African Animals: 64 Things You Don’t Know

Africa is home to some of the largest, and most interesting, mammals on the planet. We’ve all seen the documentaries that detail the lives of such incredible animals as the zebra, giraffe and hyena but there are things that even the documentary filmmakers don’t tell you.

Wildlife guides, safari guides, and guides who live in the likes of Kenya and South Africa, are the people to go to for interesting facts about African animals, facts that go beyond the human eye. This is why safaris are so great: not only do they take you into the heart of beautiful Africa, they teach you things about the animal kingdom that will leave you that much more impressed by the intricacies of nature. Read on, and whether you’re going on a Maasai Mara safari just outside Nairobi, or a Jeep safari departing from Durban, South Africa, you’ll never see African animals the same way again.


Though lions are said to be the “king of the jungle,” they are actually rather lazy; they hunt in packs simply because they cannot chase their prey for long distances, and they sleep for an average of 20 hours a day. On the topic of hunting, it’s actually the females — the mane-less lionesses — that do most of the hunting; the men defend their pride’s territory. Lions are more social than other cats (they like to be around their own kind), they live for approximately 14 years, and the females synchronize the birth of their cubs so that it’s easier to raise them. In regards to the mane, the darker and larger it is, the stronger the lion, and in regards to the fluffy tufts on the tips of their tails, they develop when a cub reaches 5 months of age.


Although they may look far from human-like, elephants have some very human characteristics. For example, they show great respect for their dead by burying them under tree branches and mourning for them, elephant calves often suck their trunks for comfort just as babies suck their thumbs, and they prefer one tusk over the other just as humans prefer the left or right hand. Also, the saying, “never judge a book by its cover,” strongly applies to elephants; they are far more intelligent than humans assume. In fact, they can retrace their grazing routes after several years of absence!

More fun facts about elephants:

  • They flap their ears to keep cool
  • They eat between 16-18 hours per day
  • Their skin is one inch thick
  • They use their feet to listen! How? By picking up sub-sonic rumblings made by other elephants through vibrations in the ground (side note: elephants can make low frequency sounds that are below the hearing range of humans!)
  • They sleep standing up
  • Female elephants are called cows, and they’re pregnancies last 22 months
  • Adults drink 210 liters of water a day (that’s 875 cups of water per day!)
  • Elephants’ trunks are four times as sensitive to smell as a bloodhound and are so dexterous they can crack a peanut shell without breaking the seed


While most leopards have cream and gold spotted fur, some do not: some leopards have black fur with dark spots, and, in turn, they are often mistaken for panthers. Unlike lions, this “strain” of cat is solitary: adults have their own territory, and although they often share parts of the land, leopards try to avoid one another. To help with balance and turning sharply, leopards’ tails are as long as their bodies, and instead of eating their prey straight away, leopards will often stash the kill high up in trees, only returning when they are hungry. But leopards don’t just kill, they are killed too: some people think leopards’ bones and whiskers can heal sick people, so they are sought after for medicinal purposes.


So-called because “rhinoceros” means “nose horn,” rhinos actually belong to the same family as horses. And did you know that humans share something with rhinos? Yep: keratin. Rhinos’ horns are made of keratin, which is the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair! Another fun fact regarding rhinos is that although they look like they can eat a lot of meat — rhinos can weigh up to 2200 lb — they are actually herbivores.


I bet you’d never guess that something so large and intimidating could have a sweet side: African Buffalo sleep by resting their heads on one another. This species also starts to mate at the age of 5, but only does so during the rainy season, lives in large groups (sometimes of up to 2000 members), and, like us, they lose hair as they age. Finally, did you know they also have an exceptional memory? Buffalo will recognize hunters that hurt them in the past, and, in turn, they will attack when they meet them again.


The most awesome fact about impalas concerns their astounding leaping ability: impalas can jump about 10 feet high, and, when running, 33 feet ahead! Other tidbits about impalas that you’ll be excited to learn are that males attract females (or warn off other males) by “tongue flashing,” or repeatedly sticking out their tongues, and, when in danger, groups of the animal explode, leaping and zig-zagging purely to confuse predators. Cunning, eh!?


Warthogs got the name from the wart-like bumps on their faces, and although they are pigs, they have manes like a horse. Other interesting facts about the warthog are that piglets don’t share teats (each is designated to his own on the mother) and they run in a line behind their mothers, and they’re the only pigs that can survive in hot areas without water for several months (they do this by conserving moisture internally instead of using it to cool down).


Each zebra has a unique pattern of stripes and there are different theories as to why they’re such unique colors. One is that it repels insects (apparently parasitic flies are averse to animals with stripes). Another involves body temperature regulation (the white stripe keeps them cooler) and the final one relates to camouflage: Zoologists believe that color blind predators may get confused between the stripes and the grass blades in the surroundings, preventing them from becoming dinner. But, be clear: zebras are black with white stripes, not the other way around!

Other little-known facts about zebras:

  • They sleep standing up and in shifts so that some members of the herd are always on the lookout for predators
  • Their main defense is their powerful hind-leg kick
  • Their coats are shiny to deflect heat
  • They communicate using the positioning of their ears and tails
  • They observe a strict hierarchical system: a dominant mare leads the group, and her foals follow directly behind (the lowest ranking mare comes last)


Perhaps the most interesting thing about a giraffe is its tongue, which is blue-black in color to prevent it from getting sunburnt, and can grow up to 20 inches long. Other facts include:

  • Giraffes eat up to 75 pounds of food per day (their favorite food being the acacia leaf)
  • They sleep in short bursts (12-minute stints)
  • Males and females eat from different parts of a tree to ensure that the two sexes don’t compete for food.
  • Giraffes rarely lie down: they even give birth standing, and when the babies fall to the ground, they are up and on their feet after just five minutes!


Hyenas are not the most endearing or attractive of animals, but they sure do have some interesting characteristics. For example:

  • The females are more aggressive (and often heavier!) than the males
  • Their hearts comprise 10% of their total body weight
  • Spotted cubs are born with teeth AND their eyes open, and if they are born with a sibling of the same sex, they will likely try to kill each other
  • Hyenas eat the bones and all (this explains why their dung is white when dry)
  • They look like dogs, but they are actually genetically closer to cats
  • They are the biggest EATER (…not necessarily killer) of humans out of all African animals!


Hippopotamuses (or “hippopotami,” if you prefer the Latin) have barrel-shaped torsos because they’re best suited for their environment: their thick skin and fat lend them a density that helps them sink to the bottom of riverbeds and lakes where they feast, and they also prevent the animals from developing cold-water-induced hypothermia. Also, many people believe the lion or hyena to be the most ferocious of all the African animals but that honour actually goes to the hippo. Males are extremely territorial and unwary swimmers die every year when they wade into hippo waters. Oh, and don’t be mistaken by their heavy-set frames; hippos can easily outrun humans!

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