The aardvark is guaranteed first billing in any ABC of Botswana wildlife! This ‘earth pig’ (Afrikaans) has a long snout and almost trotter-like feet but otherwise little resembles its namesake. They are found throughout the country but numbers vary depending on the availability of food. The solitary aardvark is nocturnal, spending the day in underground burrows avoiding the heat, so can be elusive to the safari-goer. Burrows can be large with several chambers and multiple entrances. An aardvark may travel up to 5kms in search of ants and termites. Once it’s located a mound or nest it uses its long front claws to dig out prey and its sticky tongue to place them in its mouth. Its thick fur and skin protect it from bites. It can consume up to 50,000 termites in a single meal, making the long walk worthwhile! Once they reach maturity females give birth to a single cub each year, which stays with her for about 6 months before leaving to establish its own burrow.
Botswana is home to no fewer than 22 species of antelope, among them herds of graceful impala and large groups of wildebeest. Unlike these gregarious animals, the bushbuck is most often seen alone and tends to stay in vegetation away from the open plains. If you’re close to a river, lake or swamp you may see red lechwe and sitatunga (also known as waterbuck), both of which are adapted to life in and around the water.
Botswana’s many eco-systems are populated by almost 600 species of birds and the country has 13 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) covering 130,000sqkm. The best birding areas are in the north and include Chobe National Park, the Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi Pans. The last is home to large flocks of greater and lesser flamingos after the rains. In the Kalahari Desert a wide variety of birds gather in large flocks round the limited water supplies, offering great photo opportunities. Read our ‘Birding in Botswana’ experience.
Buffalos, one of the Big 5, are sturdy, heavily-built animals with relatively short legs and curved horns. Bulls usually weigh up around 700kg, with most cows weighing some 100kg less. They are dark brown to black in colour. Cape buffalo are found across the north of the country, throughout the Okavango Delta and Chobe to the northern Makgadikgadi. They are ruminants and eat large quantities of grass to maintain their bulk. Buffalo congregate in large herds, some 1000 strong, made up of both bulls and cows, seeking the security of woodland, reeds and thickets. They need to drink water every day, visiting a natural water source early each morning, spending the middle of the day sheltering from the heat and eating mostly at night. Calves are born year round and are reared and cared for by their mothers within the herd. Youngsters are protected by the elders when danger is near by being pushed into the middle of the herd. Unprovoked they are placid but can become aggressive when threatened and have been known to take down lion. Not surprisingly they have never been domesticated. They can run fast when they need to, reaching speeds of up to 55kph. You’ll often see a small bird perched on the back of a buffalo. This is the aptly-named ox-pecker which keeps the buffalo clean by eating parasites that live in its hide.
The super-sleek cheetah inspires awe and respect. Beautifully built, with long legs and a slender body, the cheetah is designed for speed. It is the fastest land animal on the planet with a top speed of over 100kph that can be sustained over a few hundred metres and is quite a sight to behold. When they’re running they use their long tails as a sort of rudder, to help them steer and change direction. Cheetahs are stealthy stalkers, getting close to their intended prey before sprinting in for the kill, when they administer a bite to the neck to bring it down. They have to eat quickly so as not to lose the kill to a larger carnivore. They are found throughout Botswana, but rarely seen in large numbers. You’ll usually observe lone individuals, pairs or perhaps a family group of female and her cubs. Most adult males are solitary or live in groups with other males, while each female establishes her own territory from which she’ll drive out other females. Cubs are born at any time of year in litters of up to 5. They’re initially blind and helpless and spend their first few weeks hidden in dense cover, after which time they follow their mother. They stay together for about a year, when the cubs depart to face the world on their own. Unlike other big cats cheetahs cannot roar.
Crocodiles are found in the permanent waters of the Okavango Delta, Chobe and Linyanti, living in rivers, marshes and lakes. It is one of the oldest species on the planet and was around even before the dinosaurs. Its ability to slow its metabolic rate to such an extent that it can survive without food for up to 2 years may be how it survived the fate of those long extinct creatures. Crocodiles are long lived, many living for 60 years and a few up to 100. They are usually between 250 and 350cm long but can grow up to 590cm. The powerful tail accounts for 40% of this length and is used to propel the crocodile, seemingly effortlessly, through the water. Valved nostrils enable them to breathe underwater. They have long jaws and a frightening amount of pointed teeth and have the strongest bite of any animal, although the muscles that open their jaws are not so powerful and most people could, if they needed, hold a crocodile’s jaw closed with their bare hands, in the manner of Johnny Weissmuller aka Tarzan! Their diet consists largely of fish but they can move surprisingly fast over short distances on will attack and eat mammals such as antelope, buffalo and zebra. They also attack humans. They can often be seen lying in the sun on riverbanks, their open mouths not just displaying their impressive dental-ware but also allowing them to lose heat through evaporation. Crocodiles mate in July and August with the female laying eggs in November. After about 3 months the eggs hatch and the mother takes them carefully in her mouth to the water where she releases them. They stay together in a group for the next 6-8 weeks.
It’s hard to think about Botswana without picturing an elephant (see our logo!). The vast elephant herds of Chobe, which has the highest concentration of elephants in the world, are an awesome sight. Until you see an elephant in the wild for yourself it’s hard to comprehend their sheer size. They are, after all, the world’s largest land mammal. They live in family groups, each led by a matriarch, consisting of her offspring, other juveniles and adult females. Groups vary in size with some as small as 3 individuals and other up to 25. They sometimes join together to form large herds at times when large numbers are advantageous. Male calves tend to stay with the group till they are about 12, when they are forced to leave. Many of these young males join groups of older males, at least for a time, though by adulthood most males are solitary. They join up with family groups for a short time, seeking receptive females and roaming from group to group, which optimises their reproductive capacity. If you picture elephants as rather lumbering creatures you might be surprised that they can reach up 30kph over short distances, though if you’ve ever been (mock)charged this may not come as such a surprise! These huge animals are herbivores and consume enormous amounts to maintain their body weight, an adult consuming up to 300kg a day! Elephants display great care and compassion amongst each other. Mothers tend their calves lovingly, while elephants’ reaction to the death of companion is particularly striking as they stand silently by the remains, often touching them with their trunks in apparent mourning. Sometimes bones or tusks are carried by the group as they move on.
The giraffe surveys the plains from its lofty vantage point. With an average height of about 5m it’s the tallest land animal on earth. With its impossibly long legs and neck it must have seemed other-worldly to the first human observers. They can be surprisingly hard to spot, as they blend into the shadows among the tall trees, and it’s often not till they move that you become aware of them. When they run it’s like watching film in slow motion, but don’t be fooled, they cover the ground fast, up to 55kph! They like savannah and woodland and can be found throughout central and northern Botswana. Giraffe live in herds and feed on trees and bushes, spending most of the day, between 16 and 20 hours, eating, consuming up to 45kg of leaves. They use their long tongues to help the reach food. Giraffes need little sleep, less than 5 hours a day and can sleep standing up for short periods of time but otherwise lie down with their legs tucked under their body and resting their heads on their rump. As this leaves them vulnerable there is usually one member of the herd on guard duty while the others sleep. Giraffes give birth standing up. For the first few weeks the calf is hidden away in a shady spot while the mother feeds. Subsequently the calf joins a crèche with other youngsters, and is fully weaned after 18 months. They live up to 25 years. You may not associate giraffes with noise but they can hiss, moo, grunt, whistle and roar!
Hippos are seen in the Okavango and in the Chobe, Limpopo and Boteti rivers. They have barrel-shaped bodies and can weigh up to 3.5 tons, which is a lot of animal! They spend most of their day in the water where they move with relative ease, and an adult can spend up to 6 minutes completely submerged. They also enjoy lying in the morning sun especially in winter. They generally feed at night, climbing up the riverbanks to graze on grass. Their 4-toed feet leave a distinctive mark that is easy to track. Despite their body shape and short legs, they can move quite nimbly on the ground and can outrun humans. Hippos live on groups or ‘schools’ of 10 to 15 animals. A typical school is made up of cows, juveniles and one bull who is the dominant individual. They are territorial and can be aggressive, as evidenced by their many scars and wounds. The characteristic open-mouthed yawn is, in fact, an aggressive stance, design to show off their array of sharp teeth. They are very dangerous when provoked, particularly when defending their young and are regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. Calves are born in shallow water or on land. They start eating grass at about 3 weeks but are suckled by their mothers for a year. Hippos live for around 45 years. Hippos often secrete a red fluid that acts as a skin lubricant and keeps the hide cool. This fluid has in the past been mistaken for blood, which gave rise to the myth that hippos sweat blood.
The spotted hyena is one of the most successful predators in Botswana, despite its relatively small stature, and kills more animals than lions. They have good hearing and vision and can run at speeds of 50kph for up to 3km while in pursuit of prey such as wildebeest and zebra. Hyenas deploy strategies such as causing confusion in a herd in order to for other hyenas to pick on a vulnerable individual. Their powerful jaws are able to crack open all but the largest bones and little food goes to waste. They are also adept at stealing other animals’ kills and often thieve from cheetah and lion, using their greater numbers to good effect. Hyenas live in clans of up to 50 individuals, dominated by a matriarch and with a series of social strata beneath her, in which all the females rank above the males. Females are larger and more aggressive than males. Hyenas are quite vocal, making a wide range of sounds including the ‘laughing’ with which they are associated.
Leopards are elegant, strong big cats which can be found all over Botswana, although being nocturnal and somewhat secretive, they can prove frustratingly elusive to the safari-goer. They generally rest during the day, often climbing into trees for safety, conserving their energy for night time hunting. Prey includes small creatures such as insects and rodents up to large antelopes. They don’t always eat everything they kill straight away, storing food under the cover of bushes or in trees to consume later. They live alone, forming pairs to mate. Males are territorial and guard their ground fiercely from other males with fights often resulting in a fatality. They will, though, share their territory with a female. They can breed at any time of year and litters usually contain 2-3 cubs, which are cared for by their mothers for 2 years before they venture out to start life on their own. As well as being good climbers they are strong swimmers, and they can run fast – up to 58kph – and jump up to 3m into the air. Despite this they are vulnerable to lions, hyenas and wild dog, so they try to avoid conflict by hunting at different times and targeting different prey. Their physical adaptability means they can be found on open plains, in woodland and in hill country. Their coats are covered in flower-shaped spots known as rosettes, which aid camouflage. Leopards have a poor sense of smell, but good vision and excellent hearing. They can hear five times more sounds than humans, even the ultrasonic squeaks of mice, all useful in hunting.
The male lion, standing proud, powerful head fringed by a long mane, is one of the iconic symbols of African. The largest of the African cats, lions are the dominant species in their habitat and are found throughout the country. They live together in prides, which vary in size depending on the availability of food. Both males and females defend their pride’s territory from other lions. Lions are not usually associated with water but in the Okavango Delta they have had to adapt, to pursue prey through water and have become accomplished swimmers. The lions of Botswana have the broadest range of prey in the African continent, known to hunt buffalo, hippo and even elephant. It is the females who perform hunting duties, working together to stalk prey and running at speeds of up to 50kph for short bursts, though males are first to eat followed by the females and lastly the cubs. Lions can breed at any time of year and females produce litters of 1-6 cubs, retiring to a secluded location to give birth and staying here for the first few weeks of the cubs’ lives, later rejoining the pride. Lions spend about 16 to 20 hours a day resting and live for around 12 years. The roar of the lion, one of the loudest warning signals in the bush, can be heard up to 8km away.
The Makgadikgadi Pans and Central Kalahari Game Reserve are two of the best places in the world to see meerkats. They belong to the mongoose family and are social animals living in large family groups. They create an underground network of burrows where they sleep, emerging in the early morning to look for food in the form of insects, eggs and small mammals. They work in groups always with at least one individual on look-out duty to warn of the approach of predators. These sentries seek out high ground and rocks that make good vantage points and stand in the upright, alert posture with which we’re all familiar. As meerkats become habituated to humans they will even use them as look out posts, so you might end up with one on your head! It’s extremely unusual for wild animals to approach people in this way and is one of the many traits that makes them so appealing to us. The collective noun for meerkats is a ‘mob’. Read our ‘Meeting Meerkats’ experience.
You’ll see both rhinos of both the black and white variety in Botswana. Rather confusingly they’re both the grey in colour! The white rhino’s name derives from the Afrikaner word ‘weit’ meaning wide, an apt description of the animal’s broad muzzle. It is much larger than the black rhino and is the second largest land mammal in the world after the elephant. The white rhino has a pronounced hump on its neck and a long head with 2 horns, the longer, front sometimes reaching up to 150cm. Adult bulls have their own territories which they defend from other males. Cows, which tend to live in groups, have larger territories which often overlap with those of several bulls. In breeding season bulls compete for cows, often coming to blows, using their powerful horns to inflict wounds. Cows give birth to a single calf which is weaned for about 1-2 years and stays with the mother until she gives birth again. Juveniles often band together in groups, as do mothers without calves. The smaller black rhino is listed as critically endangered, its population having been devastated by years of hunting poaching. Efforts are now being made to protect this rare animal, though the high demand of rhino horn is an ongoing issue. At first glance they resemble the larger animal, their head also has 2 horns, the front one considerably longer, but the prehensile pointed lip is a major difference. They use this to good effect when feeding as they pluck fruit and leaves from trees and bushes. They seek areas with good supplies of shrubs and a source of water. Socially, adults are usually solitary, though will occasionally join up to form groups of 12 or so individuals. They can breed at any time of year and calves stay with their mothers for about 3 years. In many respects the two species are similar. They are active in the early morning and late afternoon to evening when they feed. They go to waterholes to drink every day, though they can survive for up to 5 days without water if necessary. In the hot part of the day they rest, conserving their energy, cooling off by bathing in muddy pools. They are surprisingly agile for their size and can run up to 40kph if they need to, though only for short distances. They can live up to 40 years. They have a good sense of smell but poor eyesight. Rhinos are quite vocal, communicating with each other through snorts, squeaks, growls and grunts. Black and white rhinos are now found in several places in Botswana, notably Moremi Game Reserve and the Makgadikgadi Pans. The best bet for seeing these magnificent creatures in wild is on Chief’s island in Moremi.
With about 30% of the world’s current population, Botswana is one of just 4 countries where you can observe the rare and endangered African wild dog. The Kwando Private Reserve in northern Botswana and Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta both offer excellent chances of wild dog sightings. They have mottled coats, each pattern unique, pointed faces, large round-tipped ears and long legs. Unusually for a dog they have 4 toes on each foot rather than 5. They dwell in dens and their home range can be as large as 750sqkm. They are social animals, living in packs, usually presided over by a dominant male and female, the pack’s only breeding pair. The female has a litter of about 10 pups which are looked after by the entire pack. There are usually twice as many females as males in the litter. All females that reach maturity leave the pack, while the males remain. Their social behaviour extends to sharing food and helping weak, young or unwell pack members. They hunt together in groups of up to 20, sometimes covering huge distances in search of prey such as antelope and wildebeest and are adept at spotting and targeting weak or vulnerable individuals. They are very energetic animals and can run up to 55kph and use their superior stamina to tire their prey. Hunting generally occurs in the early morning and evening and sometimes by moonlight. Not all members of the pack take part in the hunt as some remain at the den to guard puppies. Wild dogs live up to 11 years. Read our experience about watching wild dogs.
Botswana’s national animal is the zebra. The black and white striped pattern of each animal is unique, rather like a human fingerprint. Though no-one is quite sure of the purpose of this distinctive marking, most theories associate it with camouflage, as en masse it can be hard for a predator to distinguish any one individual as the herd runs from side to side. The collective name for a group of zebras is, appropriately, a dazzle. They are found in the northern parts of Botswana, in the west and as far south as the Aha Hills, in the Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi. They live in family groups, each headed by a dominant male and made up of females and young, usually totalling 4 to 6 individuals. These family groups come together in large herds. Zebras are highly social and will come to the defence of a group member wounded by a predator, encircling the injured animal and trying to drive the predator away. A foal can walk within 20 minutes of being born. Mothers are very protective of their offspring and will keep all other zebras away for the first 2-3 days till the foal has learnt to recognise her scent, voice and appearance. They are herbivores and subsist on grass and you’ll often see them grazing in large numbers. A zebra can run up to about 60kph and when cornered by an attacker will rear up and kick or bite its foe. They have excellent eyesight and hearing and they sleep standing up. Zebras use their large ears to communicate moods, so tall, erect ears signal calm while ears pulled backwards denote anger.