Everyone dreams of coming back from Africa with a head full of tales about the amazing, and hopefully rare African safari animals, they saw out on safari. Sighting the “big five”—lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo—is the classic achievement, of course. If you should meet our ancient primate cousins in the jungles of western Uganda, you’ll be offered a chance to recount an uncommonly indescribable encounter. Some creatures, like the northern white rhino, are so exceptional as to only be found in captivity, but we know how to find the rarest African safari animals in the wild.
But certain wild sightings hold a special distinction—animals either so rare or reclusive that spotting one will have your guide as excited as you are. Here are six animals to give you a lifetime of safari bragging rights.
About as inconspicuous as a matte-grey Volvo and impossibly agile for their bulk, a wild black rhinoceros is an arresting sight to behold. Though the toughest of the big five to find, the odds of spying one have improved in recent decades. The black rhino remains critically endangered after a century of aggressive poaching and habitat pressure, but concerted conservation efforts have seen populations rise from their nadir in the nineties. This makes the black rhino one of the rarest African safari animals on our list.
Looking for all the world like a tactical-assault anteater, the improbably adorable pangolin is one of the most elusive animals on the African continent. Largely nocturnal, solitary by nature, and territorially spread out, the endangered pangolin is also the most trafficked animal on the planet—pursued for the keratin armor plates that provide its only defense against predators. Should you happen to encounter this toddling mammalian pine cone—say, somewhere in Tanzania—be sure to take some once-in-a-lifetime photos (your guide will probably be snapping away as well), but don’t go blowing anyone’s cover!
The great thing about this sighting is that if you’re fortunate enough to see one, you’re almost certain to see a few. The “painted wolf” of Africa almost always travels in packs of four or more. With a former territory range once so large that it spanned the continent, both the ancient Egyptians of the north and modern San peoples of the south include the marbled-fur canines in their folklore. Nowadays, sparsely scattered packs make appearances in Southern and East Africa — you might catch them hunting antelope in Selous, or scampering around the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
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Unlike most of the animals on this list, the widespread honey badger isn’t threatened—actually, this rare African safari animal is almost impossible to threaten it at all. This snarly, skunk-looking member of the weasel family sports powerful claws, a thick, loose hide that resists everything from snake bites to spear strikes, and a famously ferocious temperament. But despite what you may have heard on YouTube, the honey badger does care—even with all of this protection, the little varmint is extraordinarily shy. And if you do see one, you might be in for a show. These fearless hermits are known to tangle with cobras and hold their ground against full-grown lions.
If you’re a cat owner, you’ll be thoroughly familiar with this concept: a small, lithe feline that spends it days napping out of sight, completely indifferent to your presence. This rare African safari animal know as the wildcat, looking only slightly more feral than your homebody Tabby, secrets away in bushes while the sun shines and stalks unsuspecting prey at night. You might spy one sneaking around your camp well after sundown, but only if things are particularly quiet—the wildcat’s exquisitely sensitive hearing is keyed for pinpoint pouncing in the pitch-black night.
In Africa, the black leopard is so rare that it might as well be a myth—or maybe a comic book movie. Silent, stealthy, and nocturnal, leopards at large are elusive enough on their own as is; but tales of spotting an unspotted black panther skulking in the twilight grass have a ghost-story quality to them and are appropriately best told by old guides sharing drinks around a campfire. Only three sightings have ever been confirmed—the first in 1909 and the last, in Kenya’s Loisaba Conservancy, in 2018. Needless to say, this rare African safari leopard would be a historic sighting if you’re lucky enough to capture it!