Best Places to See Wildlife in South Africa

South Africa, a spectacular wildlife safari destination, has the world’s largest rhinoceros populations. According to a 2019 rhinoceros census, South Africa has 5,000 black rhinos and 18,000 white rhinos. In 2021, the world rhino population happens to be fewer than 27,000-30,000 rhinos, more than half of which are found in South Africa. It is one of the few places in Africa where you are likely to spot this endangered species.

1. Kruger National Park

Kruger National Park is one of the few African wildlife sanctuaries with guaranteed big five sightings. Kruger has a large concentration of big five, including less than 4000 rhinos, 3,549 white rhinos and 268 black rhinos. Visitors will have better luck spotting white rhinos in the south section of Kruger, near Berg En Dal, crocodile bridge, and Lower Sabi. Black rhino also prefers the same region but are less likely to be spotted.

To see large herds of elephants at Kruger, your safari guide will drive near the park’s rivers, such as the Olifants River, where the elephant matriarch leads the herd for drinks. You might also be able to watch the fascinating sight of hippos submerged into the river waters or strolling across the dam on land. Similarly, other herbivores such as impala, wildebeest and zebras can be seen around these rivers, or the central region of Kruger National Park, either under the cicada trees or on the open plains.

There are around 450-500 African wild dogs in Kruger. A few lucky visitors might be able to spot this endangered species on their Kruger safari. Kruger only has 460 elands spread throughout the park in the northern region, upwards from Letaba and Punda Maria. You might spot some south of Letaba, but that’s rare. Unlike the elusive elands, kudus are easier to stop. Over 11,200 kudus call the park their home. The chances of spotting endangered species such as aardvark, aardwolf, and pangolin are very low.

With over 500 distinct bird species, Kruger’s staggering diversity in birdlife invites birdwatchers from all over the world. To spot both the resident and migratory bird species, visitors should plan a trip between January to April.

Highlight: Big five, greater kudu, the largest concentration of rhino, abundant herbivore population

Wildlife Safaris with Activities

2. Pilanesberg National Park

Pilanesberg National Park is one of South Africa’s hidden treasures, known for its big five sightings and over 300 bird species. Based on a 2019 census, Pilanesberg has 60-70 lions and 240 elephants located within its 572 square kilometre region. You can head over to the Hippo Loop to spot cheetahs, lions, and of course, the hippos. The Hippo Loop and Mankwe Dam offer an ideal bird-watching site for spotting birds, such as the goliath heron, secretary bird, kingfishers, and fish eagles. The Mankwe Dam also offers great wildlife viewing opportunities, with wildlife congregating around the rivers and sunbathing on the banks.

During the game drives, you are likely to spot the giraffe, zebras, buffaloes, elephants, sable, tsessebe, roan, and rhinos. You might also get lucky and spot some of the Pilanesbergs’s elusive creatures, such as the cheetah, leopard, caracal, African wild cat, bat-eared fox, aardwolf, hyena, and serval.

Pilanesberg National Park is also home to 65 reptile species, including tortoises, snakes, lizards, geckos, and crocodiles. Visitors are likely to see Nile crocodiles floating in shallow water or basking on the river banks. The ideal way to spot snakes in Pilanesberg is on a walking safari. You might spot snakes such as Puff-adder, Mozambique spitting cobra, black mamba, side-stabbing snake, tree snake, vine snake, and herald snake. Furthermore, Pilanesberg is home to Africa’s largest snake, the African python.

The Pilanesberg peak, overlooking the Mankwe Dam, offers a spectacular view of wildlife from the top.

Highlight: Big five sightings, 65 reptile species, rare birds sightings, crocodiles

Wildlife Safaris with Activities

  • Pilanesberg Big Five Safari: Game drive
  • Tambuti Lodge Pilanesberg Safari: Game drive

3. Madikwe Game Reserve

According to a recent census, Madikwe has over 900 elephants. Due to the high elephant density in Madikwe, they are easier to spot on a safari. Madikwe also has around 844 African buffaloes and 60 lions. A lucky few visitors might also get a chance to spot the endangered African wild dogs, which can be seen only in a few wildlife sanctuaries in Africa.

One of the luxury resorts, Jamala Madikwe, has a private deck overlooking a waterhole. It allows guests to watch the wildlife come to quench their thirst, which includes leopards, lions, zebras, elephants, and African wild dogs. These species are often accompanied by their young.

Madikwe has over 300 bird species that are easier to spot on a walking safari. Madikwe’s open grasslands offer a clear view of the ostrich, secretary bird, and kori bustard. You will spot the bateleur and martial eagle as they fly high above the rocky outcrops. As the day progresses and temperatures rise, the vultures will start circling the carcasses left behind.  In Madikwe, you’ll spot three vulture species, lappet-faced, white-backed, and cape vultures.

Avid bird watchers can ask their guide to take a detour to the Madikwe Dam if it isn’t already on your route. Madikwe’s other water sources include Tshukudu Dam, Tau Dam, Tlou Dam, Tholo Dam, and Kologben Dams are some of the ideal locations to spot both birds and animals during the dry season.

Alternatively, you can plan a stay at Jaci’s Safari Lodge, Tree Lodges, and Tau Game Lodge. These have their own waterholes, which attract the birds.

Madikwe Game Reserve’s water sources, such as the Tshukudu Dam, Tau Dam, Tlou Dam, Tholo Dam, and Kologben Dams, are some of the ideal locations to spot game during the dry season.

Highlight: African wild dog sightings, big five and bird sightings.


4. Addo Elephant National Park

Addo Elephant National Park has the big 7, a slight but impactful modification to Africa’s ferocious big five.

Addo has a sizable concentration of African elephants, African buffaloes, rhinos, lions, leopards, great white sharks, and southern right whales. Addo has around 50 rhinoceros, which you can spot on a safari game drive.

Lions and spotted hyenas were reintroduced to the Addo Elephant National Park after years of absence. This step was taken to balance the park’s ecosystem. Recently, the park also introduced new elephant herds to review the declining gene pool. Due to a lot of inbreeding, a lot of female elephants were born without tusks. At present, the park has over 600 elephants, spread out over a vast expanse of 1,640 square kilometres.

Only six lions were first introduced in 2003. Since then, they have grown in numbers. Based on the 2019 census, there are 26 lions in the entire park. In 2003, hyenas were also introduced. You are likely to spot either one on morning or night game drives. To spot the elusive member of the big five, the leopard, you’ll have to go on an evening game drive. That’s the most likely time to spot these nocturnal creatures.

At the Algoa Bay, visitors can spot the rest of the big 7, the great white sharks and southern right whales. The location is also ideal to see marine life such as dolphins, seals, and humpback whales. St Croix Island has a massive African penguin colony, one of the few to exist in Africa. The island is only 50-60 minutes away from the Addo Elephant National Park.

Highlight: Large elephant population, big five, penguins, whales, and sharks.

Wildlife Safaris with Activities 

5. Sabi Sands Game Reserve

After Kruger, Sabi Sands Game Reserve is one of the most popular wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa. Its location bordering Kruger National Park ensures great wildlife viewing.

Like Kruger, Sabi sand game reserve offers excellent big five viewing opportunities. Since there are no fences between the parks, the wildlife roams freely between them.  Compared to other South African parks, it is easier to spot leopards in Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve during a game drive.

Sabi Sands used to be agricultural land that had many boreholes and dams. After the establishment of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, these dams and waterholes remained intact. The abundant water supply attracts herds of animals as well as predators.

Little Bush Camp, Ulusaba Safari Lodge, and Singita Ebony Lodge are some of the luxury accommodations in Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve that offer excellent views of the river or nearby waterholes. Some camps/lodges also have decks or lounge areas.

Highlight: Game viewing from the camp and big five sightings

Wildlife Safaris with Activities

6. St. Lucia/iSimangaliso Wetland Park

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, once known as the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, has five diverse ecosystems, mkuze swamps, lake St. Lucia, marine, eastern shores, and western shores. This diversity ensures species diversity throughout the park.

Maputaland Marine Reserve, a part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is situated offshore. It offers an extensive range of adventures, which includes snorkelling, whale-watching, and viewing marine life. On your snorkelling adventures, you’ll probably spot sea creatures such as the ragged-tooth sharks and huge shoals of fish. The coastal forests at Black Rock, Island Rock, Mabibi, and Rocktail Bay are ideal for snorkelling and scuba diving.

If you happen to plan a safari between April to October, you might get to see the extraordinary humpback whale migration. The coral reef at Sodwana Bay has over 1200 species of fish. Additionally, Sodwana Bay is also known for its highly diverse coral reefs. These reefs are ideal places to see the camouflage squids and octopuses.

Lake Sibaya, a freshwater lake running parallel to iSimangaliso Wetland Park, is home to large populations of hippos and Nile crocodiles. Another ideal location to spot hippos and crocodiles is lake St. Lucia. On the western shores and along the charters creek, you will spot iSimangaliso’s land mammals such as the elephants, buffaloes, giraffes, tsessebes, rhinos, and leopards.

Highlight: High coral reefs and fish diversity, shark and whale watching, and game viewing

Wildlife Safaris with Activities

7. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park

Hluhluwe Imfolozi Park was pivotal in bringing the white rhino back from the brink of extinction and has nurtured its rhino population. Today, it has 1,600 white rhinos and over 350 black rhinos. On game drives in the heart of Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Park, visitors will be able to spot the big five and more.

Its location in the Kwazulu Natal province offers visitors additional safari activities, such as visiting the coastline to experience its diverse marine life such as turtles, manta rays, reef sharks, and loads of other fish species. At the coastline, visitors can also see migrating marine life, including the southern right and humpback whales.

Another migration along the Kwazulu Natal province includes the sardine run. It is one of the world’s largest marine migrations, where dolphins, sharks and seabirds dive into a feeding frenzy. With over 340 bird species, the park is a bird-watchers paradise. The species commonly seen are Klaas’ cuckoo, Wahlberg’s eagle, night-heron, Temminck’s courser, and black-bellied korhaan.

Highlight: High marine life diversity, over 340 bird species

Wildlife Safaris with Activities

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