8th November 2021
Namibia is best known for its vast, empty and striking landscapes, but despite the often arid environment it is home to some of Africa’s most beautiful wildlife. All of the African Big Five - lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo - can be found within its borders, as well as cheetah, giraffe, zebra and gemsbok (oryx). Its marine life is also surprisingly abundant due to plankton-rich coastal waters, which support an increasing population of humpback and southern right whales as well as turtles and common mola (sunfish). Here, we’ve gathered some information on the key wildlife that you will see on your safari holiday to Namibia, as well as the creatures that you may spot outside the game reserves.
Around 2,500 elephants wander the plains of Namibia’s Etosha National Park, with females and youngsters living in family groups as large as 50 and the males setting out on their own once they reach maturity. You are highly likely to come across them when on safari, particularly gathered around water sources.
Namibia is also home to a rare kind of “desert-adapted” elephant which isn’t technically a separate species, but over time has developed larger feet (better for spreading weight on sand) and the ability to go for days without water, simply surviving on moisture gained from its diet of roots and vegetation. These elephants are generally found in the northwest of Namibia and roam in smaller herds to ease the pressure on their limited resources.
The rhino features on Africa’s Big Five list for good reason. These critically endangered animals are one of the continent’s largest land mammals, weighing in at up to a tonne and ranking third behind elephants and hippos for weight. Namibia contains almost half of Africa’s population of wild black rhino, with many of these endangered creatures dwelling in Etosha National Park. The park is also home to an increasing number of white rhino, which were officially extinct in Etosha until they were reintroduced from South Africa’s Kruger National Park in 1995. Your best chance of seeing them is by visiting watering holes, ideally on a night time game drive. Just let your guide know that you’d love to see them and they will use their expertise to give you the best chance of spotting one. It will be an experience you won’t forget!
Namibia has the largest population of cheetah in the world. This is largely due to conservation efforts. Locals are discouraged from hunting them (as well as leopards), while some farmers are even given guard dogs to help deter the big cats from their livestock. Namibia also has the perfect topography for the cheetah’s hunting abilities, with great big open spaces allowing them to reach their phenomenal speeds - up to 75 mph, hitting 60 mph in just three seconds! - with no obstacles. Etosha National Park has a good population of cheetah within its boundaries, so keep your eyes peeled when on safari, but if you want to increase your chances of a sighting you should head to Okonjima Nature Reserve, home of the AfriCat Foundation.
The lion is the iconic big cat of Africa, and for good reason - it is a spectacular animal. The maned males can weigh up to 190 kilograms and the females are formidable in their hunting abilities, working seamlessly as a team to bring down such large prey as buffalo, or even elephant and giraffe in some countries. They are only found in the northern parts of Namibia, and around 600 or more live within the Etosha National Park while only smaller populations are found elsewhere. Here, they prey on the antelope, and are also known to hunt the iconic gemsbok (oryx), wildebeest and zebra.
Leopard are the most elusive big cats in Namibia, generally keeping to the slightly more wooded and overgrown areas where their tree-climbing skills and stealthy hunting tactics can come into play. Hyena and lions have no qualms when it comes to stealing a leopard’s kill - the leopard’s solitary nature makes it easy to pick on when you’re in a pack - so it’s not uncommon to spot them reclining in a branch with a springbok or other kind of antelope suspended alongside them. Within Etosha National Park, they are most commonly found in the Moringa, Stark’s Pan, Rietfontein, Goas, Nuamses and Kalkheuwel areas. As mentioned before, if you have a burning desire to see a leopard on safari then mention it to your guide and they will do their best to accommodate using their intimate local expertise.
Two of the four varieties of zebra can be found within Namibia’s borders, these being Burchell’s (aka plains zebra) and Hartmann’s mountain zebra. Hartmann’s mountain zebras are generally found in the higher climbs of western Etosha and Naukluft National Park. They are larger than the Burchell’s zebra, which can be found wherever there is grazing throughout much of Namibia. Hartmann's zebra are also specially evolved to cope with the higher, rocky terrain, being particularly sturdy and with fast growing feet to allow for the inevitable wear and tear.
Another way to tell the difference between Burchell’s and Hartmann’s zebras is to look closely at their coats. The Burchell’s zebra have streaks of dusty brown running alongside their black and white stripes, which the Hartmann’s zebra lack. The stripey coats of zebras are striking when admired at close range, however they are deceptively brilliant for camouflage. At a distance the herds are notoriously difficult to spot, especially at dawn and dusk when predators are at their most active.
In 2014 it was discovered that the Burchell’s zebra of Namibia (also known as the plains zebra) take part in Africa’s longest land mammal migration travelling across the border into Botswana in search of better the grasslands around the Chobe river. This migration covers over 300 miles, making it all the more remarkable that we have only just discovered its existence.
The elegant figure of the gemsbok is synonymous with Namibia; two of them rear majestically on either side of the country’s coat of arms. The gemsbok is the largest in the oryx genus, the males weighing in at as much as 240 kilograms (roughly 530 pounds) and measuring up to 2.4 metres nose to tail. Their beautiful dusty tan coats are marked with striking black patterns and white stockings reach above their knees, but their most striking feature is their long, straight horns which can reach up to 85 cms long.
Gemsbok are perfectly adapted for desert conditions - they don’t rely solely on waterholes for hydration and can get much of the moisture they need from roots and tubers, occasionally digging as deep as a metre down to find them. These beautiful antelope are common throughout Namibia and you are likely to see them throughout your trip. They look particularly striking against the red dunes of Sossusvlei - another reason not to forget your camera!
These elegant animals need to be seen to be truly appreciated. Their elongated grace is mesmerising to watch, but also serves a practical purpose. Their long necks allow them sole access to the highest shoots and leaves, and the only predators that can hunt an adult giraffe (other than humans) are lions. Even they have to be very ambitious to attempt it, as in hunting them they risk a potentially fatal giraffe’s kick! Despite their rather ungainly looking gait, giraffe can actually reach speeds of up to 35 mph when galloping, their long limbs covering the ground deceptively quickly. You are likely to see them in Etosha National Park, as well as Damaraland and Kaokoland.
Heaviside's dolphins (sometimes known as Haviside’s or the Benguela dolphin) and Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are found in Namibia’s waters. Both of these playful species are naturally inquisitive and love swimming alongside boats, leaping out of the water and giving you ample opportunity to admire them. The Heaviside’s dolphin is petite, and has striking colouring with a light-grey head fading to a darker tail and white stripes along each side, making it instantly identifiable. The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is most likely the species you are most familiar with - it has a well defined snout and dove-grey colouring and is generally larger than the Heaviside’s dolphin. Keep your eyes peeled for both as you sail - you never grow out of the joyous feeling you experience while watching them play in the waves coming off the bow.
Namibia’s waters are now rich enough to support an increasing population of whales including blue, fin, minke and sperm whales, though the southern right and humpback whales are the breeds you are most likely to come across during your travels. Southern right whales used to breed regularly in Walvis Bay just down the coast from Swakopmund, and humpbacks also bred along the coast, however they were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s. Thankfully, due to increasing conservation, both the humpback and southern right whale populations are growing year on year. The main time to see them is typically between June and November - watch out for the fountain-like sprays as they break the surface to breathe, or perhaps you’ll even be lucky enough to see them leap from the water before crashing down again with an almighty splash…
Common mola (ocean sunfish)
The common mola (mola mola) is the heaviest known bony fish in the world, weighing in at up to a tonne and reaching lengths of just under two metres. Being as tall as it is long but largely flat sided, it is a bizarre looking creature, but one worth looking out for. You can only grasp the true scale of this fish by seeing it in the flesh.
Cape fur seals
There are a few breeding colonies of cape fur seals scattered up the coast of Namibia, the most visited being the colony at Cape Cross. Surviving largely on a diet of herring and other fish, these seals thrive on the African coast and are notoriously inquisitive. The younger seals are known to swim out to examine visiting boats and love to play in the surf. If you visit between October and February you will be able to admire the young pups being raised on the beach as well as the ferocious battles occurring between the enormous bull seals as they fight over breeding rights. These males can reach up to 2.5 metres long and weigh up to 350 kilograms. Seeing them fight, even from afar, is pretty impressive.
Make it happen
There are of course plenty of other animals that you may cross paths with on your holiday to Namibia, whether that’s the many varieties of antelope (from the delicate dik-dik to the springbok) or rarer brown hyenas. Wherever you venture on safari, you are sure to have a brilliant time. But why stop on land? The coastal waters are also well worth exploring while you are in the country… Set out from Swakopmund on a catamaran to explore Namibia’s surprisingly bountiful shoreline.
Our local experts in Namibia are fantastic at planning tailor-made trips and can put together an itinerary made to your needs and wishes, whether that’s to see rhino or whales. Get in touch with them to get the ball rolling. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.