Aardwolf -- Aardwolf, or Fisi Ankole in Swahili (Proteles cristatus septentrionalis)
The aardwolf, whose name in Afrikaans means "earth wolf," looks like a small striped hyena, with vertical black stripes, a bushy black-tipped tail, and a long, coarse mane along the length of its back. That, however, is where the similarity ends, as the shy aardwolf is, strictly speaking, an insectivore, living on a diet of harvester termites (workers only) and other insects -- up to 200,000 per night. The aardwolf lives in an underground burrow and is usually solitary but may forage in small packs; males are known to baby-sit pups at the den entrance while females forage. Gestation is 90 to 100 days; the litter generally consists of three or four young. The aardwolf has unusually acute hearing due to its large external ears and bony capsule enclosing the inner ear -- this can become a liability when it rains, as the patter of raindrops masks the sounds of termites.
Banded Mongoose -- Banded Mongoose, or Nguchiro (Mungos mungo)
There are more than 30 species of mongoose, of which the most commonly seen (and the most social) is the banded -- so called because of the light and dark stripes on its otherwise gray-brown torso and rump. The banded mongoose lives in family groups headed by a dominant male and three or four dominant females; group size can go up to 40, after which they split into two smaller groups. Members of a group recognize each other by a distinctive scent. The banded mongoose is diurnal, but on hot days it is active only during the morning and evening. You will often find them near baboons -- they forage together and alert each other to danger. Gestation is 8 or 9 weeks; two to four young are born, all collectively suckled by the milk-producing females of the group. Aside from the banded mongoose, the other highly social mongoose you may encounter is the 32cm (1 ft.) dwarf mongoose, who live in family groups of 10 to 15 -- aside from its size, it is easily identified by its russet-orange hue. The Egyptian mongoose, at 1.6m (5 1/2 ft.) the largest mongoose in East Africa, and diurnal, is another you are likely to encounter; while these are sometimes seen in small groups of six, they are more often alone.
Bat-Eared Fox -- Bat-Eared Fox, or Mbweha Masikio (Otocyon magalotis virgatus)
Immediately identified by its large (13cm/5 in.) ears, the bat-eared fox occurs predominantly in open savannah and woodland, and often near large herds of zebra, wildebeest, and buffalo, where it feeds on the insects attracted by their droppings. The bat-eared fox is the only canid to prefer insects over mammalian prey. Insects, particularly harvester termites and dung beetles, make up to 80% of its food intake, supplemented by rodents, lizards, birds and eggs, and sometimes fruit. It has more teeth than most other mammals (about 50), exceeded only by marsupials, and can crush insects with rapid jaw snapping (five times per second). It is well adapted to dry conditions, as most of its water intake comes from the food it eats. The bat-eared fox is predominantly nocturnal (although it is active on cloudy days or in twilight) and, like the jackal, lives in monogamous pairs, raising (one to five) pups aided by the last litter. With an average 6 years, its lifespan is considerably shorter than that of the jackal.
Black-Backed Jackal -- Black-Backed Jackal, or Mbweha Nyekundu (Canis mesomelas)
This medium-size canine is, along with the golden jackal, the most common carnivore in Africa, due to its ability to adapt to almost any environment, its ability to hunt and scavenge at any time of the day or night, and a very unfussy approach to its omnivorous diet -- fruits, small to medium-size mammals, birds and reptiles, carrion, and human refuse. Black-backed jackals are monogamous, living together in pairs that last for life, but they tend to occur in small family groups, with last season's litter (breeding is annual) staying on as helpers for when the mother has the next litter of puppies. These helpers assist in hunting and scavenging, as well as protecting and bringing food to the pups (which is regurgitated in response to the pups begging, which they do by licking the mouths of the helpers and parents). Dominant siblings will leave first unless resources are scarce, in which case they will push the submissive siblings out of the pack. The dominant breeding pair is very territorial and will defend their territory vigorously, particularly the den -- black-backed jackals have been known to attack potential predators as large as hyenas to protect their young and siblings. They can live up to 19 years. After a 60-day gestation, females bear 1 to 6 pups.
Cheetah -- Cheetah, or Duma (Acinonyx jubatus)
The critically endangered cheetah is the fastest animal on land, reaching a top speed of 90 to 110kmph (56-68 mph). More impressively, they can accelerate from 0 to 110kmph (68 mph) in 3 seconds flat (a Formula 1 car takes 3.2 seconds to do the same). The cheetah is sometimes confused with the leopard, but it is smaller and has a leaner, greyhound-like physique; smaller spots; and a distinctive black "tear" running from the inner aspect of each eye down to the mouth. It also makes a most unlikely sound -- like a bird's chirp or a dog's yelp. Unlike most cats, which are nocturnal, cheetahs are primarily diurnal, preferring to hunt at sunrise and sunset, usually on open plains where they can approach stragglers by running them down with a short burst of speed within a 400m (1,312-ft.) range. Being a very timid and non-confrontational cat, the cheetah also has a large percentage of kills stolen by lions and hyenas; even baboons and vultures can drive them away. Interestingly, the cheetah is a picky eater, leaving the skin, bones, and entrails of its prey. While females shun company (with the exception of their cubs), males usually cohabit in groups of two or three. Unlike leopards, they seldom climb trees and are averse to water. Gestation period is similar to that of leopards (95 days), with cubs suffering the same vulnerability; cheetahs are genetically uniform throughout their wide distribution and are, therefore, susceptible to epidemic disease outbreaks.
Golden Jackal -- Golden Jackal, or Mbweha Wa Mbuga (Canis aureus)
The golden jackal (also known as the Asiatic, Oriental, or common jackal) is similar in appearance to the black-backed jackal (slightly larger, without the black stripe/saddle) and is the most desert-adapted, found farther north than its black-backed cousin (the head of the golden jackal was depicted as Anubis, the Egyptian god of death). It is the only jackal to occur outside of Africa. Golden jackals are even more opportunistic feeders and include plant matter such as fruits and berries in their diet. The courtship and reproductive behavior of golden jackals and black-backed jackals are very similar, and they also tend to have sibling helpers to protect and raise their young. Lifespan is shorter than that of the black-backed jackal.
Leopard -- Leopard, or Chui (Panthera pardus)
Africa's most adaptable cat, the leopard has withstood human encroachment due to the fact that it can inhabit a large variety of habitats, from coastal plains to high-altitude mountains, semideserts to tropical rainforests. Another important part of their survival success is the huge variety in their diet -- there is not much they will not eat, including insects, birds, reptiles, and fish (yes, they can fish, and they catch what is known as catfish). The bulk of their prey, however, is medium-size antelope, with impala particularly favored; warthog is another delicacy. Prey seldom exceeds their own body weight (they have to hoist carcasses into trees to keep their meal safe from hyenas and, to a degree, lions), but they have been recorded killing young buffalo and giraffe, as well as adult wildebeest and waterbuck. Except for a brief time during mating and when the female is rearing her young, the leopard leads a solitary life within a defined territory, marked by urine. When the female is in heat, the male picks this up from her urine and will spend 6 or 7 days with her. Birth takes place in a hidden lair after a gestation period of 3 months, enabling her to return to the hunt, but leaving the sightless cubs vulnerable. Leopards tend to lie under dense cover during the day, making them exceptionally difficult to see (they are more often viewed at night) -- if you've spotted a leopard, you've had a very productive game drive.
Lion -- Lion, or Simba (Panthera leo)
Africa's largest carnivore is a very inefficient killer, which may account for why the lion is also the only truly social cat: Hunting as a pride is far more effective, allowing them to tackle larger prey, such as buffalo, giraffe, and eland. Male lions rarely participate in the hunt, but once the kill is made, they eat first. The dominance males enjoy at mealtimes probably has more to do with sheer size than any deference to their sex: The average male weighs 190kg (420 lb.) -- 60kg (130 lb.) more than the average female. Male lions, their manes designed to protect the head and neck during fights with other males, become sexually mature at about 2 years old but have to wait another 3 to 5 years before mating; females become pregnant at around 4 and produce small litters every 2 years (after a 3-month gestation) until they are about 15. Copulation occurs frequently -- every 15 minutes over a period of several hours -- but the conception rate is low. The mortality rate is also very high; underdeveloped cubs are born blind and are very dependent on the lioness, who often has to leave them to hunt. If a new male lion enters the pride, he will usually eat the cubs of the male he ousted, to destroy the bloodline. This induces the lionesses into estrus in as little as 24 hours. Cubs begin to move around at 1 month of age and are able to follow the mother at about 2 months, when their chances of survival increase substantially.
Nile Crocodile -- Nile Crocodile, or Mamba (Crocodylus niloticus)
The maximum size and weight of the world's largest living reptile has been a matter of much debate (and exaggeration), with early hunters claiming to have bagged critters well over 7m (23 ft.), but the general consensus is that the average Nile croc measures around 5m (16 ft.) and weighs about 1 ton. It looks prehistoric and is: Fossil forms dating back more than 100 million years look remarkably like the basking menace you'll spot near riverbanks today. The crocodile is the only animal in the wild that counts humans as part of its list of food items, so be wary of approaching water, particularly rivers. Generally, river crocodiles are more dangerous than those in lakes; the cleaner, clearer water in lakes means a greater proportion of fish in their diet, whereas the muddier and dirtier water of rivers leads to a greater reliance on mammals. The crocodile can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes if threatened; if they remain inactive, they can hold their breath for up to 2 hours. They have an ectothermic metabolism, so they can survive a long time between meals -- though when they do eat, they can eat up to half their body weight at a time. After a 3-month incubation period, 30 to 50 eggs hatch; the temperature at which the eggs are incubated will determine the sex of the hatchlings, with males produced between 31°C and 34°C (87-93°F) and females between 26°C and 30°C (78°F-86°F). Crocodiles live for 60 to 70 years, with reports of some reaching a century. If you spot a croc's hind foot tracks, you can roughly estimate overall body length (1 in. in the track = 1 ft. of body length).
Pangolin -- Pangolin, or Kakakuona (Manis temminckii)
The nocturnal pangolin, or "scaly anteater," is a fascinating-looking mammal. Aside from its tiny head (though it has good hearing, it has no external ears), it is covered with hard, movable, plate-like armor -- the only mammal covered in scales. Made of keratin (like human fingernails), it is said the scales can deflect a bullet from a .303 rifle fired from 100m (328 ft.). Pangolins have short legs, with sharp claws for burrowing -- these claws are so long that they have to walk with their forepaws curled over. The pangolin locates termite and ant mounds with its excellent sense of smell. It has no teeth but an extremely long tongue -- up to 41cm (16 in.), almost the same length as the animal itself -- that retracts back into a sheath in the chest cavity. Like the anteater, the pangolin eats termites by digging a shallow hole in a termite mound into which it extends its long, sticky tongue. It can curl up into a ball when threatened, with its overlapping scales acting as armor and its face tucked under its tail. Pangolins can also secrete a noxious smell from glands near the anus, similar to the spray of a skunk. Gestation is 5 months; females give birth to one young. They can live 20 years.
Serval -- Serval, or Mondo (Felis serval)
Almost as elusive as the leopard, the pretty serval is another spotted cat with a similar build but is easily identified by its much smaller size (91-135cm/35 i53 in.) and larger, almost bat-like ears. It is, like most felines, a loner, though it is sometimes seen in pairs or small family groups. A very efficient hunter with a high kill-to-strike ratio, the serval has a distinctive hunting style: High bounding leaps help them land down onto prey, which they kill with strikes of the claws. The serval's long legs (proportionally the longest of any cat) are ideal for hunting in long grass, and it uses its large ears to locate otherwise hidden prey. It also excavates nesting birds and rodents out of burrows or holes in trees. If lucky, the serval will live to the ripe old age of 15 years, but is listed in CITES Appendix 2, indicating that it is "not necessarily now threatened with extinction, but may become so."
Small-Spotted Genet -- Small-Spotted Genet, or Kanu (Genneta gennata)
About the size of a large cat, with leopard spots and very feline behavior (back arching, grooming, purring), the genet is, surprisingly enough, more closely related to the mongoose. Genets also have semi-retractable claws adapted to climbing and catching prey -- they spend most of their time in trees but also hunt on the ground and take shelter in escarpments and rocky outcrops, as well as unused aardvark burrows. Female genets are thought to be more territorial than males, marking their territory with cheek and anal secretions. The large-spotted genet is very similar in appearance to the small-spotted genet -- the latter is slightly grayer with a white-tipped tail, and the spots are, of course, smaller. Genets gestate for 77 days, giving birth to two to four kittens, each of which may live for up to 13 years.
Striped Hyena or Spotted Hyena -- Striped and Spotted Hyena, or Fisi (Hyena hyena and Crocuta crocuta)
The hyena family comprises the spotted, striped, and brown hyena (the latter not occurring in East Africa), as well as the smaller, atypical aardwolf . All are easily identified by their sloping backs -- their front legs are longer than their back legs -- and their peculiar bear-like gait. Hyenas are much maligned by humans, perhaps because of their ability to eat carrion -- their powerful jaws and digestive system allow them to extract nutrients from every part of their prey, including skin and bone, as well as animal droppings. Their menacing appearance and the eerie call of the spotted hyena (also aptly known as the "laughing hyena") are no doubt further contributing factors. Hyenas do not only scavenge, however. The spotted hyena (the most common hyena) is a very efficient predator; its innate intelligence is evident in its strategic hunting methods. One unusual feature of the spotted hyena is the enlarged clitoris, or "pseudo-penis" of the female -- this, along with similarity in size, makes it hard to distinguish gender in this matriarchal society. Gestation is 90 days, and cubs are then suckled for a lengthy 12 to 18 months.
Wild Dog -- Wild Dog, or Mbwa Mwitu (Lycaon pictus)
If you spot these rounded, large ears and the irregular patterned coat of black, yellow, and white (distinctive for each individual), you can count yourself very lucky, for the wild dog is Africa's most endangered carnivore (total population on the continent is around 2,000-3,000), with numbers diminishing mainly due to range contraction over a very short time. The diseases brought by domestic dogs (rabies and distemper) have also contributed to the reduction in numbers. Wild dogs have the highest hunting success rate (about 70%) of all the large carnivores. They are specialized pack hunters and can chase down their prey -- usually medium-size antelope -- over a distance of up to 5km (3 miles), with the pack averaging just under 50kmph (31 mph). They are also capable of shorter bursts, attaining 60kmph (37 mph) over a 2km (1 1/4-mile) distance. Although the hyena is generally considered to have the most powerful bite, the African wild dog has a Bite Force Quotient (the strength of bite as measured against the animal's mass) of 142, the highest of any carnivore. The wild dog is the most social member of the dog family, able to take care of its old, sick, and disabled, and bonds are continually reinforced with greeting ceremonies. They have a submission-based hierarchy instead of a dominance-based one; they will beg energetically instead of fight, and will lick the mouth of the alpha member (which may explain their vulnerability to infectious diseases). Normally, only the alpha pair breeds (unless food is plentiful, when other females may give birth), but the whole pack is involved in raising the litter. Unusual for social mammals, in which related females form the core pack, males typically do not leave the pack and females will disperse at 14 to 30 months of age and join other packs that lack sexually mature females.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.