Wildlife in Botswana
Botswana is where the silent deserts and grasslands meet, and every season brings new experiences in an ever-changing landscape. It's a wildlife haven and a popular safari destination with an astonishing collection of wildlife. Botswana has everything from herds of elephants to scampering packs of African-painted dogs, plentiful birds, and big cats. Let's dive into some diverse wildlife you can expect to see during a Botswana safari. Whether you're exploring the Okavango Delta, Moremi, Chobe, or the Kalahari, the wildlife encounters in Botswana will undoubtedly be unforgettable. So, pack your binoculars and camera, and prepare for a wild adventure!
The Okavango Delta and Moremi Game Reserve are synonymous with epic wildlife safaris and a stomping (and splashing) ground of the Big Five. The Delta's tributaries are renowned for their striking birdlife, including hundreds of species like kingfishers, bee-eaters, lilac-breasted rollers, and the elusive pink-throated longclaws. On mokoro or boat trips, watch for rare antelopes like red lechwe, tsessebe, roan, sable, and sitatunga roaming the banks.
Chobe is famously known for being home to two-thirds of Africa's elephant population. A boat trip along the Chobe River provides sightings of incredible numbers of wildlife and an opportunity to see elephants crossing with sometimes only the tips of their heads and trunks visible, herds of buffalo and puku antelope can be seen roaming the banks, while the waters are alive with hippos and crocodiles.
The Makgadikgadi, one of the largest salt pans in the world, offers intriguing wildlife viewing. It's an arid landscape with desert-adapted creatures like aardwolf, aardvark, and rare brown hyena. The rainy season brings thousands of zebra and wildebeest, followed by predators like Kalahari black-maned lions and cheetahs. Migratory birds, including Greater flamingos, also arrive during this time.
The Central Kalahari, characterised by golden grasslands, is home to unique creatures. Explore Deception Valley to see the rarer black-maned lions or spot colonies of meerkats on foot. You might see rare brown hyenas, serval, caracal, and leopard on the hunt at night.
The Big Five:
Botswana is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts, offering the incredible opportunity to witness Africa's Big 5 - African elephant, buffalo, African lion, leopard, and rhinoceros - in their natural habitats.
The northern Okavango Delta is one of the best places to see the massive herds of buffalo, which thrive on the lush grasses of the Delta and can number in the tens of thousands.
Chobe National Park is famous for hosting the highest concentration of African elephants, with around 50,000 of these majestic creatures enjoying mud baths and lush vegetation, particularly along the permanent waters of the Chobe River during the dry season.
Lions are abundant throughout Botswana, with some of the highest numbers found in Moremi and the Savute region of Chobe National Park. This area features dry savannah and grassy plains, ideal for the lions' ambush predation strategies. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is also a great place to spot these big cats, which have remarkable adaptations for survival.
Rhinos, especially black rhinos, are heavily protected due to their near extinction from poaching and a very rare sight. The Moremi Game Reserve, located next to the Okavango Delta, is currently the best place to see rhinos, thanks to a joint project with South Africa that reintroduced them to northern Botswana.
Leopards are elusive and versatile big cats renowned for their climbing prowess and powerful jaws. Moremi Game Reserve and the Central Kalahari Game Reserve are good locations to spot these magnificent creatures.
The peak safari season in Africa, from July to October, provides the best opportunity to witness the Big 5, as the lack of rain results in thinner vegetation, and water scarcity forces animals to congregate around larger lakes and rivers. This makes it easier for travellers to witness these magnificent animals and contribute to their conservation efforts.
The Little Five:
Botswana is home to the safari world's famous "Big Five" and the intriguing "Little Five", which includes Elephant Shrew, Ant Lion, Rhinoceros Beetle, Buffalo Weaver, and Leopard Tortoise. These smaller creatures may not be as imposing as their larger namesakes, but they offer a unique and intriguing wildlife experience.
The Elephant Shrew, named for its long nose resembling an elephant's trunk, is a tiny insect-eating mammal that measures only 9 to 12 inches long and weighs around 1.5 pounds. Residing in sandy, gravelly, and thornbush plains, this cautious creature is prey for snakes and birds of prey, making it a rare treat to spot.
The Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, one of three Buffalo-Weaver species, is known for its distinctive bright red beak. These social and noisy birds build communal nests that may appear messy but provide essential shelter.
The Ant Lion, the smallest of the Little Five, gets its name from its predatory behaviour of digging conical traps to catch ants or termites. The Ant Lion is the larval stage of a winged insect resembling a dragonfly and lives most of its life underground. It can be found in dry, sunny spots across Africa.
The Leopard Tortoise, the largest of the Little Five, has beautiful leopard-like markings on its shell. This species can grow up to 18 inches in length and weigh up to 40 lbs. Found in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and Southwest Africa, the Leopard Tortoise can live for over 100 years.
The Rhinoceros Beetle, named for the horn on its head, is one of the strongest creatures in the world relative to its body weight. This small member of the Little Five is found in gardens, farms, and tropical places in South Africa and is entirely harmless to humans but formidable in its strength.
Spotting the Little Five requires patience and a keen eye, but it's a rewarding experience that showcases the diversity and adaptability of Africa's smaller inhabitants. A bush walk is often the best time to check these fascinating creatures off your safari list, offering a closer look at Africa's often-overlooked smaller species.
Northern Botswana boasts diverse birdlife, including waterfowl like bitterns, cormorants, egrets, and fish eagles. The Okavango Delta is renowned for sightings of special waterbirds, including the near-endemic Slaty Egret and Wattled Crane.
African Painted Wild Dogs:
African Painted Wild Dogs, also called Hunting Dogs or Painted Hunting Dogs, are an endangered species of canines known for their patchwork coats and unique pack behaviour. They are primarily found in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Botswana, and South Africa, with Botswana home to about 30% of the remaining population.
These remarkable creatures have large, rounded ears, white-tipped tails, and only four toes per foot. Adult wild dogs weigh between 18 and 36 kg and are known for their agility, capable of running faster than 70 km/h when hunting.
They are highly social animals, living in packs that range from 10 to 40 individuals. The pack is led by a monogamous breeding pair known as the alpha male and female. They show a strong sense of community by sharing food, assisting weaker members, and collectively raising the pups of the alpha pair.
They inhabit savanna woodlands and open plains, avoiding dense forests but thriving in grasslands. The pack uses dens, often abandoned aardvark or warthog holes, for protection, especially when females give birth. The pups remain in the den for around three months, fed by their mother's regurgitation and food delivered by other pack members.
These dogs communicate through touch, action, and bird-like calls. They are seasonal breeders, with whelping occurring between April and September. Hunting primarily during the day, they strategically chase down prey, often exhausting it before pulling it apart.
However, these majestic creatures face numerous threats, including human encroachment, agricultural expansion, poaching, and conflict with farmers protecting livestock. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature considers wild dog populations in irreversible decline and classifies them as endangered.
Botswana is home to many of Africa's renowned predators, such as lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Lions are the largest big cat group and can be found throughout Botswana, including the famous Moremi Game Reserve. Visitors should also check out the Kalahari Desert to spot the unique black-maned lions. Leopards are known for their evasiveness and secrecy but can be found in all significant conservation areas and across most habitats in Botswana. Moremi Game Reserve and Khwai areas are excellent regions for opportunities to witness these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Cheetahs are considered the weakest of the big cats in Botswana due to the country's high predator population, but their sightings are notable due to their endangered status. They tend to inhabit grassland and woodland areas, with the best chances of seeing them in grassy plains like the Linyanti or Savute regions near Chobe National Park. Despite their challenges, including competition from other predators and theft of their kills, these big cats remain a crucial drawcard for safari-goers in Botswana. Witnessing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitats is a unique and unforgettable experience.
Botswana is home to a spectacular natural phenomenon that involves herds of zebras migrating across the country in search of fresh grazing land. Although it isn't the largest migration in Africa, it's the largest in southern Africa and one of the world's longest animal migrations.
The zebra migration happens twice a year, with the herds moving from north to south and back again. Up to 30,000 zebras may be on the move during each migration, covering over 300 miles. Researchers who noticed the zebras' peculiar movement across the vast Kalahari Desert only recently discovered this phenomenon.
Botswana has distinct wet and dry seasons. The wet season runs from November to March, while the dry season runs from April to October. During the dry season, the zebras stay in the northern wetlands, enjoying the plentiful water from the Okavango and Chobe rivers. When the dry season ends, they migrate southward across the Kalahari Desert plains, entering the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, which come alive with vegetation during the rainy season.
The migration is a round trip, with the zebras travelling from places like the floodplains of Chobe near the Namibia-Botswana border to the Makgadikgadi area via Savute. The best time to see this incredible migration is during the off-season, from December to January and March to April, when the zebras arrive or leave the salt pans.
Although most visitors to Botswana go on safari during the dry season, the best time to witness the mass zebra migration is during the rainy season. The wet conditions can make travel challenging, and the dense vegetation can obscure the view of the zebras galloping across the land. However, the spectacle is well worth the effort, and the best place to watch it is within Nxai Pan and the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
Meerkats are small mammals belonging to the mongoose family and are among the most endearing creatures in the African wilderness. In Botswana, meerkats form clans of around 20 members, led by a dominant male and female. These hardworking animals work together to defend their territory and often engage in territorial disputes with neighboring clans.
Observing wild meerkats in the Kalahari Desert is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Chance encounters with these charming creatures never fail to evoke indescribable excitement. The best time to observe their playful activities is morning and dusk when they venture out across the plains searching for scorpions and other delicacies.
Meerkats, also known as suricates, live in tight-knit groups known as "mobs," "gangs," or "clans," typically consisting of around 20 individuals. In some cases, so-called "super-families" can exceed 50 members. These vigilant creatures work in harmony, with a few individuals serving as sentinels on the lookout for aerial predators like hawks or eagles. A sharp, shrill call signals all to take cover.
While some meerkats guard the group, others forage for a diverse diet, including plants, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and small reptiles. Despite their modest size, meerkats are surprisingly swift and can reach up to 32 km/h. Meerkat groups maintain multiple burrows, shifting from one to another. These intricate tunnel-and-room systems offer refuge from the African sun's scorching heat.
Female meerkats typically give birth to two to four young, although some litters can consist of 7 or 8 pups. Fathers and siblings play a crucial role in raising the young, teaching them the skills of play and foraging, and alerting them to threats from above and rival meerkat clans. Even aeroplanes can send young meerkats diving for cover due to their fear of predatory birds.
When you go on a safari in Botswana, you will likely encounter hippos in the rivers, flood plains, and marshes of the Okavango Delta or along the Chobe River. Although hippos may appear clumsy animals, they are lively and unpredictable.
Hippos are among the heaviest terrestrial animals, surpassed in weight only by elephants and some rhinos. Adult males typically weigh around 1,500 kg but continue to gain weight throughout their lives, with some individuals exceeding 2 tonnes. Female hippos weigh an average of 1,300 kg and reach their maximum weight at around 25.
Despite their frequent presence in the water and their webbed feet, hippos are notably poor swimmers and do not float well. However, they can move along the bottom by walking or leaping when submerged. Contrary to appearances, when out of the water, hippos can charge at speeds of up to 30 km/h over short distances, an ability that is indeed impressive.
At first glance, hippos might seem as harmless as they come. These creatures, often submerged in water, appear cute and cuddly, giving the impression of gentle giants akin to elephants. However, this illusion quickly shatters when you witness a hippo's massive jaws wide open, revealing its destructive potential in the wild. These majestic animals are among Africa's most dangerous living land mammals despite their seemingly harmless looks.
Giraffes are the largest land animals known for their unique spots, which serve as their identification. These spots grow larger and darker with age, and the spaces between them also expand. Both male and female giraffes have horns, but males have thicker and more developed horns. Giraffes are born with cartilage horns, making them the only mammals with this feature. The top of the horn is covered in skin with black hairs that become less visible as males age, making the top bald and shiny.
Giraffes breathe 1.5 times faster than humans, with a trachea more than 2 meters long and 5cm in diameter. They have large eyes that grant them excellent eyesight, and their ears move independently, providing excellent hearing. However, their sense of smell needs to be developed. Giraffes are ruminants with a four-compartment stomach, spending about a third of their time ruminating. Their diet mainly consists of leaves, especially from acacias, with over 100 plants. They consume around 34 kg of foliage daily, using their powerful and long tongues, which are blue-black to protect against UV light, to grasp leaves and flowers.
Young giraffes neck by rubbing and intertwining their necks, while adult males fight violently by thrusting their heads like hammers. The denser and larger skull of older males becomes a formidable weapon.
Hyenas have often been portrayed in popular culture as misunderstood creatures. But in reality, hyenas are highly intelligent, sociable, and successful hunters. Two subspecies of the brown and spotted hyena are found in Botswana.
Both successful hunters and skilled scavengers. They often steal kills from other predators, following them on hunts and quickly moving in to take the prey once it has been captured. While this behaviour is strategic for hyenas, it can harm other predators like cheetahs, who may avoid areas where hyenas are prevalent.
Spotted hyenas are more widespread and have excellent hunting skills than their brown counterparts. They are top predators and can kill more prey than lions, proving they are not just scavengers. Spotted hyenas can be found in forested and savanna areas like the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park, and Moremi Game Reserve.
Brown hyenas are more elusive and live in semi-desert and savanna landscapes. They are commonly found in the Kalahari Salt Pans and Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Warthogs are known for their fearlessness in facing predators like lions and hyenas. Diurnal animals spend their day grazing and rooting for bulbs while wallowing in mud, which helps regulate their body temperature. At night, they retire to their burrows backwards, using their tusks as a defensive measure. They can run up to 48 km/h but have limited endurance. Adult warthogs have a unique defence mechanism. They can reverse direction when chased into a hole, using their tusks as the last defence. Warthogs are fascinating creatures that continue to captivate the hearts of those who encounter them.
Botswana is a country where savanna covers 90% of its land, providing rich vegetation and a diverse habitat for numerous herbivores. With around 2,500 species of plants and 650 species of trees, the savanna sustains hundreds of thousands of animals, especially antelopes, which are widespread and abundant in this region.
The eland is the largest African antelope, standing at 150-190cm height at the shoulder. Although not known for their speed, they have incredible endurance and can leap large distances. Elands can be found in the Kalahari semi-desert region, savannas, dry forests, and open plains.
Kudu is famous for its distinctive spiralled horns and loud, gruff bark. They are excellent jumpers and can quickly clear a 3-meter fence. Kudu can be found all over Botswana but are particularly abundant along the Chobe and Linyanti rivers.
Roans are social animals and prefer to stay in herds of up to 20 members. Roan antelopes depend heavily on water, and their population numbers are low due to their exclusive range preferences. The best places to view Roan antelopes are in Chobe and Moremi.
Sable, known as "The Territorial Horn-Users", are fiercely territorial animals that use their long, curved horns to defend themselves against lions that attempt to jump on their backs. They can typically be found in well-grassed open woodlands near bodies of water, particularly in areas such as Chobe River, Linyanti, and Moremi.
The Gemsbok, with their distinctive long straight horns and ability to impale predators, are specially adapted to survive in high temperatures. These attractive antelopes can be found in small herds, and the best places to see them are Nxai Pan, Deception Valley, and Makgadikgadi.
Wildebeest prefer grass plains and abundant water and can be found throughout Botswana, including the Okavango Delta and Kalahari. They can travel up to 1,610 km in a year.
Tsessebe, known for their bounding run, can reach speeds up to 100 km/h. They can be found in grasslands, floodplains, and, during winter, in the Savuti Marsh.
Waterbucks can be found in large herds near water and may dash into the water when sensing danger.
The Sitatunga is a medium-sized antelope well-adapted to living in water, where it spends most of its time. It can be found in permanent swamps and thick covers.
Red Lechwes are aquatic antelopes that form separate male and female herds and often wade up to their bellies in shallow waters.
Impalas are the most abundant antelopes in Botswana and are often seen in large herds in Moremi and Chobe.
Springboks enjoy dry, open grasslands in Nxai Pan, Central Kalahari, Khutse and other areas. They are capable of leaping up to 2 meters into the air.
Bushbucks are solitary animals that prefer to stay in vegetation. They are found in the Okavango Delta, Kwando-Linyanti, and Chobe National Park.
Duikers are nocturnal and solitary animals that feed on insects, small reptiles, birds, and carrion. They are in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Savute in Chobe National Park.
Steenbok can be found in short grasslands and shrubs throughout Botswana, where they aggressively defend their territories and young.
Tsessebe, the fastest antelope on the plains, inhabits northern Botswana's Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve.
Waterbucks are non-aquatic antelopes that inhabit areas near permanent water sources, such as Chobe National Park, Linyanti Wildlife Reserve, and the eastern side of the Okavango Delta.
Klipspringers are agile climbers known for their incredible jumping abilities. They are typically found in rocky areas, particularly in Savuti, Ngoma, and Tuli.
Oribi, a conserved species in Botswana, can be found alone or in pairs and prefers extensive grassy plains with short grass for grazing.
Reedbuck typically dwell in groups of up to six, seeking refuge in dense vegetation from predators. They can be found in high grasslands near Moremi, Chobe, and Okavango water sources.