The most unique African animals and where to find them 

The African continent has some of the most diverse habitats in the world. Its wilderness ranges from barren expanses of desert to rich lowland savannahs and cacophonous mountain jungles.  Such diversity has resulted in a dizzying array of animals, all of which are specially adapted to their particular environment. We’ve picked out ten African animals that have survived the challenges that come with life on this breathtaking continent, via the most unique adaptations.

1. Dugong 


Appearance – Related to the elephant, dugongs are huge water-based mammals with a rather strange appearance. It has a bulbous, bristled snout which is uses to rummage the seabed, searching for its favourite grasses to feed on. Using small fins and a whale-like tail, it gently propels itself through the water. 

Interesting fact – The dugong is thought to be responsible for the origin of the mermaid myth. While often described as a sea-cow, these graceful creatures appear to have a feminine form when seen from above – leading sailors to believe that human/dolphin hybrids lived under the sea. 

Habitat – The dugong likes warm, coastal waters and can be found from the East coast of Africa to the Southern Pacific coast of Australia. 

Population – Approximately 20,000 

Average lifespan – 70 years 


2. Black-and-White Colobus 

Appearance – The black-and-white colobus is one of the most dashing primates. Its small face is ringed by white fur and topped with what appears to be a fuzzy black hat. The flamboyance continues with a long white cape of hair draped around a body of bountiful, glossy black hair.  When stretched out, the black-and-white colobus reaches around a metre in length! 

Interesting fact –  The word ‘colobus’ derives from an ancient Greek term that translates as ‘mutilated one’ – the reason for this is that it doesn’t have any thumbs

Habitat – The black-and-white colobus can be found in a variety of different forest-types across central and eastern Africa.  Preferring higher altitudes and proximity to water, the colobus populations stretch from Nigeria all the way to the Mau Forest in Kenya. You can see them around Lake Naivasha.

Population – Approximately 2000. 

Average lifespan – 25 years. 


3. Aye Aye 

Appearance – Many locals consider the Aye Aye to be an omen of bad luck, and its ghostly presence could be why. Spanning only around 15 inches in length, disproportionately large eyes give it the look of being constantly surprised. Added to this are enormous satellite-like ears which it uses to listen out for both prey and predators throughout the night. Most intriguing though is its middle finger. It uses this extremely long, thin finger to tap the bark of trees to discover grubs to eat inside the tree! 

Interesting fact – Aye Aye populations have been decreasing for a number of years, and a large contributing factor to this is local superstition.  One common piece of folklore states that if an Aye Aye touches you with its middle finger, you’re condemned to imminent death.

Habitat – Aye Ayes are found exclusively in the rainforests of  Madagascar. These elusive creatures spend their days huddled in ball-like nests of leaves and twigs, leaving only in the evening and never coming down to ground-level. 

Population –  Between 1,000 and 10,000 

Average lifespan – 20 years. 


4. Grey-crowned Crane

grey-crowned crane

Appearance – This iconic African bird is large yet elegant. Standing at one metre tall, the appearance of the grey-crowned crane is anything but dull – it has black and white wings, a grey body, a red throat, and a crest of stiff golden feathers.

Interesting fact – The Grey-crowned crane features on the flag of Uganda, matching the yellow, red, and black stripes of the national emblem. 

Habitat – The grey-crowned crane lives mostly in Eastern and Southern Africa, keeping to wetlands and grasslands.  At night-time it takes to tall trees to nest down. 

Population – Between 58,000 – 77,000

Average lifespan –  22 years 


5. Wildebeest 


Appearance – Wildebeest possess an imposing build, with large forequarters and a long, bearded face. Both males and females have curved and pointed horns. Their relatively thick grey-black fur keeps them warm during cold nights, whilst their long tails help to keep away flies. They can grow up to 4.5 ft tall and weigh as much 250kgs.   

Interesting factThe Great Wildebeest Migration is widely regarded as one of the natural world’s most spectacular events. In this unparalleled movement, almost the entire population of the world’s wildebeest move Northwards through Kenya and Tanzania to seek greener pastures all at once.  

Habitat – The grassy plains of central, southern, and eastern Africa – most notably the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya. The Masai Mara is one of most famous locations for seeing Wildebeest (due to the migration).

Population – Approximately 1.5 million. 

Average lifespan – 20 years. 


6. Rufous Elephant Shrew

Appearance – Growing up to 30cm in length the rufous elephant shrew is distinguished by a long, trunk-like nose which it uses to sniff out insects.  With ginger-red fur, it has relatively long legs and it hops rather than runs. This charming little animal keeps itself safe with a gland on the underside of a long tail – when in danger it emits a strong scent to deter predators

Interesting fact – Rufous elephant shrews are old-school romantics.  They have one mate for life and when they’re separated, they keep track of their other half by using a unique scent track. And despite their size, each pair defends a territory of around 0.34 hectares.

Habitat – The rufous elephant shrew can be found in different habitats, from forests to open plains, across central and eastern Africa. 

Population15,000 – 24,000

Average lifespan2-4 years 


7. Ostrich 


Appearance – The largest bird in the world, the prehistoric-looking ostrich can stand up to 9 ft tall. It has very long legs which it uses to reach 43.5 mph when running, and huge feet. It’s the only bird to have two toes on each foot and it uses them for deadly effect – it’s able to kill a lion with one kick. Its lankiness is extenuated with an extremely long neck, topped with a relatively small head, and a wide-body of black plumage. 

Interesting fact – Ostriches don’t have any teeth. To breakdown food they ingest small pebbles – they can carry up to 1kg of pebbles at any time! 

Habitat – Ostriches live mostly in sub-saharan Africa.

Population – The global population has not been accurately estimated, but is thought to be greater than 10,000

Average lifespan – Approximately 40 years


8. Okapi 

Appearance – Related to the giraffe – but nowhere near as tall – Okapi have elongated necks, black tongues, and short horns. With black and white stripes on their legs, many people mistakenly believe they’re part of the zebra family. They can grow up to 1.5 in height – about the same as a small horse

Interesting fact – Okapi have smelly feet. Using glands on their feet they mark their territory by secreting a pungent tar-like substance. 

Habitat – The okapi are found exclusively in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

Population – Between 10,000 – 35,000 

Average lifespanApproximately 20 – 30 years


9. Pangolin 

Appearance – One of the most trafficked animals in the world, the pangolin has a bizarre appearance. It can reach up to 4.5 ft long (from head to tail) and is covered in scales that are prized in traditional chinese medicine. It uses a long snout with an extremely long, sticky tongue to search out ants in hard-to-reach places. 

Interesting fact –  The word ‘pangolin’ comes from the Malay word ‘penggulung’ which means ‘roller’.  This is because the pangolin rolls into a ball when attacked, protected by its sharp scales. 

Habitat – There are four species of African pangolin, and each have a slightly different preferred habitat. In Africa, pangolins can generally be found in central, southern, and eastern regions, and prefer forested savannahs and lowland forests. 

Population – There are no reliable figures for total pangolin numbers in Africa, though each species on the continent is registered as vulnerable

Average lifespanApproximately 20 years.


10. African white-backed vulture 

white-backed vulture

Appearance – As its name would suggest, this scavenger bird does indeed have a white back.  Its wings, which can stretch over 2m in diameter, are covered in grey feathers. It also has a long neck and short, sharp beak – perfect for carving up the animal carcasses that it feeds on. 

Interesting fact – Numbers of African white-backed vultures are rapidly declining.  It’s thought that this is the result of the practice of carcass poisoning – used in some areas to kill predators of farm animals. 

Habitat – These birds can be found across Africa, but are most common in sub-saharan Africa. 

Population – Estimated to be  270,000

Average lifespan – Approximately 19 years


11. Aardvark

Appearance – The aardvark looks like a hybrid of various animals. It has the snout of a pig, rabbitlike ears, and the tail of a kangaroo. This nocturnal creature uses its snout and sturdy claws to burrow into termite mounds, scooping them out with a long, wormlike tongue. 

Interesting fact – The word ‘aardvark’ means ‘Earth pig’ in Afrikaans.

Habitat – Aardvarks can be found across sub-Saharan Africa, preferring savannahs, grasslands, and bushland. We have had sightings of this intriguing species at Loldia House this year. 

Population – There are no reliable figures on the total population of aardvarks, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature does not consider them to be under threat

Average lifespan – Approximately 23 years


The diversity of the African continent has resulted in some of the strangest animals on the planet.  From the broad, bristling snout of the dugong to the fear-inducing middle finger of the aye aye, each animal has adapted to survive in its environment. 

If you’d like to experience some of Africa’s wildlife first-hand in their natural habitats, take a look at what Governors’ Camp has to offer in Rwanda and Kenya




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