta. The ostrich is the largest bird species on earth, and it can reach speeds of up to 70km/h when under threat, making it the fastest two-legged animal in the world. Its keen eyesight and good hearing mean it can both see and hear lions and other predators from a great distance, which is why it is rarely seen in woodland areas where the signs of the presence of predators are more easily concealed. If unable to escape, ostriches may lie down with their necks flat along the ground.

Spotting tip: If you see an ostrich running at speed, turn immediately to look where it came from – chances are that there’s a lion or leopard not far away.

 African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

No-one really knows where this lugubrious creature (also called the Cape buffalo) comes from – it is related neither to domestic cattle nor Asian buffalo species. It is also one of the most formidable creatures of the African wild as it weighs in at around a tonne. It usually moves in large groups and has been known to kill lions and other creatures that get in its way. Its horns, up to a meter across, are fused across its forehead.

The African buffalo has adapted to a wide range of habitats – only in desert regions are they absent, as they must drink every day. In Botswana, the buffalo’s heartland is the Okavango Delta, Savuti and Chobe. They’re also present in the Tuli Block, although sightings are less common than in the country’s north.

Spotting tip: Chief ’s Island and the Duba region of the Inner Okavango Delta are where the most famous footage of buffaloes has been filmed for wildlife documentaries, and their encounters with lions often take place within sight of the luxury lodges there.

Gemsbok (Oryx gazella)

Just about anywhere you go in the Kalahari you’re likely to encounter this most elegant of creatures – it’s the area’s most striking herbivore and the largest of the world’s oryx species. It is believed that it was its extravagantly curved horns, when seen side-on, that were largely responsible for legend of the unicorn. In the Kalahari, gemsbok live in groups of up to 40 individuals and their size (up to 300kg or 660lbs) means that few predators other than lions can bring one down. Vulnerable to attack from behind, gemsbok defend themselves by backing into a thicket of bushes and presenting their formidable horns to those who would hunt them.

They are the most prevalent form of large antelope in the Central Kalahari, Khutse and Kgalagadi reserves, with some also straying up into Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans.

Spotting tip: Gemsbok prefer the open country but usually stay within sight of thickets on the fringes of the salt pans that punctuate the Kalahari, particularly around sunrise or sunset when lions are most likely to be hunting.

Elephant (Loxodonta Africana)

Botswana is one of the last great refuges for elephants in Africa and no country on earth has more of the animals within its borders. An estimated 130,000 elephants wander across the land, with more than half of these in Chobe National Park alone.

Elephants are also present in great numbers all across the Okavango Delta, and with relatively high densities to be found in the Tuli Block. They inhabit only the fringes of the Kalahari and the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans – this is a creature that drinks up to 300 litres of water every day and there are no such supplies in the desert. The ivory-poaching holocaust that is sweeping South Africa and elsewhere has, thankfully, yet to significantly affect Botswana, not least because the country’s elephant habitat is often remote and difficult to access.

Spotting tip: Sit in wait by the water’s edge anywhere along Chobe Riverfront in late afternoon. The setting sun will turn the whole riverbank to gold and give you some of the best elephant photos you can imagine. 

Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii) 

Arguably Botswana’s most curious inhabitant, this splay-hoofed, medium-sized swamp antelope is southern Africa’s wetland specialist. Perfectly adapted to the watery terrain of the Okavango Delta, particularly in the delta’s north-east, the sitatunga has a shaggy, water-resistant coat and can escape predators by manoeuvring quickly over soft mud and soggy, submerged plant life. It is also an adept swimmer and, when frightened, will ‘do the hippo’ and submerge itself almost entirely beneath the water, with just two tiny nostrils in view above the surface. Males are much larger than females, have a mane and grow horns.

Spotting tip: The sitatunga is easily confused with the far more common waterbuck, but it has a shaggier coat and the female sitatunga has a coat that is more rufous-red than can be seen on the waterbuck.

African wild dog (Lycaon pictus)

One of Africa’s most charismatic predators, the African wild dog (also known as the Cape hunting dog) lives in packs of up to 28 animals and has one of the highest success rates (up to 70 per cent) of any predator in Africa. It is also highly endangered – as few as 3,000 and no more than 5,300 survive in the wild, spread thinly across 14 countries. One-third of these inhabit the Okavango Delta. Although their numbers are dwindling elsewhere, small populations also inhabit the Tuli Block and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

Spotting tip: The Linyanti Marshes, north of Savuti in the delta’s north-east are widely considered the best place in Botswana to see the species.